Saturday, October 26, 2013

(Braiding) Character, Dialogue, and Plot with Words (Instead of Hair)

How well do you braid? Can you tie it in a knot? Can you tie it in a bow? How about if it's words you're braiding instead of hair? Have you given any thought to the way in which the writer must lay down certain threads of characterization, dialogue, and plot, and how to weave them together in such a way as to create the spark that becomes the beat of a particular plot point, or a killer turn of phrase?

There is a point in a story where the writer begins to weave words with actions, dialogue with description, and what becomes created in the mind of the reader is an amazing artifact that lifts off the page and can be felt in a tangible and real way. But unless this is done correctly, and in a way that seems to take little or no effort, it is seldom successful at transporting a reader fully into the world of your characters and their story.

This takes showing versus telling to a whole new level. Not only must you create the elements and set them into motion, but you've got to provide implicit ways of doing so, where the reader must infer your intended meaning and stay interested enough to keep reading and turning pages. If you use explicit ways of weaving in information to your story, you're likely to push the reader away, and create a rift of distance for the reader who is trying to connect and be drawn into your story.

Today's blog is about identifying the ways a writer weaves elements into a story, and hopefully, how to do so artfully where you and the reader don't even realize the word braids are there, but it has the desired effect of drawing you into the characters and story. Let's start by isolating each word braid and then we'll weave them together.

Word Braid #1: Character

Characterization is the process by which the writer reveals the personality of a character, using a combination of direct and indirect characterization. This could be explained by simple show versus tell. Direct characterization is when the writer speaks to the reader directly about the character, or TELLING. Indirect characterization is when the writer implies information about the character the reader must infer, or SHOWING. The risk of direct characterization is it can turn off your reader. If the reader agrees with you, they'll shrug and give you the benefit of the doubt, but we naturally trust what we know in our own gut and don't like it when someone else tells us what we're thinking or feeling.

Word Braid #2: Dialogue

Dialogue is even harder to write than character. Dialogue requires VOICE. For voice to be effective, it must contain a balance of syntax, diction, and punctuation and consider how tone plays into a particular scene. Dialogue speeds up the pacing of the story, usually because of conflict, and can be used in a variety of ways. Factors that vary dialogue include: how many characters are speaking, is the conversation static or dynamic (are we sipping tea or throwing down punches and kicks?), and are the dialogue tags helpful or hindering? (remember that "said" disappears, too many tags drag down the scene, and there needs to be a point for the conversation to be taking place).

Something I enjoy about an especially clever use of dialogue is when it's sprinkled with backstory (not DROWNED), and it can even be used to show what isn't being said rather than what is being said. For example:

I wanted to tell her how I felt about her, the way my insides squelch and flop whenever she comes by, but instead I play it cool with a "Hey," instead of an "I can't stop thinking about you!"

Other variations might include a text or IM:

I started to text: You've been on my mind heavily today. Let's get together. Before I hit send, I delete what I wrote and text: Hey. I doubt she'll reply. But maybe...

Word Braid #3: Plot

Last but not least is plot. Plotting is heaps of fun, especially doing horrible and mean things to our beloved characters. Poking, prodding, dropping grand pianos on them are just the beginning of all we might have planned. Plot is basically throwing everything at your character, lighting them on fire, chasing them up a tree, chopping the tree down, and seeing what they'll do next. Throw the plot at them until they end up in their own plot.

Other beats important to a fully realized plot include a hook, a decision, coming to the end of the rope, and then pushing a little farther, and the resolution. In the context of braiding these might sound like hair tools, but really, they're employed to drive the story forward to the climax and the resolution for our characters.

How to Keep Your Braid From Unraveling

Okay, so I've talked about word braids and the layers, parts, and pieces that make up the ingredients of each section of the braid. Now for the putting it all together part. Braiding is fun. Say it with me. Knit one, purl two. Er. Wait. That sounds wrong.

I'm no expert at braiding, but here are a few things I've noticed that can be carried over to the writing kinds of braids I'm talking about today:

  • It's hard to hold and gather all three strands
  • Each strand must not be bigger than any other strand
  • It helps to count out loud to keep track of which strand goes next
  • You have to plan ahead, each strand is drawn in with the rest prior to the actual braid
  • Follow the line the braid is forming and drive it toward the ending

I'm sure there are more. Please feel free to share any you think of in the comments section. The point of this blog is to get you thinking. Basically, you introduce each thread prior to the actual place it's braided into the story, and when it comes time for the braid, it weaves right in like it was meant to be there. I find a chapter ahead of when an element is being braided in works well. Sometimes shorter, sometimes longer. It varies in the same way you braid longer or shorter depending on what part of the head you're currently braiding.

Just like it's hard to hold hair in three strands, it's hard to hold together character, dialogue, and plot in a rotating, seamless word braid. Just like with braiding, errant strands break loose, and not everyone is skillful at juggling flaming torches, let alone words. It takes finesse sometimes to get all the kinks out. But if you keep at it, eventually you get it right and what you have at the end is as beautiful as any of these braids featured in today's blog. Just as with juggling, you need a balance to the pacing of each throw, tossing each item into the air and watching as it descends to the point you've got to touch it again. Braiding is similar. There's a rhythm and a beat that makes it just work, coming together in a style that stays where you put it and does what you want it to do. Reading aloud and counting aloud are also good tricks to help you in the braiding process. To achieve maximum effect, you want to place each braid thread at the best possible moment to highlight it and have it play out against character, dialogue, and plot. Let's not forget twists and other fancy word braids.

Getting Fancy (Or Advanced Braiding Techniques)

Word braiding is something new I'm playing with. I'd say I could braid a straight French braid in terms of words. But some of these fancier ones, I would probably knot up my plot and dialogue and character if I tried to pull it off. Still, the thought is intriguing.

If today's post resonates with you, I hope you'll pass it along, and join in the discussion in the comments below. Time to stretch those writer fingers. How well do you braid?