Talking Heads in Space

As mentioned, I’m working through an editing pass on Blood and Ebony, my Snow White retelling. It’s mostly solid at this point. (This is why I have to let drafts rest for a while before I start editing. I always set them aside convinced they’re utter rubbish and then when I look at them again, I’m surprised at how not-horrifyingly-embarrassing they are. It’s a nice surprise.)

There is, however, one thing that keeps cropping up, over and over again, a little problem I like to call Talking Heads in Space.

I’m sure you’ve seen these kinds of scenes before (especially if you’re one of my beta readers). The scene opens and two characters are having a conversation. And… that is all. There is no sense of the setting, or what is going on around them. There are no other people in this closed universe in which they chat. They aren’t doing anything. Heck, the only actions we have are nodding and sighing and laughing and eye rolling. All head stuff. They are two heads, talking in the blank vacuum of space.

And Blood and Ebony is, unfortunately, full of them. The book has a lot of interrogations in it, which tend to seem less like interrogations and more like boring, vaguely frustrating conversations between two people who don’t really like each other and can’t seem to get to the point.

This is a problem.

Talking heads in space is boring. In a lot of ways, it’s a glorified info dump in chit-chat form, disconnected from the rest of the plot. And that is lame-sauce. A lot of my edits for this book have focused on these scenes.

So how does one fix up a Talking Heads in Space scene?

Scenery These characters are talking somewhere, right? Even if you’re writing a space opera and these characters are legit chatting in the vacuum of space, the vacuum is not empty—far from it. So build up the scenery a bit. Where is this conversation taking place? What’s happening around them? If this scene was in a movie, what would the props guy put up around them. Be the props guy!

Consequences from the Past Character conversations must be informed by what the character has already experienced. So think about what has already happened in the book and how it would carry consequences into this scene. Maybe the characters were arguing the last time they spoke and so now they’re sulking. Maybe Character A ruptured a bursa earlier in the story and she spends the scene crankily massaging her still-sore knee. Maybe she’s worried about revealing too much information because she saw Character B talking to Character C and is worried that B is a traitor. Maybe she should be thinking about these things throughout the conversation. *strokes chin thoughtfully* Maybe.

Consequences for the Future Much like consequences from the past, make sure that each conversation knits into the rest of the story. No conversation should be there just because you really wanted a tense scene, or a funny scene, or a whatever scene. Every scene needs to have consequences for the future of the book. It must move the plot forward in meaningful ways.

Sensory Details This is closely related to adding scenery, but specifically from the perspective of the point of view character and going a little deeper than you would in a movie scene. What smells does the character pick up? What colors are there and what do they remind the character of? Any distracting background noises? Any tastes? Textures of the seats? Blisters in the shoes? The waistband feeling a little tighter than it used to? Adding these details will change the perspective of the reader from outsider-looking-in to benign-undetectable-brain-parasite-looking out.

Inner Workings Another detail that will help your reader inhabit the characters’ worlds and minds is a glimpse of the characters’ inner workings. What is your character thinking throughout the scene? How are they processing their verbal combatant’s quips and insults? How do they handle a confession of love? How hard is it to stifle their desperate hunger and have a coherent conversation when they haven’t eaten in two days and can’t stop smelling the burger joint next door? Let readers know the innermost thoughts and emotions of your characters to help shift us from a talking head to a working whole.

Adding details like these grabs those talking heads right out of space and puts them on top of bodies which are a part of the world around them. It plops those conversations in the midst of a time-space continuum between the past and the future, where the characters were and where they’re going.

So now that I’ve worked out what needs doing, I’d better get to doing it. Blood and Ebony is due to readers this weekend and if I don’t finish on time—*gulp*—musicals. I’ll let you know how it shakes out next week. Until then, happy writing!

Getting Your Ducks in a Row

Quack! Have I mentioned lately that I really love the programs put together by the Alaska Writers Guild’s Interior Chapter? ‘Cause I do. Love, love, love. Despite our being a tad isolated from most of the writing world, the chapter president always does a fantastic job of presenting relevant information and finding qualified guests.

Last month’s guest speaker was Gerri Brightwell, the Director of Creative Writing at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. Her presentation, titled “Getting Your Ducks in a Row”, was about revision. Dr. Brightwell broke revision down into three clumps: content editing, line editing, and copyediting. Line editing has to do with concision and style, while copyediting digs into grammar. She focused her presentation on content editing and, in particular, the things we need to focus our attention on in revision to make sure our story’s content is interesting, clear, and enjoyable- and makes our reader think. As Dr. Brightwell said (in a charming English accent), “You can edit the heck out of so-so writing and it’ll still be so-so writing.” so-so writing

To take our so-so writing to its full glimmering potential, Dr. Brightwell suggests “the Magic Three”: psychic distance, detail, and character motivation.

Psychic Distance This is how close the reader to the character. Psychic distance can be very far or very close, the difference between “It was the summer of 1982 and the hottest season on record”, and “Her back prickled with sweat as the summer sun burned into her scalp and shoulders, Eye in the Sky drowning out the hum of mosquitoes”. Doing your entire story from a great psychic distance doesn’t give your reader much to attach to. But spending the entire story sifting through the character’s every thought and feeling and motion can make readers claustrophobic. Get inside your character’s head, let us know what they’re thinking and feeling, but also shift out a bit more every now and then. Varying your narrator’s psychic distance from time to time can help to keep the perspective fresh and interesting.

But most of your reader’s attachment to characters is going to happen while riding buddy in their heads. Also, closeness to the narrator (or point of view character) means that we’ll experience the world as a natural, living thing. It also means that the details we see through that character’s eyes will do more than just show the world- they will show character and significance.

Detail Part of getting into your character’s head is noting the details that he or she would notice. Specific details, especially sensory details, can really ground a reader in the character’s world. Including details doesn’t necessarily mean more words on the page, although it can. The best use of detail comes in the efficient use of language. English is rich with very specific words that can tell the reader a lot while saying little. Consider the difference between these two sentences. “The woman’s dog was angry.” “The duchess’ shiatsu snarled.” Both tell us about an angry dog. But the second includes a lot more detail: about the woman, about the dog, about what was physically happening. And it does it with one less word. Use specific words to get more bang for your buck.

Details are important for another reason. Being vague allows your readers a lot of latitude in what they imagine. “The boy went.” Does that put an image in your head? Without using details, we don’t know if the boy is three or twenty-one, whether he went on bike, foot, or airplane, or where he went to. Readers will either imagine nothing at all- which is terrible for their connection to the story- or they will imagine the wrong thing. And then when they find out three pages later that they were wrong, they will feel cheated. Use language that creates Motivation an image in your reader’s head.

Character Motivation Details, especially those from a close psychic distance, also help us to understand a character’s motivations. (See how nicely those fit together?) Purely physical details don’t tell us who a person is- merely what they look like. When we meet a new person, rarely do we catalog him in our minds as the 5’11” man with black hair and blue eyes, although we might note these things at first. Normally, we catalog him as that goofy clown with the wheezy laugh whose eyes kept darting back and forth to make sure his jokes were well received. Only put in the details that matter. Put in details that assess personality traits rather than take measurements. Those details, whether in thoughts or in actions, also help the reader to understand why a character does the things he does. As Dr. Brightwell put it, “Motivation is important. Without it, we don’t believe the character; we don’t believe the story.”

So when you’re reading through that first draft, keep these three things in mind. How close is your psychic distance- and could it be closer? Where have you directed your readers’ attention through details? What do those details say about your character’s personal motivations? With another NaNoWriMo behind us, these Magic Three- psychic distance, details, character motivation- can take your writing from the so-so level to the awesome level.