clues at the scene

clues at the scene

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Earth Shattering

At left, shattered Earth from Hell's Half Acre in Idaho. Courtesy US Department of Interior.

Occasionally, things emerge from the fog and find you standing like Keanu Reeves in any one of a number of bad movies saying "Whoaaaa."

You know the critique: "All they do in this book is talk."

Well, of course. We're listening-in on somebody else's conversation when we read a novel. That's what it is.

What people mean by the critique above is "All they do is talk too much."

I call it the skeletal approach. I've written before where I put everything in a draft with the intention of taking it out later.

I've written stories about a murder where the carpet under the killer's feet found its way on the page because I the author thought I wanted to say something about the dense wool pile of expensive floor covering.

Better to leave it all out in the early drafts. I've been wrong for years.

Show me the bones.

The fist sketches on canvas for me are structural. Once I have structure, I can proceed to place the flesh on the framework and fill-in the line drawing as a three dimensional representation. First, the bones.

I'm re-drafting a work now by going back to bones. Sure, I've the ugly draft where I tell myself the story. It has lots of detail for ... me. Useless thing, really.

For you, just the bones. That goes for dialogue, too.

Every scene of the bone draft drives the story forward. Note I said "drives" and by that I mean pounds the tale forward like a hammer driving a nail.

There is a ringing in the dialogue: short passages of staccato interchange capturing just what I need and nothing more. If the cop is interviewing the protagonist, we eliminate the dry bits and focus only on those most telling.

I'll illustrate below with an entire scene from the draft:

Detective Evans made a spitting sound towards the wall clearing a coffee ground from his lip.
"Why'd you wait five hours from getting home until calling 9-1-1?"
Denis crossed his left palm over his right fist resting the table and leaned forward into his hands.
"I told you, I didn't know my wife was dead in the library until I came down for water and smelled something funny."
"What was funny?"
"What was funny? What did you smell?"
"You smell gunpowder often - maybe from a gun range?"
"OCS. Quantico." Denis almost smiled. "It's been a while."
"And as a Marine - what, twenty years ago -  you knew that's what it was when you smelled it?"
"No," Denis said looking down at the table. He cleared his throat. "I smelled gunpowder, human shit, and that stale smell of a pack of chicken in the fridge which meant blood that'd been sitting around."
"I knew it was the smell of death and I'd better go look where it was coming from."
"Standing in your kitchen you smelled death?"
"My father shot himself when I was eleven. It was November and the house was closed up. Came home from school and found him. I knew the smell from memory. I knew death." 
Here are the bones.

I didn't have to tell you the cops think Denis is the murderer. I didn't have to have an in-the-hallway scene between two detectives discussing if they should bring in the husband to go over his statement again. I put the husband in the room with a cop and you knew what was going on.

The first question shows you the relative contempt the detective has for the man he thinks killed his wife. The first question shows you there is a problem with the timeline and the husband's account of the events.

Denis' answer about noticing the smell tells you he's not a couch-monkey intimidated by the law. He's got a harder background than we might have known up until now and he's in command of the interview at this point ... which tells us something, too.

There's not enough to see that Denis emotionally ambushed the cop with his own question in this draft. As the author, I know it and I'll make that clear in a subsequent draft by continuing the interview and having it turn the way Denis wants it which is not an easy task to execute on a seasoned cop. I can clarify that later.

That's flesh. We're bones here.

And I move along. I might add a couple sentences of Denis declaring the interview over, the cop protesting a little, and Denis reading from the back of his attorney's business card.

So, bones. We keep the draft to the bones omitting the lovely transitions, backstory not introduced directly by a character for cause (in the example above, Denis uses it as an emotional bear trap for the cop), and observation either between characters or from a character as an interior dialogue device.

We want story in draft. Move and move quickly. A draft of 95% dialogue works if the dialogue moves the story.

Ask someone about the scene and they won't say "it's all talk."  That's because it did something for the story.

Now, rattle the bones.

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