[00:00:00] Hello and welcome to The Storyteller's Mission with Zena Del Lowe, a podcast for artists and storytellers about changing the world for the better through story.
[00:00:11] What I want to talk to you about today is something that every writer should be concerned about because it is truly the kiss of death in story and it is confusion.
[00:00:22] It doesn't matter if you're a screenwriter or you're a novelist. If you confuse your audience, what you do is you automatically take them out of the story and now they're thinking about that and they're checked out, they're checked out. And that is not what you want to do. That's the opposite of what you want to do.
[00:00:40] The rule of thumb in story is to always keep your audience invested. You want to keep them believing in the reality of the world that you've created. You never want to undermine your own credibility. That's why believability is so important.
[00:00:57] Always choose clarity of the words over cleverly written passages or flowery passages. It means nothing if people are confused by your story.
[00:01:07] I can't tell you how often I will read something, I'm doing a critique and I'll read something and I'll write, I don't understand, what's going on here?
[00:01:15] And then I'll ask the writer about it and they'll say, Well, what I was going for was blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. And I'll say, then write that. Just write that. Write exactly what you just said to me. Because otherwise, I don't get it.
[00:01:28] And a lot of times this happens not because people are trying to be clever or flowery. In all fairness, a lot of times it's because we're trying to follow the other rules. Like, show and not tell. And so sometimes people think, Oh, I can't just say, blah blah blah blah blah. When in fact, that's exactly what they should say. So, how can you tell the difference? How can you tell the difference?
[00:01:53] Well, here is one of the tests I think you can apply to your story to figure out if this is a time where you can just tell me something.
[00:02:00] Traditionally speaking, what you don't want to tell me is how a character is feeling. Or what a character is thinking, especially in a screenplay.
[00:02:10] Now I know that we can get away with this in novels, though I would recommend that you try to avoid it. Because it will make your stories better if you avoid it. It will make the experience for the reader better if they get to interpret how your character is feeling or thinking based on either the visual images that you supply or the behavior that they observe in the character.
[00:02:36] That is a far more fascinating, interesting, and engaging dynamic for your reader to be participating in.
[00:02:43] Having said that, where people sometimes error on is when they're actually describing something else, but they're afraid that it's too much telling.
[00:02:56] So, for example, I recently had a client who was trying to describe something that happened digitally.
[00:03:07] This drone zeroes in on some sort of cable that is attached to the bottom of the building, and as it zeroes in and zooms in close to it, we enter the cable. We go inside the cable. And then we're sort of on this ride as we go through the cable itself as digital material. So, the way that he described that was very confusing, though he was trying to be clear.
[00:03:36] And so what he said to me when I asked that is he said, well, what I was trying to explain is that we go inside the cable and then we take like this digital rollercoaster ride as we go into the building itself and there's all of these colors like rainbow, it's, it's sort of a It's like a rainbow rollercoaster ride that we're on as we swoop and swoop and swoop and go inside the building.
[00:04:00] And I said, well, write that. Just write that because that's clarity. But he felt like it was being too on the nose. See, and this happens a lot.
[00:04:11] Here is another example. Now, this is from a screenplay, so it's a little different than what novelists would have, but nevertheless, hopefully, this will still make sense.
[00:04:21] In the screenplay, he has these action lines where he describes in the action lines a sheriff going into a house where two men are missing, a father and a son. They're missing.
[00:04:32] In the action lines itself, it says something like, Oh, well, Buck didn't sleep in the bed, but the other one did.
[00:04:39] So, that's a clue. But the problem is, there wasn't any dialogue or anything to help us understand that. So I wrote, How are we supposed to know that?
[00:04:51] Which leads me to one of these solutions here. A major solution, a lot of times, this is what can work for you, is if you provide dialogue. It's amazing how often it is essential for you to come up with a way to provide dialogue just to help us understand the scenes. This is true in both novels and in screenplays.
[00:05:18] We need dialogue a lot of times to understand these things or else you spend a lot of time telling and not enough time showing. Dialogue is one way to show. Dialogue is an extension of action.
