Monday, August 12, 2013

Wordcraft -- Our imaginary friends talk back

Last week, I let Dallas writer and editor Joe Milazzo walk us through a recent class on developing fictional characters sponsored by the Dallas Writer’s Garret. But of course, characters are no dummies, no matter what their IQ. Whether based on people we know or dredged from the deepest recesses of our own minds, they don’t just stand around waiting for us as writers to put words into their mouths. In fact, they seldom stand around at all.

“There’s a concept in theater called blocking -- where you’re aware of the actions taking place around the actual dialogue,” Milazzo said.

With that in mind, he led class members through exercises designed to build character development through dialogue.

But first, we had to make our characters move. Why put movement first? Because, “even in a purely auditory work, like radio, there’s a sense of blocking.

So he asked each of us to write a list of gestures or facial expressions we felt were particularly communicative. With other people in the class, jotting ten or a dozen gestures was simple. If, like me, you often write in public places, take a minute now to glance around the park, the café, the bookstore. How about making notes of the people you see while waiting to be called for jury duty, during class, in a doctor’s or hospital waiting room? Waiting for the bus, in shops, at the gym? Just don’t be intrusive -- you want to notice how people look and move when they don’t feel on stage.

Once we had a list of gestures to refer to, Milazzo provided a scene written entirely in dialogue, the speakers unseen but overheard by the principal character, and asked to imagine seeing the speakers and inserting their gestures, expressions and movements. This exercise would also work using plays, especially classics available online.

For now, I’ll use a few lines from Milazzo’s example, the scene on pages 336-337 of Degrees by Michel Butor, in the English translation by Richard Howard. This is available in the Dallas Public Library system.

“Say, isn’t tomorrow Uncle Pierre’s birthday: Mother want to know if we’ve done anything.”
“Done anything?”
“Jacques and I haven’t, but you’re his pet. . .”
“Are we celebrating tomorrow night?”
“No, he’s coming to lunch?”
“Lunch? Why didn’t he tell me?”
“Does he tell you everything?”

“By adding blocking and gesturing, you are remaking things about that character that readers can use to get to know your characters,” Milazzo said.

Some of these actions can be used instead of speech tags -- “he said, she said” -- to indicate the speaker as well as the action occurring. The emotional content of gestures lets readers discover facets of a character’s life without exposition on the writer’s part. Use of movement and gesture also slows the pace of dialogue, if needed for the story. Although it’s often advisable to keep action and speech tags to a minimum, even to the point of eliminating them completely from portions of dialogue, knowing where they underlie the speech will keep our characters grounded.

For more about Milazzo and his work, see

For more about the Dallas Writer’s Garret and its programs, visit


Today, August 12, is the last day to reserve a seat for Dallas author Ben Fountain discussion of his National Book Award finalist, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk. To sign up, go to I’ll follow up on Fountain’s appearance next Monday. My biggest what if -- if Fountain could satirize the poor old imploded Texas Stadium, what couldn’t he have done with the Cowboys’ new billion dollar digs in Arlington?

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