The first in an occasional series of posts reflecting on bits and pieces I’ve learned teaching Creative Writing both previously at UEA and St Mary’s University, Twickenham, and now, at City, University of London, where I run the MA/MFA Creative Writing, which is now recruiting for September 2021 entry.
I teach how to write of prose fiction, as that’s what I write. I’ve never written for the screen, and don’t watch that much film or television. All the same, there are some instances in my teaching where I lean on cinema, rather than novels or stories, for examples and instruction.
One of these is to do with plotting and plot arcs. I’ll write about that another time. The other is to do with writing scenes between characters, and specifically to do with handling dialogue.
The fact I’ve already used the word scenes suggests that I’m thinking in visual terms. After all, in our ordinary life we don’t consider the stuff we do, and our interactions with other people, as scenes all. We’re too much in them to think of them like that. But, even with a first person narrator, it’s useful to think of interactions between characters in a written narrative as scenes – discrete elements, with a start and a finish, and a reason for being.
The two ways that I think of film as a useful guide to writing prose scenes is firstly in terms of dialogue, and then in terms of pacing. Some creative writing students dislike dialogue, and can write whole scenes with none of it at all. For others it’s the best way into drafting. You imagine your characters talking to each other, and that helps you drive towards your planned plot development. It’s easier, in a way, to make a character say something than do something. There’s less at stake.
If you’re this kind of writer, and tend to build scenes through exchanges of dialogue, then the next step is to make sure the dialogue is doing the required work. On the one hand you don’t want your characters to be spouting exposition, but on the other hand you don’t want dialogue that lacks import, that doesn’t seem significant, or doesn’t carry its significance across to the reader. This is a question not just what they say, but of why and how they say it.
The answer to this is to think of your dialogue as lines in a script. Imagine an actor looking at a scene and trying to work out how to play it. Is it obvious from the context what the meaning of their dialogue is? Or would they have to ask the director: How do you want me to play this? If it’s not clear – and if you’re not aiming specifically for ambiguity – then you need to put something in or around the dialogue to guide the reader.
This is where ‘beat’ writing comes in. This is the introduction of small pieces of writing describing action, behaviour or body language, that is attached to characters and accompanies their speech. ‘Beat’ writing allows your characters to ‘act out’ their feelings on the page.
Obviously, you could just use an adverb: “Why would you say that?” she asked angrily. But Creative Writing teaching, as is well known, usually counsels against adverbs. In part this is because they are reductive. They swamp the character with a single emotion. But they are also uninteresting in their presentation of emotion. So often in real life we express our emotions obliquely, which is to say disguisedly, or deniably, or deniably to ourselves. Anger might express itself not in speech, but in an accompanying behaviour. “Why would you say that?” she asked, stabbing at her plate with her fork. She stabbed again and a piece of carrot shot off and landed on the table.
‘Beat’ writing is also useful when thinking about pacing. Robert Redford once said (I’ve looked for it more than once and can’t find the exact quote) that he thinks of film dialogue as being like the soundtrack to the movie: it’s an accompaniment to the actors’ performance, and the direction, and thus, by implication, secondary to it. What he means, I think, is that an actor should be able to express the emotion of any given situation in their physical performance – their acting, and their bearing – which means the dialogue doesn’t need to double down and make that emotion explicit in words.
Then, pacing. Just as ‘beat’ writing can give meaning to a piece of dialogue, so it can be used to alter the pace of an exchange. Actors on stage or screen act in between their lines, as well as during them, and it’s there that their real skill often lies. A brilliantly delivered line is effective not just because of how it is said, but in how we are prepared for it. Why do you think actors in old movies smoked so much? I think it was because a cigarette was a highly useful prop, that allowed the actor to do something while the audience waited for them to deliver their line. Delivered after a coolly-taken drag of a cigarette, the line would be much more likely to hit home.
In a film, the pacing of what you see is down to the actors, the director and, ultimately, the editor. In prose, it’s all down to you. If a sequence of dialogue is to have narrative impact – if it is going to deliver something powerful to the reader – then you’ve got to make sure you are as much in control of their reading experience as possible.
Here is an example I’ve given in class. If you have one character asking another, But do you love me, honestly? then nine times out of ten the last thing you should do is give the reader the answer straight away. If it’s important, you want to make them wait! But how do you slow it down, when nothing happens in your scene between the question and the answer?
The answer is ‘beat’ writing. You might concentrate on the person asking the question: how do they betray their nervousness? Or you might concentrate on the person being asked: in the absence of a cigarette, what piece of ‘business’, in the theatrical meaning, however microscopic, can you give them to do before they answer? Or you can introduce some other, extraneous element. A breeze can blow the curtains. A cat can stalk along a wall. A plane can fly overhead. All these things are essentially synonyms for the phrase Wait for it….!, and all are essentially telling the reader, You want to know if s/he loves him/her, don’t you? Well, I’m going to make you wait, albeit for less time that it probably took you to read this tedious subtextual clarification.
Often, the best actors – the Oscar-winners – are the ones who seem to be doing the least on screen. The prize is won for the close-up in which they seem to be doing nothing at all, but we still know what they’re thinking. Not every sentence in a prose narrative has to carry meaning. Sometimes the job of your prose is to do nothing, to make the reader wait, and make them lean in, and for the tension to build, and for the reader to prepare themselves for that killer line of dialogue you have all ready and waiting to produce.