Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Some Thoughts on Stage Business Accompanying Dialogue by Arthur Plotnik

If you don't know Arthur Plotnik, you need to. If you do, you should invite him 'round for tea more often. He's someone who will never weary you - his e-mails alone are worthy of publishing. I should know, I've gotten a few.

When I began writing (I mean taking a full run at it) I found a book called Spunk and Bite: A Writer's Guide to Bold, Contemporary Style and thought, What luck! I want to write bold, contemporary, stylish stuff. Then I realized it was a STYLE book, something like good ol' Strunk and White's Elements of Style and thought, oh poop, not that stodgy stuff.

Happily, Plotnik is doing something very different with the rules- hes having a ball with them. An educated, eloquent, literary ball. I read Spunk and Bite cover to cover (let's face it, not something I do with every book on writing) and have been suggesting it to every new writer I meet.
He's here to give us insight into the art of staging.
Meet the man:

Arthur Plotnik is a versatile author with a distinguished background in editing and publishing. Two of his works have been featured selections of the Book of the Month Club: The Elements of Editing (Macmillan/Longman), a standard reference through more than twenty printings, and The Elements of Expression: Putting Thoughts into Words (Henry Holt / toExcel/ Barnes & Noble). Reviewers have consistently praised Plotnik's writing for its accuracy, style, and wit, often ranking it with Strunk & White in practicality.

His latest book,
Spunk & Bite: A Writer's Guide to Punchier, More Engaging Language & Style, was published November 15, 2005, by Random House Reference. Poet Billy Collins called it "A must for every writer's desk." Lauded by Booklist, Library Journal, and many others, it is among the bestselling new titleson language and writing. A trade paperback edition (with new study guide) was published in May 2007 with the subtitle, A Writer's Guide to Bold, Contemporary Style.
Plotnik has written scores of magazine articles and columns, seven nonfiction books, and numerous (pseudonymous) paperback novels. He has appeared in publications ranging from La Prensa (Bolivia) to The New York Times. Long a columnist for The Writer magazine, he serves on its Editorial Board. He previously contributed to Britannica Book of English Usage and the "American English" column of American Way in-flight magazine.

Some thoughts on stage business accompanying dialogue by Arthur Plotnik, author of Spunk and Bite: A Writer's Guide to Bold, Contemporary Style (Random House)

In dialogue, there are spoken words—and then there's all that other good stuff:

"I'm Holly," she said. Because she wanted no trace of an accent in her heaven, she had none.
I stared at her black hair. It was shiny like the promises in magazines. "How long have you been here," I asked.
"Three days."
"Me too."
I sat down on the swing next to her and twisted my body around and around to tie up the chains. Then I let go and spun until I stopped. "Do you like it here?" she asked. (From The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold.)

Every storyteller invents stage business—the actions, gestures, and thoughts that surround dialogue and sometimes leak into the dialogue itself. Stage business–or "shtik" as I call it—gives dimensions of space, time, and texture to the linear output of talking heads. But most writers pay little attention to it as part of their craft, instead focusing on what the characters are saying and what happens to them.

Sometimes—rarely—powerful dialogue and plot can carry the show, with stage business merely a by-product. But imagine a theater director foregoing stage directions, allowing her actors to stand motionless and speak their lines like frozen manikins. Some might call it avant garde. To me it would be one step up from watching wallpaper fade.

Not to exploit the possibilities of stage business is to forfeit a powerful tool in both fiction and non-fiction. Not only does shtick give dimension, but it serves to break up what would be the monotony of long exchanges; it can advance the plot, reveal character, offer bits of information, and, of course, nuance what is being said.

"I love you," he told her.
She checked her cell phone. No messages. "Love you, too."

Stage business comes in a variety of parcels, and good writers tend to use a mix of them. Here are the main ones:

Speech tag: (Same sentence as the spoken words.) "Stop," he said, going into a show of coughing. "You’ll set off the smoke alarm."

Action tag: (In a separate sentence.) "Stop," he said. He went into a show of coughing.

Absolute phrase: (A modifying phrase with its own subject and participle.)"Stop," he said, the incense making him cough.

Thought tag: "This will relax you," she said, knowing he would start coughing as soon as she lit the incense.

Stage direction: They went through their usual ritual. She, lighting incense: "This will relax you." He, making a show of coughing: "Stop, or . . . "

Paint the picture

One of the reasons to add shtick to dialogue, of course, is to offer a picture of what's going on while people are conversing. But be sure the dialogue doesn't already give a clear picture of expression, gesture, and even action. You don't want to be redundant.

