Tuesday, March 10, 2009


As promised, here are some of my notes from my two favorite workshops at the NOLA conference this past weekend.

The first class I attended was taught by Renee Ryan, on the topic of Subtext. She says that "a scene is never about what the scene is about". She showed us a clip of the movie Atonement and we got to see firsthand how the scene (about a broken vase) was not about the broken vase at all, but rather about the tension between the characters. Every phrase was heavy with subtext. This is what makes such great novels (and movies!)

Renee also says "Subtext is what lies under the action of the scene". Again with the broken vase example.

Think about your favorite books. How many times do you see a character doing something without a reason? Pretty rarely, if the book is well written, anyway. If characters are hanging around, talking or drinking tea or coffee, there better be something else going on in the scene other than hanging out and drinking tea or coffee. Otherwise, the reader is bored. There is no propelling action. Every scene needs that layer of subtext to give depth, or else you come away with an empty novel.

There is a common phrase "Write what you know". Renee believes , however, that we actually "write who we are". I really liked that! Think about it for a minute. Our feelings and emotions and backgrounds come into our stories, subconsciously or not. She gave an example of a friend who was writing a lighthearted romantic comedy, but something about the story was just way off. Renee later realized that the friend was going through a really dark time in her life and that bitterness and anger was coming through on the page - in a comedy! It obviously wasn't working. So whether we want to write what we know or not, we tend to write who we are. Very interesting thoughts!

There was more to the class but I missed the middle because of having to attend an editor appointment. Whoops! But look how much I gleaned from the beginning and end! =)

Okay, moving on to Allison Pittman's class on Dialogue. This was excellent, mostly because I was so surprised. I never thought I had issues with dialogue. I know how to technically do it well (no she saids, he saids. I know to mix up the beats and alternate pharasing with tags so the dialogue doesn't have the exact same consistent (boring!) format on the page, etc.) Dialogue has never been my "weak spot" in writing, though I certainly have others! (stakes, anyone? haha) But sitting in Allison's class revealed an entire new level of dialogue that I had never considered.

I attended Allison's full class and can't begin to share everything she said, so I'll stick with what resonated strongly with me.

First of all, gestures. Allison said that 99% of gestures in books are truly not neccesary. How many times have you noticed writers having the character shrug AND say "I don't know." - (guilty!) It happens, I think subconsciously by the writer most of the time. So remember to let your characters words speak for themselves, and avoid unnecessary gestures.

Also, avoid useless tags. Allison says that a character drinking coffee should never just take a sip for the heck of it (or, as a tag to show who is speaking next). If a character is doing something it should always carry meaning and purpose. If they have to drink the coffee, then instead of "Ann took a sip of coffee." consider "Ann took a sip of coffee to hold back the words she wanted to say." (that's horrible, but you know what I mean!) Give it a reason. Allison taught that useless tags hinder the flow of the story and with good dialogue, are truly unnecessary.

Allison had us a read and dissect a portion of a novel (GOOD GRIEF, by Lolly Winston - Warner Books 2004) and taught us how in good dialogue, there should always be a winner. In the story example, a "big" and "little" sister (through the volunteer program) are eating ice cream, and talking about heavy stuff, like marriage, bad childhoods, widows, etc. The tension is fabulous an at the end of the scene, there is clearly a conversation "winner". Any author knows that conflict and tension is key to a page turner, and this should always be prevalent in your dialogue as well.

Two good keys to creating tension in dialogue is to answer questions with questions. Or any avoidance tactic. That builds tension immediately in a scene. The second key, which I personally love, is contradiction. Have heavy, deep conversation (like in the GOOD GRIEF example) take place in an ice cream shop. Immediate contradiction of heavy and light. Or one of Allison's examples was to have characters discuss a newborn or birthday in a graveyard. Life/death contradiction. See how neat that is? And how true! You are probably already thinking back to your favorite books/scenes and seeing how that was done. Now you realize why you love that scene so much! Its memorable because its unexpected, and because its full of tension and conflict.

Okay, one last thing from Allison's class. She suggested there always be a dominant and a passive character in a scene of dialogue. Like with the above "sisters" in the GOOD GRIEF story, there was a character with a more dominant personality than the other, and she is the one who "won" the conversation. Put a character at an advantage point. Per Allison's example - is the wealthy, professional boss more comfortable in his high rise office than in someone else's home? Yes. In his office, he is the king. It's his home turf. In someone else's house, however he has the lesser advantage because it is not his comfort zone. Putting characters out of their comfort zone also creates automatic tension.

Whew! I hope you learned a lot like I did! And don't forget to check back this week. I'll be giving away a free, signed copy of one of Allison Pittman's novels from her CROSSROADS OF GRACE SERIES. Don't miss it! She writes even better than she teaches =P


Georgiana said...

Wow--that's amazing! Lots to chew on. Thanks for posting!!!!

LOL, stakes. I'm so with you.

Eileen Astels Watson said...

Thanks, Becky! You take great notes. Now I better get to implementing my newfound knowledge.

Erica Vetsch said...

yikes...the more I learn, the more I realize I have to learn.

Thanks for giving us such a good look inside the NOLA classes. You seem to have had a good time and brought back plenty to work on!

Lori said...

I agree! Thanks for posting!!