Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Works-in-Progress Wednesday: The Art of The Flip

When I first started writing, everything was on the computer. I would write whatever I could come up with, save the file, leave it, and the next chance I got I would return and write some more. Sometimes, I would be out of the house, and a great idea for the story would pop into my head. The trouble was, by the time I got home and opened the file, the great idea would be gone, leaving me "stranded" with only the barest recollection of what I was going to do. It was especially terrible if I had to leave off writing in the middle of a sentence or a scene/conversation. How in the world was I going to figure out what I had originally thought of to do next when I had no plan and no way of knowing?

Then I discovered the joy of small, purse-sized notebooks. Being of the age when I carried hardly anything in my purse anyway, this seemed like the perfect solution to my dilemma. Out and about, and struck with a great idea? Pull out my notebook and jot it down! Pretty soon it got to the point where I would be just writing the whole story right there in the notebook (or several) and consolidating them into one document on the computer. That is, assuming I had every part that I had written (there were several times when I didn't have the "right" notebook with me when an idea struck, so there would be this random passage in the middle of an unrelated notebook; on the other hand, I would have the "right" notebook with little parts missing in between) and also that I could read my own handwriting. Sometimes I would take to writing things backwards or in code so that I wouldn't be teased by unappreciative siblings about it. It took a little longer to read that way when I got around to transcribing, but at least I could write neatly without the self-consciousness.

I think it was during this period that I learned The Art of The Flip. At least, that's what I am calling it now. 

At first it was just rote transcription from paper to screen, but as I started writing more, I naturally started plotting more, and this plotting helped me get through sections that I would normally get lost in. From there it became a process of "flipping" a list of plot points into an actual story.

That's really the tricky part, isn't it?
It's actually why I haven't been blogging as much lately: first, because working full-time doesn't allow for much else; second, because the thing I am working on isn't exactly a novel. It's a narrative that is going to become a screenplay, but it is also an example of the way a "flip" works.

If you're like me, you do better with landmarks than distances.
When you're giving me directions to a place I have never been, don't tell me "It's x miles west of here." That means nothing to me. But if you were to say, "It's over near the grocery store behind that pizza place." Then I know exactly what you're talking about.

In writing, I discovered, I'm the same way. Whether it's a certain line of dialogue, or specific conversations and scenes in a certain order, I tend to write best when I have "checkpoints" or "landmarks" I can go with. Anymore, this is basically the way I write: I get the whole plot into one continuous bullet-point list, I decide where the chapter divisions should be, and I write from there.

For example, the scene might start like this:
-leaves Morgan, returns to the main hangar
-Dave is at the table, messing with something
-Takes it away, he has twisted the two parts together
-It's actually a weapon, but Paul didn't know that, freaks out
-Paul thinks he broke it, but Dave takes it back and fixes it so it's not dangerous
-Paul tells Dave table is off limits, to go away and find something else to play with

Once I have that, I need to think of what the characters are saying to convey both what needs to be happening in the scene, and also a bit more about their character. Of course, with limited time to actually access the file and write, I need to have more than just the stakes in place. So I take the plot and I work through the scene in my head, using lines of dialogue as guiding ropes, if you will.
The scene will turn into something like this:
(Returns to the room, Dave is over by the table full of equipment)
D: I take back everything I said; this job is getting cooler by the minute! (Fiddling with something)
P: Whoa, whoa, hey, what are you doing?
D: I was just—
P: (Takes it away) Careful with that! It's some highly volatile equipment and it hasn't been catalogued! What have you done? (Starts trying to pull it apart)
D: Careful! Here, let me. All I have to do is just—(he twists and it comes apart easy) There, good as new!
P: Okay, for you (puts the weapon back on the table) Off-limits. Go find someone else to bother. Tell Marcia you want a tour or something.

Some might be tempted to stop there, right? I mean, this is going to be a screenplay anyway, why not just leave it in script form?
But I need to go further. There is already a screenwriter for the project, and I need to give her the small nuances of direction that will help the scene take place, not just a bunch of people standing in a room saying stuff. Writing a "transcript" may be easy, but when I get that out of the way, it makes flipping it over to a narrative easy, too. 