"I'm just lighting some incense—stop looking so annoyed."
"Who's annoyed? I'm simply moving the burner out to the porch. Look, I'm already kaff-kaff–coughing."

To preserve the force of good dialogue, stage directions must be used judiciously. Context and spoken words already tell the reader a great deal. Adding too much shtick can get melodramatic, look amateurish. Even bestselling authors sometimes overdo it:

"I think I'm falling in love with you, Maggie. I want you to be aware of that."
Maggie raised her eyes. They brimmed with tears. "I'm aware."
"And?" It was a tortured question.
Maggie shook her head. "Not now. I need time. Please understand."
"I have all the time in the world. I can wait. And I will."
"No one ever said that to me before." Maggie's smile was as golden as the last rays of the sun.
(From Texas Heat, by Fern Michaels)

As you might infer, you'll want to avoid stage business cliches, such as "her eyes twinkled." Common gestures such as "he sipped his coffee" or "she shrugged," however, are fine if not repeated too often. When most people smoked tobacco, the business of lighting, puffing, and discarding cigarettes provided a treasury of shtick. We've lost that prop and good riddance. But dining is still so rich in stage business ("she delved into her melon," writes John Fowles) that some authors make the meal more interesting than the dialogue.
The language of nonverbal expression constitutes a whole lexicon. The more of it you study, the more you’ll accompany the right word with the right gesture. Sources like
How to Read a Person Like a Book (Gerard I. Nierenberg and Henry H. Calero) can be helpful. A good Web site is The Nonverbal Dictionary of Gestures, Signs, and Body Language Clues.”
For all that, you don't want to create shtick that gets in the way of dialogue--its drama, flow, and momentum. Stage business should be efficient and, in most cases, move in and out of the dialogue seamlessly.

Three suggested exercises:

1. Look for telling gestures, expressions, and postures when you watch people speaking. Note down the ones that pack information or that might seem fresh in writing. Don't forget that types of silence (e.g., prayer) or resistance to gesture can be just as powerful as action.
2 Share your observations or thoughts on stage business with this blog. Offer (for comment) some brief samples from your own writing.
3. Whatever fiction or creative nonfiction you happen to be reading, start paying attention to the stage business; note when it's done especially well or poorly. Soon you'll be a master of evaluating your own shtick.

(Copyright 2008, Arthur Plotnik)


Wendy Paine Miller said...

You had me at the title. Fantastic. And Arthur, wonderful points. My favorite: "For all that, you don't want to create shtick that gets in the way of dialogue--its drama, flow, and momentum. Stage business should be efficient and, in most cases, move in and out of the dialogue seamlessly."

I like the part about not repeating what's the dialogue has already said as well.

So much of writing truly is about paying attention and taking notes.

Going to look into that book!
~ Wendy

Anonymous said...

A master of the stage business is F. Scott Fitzgerald, and I think the greatest example of his work in this regard is Tender is the Night. If you just read this book looking at nothing but stage business (and, most critics admit, the plot is not this book's strong point) you'd know what is going on inside the characters' heads.

Near the beginning of the the book the protag Dick Diver (how's that for a symbolic name for a hero who has a spectacular downfall associated with sex) prides himself on the way he restrains his actions (he doesn't fidget, for example.) Then later, in a manner that is unheralded and easy to miss, Fitzgerald portrays Diver as breaking his own rules. (Unfortunately I don't have the time to find the exact passage where this happens.) From that point on, his "dive" begins for real.

Such a discovery by a reader of such subtlety in the author's craft is like what happens in computer programs when the program designer plants what is called "an Easter egg." This is a hidden feature that brings delight when the end user finds it.

I'm wondering if much of Christian fiction doesn't have this kind of subtlety (or if I'm just too thick-headed to pick up on it.) Anyone know any great examples from recently-pubbed works?

Eric W. Trant said...

Excellent read, especially considering how many writers try to go absolute minimalist.

The shtick, as Mr. Plotnik calls it, is the setting, the environment, the look and feel ~surrounding~ the characters.

I call it their globospheres.

Setting, shtick, globosphere... this element as important as any other element in storytelling, and for certain genres -- such as horror and fantasy -- the stage setting is a primary focus to draw you into a world beyond what we see every day.

On the dialogue, I am a fan of segmenting dialogue from setting and action. I'll add gestures if they are relevant to the dialogue, but I prefer to set up the scene, proceed with dialogue and minimal tags, and then go back into the non-dialogue portions of the scene.

