Not that there’s much competition. I can’t think of much that I’ve picked up over the years that could so thoroughly be boiled down to three succinct words.
The time and place: a year after college, when all I had to my credit were a few academic prizes and one short story sale, and I’d decided to attend a weeklong intensive on a Boston campus. Definitely the most life-changing decision I ever made while flipping through a magazine in a library.
In a breakfast meeting on the final day, my workshop leader expressed her confidence that I was ready to do this writing thing for real, and tackle a novel. So I went home and got to work, determined to utilize the things I’d absorbed that week before they risked starting to fade.
Including this one:
“Choreograph your scenes,” she’d told us.
I’ve just gone through that first novel, Oasis, again for the first time in more than twenty years, proofreading an OCR scan of the original book and giving it a light coat of polish for its migration to e-book and audio. Certain lines in one of the earliest scenes — mostly a freewheeling conversation between three friends — instantly triggered dormant memories of why I’d done what I’d done between and around the lines of dialogue. The edict I had been taking pains to obey:
“Choreograph your scenes.”
A simple concept, seemingly, but at the time, it was a revelation. I’d never consciously considered the sense of motion in scenes before, at least in scenes that weren’t obvious action sequences.
We usually think of choreography in terms of dance. And when you think about it, really, that’s what the print version is, too, just on a different stage: the dance of characters across the page and through a scene, sometimes from one scene to the next. It’s a feeling of movement and life rather than stasis and inertness.
Yet it’s about more than just breaking up passages of dialogue to keep your tale from turning into a script for talking heads. Not just any randomly observed movement will do. We probably don’t need to see every time Uncle Jerry scratches his ass, unless for some peculiar reason it’s vital that Uncle Jerry be pegged as a chronic ass-scratcher.
From the ridiculous to the sublime, then: Consider ballet. A ballet is more than just a sequence of movements that happen to flow well. They also combine to tell a story, to evoke emotions, to start in one place and take the audience on a journey to someplace else.
And when transferred to the page? By showing people physically interacting with each other, and with their macro environment and the items within it, there’s a lot you can accomplish on multiple levels:
- Choreography can paint a dimensional picture in the reader’s head, showing where key elements are in proximity to one another.
- It can convey characters’ moods, inner struggles, and energies.
- Whether subtly and overtly, it can show an attraction between characters, or their repulsion from each other.
- It can be a stealth method of introducing props that may seem innocuous at first, but later play a pivotal role.
- Body language can speak volumes about attitudes toward other people in the scene, and create tension when there’s an incongruence between what someone’s saying and how they’re moving.
And whatever else you need that movement can reveal. From the flamboyant to the nuanced, from the frenetic to the languid, it’s your dance, your music, your stage.
[Photo by Chris Willis]
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