And, FLIP!
Dave stood at one of the many tables piled with alien artifacts. Some of it was weaponry, some were artifacts. The one now in Dave’s hand used to be in two pieces, Paul knew. Somehow the kid had gotten them tangled together, and they clicked and glowed ominously.
“Hey!” Paul cried, crossing the room.
“I take back everything I said,” Dave gushed, probing the device. Every so often, a small spark shot from its surface. “This place is getting cooler by the minute!” He held up the device like a pistol and actually aimed a spark toward the bank of steel file drawers. The bolt pinged off the metallic surface.
Paul lunged for it. “Whoa! What do you think you’re doing?” He wrested it from Dave’s hands. The device hissed and sparked angrily in his hands, sending spurts of electricity through his fingers.
Dave tried to excuse himself. “I was just--”
“Ow, dangit!” Paul fought to get the pieces apart again, but it seemed like the entire surface now carried a charge. He fingered it gingerly, trying to figure out how to rectify the situation. He scowled at Dave. “You don’t go around just messing with stuff! These are highly volatile artifacts and weapons, and some of them haven’t been catalogued yet!” He received another shock and roared in pain.
“Here, let me.” Dave reached in and placed his fingertips at various pressure points. The glow dimmed somewhat. Wayne relinquished the device. “All you have to do is--” Dave twisted slightly, and the strange glow died altogether. He handed the separate pieces back to Paul. “There, see? Good as new!”
Paul rolled his eyes. “Okay, for you,” he accepted the pieces and laid them on the table, “Off limits! Go bother someone else for a while!” He gestured toward the open door that would lead back to the lobby. “Go tell Marcia you want a tour of the facility or something.”

See how it works? The dialogue is all basically the same in Phase 2 and Phase 3; the order of events in Phase 1 still matches the way things end up in Phase 3... The difference is I added the dialogue tags and the movements, and all of a sudden you can tell the difference between Dave and Paul, right? They become separate people, instead of fluid roles that could be adopted by the same person. Even the device Dave is messing with becomes more detailed as I go back through and add the narrative--and yet it all still flows because the dialogue is still consistent.
There's an additional benefit to using this method: I can write the segments days apart, and not in chronological order this way. As long as I have the plot I can write the dialogue. As long as I have the dialogue I can write the narrative. I can write the dialogue alone because it's fast, and then when I'm done I can go back and flip it into a narrative.

Why do it this way? Because I have heard of a lot of writers who struggle with dialogue. They get so caught up in the narrative that any time a character opens his mouth the whole thing falls apart. In fact, I would say that dialogue flow is what separates the good writers from the ones who still need to practice before they publish their next book.

Perhaps dialogue is the framework of a novel. If you try to write a novel with only dialogue—unless you're a seasoned screenwriter and really good at conveying emotions and movement in a "transcript"—the reader might get the impression that he's looking at a house with nothing but the frame and windows and doors.
The narrative is the walls and roof of the house. It's not the whole house, because if you try to "build" a novel with just narrative, there is no way for your readers to get inside your novel without the whole thing collapsing on itself.
Deciding on the plot will help the dialogue flow because you know where you're going with the story; once the dialogue flows, the narrative will naturally flow because you're filling in the gaps between the verbal with non-verbal actions, which makes the narrative more lifelike. Machines can read lines of dialogue, but it takes human movements to make them feel like real interactions.

A well-balanced novel, I think you'll find, is a narrative driven by the dialogue. Figure out what your characters are saying first, then add the little movements, tone of voice, the small quirks that we do when we're talking without even realizing it. Skip the dialogue altogether and it's like reading a silent movie: not quite as much fun, and, if I am not mistaken, sort of missing the whole point of reading a novel, right? The dialogue can provide transition from one scene to the next. What a person says can tell us how they think. What their body does when they talk, how they move from one area to the next, that will tell us more about who they are. Taken together, the characters come to life and we actually care about them more than we would about plain text on a page.

Now if you'll excuse me, I have some flipping to do.