- Eric

Kathleen Popa said...

Any book on writing that Bonnie Grove loves is a book I have to read. Thanks for this wonderful post. I loved every word.

Bonnie Grove said...

Wendy: Art is amazing, isn't he? I highly recommend his book, and anything you can find that he has written. I'm a fan of his because of his clear passion for language, communication, and beauty.

Latayne: I'll be thinking about Easter eggs today. :) Thanks for this!

Eric: Excellent comment - and a great word to keep in mind: globosphere. Truby calls it Story World. Either way, its important to frame dialogue with meaningful elements of story, not simply random actions that tag the speaker and do little else.

I'd like to point readers to Nick Harrison's blog (he is a writer and an editor at Harvest House). He has a fantastic (and chagrinning) post on stilted mannerisms in fiction that he'd like to see eliminated:

When I read Nick's post, I was reminded of the need to remain engaged in crafting the novel with each word, each beat - good writing clearly expresses the rules of communicating, great writing reaches beyond them and crafts something powerful.

Bonnie Grove said...

Katy: Mwah!

Nicole said...

Ooh, I want to reread Tender is the Night now. It's been sooo long ago I can't even remember it other than I absolutely loved it.

Samantha Bennett said...

Great post! I think it's tricky to capture the right amount of stage business in ratio to dialogue. You gave some great tips!

Anonymous said...

I like to write out the dialogue words - snap snap snap - and then go back and imagine the gestures with the words. It is easier for me to have the words dialoguing with the actions that way. Sometimes whole spoken sentences disappear into a 'callous flip of the hand' or a 'fingernail, tensioned against its opposite' etc.
If a character has a peculiar habit while speaking one only has to describe it twice or three times in the first few dialogues before the reader is unable to see him or her speak without also seeing the gesture. To have good form, though it is good to come back to describe the gesture in a new way toward the end of the story.

Karen @ a house full of sunshine said...

Okay, I'll play. This is is from my unpubbed YA novel. Hope it's not too long:

“Dara! Are you okay?”

He helped her up, and she dragged the hair out of her eyes, looking at him with confusion. “Seth. God, I’m sorry.” He could see that she had been crying. She swiped at the sand on her drawstring pants with one shaking hand. “Always been clumsy. So Jo says, anyway.”

Seth fingered the spot on his back where her knee had connected. It felt bruised already. “No harm done. So long as you’re okay.”

Dara swayed toward a large rock and thumped herself down. “I’m fine.” She pulled a squashed cigarette from her pocket and produced a plastic lighter. On the third flick of the wheel she managed to get the cigarette alight. “Want one?”

“Nah.” Seth cast a glance back up the wooden stairs, suddenly nervous. What if Jo followed Dara down here, looking to continue their argument? They weren’t far from the flat. “What’s Jo doing?” he ventured.

“Sulking. Punching holes in the walls. Who bloody knows.” She let out a sniffle that belied her harsh words. Seth gouged a hole in the sand with his toe. When he realised that Dara was staring at him, he looked up. To his surprise, a faint smile played around her lips. She held the cigarette to one side and blew out a long thin stream of smoke. “There’s a lot you don’t know about Jo.”

Anonymous said...

Oh, I see! It is a game and we're all on the same team. The goal is mutual excellence. Please correct me if I am wrong.
Here is my play:
In the departure bustle of the transport terminal Arthur caught his servant's arm, halting the mighty strides as they passed.
Robin sensed the constrained panic in his master when they arrived, and its tenuous bondage now in the last moments before the leave taking.
"You're taking her so she knows?" Half statement, more frantic plea for reassurance, Arthur glanced up at the last moment with deep groves in his brow.
"Yes, my lord." An affectionate smile played in Robin's eyes as they rested briefly upon Arthur's vividly patched face.
"How will she know?"
"No!" Arthur gripped the arm more fervently. "I know already."
Robin slowed himself further, placing a hand over the fretting fingers on his sleeve. The next few hours of this man's life would rest upon the answer. "How long before she knows?"
Arthur nodded miserably, unable to raise his eyes for scrutiny.
"It takes time to tame a Princess, my lord. This one is," he paused to glimpse her watching them from the vehicle port. The affection engulfed his entire expression. "a very glorious creature. It is not a question of not knowing but having opportunity to demonstrate. I think," a sharp awareness of the glorious creature poised to approach vitally stirred his prophesy, "You will see something soon....before we leave."

How's that?