And the Toaster Thought…

I read an article the other day about dialogue and blocking.  I have since lost track of it, but its premise struck me: dialogue in a narrative is not the same as dialogue in a movie.  It’s simple, but profound, and it’s something I often overlook since I experience stories so often through both film and book.

First off, a couple definitions.  Dialogue is the collection of words characters say— hi, how are you, where’s my cat, and so forth.  Blocking fills the gaps in the conversation, most notably answering this question: who is speaking right now?  The simplest blocking is a dialogue tag.  “Find me a stick,” he said.  “This is space, I don’t have a stick,” she replied.  But ending or beginning every line of dialogue with ‘[pronoun] said/cried/etc.’ can get boring.  As you seek to spice it up a little, or as your characters move while they speak, you can put action as blocking instead of a tag.  “By all my calculations, Sergeant Roberts actually needs a stick.”  The robot scratched its titanium head.  “Maybe a candlestick?”

In a script, for film or stage, blocking tells the actor what to do, what emotions they should portray.  Here a frown, there a shrug, perhaps now it’s time for a tango?  You see that blocking on the screen as you hear the actor’s lines.  The two are simultaneous.

Books, on the other hand, can never achieve that.  You can only write one sentence at a time— even if you break the sentence in two parts to put some blocking in, the words and the actions don’t happen simultaneously.  The reader’s imagination, however, fills this in.  Many times, in fact, I’ve read along and found myself imagining faces or gestures the character should be making, based on the words she was saying.  Because the writer didn’t want to chop up the character’s words, that blocking never saw the page.

My point is, the dialogue/blocking mix in film is different from the dialogue/blocking mix in books.  But the simultaneous stuff isn’t actually the thing.  Books and verbal storytelling have another advantage that movies cannot use effectively: the character’s actual thoughts and emotions.

This varies depending on style and viewpoint.  Perhaps you really enjoy cinematic style in your writing, and decide never to include a character’s thoughts or emotions unless you can say it out loud or convey it through poetry of description.  Perhaps you prefer first person, and you’re inside the head so deeply the character’s thoughts are almost louder than their actions and speech.  Perhaps you’re somewhere in the middle, or you’re trying to figure it out yourself.  This is something you might have to think about: how much does your narrative play a part in your dialogue?

When you describe a scene, it’s easy to include the character’s views.  They see a Gothic cathedral— they think it’s boring.  (Another character would think it was exciting.)  They see a crashed car and they’re filled with compassion.  (Another character would judge if the car was salvageable.)  The character sees something, and their reaction to it colors their description.  Someone’s not going to describe something clinically if they think it’s disgusting.

When you’re writing dialogue, however, it’s too easy to let it slip into a verbatim record.  She said, it said, she replied, it exclaimed.  (This is apparently a conversation with a toaster or something.  I don’t know.)  She shrugged.  It dinged.  She pulled out the toast.  It cooled.  (Yep, toaster.)  The dialogue is there, the tags are there, and the blocking is there— everything you would need for a cinematic adaptation of this scene is right there.

Where’s the narrative?

The narrative is what you can’t see or hear.  What is the viewpoint character smelling?  Touching?  Tasting?  These are the senses, but it’s also about what the viewpoint character is thinking.  What are its thoughts, its emotions?  (Let’s be honest, this scene is from the toaster’s viewpoint.)  The emotions color the words and actions of a character, but imperfectly.  You will never get, onscreen, the depth you can find in a book.  Why not?  Because it doesn’t have the narrative.

Because your book is more than just a movie waiting to be made, it’s worthwhile to put that narrative in there.  It’s your job to add layers to the main character, through their thoughts and emotions.  They do one thing, but they want to do the exact opposite.  They imagine a scenario, then discard the idea and decide to play it safe.  All you ever see onscreen is the brief frown or the too-chipper smile, but in a book you don’t have to guess what it means.  In a book, you get to tell the story in a much more complex way than any movie can.

Try it out.  As I said, maybe this isn’t your style and you will never use it again— still, try it.  Perhaps this is your style and you just haven’t figured it out yet— try it.  You aren’t required to add narrative to your dialogue.  It’s just nice to think that, if this is something prose writers can do that script writers can’t, we might as well use it.  They won’t mind, and our writing just gets better.  So try it.  Have fun.

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28 thoughts on “And the Toaster Thought…

  1. First off, the title totally made me laugh.

    However, the post itself is great. It reminded me of a post I did some time back, with your mention of the different elements of dialogue. I liked how you separated the idea of movies and books, though. It’s easy to get trapped into wanting our books to become movies, when we really should be focusing on writing good books.

