Fiction Friday: Keep the Beat with Literature Girl

Fiction Friday is a new series of posts published on Fridays. It encompasses the realm of general fiction writing, which includes tips for writing as well as writing-facilitated lifestyle. More often than not, FF will include examples from anime, manga, and especially light novels.

My favourite series so far in 2012 is, by a wide margin, Daily Lives of High School Boys. The title speaks for itself, as it is nothing more than a highly amusing depiction of characters in high school. They exude highly likeable personalities, and while they go through some remarkably outrageous situations, there’s an element of familiarity in their experiences that make the audience respond in an “I know that feel, bro” fashion.

Despite having no particular overarching story or plot, Nichibros does such an interesting job with regards to writing individual scenes, and from a writing standpoint, a fantastic example comes from an ongoing series of scenes involving Hidenori and Literature Girl.

Outside of summarizing events in a written story (exposition), the main source of narration comes in the form of scenes, dramatizations of events and actions involving characters moving in time. The scene is the individual cohesive narrative unit that, when fashioned together in a particular order, makes an overall story. Each scene is important, and writing better scenes is the mark of writing a better story.

There are many different aspects of scenewriting that contribute towards making a scene work, but the one I would like to touch on today is the passage of time and the understanding of beats. If scenes are units of a story, then beats are units of action that occur within a scene. Understanding beats can help a writer gauge the amount of action within the scene that he or she writes, as well as control the pace in which a story is told.

In visual media like tv and film, it’s relatively easy to balance both, since dialogue can occur while actions are happening in real time. In fiction writing, it’s a bit more difficult, since the author has to use words sparingly to describe what is happening over time. Words that are used for dialogue are words that are not used to describe what is happening during that dialogue. And that doesn’t even include words used to convey scenery and other important imagery that paints the rest of the picture for the reader.

A frequently-occurring mistake that writers do is focus so much on one aspect of a scene, and often those words are spent on description and/or dialogue. When you put too many words into description, you get purple prose. Put too many words into dialogue, and the scene reads more like a movie script. If don’t spread out the dialogue, you can’t maintain a constant picture of what’s going on while the characters are talking.

In order to avoid this, one has to first be able to identify when such imbalances happen. When looking over a passage of writing, comb through each sentence, and mark specific parts of the sentence with a colour, indicating whether those highlighted words are used for exposition/description, dialogue, or action. Description and dialogue are essential for painting the picture in the reader’s mind, but action is required to move those images through time within the story.

Let’s take a look at a short blurb that I wrote in a short free-writing session in response to a twitter writing prompt from the 2DTeleidoscope:

I quickly and roughly highlighted exposition and descriptions in purple, dialogue in green, and actions in red. What I noticed right away was that the first half of this passage is very heavy in exposition and description. Starting off a scene with description is quite common, as it paints the scene and setting in which the action occurs, though in this case, I could probably be a bit more economical with describing the setting.

I did a reasonable job in separating the dialogue so that it doesn’t read like a script, but sometimes reading the dialogue like a script is useful in determining its effectiveness as a whole. Those “hey” lines feel a bit weak to me, compared to the others, having read the dialogue again explicitly.

Also notice how there is an increase in red towards the end. The transition from purple to red in this passage was not accidental. Description sets up the scene, and the actions provides the events.

For the most part, I’m somewhat pleased with how this prompt turned out, though there are issues with word choice in some sections. The general image that I had in mind was planned out as I wrote, and I feel I did enough to convey it. Just a bit of re-writing, and the passage would definitely be better, but stuff like this are simply exercises, and are better off left as is for educational purposes.

Literary Girl and Beats

Now let’s go back to Nichibros. What’s so fantastic about the way the scenes involving Literary Girl and Hidenori is how the writers use dialogue and beats to drive the pacing of the scene, which places the two of them in an empty setting. All that exists in the scene is the two of them, and every minor action causes an comically overemphasized reaction. However, in episode 7, the actions are cranked up to 11, both in frequency as well as the intensity of the actions that occur.

The scene is established with Hidenori tinkering around with his cellphone, and Literary Girl appears behind him and stares longingly. Hidenori goes on with his internal monologue, expertly delivered by the remarkably talented Tomokazu Sugita. He reacts to a small change in Literary Girl’s expression. He keeps commenting as she fidgets and struggles to get her words out, a simultaneous occurrence of action and (internal) dialogue.

And suddenly, beats:

– her manuscript scatters into the wind
– she chases her scattered paper and falls flat on her face
– she struggles to open a band-aid box for her scraped hand
– she chokes on her bottled water
– snot flies from her nose as she coughs
– she  struggles to open a pack of tissues
– tissues fly into the air
– she chases the tissues and falls awkwardly onto Hidenori
– she cries

All of these happen one by one, with very short quips from Hidenori’s thoughts in between each of the short events that happen to Literary Girl. The only time he actually speaks out loud in the scene is at the very end, in which he stands up and accidentally knocks her out in the process, all before he even gets to finish his super-cool one-liner.

Good Writing Can’t Be Beat

By mixing in actions that occur in between dialogue, a scene can truly come alive. A movie script is meant to be used as a reference for actors to read and deliver their lines as they perform the actions that occur at the same time. In written prose, the story happens as the words are being read. If only dialogue is present, then the reader only pictures individuals standing in empty space and talking to each other.

Make the characters do stuff while they talk; it will make all the difference.

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6 thoughts on “Fiction Friday: Keep the Beat with Literature Girl”

  1. I have a problem of overloading on the exposition upfront, then slowly but surely my prose turns into pure dialogue. The paragraph sizes are so imbalanced! It’s because I’m not very good at describing things (I keep most stuff in my head and neglect to put it on paper), and I just love writing dialogue.

    1. My cousin is a screenwriter, and he is really good with writing dialogue, but he naturally doesn’t have much experience with the other elements of prose, even though he’s tried doing a short story here or there. What he likes to do is write the dialogue first, then insert the other stuff in between.

  2. Nargh, this whole keeping the beat thing is arguably my greatest flaw when it comes to writing stuff.
    It’s really hard to keep a steady flow going and in my opinion accomplishing this one seemingly simple thing separates decent writers from good writers.

    Thanks for the post!

    1. There are a lot of things that one can do to improve the quality of writing. It’s not just necessarily beats, which is part of mechanics. There’s mechanics/execution, and there’s telling a fucking good story, which relies mostly on planning and story decisions, but there’s a pretty good separation between the two.

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