Last year, I attended a local writers group. The speaker, published author Kimberly Frost, spoke on “Description and Dialogue”.
Kimberly is a funny, witty writer who speaks faster than humanly possible. But she left us with a lot of great nuggets of wisdom, one of which got me to thinking about the ingredients of what we call STORY.
One of those ingredients is description. Kimberly said a workshop instructor had once likened description to the trappings of a beautiful, exquisitely furnished stage for a play. Everything is there behind the curtain, down to the minutiae of everyday living. You couldn’t ask for more detail. But people don’t pay money to sit and stare at a stage for 90 minutes! A play with only a setting is missing a lot, including its major ingredient—the cast. A play is about what happens to characters, not what happens to the couch. There doesn’t even have to be much action. In fact, there have been stage plays (and, of course, radio shows) performed by actors who never move, but only stand or sit while they say their lines. Imagination fills in the scenery.
On the other hand, as Kimberly noted, people fight for tickets to the Montel Williams Show, which has almost no set. Why? You might say they’re paying big bucks to watch characters interact—but that’s only partly true. They have specific expectations of these characters; they want to see people raucously live out a stressful part of their lives on that bare set. What do they get for their money? Anger, confrontation, threats, passion, lying, cheating, stealing, angst, even physical fights. In other words, an ingredient writers call conflict. Sometimes, they even get happily ever after, but not always. So for this show, the prime ingredient is conflict, with a heavy dose of quirky characters and virtually nothing in the way of a setting.
Other genres demand different ingredients, mixed together in different proportions. The exact recipe depends on what you’ve promised your reader—what kind of literary cake you’re selling.
RECIPE FOR A THRILLER
If you’re writing a thriller, then the batter has to be heavy on the tension and action, maybe even equal parts. But any external tension has to migrate into high emotions (fear, anticipation, distrust, etc.) in your main characters, so the ingredient that goes next on the list is characters we care about. You may not need a large spotlight on dialog with all those bombs going off, and you definitely don’t need to know the architectural style of the building going up in smoke.
- 1 heaping load of trouble heading toward the main characters
- 1 crowded agenda of things that have to be done to evade, confront, or pursue the trouble
- A substantial cast of characters emotionally impacted by the trouble
- A dash of fast-paced dialog that keeps the cast together or threatens to divide them.
- A pinch of evocative description that uses words’ emotional connotations to good effect.
Subject all ingredients to various implements of torture. Continue baking against an impossible deadline. When the beeper goes off, make sure everybody jumps!
RECIPE FOR A CHARACTER STUDY
On the other hand, if you’re writing a character study, perhaps a sweet coming-of-age story, you may need to turn the previous recipe upside down. A believable character with deep feelings is going to make or break this kind of book. You’ll be using external action mostly to trigger internal conflict and change. Emotional reactions will season every single scene, from solitary daydreams to coping with extraordinary events. Description can actually be very useful in a character study, as what and how your main character views the world should change during the course of the plot.
Roasted Life Under Glass
- 1 small, intimate cast of main characters (as few as one or two), each of whom has a serious flaw or lack of experience
- 1 truckload of opportunities or encounters, graduated in scope or importance, each one forcing toward an epiphany
- 1 trunk of obstacles, bad decisions, and poor advice
- A heaping dose of dialog, both internal and external; use to clarify, increase heat, or simmer.
- A judicious helping of description, as needed to provide literary leavening
Combine all ingredients and strain, hard. Stew slowly, agitating often, until transformation occurs.
AND NOW, REAL FOOD!
OK, all this talk about recipes is making me hungry. Here’s my personal favorite to whip up with leftover chicken, pork or tofu. It’s a general sort of recipe that can be customized to fit the audience. Substitute mandarin oranges for peaches, add zucchini or broccoli if you like. Ad lib!
Sweet and Sour [name your protein] with Savory Peach Rice
Serves: 2 or 3
- 1 Tbsp light olive oil (or other vegetable oil)
- ½ Large onion, roughly chopped
- ½ Green bell pepper, roughly chopped
- 6-10 Baby carrots, sliced
- 3-4 Button mushrooms, sliced, optional
- Handfull of frozen peas, thawed or not, optional
- Handfull of frozen corn, thawed or not, optional
- 1/8 Cup commercial Sweet and Sour Sauce
- Leftover chicken, pork or tofu—cooked
- 1 Cup rice
- 1 Can sliced peaches in their own juice, drained and cut into ½-inch pieces (reserve the juice)
- ½ Stick cinnamon
- 1 Piece of candied ginger
In a small container, mix the Sweet and Sour Sauce with enough of the reserved peach juice to make ¼ cup sauce. In a measuring cup, combine the rest of the juice with water to make 1-1/2 cups of liquid. Add this liquid to the rice in a saucepan, along with half of the peach pieces. Put the cinnamon and ginger in a tea strainer hung from the side of the saucepan. Bring to a boil; cover and cook for 15 minutes. Let stand 10 minutes before serving.
In a skillet, sauté the onion, peppers and carrots until soft. Add all the other solid ingredients, including the remaining peach pieces, and cook for one minute. Add the sauce-juice mixture. Cover the skillet and turn down the heat. Let simmer until rice is ready. Remove tea strainer from rice and fluff. Serve. Enjoy.