    Thanks, Liam. I enjoyed this post. 🙂

  2. Hmm… I think I have this down, at least in a raw way. At the very least, I understand what you mean and I agree that it is a good idea.
    My problem seems to be that I’m too concise in general. Which I really shouldn’t be worrying about while I’m still in macro-edits, but seriously. How do you expand without going off into Hugo-esque tangents or repeating the same thing with different words four different times or sounding like you’re “telling” everything?

    Anyway. Good post.

    1. Definitely don’t worry about that yet. I still maintain that you don’t have a problem with this, and you’ve learned how to tell a well-balanced story.

  3. Okay, so I should stop being frustrated that when I’m writing a scene, I can’t quite pinpoint a character’s expression right, the way it would be a simple thing to do on-screen, and just accept the fact that books have way more capabilities?

    Hehe, I’ve actually thought about this whole thing before. And I have honestly been frustrated before because I can visual a character making a certain expression, but I can’t quite describe it, and I just think how in the movies, that expression would take like half a second to make, and yet it would totally tell the character’s mood and I can’t figure out how to describe it. Maybe it’s just that I don’t have the right words, or maybe it just isn’t really possible to describe the expression without going on some huge tangent on the exact positioning of the muscles in one’s face that nobody would want to read.

    You’re totally right, though. In writing, we do have all five senses at our disposal. When whoever-she-is pulls the toast out of the toaster, she can burn her fingers, and we can tell (sorry, show) the reader the sting she feels in her fingers. However, on screen, all we’d get is a visual of her dropping the toast and sticking her fingers in her mouth to cool them off or something. (Well, fine, maybe if it’s written from the toaster’s perspective, we’d still only have that, but still.)

    Huh. So it’s kind of like this balance of what you show to the reader/viewer, and what you have to leave up to their imagination. In film, the viewer can be shown more visuals, but they have to imagine taste, smell, and touch, but in books, the reader might have to just imagine the little facial cues and whatnot that you can’t necessarily stick into the dialogue. (I suppose technically, in books, the reader has to imagine all of it, or else they’re stuck staring at varying twenty-six squiggly lines on a couple sheets of paper.)

    Anyway, great post!

  4. Toasters.

    Really, Head Phil?

    All astonishment with toasters aside, though, you have a good point about the differences between books and movies. And Shim has a good point about not begrudging those differences, but taking advantage of the benefits of them.

    I think I usually do pretty well with dialogue. Usually, mind you, certainly not claiming I’m the dialogue queen, here. But I could use some work and thought on the narrative tool, there.

    Again, thanks for pointing out the differences here. And thanks to Shim while we’re at it, because I’ve been known to begrudge not being able to perfectly convey facial expressions/body language before.

      1. If you’re so fascinated with toasters, perhaps you can find out why ours insist on breaking in new-fangled ways that require us to buy new ones every three months or so?

  5. I love blocking out conversations by including actions, gestures, and facial expressions. Body language too. One of my favorite tricks. Also, unusual props.
    OH YES!!! That point in the middle about books and movies being different mediums–that’s exactly the point I made in my (overly late) TCWT post for March!!! *throws hat in the air*
    What did the toaster think? (Did she set it on too low, and the toast wasn’t brown enough? What do toasters normally think???)

    1. Yay! Great minds think alike. I’m glad you agree.

      I have no idea what the toaster thought. If someone wants to experiment with fanfiction, that would be a good start.

  6. Where did you find the last gif in your latest YAvengers post, Liam? And who made it??? I want to give them kudos–it’s so ADORABLE!!!! X-D Nearly as adorable as that picture of Thor with a fluffy unicorn! (Yes, I did read back that far on the site. *blushes* I still think it’s cute!!! :-P)

      1. It’s too cute! X-D
        (Rule #101 in the Avengers: No one is allowed to mention the incident with the shield on the kitchen floor, the socks on the kitchen floor, the incident with the pinecones in the washing machine, or the time Cap read aloud to everyone, on the grounds that it would incriminate us of being less formidable and more adorably-dorky than the citizen normally thinks.)

  7. WHERE’S MY CAT? IS THAT MY CAT? IT GOES DING! IT IS A TOASTER. IT IS NOT MY CAT.

    Chances are no one will understand that but the opportunity was too good to pass up.

    Great post. I use narrative, and I’m rather fond of it. I’m still working on developing my voice and all that, but I love those extra layers it adds to the story and characters.

      1. Nostalgic comment thread version: WHERE’S MY CAT? IS THAT MY CAT? IT GOES SUPERCALIFRAGILISTICEXPIALIDOCIOUS MWAHAHAHA! IT IS A POSSESSED TOASTER. IT IS NOT MY CAT.

    1. Sorry. I considered doing a summary of awards from the past year this April Fool’s, but I don’t usually bother with holidays on the blog. Sorry, but not this one either.

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