Friday, September 10, 2010
Shaping and Dialogue
In RP, there's often been this back and fourth about paraposting and 'one-liners'. To give brief definition, I'll note that paraposting is essentially making paragraph posts. One liners are, well, essentially one line or sentence used in a post.
In my opinion, though I like a good paragraph, I do think that paraposters do become a bit fanatic about making flowery, descriptive posts and forget that most important aspect of telling a story: flow. Flow is the most important aspect of any story. It's like the river that the reader travels on. And, like most rivers, a book that flows well is going to have a diversity of landscaping from calm, broad banks where the river flows slow and deep, to more narrow, fast-paced areas where the turbulence from white water that's quick-flowing crest falling and rising through rapids. A good story is much like that. And, as much as RP is a story, good RP is like that too.
The landscaping of a book, or, to more modernize the concept, the landscaping of a text-based story, from classic book novels to online published blogging, and into the realm of RP - the landscaping is called shaping. And, I reiterate this one more time, because of how important I see this concept, the landscaping of any story is called shaping. Shaping of posts, shaping of the traditional paragraph, shaping of dialogue. Any text that you want to utilize has a shape to it, and the way in which the author of the text shapes it is called shaping. The way I shaped this paragraph, the body of this blog, even down to the sentences and word choices, and how the words are used, they are all part of shaping.
At first, I was going to try and find an example of shaping through finding a fight scene in a given novel. Strangely enough, most action and adventure novels tend to not deal with fighting very much, and rather tend towards avoiding fights. A phenomenon, I suppose, that has to do with trying to build up to a fight. The fight is the 'last battle' and, generally, when the big fight is over, so is the novel. And since no novelist likes to write a book of less than 100 pages, and most averaging around 300 to 500, it is no wonder that most of the chapters of adventure deal in 'dodging the bullet', so to speak. Granted, there might be a few minor skirmishes. If a series, there might be those moments of a 'middle man' battle, but the big battle, the main event still remains at the end. For the sooner you go to the big battle, the sooner the story's over. So the smaller skirmishes that lead to escapes keep the story going, and a sort of comfortable feeling of there being another day ahead, and another adventure to look forward to.
So, not wanting to skim to the end of a given book (fine, you can call me lazy for that), I decided to go with one of the most common examples in novels of this mixture of short one liners and long, drawn out paragraphs. The excerpt below is from a classic 20th century novelist called John Buchan called The Thirty Nine Steps. It was published in 1915 by William Blackwood and Sons in Edinburgh and features a protagonist/narrator by the name of Richard Hannay, who finds himself in the midst of a world of conspiracy theories at the verge of World War I. Theories that wind up leaving him on the run due to a beggarly sort of man he meets at the beginning of the book and somehow manages to be found dead in Mr. Hannay's apartment. Of course, Richard Hannay isn't the killer, but the circumstantial evidence doesn't put him in good light either. So thus he goes on the run to try and find the real killers of the man and try to stop the conspiracy that would lead to the death of a distinguished Greek politician.
And so, without further hindrance, here is the example of the flow of dialogue from the first chapter of the book:
My flat was the first floor in a new block behind Langham Place. There was a common staircase, with a porter and a liftman at the entrance, but there was no restaurant or anything of that sort, and each flat was quite shut off from the others. I hate servants on the premises, so I had a fellow to look after me who came in by the day. He arrived before eight o'clock every morning and used to depart at seven, for I never dined at home.
I was just fitting my key into the door when I noticed a man at my elbow. I had not seen him approach, and the sudden appearance made me start. He was a slim man, with a short brown beard and small, gimlety blue eyes. I recognized him as the occupant of a flat on the top floor, with whom I had passed the time of day on the stairs.
'Can I speak to you?' he said. 'May I come in for a minute?' He was steadying his voice with an effort, and his hand was pawing my arm.
I got my door open and motioned him in. No sooner was he over the threshold than he made a dash for my back room, where I used to smoke and write my letters. Then he bolted back.
'Is the door locked?' he asked feverishly, and he fastened the chain with his own hand.
'I'm very sorry,' he said humbly. 'It's a mighty liberty, but you looked the kind of man who would understand. I've had you in my mind all this week when things got troublesome. Say, will you do me a good turn?'
'I'll listen to you,' I said. 'That's all I'll promise.' I was getting worried by the antics of this nervous little chap.
There was a tray of drinks on a table beside him, from which he filled himself a stiff whisky-and-soda. He drank it off in three gulps, and cracked the glass as he set it down.
'Pardon,' he said, 'I'm a bit rattled tonight. You see, I happen at this moment to be dead.'
I chose this particular section because it has everything in it. The introduction at the beginning with the two narrative paragraphs describe the scene, and then lead into the dialogue, which presents the problem, or the conflict/action of the scene, to which the dialogue elaborates on. Notice, the paragraphs are used for description, the dialogue for presentation. Paragraphs help to lead into the action, the dialogue is the action. Paragraphs describe and build up to the conflict, the dailogue puts the conflict into motion. The paragraphs give depth to the story and the motivations underlying the actions, and the dialogue puts that depth into action. When put together, the paragraphs and the dialogue together help with producing the flow of the story.
Maybe, for me, being a more of a storyteller, and not so much bogged down on the silly banter between the paraposters and one liners, I can see how both tie together. Not every post has to be a paragraph or a page long. Not even sentences need to be very long. They can be short. And, more importantly, both, when you shape out your posts well, and consider the flow of a story, they can powerfully impact and greatly improve your writing and the RP experience.
Have depth, but also come out of the deep end and let all those details fully bloom in action or dialogue. Be bold and use both paragraphs and one liners. Because, as intriguing as a long paragraph describing a death scene, or whatever the purpose of the paragraph's description is for, one still has to admit, there is much great intrigue when a dialogue presents a character saying in one line:
"You see, I happen at this moment to be dead."