[00:05:33] The key, and when dialogue becomes a bad way to do it, is when the dialogue isn't justified. Then it becomes contrived. And then we hate it. If the dialogue is arbitrary or random and out of nowhere and it's like, where is that coming from? Why would they be having that conversation? Then we don't buy it because it didn't organically come out of the story. So your job as the writer is to find a way to make that dialogue true to make it seem real and logical and necessary given the moment.
[00:06:09] Having said that, what's important is for you to realize that dialogue is the extension of action that a lot of times you need to be able to make sure that we're not confused. It is one of your primary tools to help us not be confused in story. You have to get good at writing dialogue.
[00:06:27] To get to the dialogue there's a couple of things you need to do.
[00:06:30] You need to not rush. You need to slow down. Let the scene actually unfold at a good pace, a normal pace. Milking it for everything it's worth. Allowing the characters to speak as they're prompted because it's an extension of action, which means you have to give sufficient visible cues or prompts that would allow them to speak, right? There has to be a reason to speak. They can't just do it out of the blue.
[00:06:58] You also have to ask yourself, how will my audience know this? So if ever you're writing a scene where you're describing something to us, you have to ask, well, how will my audience be able to interpret that based on what I'm writing?
[00:07:12] So, I've talked about creating visual cues that prompt dialogue to happen. But there is another element to this, which is where you actually create a device that allows dialogue to be a part of what is happening in that world.
[00:07:29] Simply because, without it, we won't know what in the world is going on. Let me give you an example. If you saw the film The Martian. This is a movie where Matt Damon is alone on Mars. He's the Martian. He gets left behind. But there is so much technical information and so much stuff that we need to know that they had to create a device to allow him to speak that to us. But they didn't just have him talk out loud. There is nothing cheesier than having a character talk to themselves.
[00:08:06] Okay, you might be one of those saying, Yeah, but I really do that in real life, so, you know, da da da da. Yeah, but it's cheesy. It doesn't matter if you do it in real life. We feel like you're manipulating us. It feels contrived in story when you have characters talking to themselves. You create a device to give the character a chance to talk.
[00:08:28] In Witcher, he talked to his horse. And we believed it because sometimes the horse would kind of respond and flick its tail and, uh, whinny or whatever. So, and he has this special power of connecting with his horse. Therefore, we believe it. That's a device.
[00:08:45] So, in the case of the Martian, they had to give him a reason to be recording messages on video. And then we can get all of the information we need. It gives the characters a way to reveal essential information, while also revealing who they are at the core.
[00:09:03] In the Martian, this guy has a great sense of humor. Here he is, stranded on Mars, and yet he's still making jokes. That's amazing. It makes him heroic to us. We love him. It allows us, the audience, to emotionally connect to him because he's funny. The way he expresses whatever information he's sharing also reveals who he is deep down. Which in turn forms a bond between the audience and that character. We like him. We're emotionally invested in his journey.
[00:09:35] But if we didn't have this device to allow him to communicate essential information to us directly, if we didn't have the opportunity for him to explain certain things in these video recordings that we, the audience, need to know, then we would have been very lost and confused.
[00:09:51] Another trick on this front is to bring in a new person, someone who isn't already familiar with everything in that world, with all the ins and outs and nuances of what's happening in the world at large. Someone for whom it becomes logical and necessary for another character to explain the rules to or explain the way things are or who's who around here.
[00:10:14] The catch is that then the dialogue has to be organic and high context. It has to be appropriate given the relationship of the characters and their familiarity with each other.
[00:10:26] So, the character can only say what he or she would actually say to the person or the device that they're addressing. The minute someone explains something to another character who would either already be in the know about that or that it would be inappropriate for them to say that to, now we have a problem.
[00:10:47] We will know if it's strictly for our benefit if it calls attention to itself and lacks justification. And that is something we never want. We must justify it for our audience to enjoy the dialogue that you have regardless of how you created it and made it come to pass.
[00:11:06] Alright. Thank you so much for joining me today on The Storyteller's Mission with Zena Dell Lowe.
[00:11:13] May you go forth inspired to change the world for the better through story.