The Long and The Short of It

This week, I’ve been looking through some of my old short stories and flash fiction.

I started exclusively prose in 2010 before moving gradually to poetry. As a result, I have an archive of pieces that are complete but are unedited.

Looking through them, I can now immediately spot where I’ve told the reader what was happening instead of showing it through action or dialogue, and any clumsy phrases that I’d now strike down. Here’s an example:

“How much have you had to drink?” she laughed, as he picked himself up. They had enjoyed only a small wine before heading out.

Today, I would probably have shown the character picking himself up in a different way, and placed the information about the small wine into dialogue.

However, I did spot a piece of flash fiction that I still wouldn’t edit very much. This is You’re Going Down.


The referee in the first boat shouted to the other two.

“The race is from here to that island. I want a fair competition, no funny business, no putting each other off. Understand?” They agreed, not quite in unison. “All right. On your marks, get set.” He blew a loud horn.

As soon as they picked up their oars, the man on the left began to regret his drunken bragging the previous week. Still, he felt sure he would win. The small hole he had drilled in his opponent’s boat would take care of that.

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Unpicking Suits

Over Christmas and New Year, I had the chance to catch up on legal drama Suits up to and including season 7.

So far, it’s been an engaging watch, and I think that’s down to the strong writing. The characters are motivated by what they want, whether that’s money, power, or – especially in the case of Louis Litt – petty one-upmanship.

It’s also clear that the writers have lived the experience of being a lawyer rather than simply researched it. In that sense, it has a similar feel to The West Wing. But the writing does have some flaws.

It is reasonable that characters will think in a similar way because they work in the same field, but they often express themselves with identical turns of phrase, sometimes down to swearing in the same manner.

The other piece of dialogue that often appears is: ‘What are you talking about?’ Used sparingly, this allows a character to explain the point in a different way and allow the viewer to understand it more clearly. In Suits, however, it’s used as a crutch.

That said, I’m still looking forward to season 8, whenever I have a chance to watch it.

Giving the Right Direction

Whenever possible, I go to an event called Scrieve. Playwrights are invited to submit a 10-minute extract of their work, where it’s read out by volunteer actors.

Having recently revisited and edited my one-woman play Jennifer Goldman’s Electric Scream, I submitted scenes 1 and 3 for reading. I omitted scene 2 largely because of time constraints.

Some months ago, I’d submitted another extract from later in the play and I was pleased with the person who’d read it out, as it was in exactly the excitable manner I’d intended. I was fortunate to have the same person read it out in this instance. However, while scene 3 was satisfactory, scene 1 made the audience laugh – but it’s supposed to be more serious than the majority of the play.

Playwriting is not for the control freak. It’s a common rookie mistake for the writer to micromanage the actors. By convention, the writer supplies the dialogue and the bare minimum of stage direction, while the director has control over how the play looks and sounds to the audience. There were some great plays at Scrieve, but my script definitely allowed the characters the greatest freedom of movement.

So I’ve taken another look at the direction in scene 1. I can’t control the final outcome, but I can suggest how the dialogue is supposed to be delivered.

The misunderstanding probably arose with the phrase I’d used to describe the character at that point: ‘[…] FORMALLY DRESSED AND CONFIDENT’. The lines were definitely delivered with confidence, but also with humour. This has now been amended to: ‘[…] FORMALLY DRESSED AND SPEAKING IN A SERIOUS TONE’.

Unless I can rope in a willing volunteer, this will probably be the last time I’m able to hear my words spoken by someone else before I submit it to an upcoming event. Nonetheless, it proved invaluable for ironing out a small flaw that changed the nature of a whole scene.

Following Suits

Every writer who creates multiple characters has to balance up two factors.

On the one hand, both characters are inherently part of the author, and their words and actions are dictated by what is written. Yet the voices of these two characters must also be sufficiently different from each other so a reader can accept both as individuals. This is not always an easy balance to achieve, and sometimes even the professionals don’t succeed.

English: Gabriel Macht in March 2009.
English: Gabriel Macht from Suits in March 2009. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I’ve recently been watching legal drama Suits. Generally speaking, the dialogue is of a high standard, and pared back to lend a speedy pace. But the standard, I’ve noticed, begins to slip around Season 4. The first observation was that every character – main, minor and recurring – swears in an similar manner. Had this attribute been confined to one character, perhaps two, I would have accepted it as a personal quirk; it works for Malcolm Tucker in The Thick of It, for instance.

Suits also relies upon the line What are you talking about? and its variations. Used sparingly, this technique can be a near-invisible way to clarify information for the viewer, but its constant use becomes obvious and lessens its effect. Writing in The Guardian, playwright Lucy Prebble even warns that If ever a character asks another character, “What do you mean?”, the scene needs a rewrite.

Suits is not the only drama affected by such similarity. A couple of weeks ago, I watched Collateral Beauty. Among its other flaws, it seemed that each character held a spiritual belief and would often speak to the others in similar platitudes. Yet even if the writer did want to evoke a spiritual tone, it might have helped if someone had questioned or challenged these beliefs.

So how can we, as writers, avoid the trap of carbon-copy dialogue?

A good starting point is to reduce the number of characters where possible. In Moby Dick, the narrator Ishmael is on a whaling ship with dozens of other men, but Herman Melville tells their stories by illustrating only a few. He focuses, for instance, on the overbearing and egotistical Captain Ahab who who could not be confused with Queequeg and his strange customs.

For those who survive the cull, it’s worthwhile letting them live in your head and allowing them space to forge their own identities, perhaps even to construct their own back stories. It should be possible for the reader to follow two characters having a short conversation by looking at their individual speech, mannerisms and attitude rather than he said or she said tags.