Saturday, March 5, 2011

Need Help Mapping Out a Scene? Try "The Dialog Spine"

Brandy's note: I came across Mr. Westerfeld's post from 11/1/09 on his website and immediately knew I had to include the post as part of my collection of writing tips. This technique is one I often use in my own writing - and now it has a name! The Dialog Spine! Original post here. 
Follow him on Twitter: @ScottWesterfeld and check out his writing.

by Scott Westerfeld
posted 11/1/09 on

Many writers use the so-called “dialog spine” as a way of mapping out a scene. As a sort of “zero draft,” they write just dialog, with no setting, action, or even attribution. It’s a quick once-over of conflict and resolution in a scene, without any tricky bits to slow you down.
This, of course, assumes that you find dialog easy. For some people, writing the action/description/whatever first might make more sense. In any case, you don’t have to make your dialog (or whatever) perfect. It’s just a way of mapping out the main beats in a scene.
But there’s another trick that I use the dialog spine for: blowing out the cobwebs. And by cobwebs, I mean “writer’s block,” “general ennui,” or “an idea that just needs to be written down, but I don’t have time.”

For example, over the last three days I’ve had a small but persistent short story idea. Of course, I’m on tour and just about to start doing revisions on Behemoth, book two of Leviathan. I don’t have time to write a short story, but I want to get this idea down. Once I write the dialog spine, maybe I’ll realize that there’s not that much to it. Or at least it’ll be on paper and out of my busy, busy brain.
And occasionally, a dialog-only short story is a lovely thing on its own. This falls less into the “novel writing advice” category and more into “a weird writing exercise.” But it’s all useful. Quite often in the middle of a novel, it’s good therapy to write a simple short story.
So here are my personal rules to writing a Dialog Spine Story:
1) Only dialog. That’s it. Zero exceptions.
2) Only two characters speak. Other characters and their dialog may be implied, but their words do not appear on paper.
3) One character’s dialog uses quotation marks, the other doesn’t. (This saves fiddling with attribution, or spending a lot of time creating verbal ticks to tell the characters apart. Remember, the point of this is to be quick and dirty. Not astonishingly artful.)
So what do these stories look like? I thought you’d never ask.
Here’s one I did just yesterday, for Halloween:
Served Cold
By Scott Westerfeld
October 31, 2009

Mind if I sit down?
“Oh, my goodness.”
Sorry to surprise you.
“But you . . . ”
I know. You didn’t expect to see anyone in town today. Least of all me.
“No, I didn’t. But of course it’s wonderful to see you. Please.”
For heaven’s sake, don’t get up! Does that arm hurt much?
“They say it’ll be fine. It throbs in a bit, but I’m full of codeine. Can I get you anything . . . ? Ah. That’s probably a stupid question.”
No, it’s not. Coffee would be wonderful.
“Really? You’re not just making fun of me?”
I would never make fun of you. Anyway, I always liked the smell of coffee better than the taste.
“Yes, I remember that . . . Excuse me, waiter, but could I have a coffee, please?”
Tell him black.
“Black, please.”
You’re very kind.
“Well, it’s the least I can do.”
Don’t be silly. It wasn’t your fault, you know. Just one of those things.
“Really? I mean, that’s what the police said. It was the ice.”
And they were perfectly right. It isn’t safe on those small roads out of town. Goodness, is that gin I smell?
“Yes. A bit early, I suppose.”
But it’s been a long week, as you always say. And look, you’ve hardly touched your salmon. It looks quite cold.
“The salmon is served cold here. But yes, it’s slow, eating with one hand.”
Poor baby. I wish I could hold a knife. Ah, here’s my coffee. Do you mind pushing it across, please?
“Of course.”
Yes, that’s a lovely smell. It’s the little things, you know. Even now.
“I’ve always thought so. Not that I would know anything about . . . ”
No, you’ve no idea. There must be lots of questions you want to ask.
“Of course.”
Well, don’t be tongue tied.
“I suppose . . . the main thing is, is it good? Or is it horrible?”
Hmm. It’s melancholy, more than anything. Like not being invited to a party, and all your friends are there. Speaking of which, you were invited to the funeral, weren’t you?
“Of course.”
And it’s today.
“Yes. It’s just starting now, I suppose.”
Then why aren’t you there?
“Well . . . I could ask you the same thing, you know.”
Ha! I suppose you could. And I was going to go. But you know what they say. It’s not for me; it’s for them.
“Well, maybe I’m not one of them.”
Don’t be philosophical, darling. You are one of them. You’re only here in town because you’re afraid.
“Well . . . not afraid, exactly.”
Yes, exactly afraid. Afraid that everyone will stare. With that arm still in a sling, who could help staring? And they’d ask if it hurts, like I just did. Really, how awkward.
“I’m so sorry.”
Don’t be silly. I told you, it wasn’t your fault. It was a patch of ice.

“Are you sure?”
About the ice? Yes. I took a good long look at it again this morning. It was back again, after melting in the sun yesterday! The roads are quite unsafe. Someone should do something.
“But there’s nothing I could have done, right?”
Well . . . perhaps there was one little thing.
If I’d been wearing my seatbelt, I’d be sitting here properly, wouldn’t I? Having cold salmon with you.
“You hate salmon, and you never bothered with seatbelts.”
I would have put mine on, if you’d asked me. I’d have done that for you.
“But it’s not as though . . . you’re eighteen, after all.”
Ah. You’ve been practicing that line, haven’t you?
“Don’t be crass.”
Sorry. But I was wondering if my parents had asked yet. About why we were out so late.
“No. They haven’t said anything.”
That means you’re in trouble, of course.
“Well, they’re still quite overwhelmed.”
No—you’re in trouble. Just look at you, sitting here all alone, pushing your lunch around with one hand. In trouble and drinking gin on top of your codeine.
“And missing you.”
And missing my funeral, you mean. The nerve of you. They’ll only talk more because you’re not there. It’s an admission of shame.
“I’m not ashamed.”
You were wearing a seatbelt.
“I . . . yes, I always do.”
And I’d have worn one if you’d asked. I did a lot of things for you.
“I know.”
Good. Then you’ll do something for me? One last thing?
“Of course.”
Go to my funeral.
“But . . . now?”
Yes, now. I know it’s already started, but funerals are always endless. Leave right away, and you’ll catch the main event. I want you to be there.
“I . . . I suppose I could still make it. Are you coming . . . with me?”
No, I’ll go ahead. But I’ll be beside you all the way, in spirit. Look, here’s the waiter.
“Check, please? Listen, I’m not quite sure your parents want me there.”
Of course they do. You’re their best friend! And I want you there, so steel yourself, darling. Here, finish your gin, that’s right. Look, he’s got your check already. Pay with cash, it’s quicker.
“All right. Don’t rush me.”
You’ll have to drive fast, won’t you?
“It’s rather tricky, with one hand. Do you really want this so much?”
More than anything. Please be there to watch them lower me. Don’t let me go down there alone.
“Of course. I promise I’ll be there. I’m so sorry.”
Don’t be silly. It was just the ice. Just go.
. . .
Drive safely.
Mwa-hah-hah! Like I said, it’s a quick-and-dirty Halloween story.

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