NaNoWriMo: Time and Relative Stage Business in Space

(I know, TARSBIS doesn’t really roll off the tongue, does it?)

If you aren’t familiar with the long-running BBC sci-fi show Doctor Who, the TARDIS is the eponymous character’s ship, which looks like a blue police box. (This is a phone box dedicated to calling the police, a particularly British invention.) TARDIS stands for Time And Relative Dimensions in Space, and refers to the ability of the ship to go anywhere, any time, almost instantaneously, but does not explain why the Doctor so often ends up on Earth in various parts of the British Isles. (It’s the budget.)

The Doctor is a long-lived alien from the planet Gallifrey, who “regenerates” into a new body whenever the actor or actress’s contract is up, and is recast as a new person. The current Doctor is the thirteenth or so (“canon” is really more of a “suggestion” on this show). He or she travels all of time and space with one or more Companions, who are usually but not always human.

Each week the Doctor and Companion(s) step out of the TARDIS into a new situation. They sometimes plan to go to a specific time and location, and they sometimes succeed at one or both.

In each episode, both characters and viewers have to learn where and when the characters are before they can tackle the week’s plot. Sometimes the cues are obvious: people in togas speaking Latin, stone temples with arches, big smoking volcano in the background? Pompeii, 79 CE. Sometimes the audience knows because of the prologue (“Welcome to the Liverpool Museum! We’re having our New Year’s Eve 2021 party tonight!”) and the characters don’t, so the Doctor pulls out her sonic screwdriver (a Magical Macguffin tool) and it tells her. Sometimes it’s an alien planet, who knows when, and we just have to wait for the characters to figure it out and tell us.

In a visual medium, it’s easier to convey when and where the characters are because the creators can establish so much just in an opening shot. Clothing, technology, climate, time of day, language, culture, religion, planet — a thirty-second pan can impart a huge amount of information. But with the written word, you as the writer have to describe everything.

No Dumping

Think about that establishing camera shot. Try describing it in your head, or imagine what the script directions would be.

[Ext.: Old West Town in summer. We open on a dusty main street. There are several buildings with neat porches and awnings advertising their businesses. Horse-drawn carriages clop along the road. Women in layered homespun skirts and men in cowboy gear walk along the wooden sidewalk. A horse drinks from a trough. Two women walk arm in arm laughing and greet a pastor with a nod and a smile.]

If you start just describing that in your opening pages, it’s boring. It’s an infodump. The reader gets a whole lot of stage-setting and throat-clearing, but no action to be interested in, and no character to get invested in.

The way to avoid infodumps is to attach your descriptions to characters and actions.

Who, What, When, Where

You should generally start with a character. It can be your main character if you’re jumping straight into the story, or a secondary or tertiary character if we’re following along to be introduced to the main character, or even a one-off if you’re starting with a prologue. (Starting with a one-off character is good for murder mysteries: We follow the victim right up until the untimely death, and that kicks off the book.)

If your story is third-person omniscient, you could start your story by describing a little kid who’s a messenger running from the general store down several streets to the smithy.

“And mind you come right back!” Mr. Sal shouted.

“Got it!” Toby dashed off, forgetting as always to look both ways as he crossed Torrance Street and headed pell-mell down Willoughby. The street was hot under his thin bootsoles, and he left puffs of dust in his wake. He jumped over the cracks in the dirt left by too many weeks of baking in the relentless summer sun.

Toby ducked around a gaggle of women leaving the post office and nearly ran into Father Michael. “Sorry, sorry!”

“Tell your mother I’ll have her book back on Sunday!”

“Yessir!” The sidewalk was packed with people coming and going from the inn. He was going to have to run in the street again. Why did Mr. Sal have to send him at lunchtime? He hated running on Willoughby — too many piles of horse poop where people tied up their wagons.

Toby finally got to the corner of Forty-Foot Road, where he turned right and really started to run. The only people coming down this way were going to the smithy or the farrier, so he had plenty of room. He could hear the Bang! Bang! of the hammer long before he reached the forge.

He slowed down just before he got to the door and took a second to catch his breath. He coughed to get the dust out of his throat. “Come in, Toby.” Mr. Verge’s voice was rough and scratchy as a horse blanket.

In a few paragraphs, we’ve established a season (at least the middle of summer), weather (hot and dry for a long time), a time of day (lunchtime), a local language (English), and a level of technology (horse and carriage, people are literate). Horses, cowboys, dusty dirt road, and English usually add up to “Old West”. We also have a character to follow (Toby) who has introduced us to the main character (Will Verge, the secretive blacksmith).

And that’s your thirty-second camera pan, without being boring or an infodump.

Who’s There?

You spent time designing your character to be unique. Now you need to let your readers know what your character looks like. Try to resist the easy out of “The character gets up and looks in a mirror.” While most of us do look in a mirror a few times a day, it’s usually with the goal of adjusting our appearance (hair, makeup, accessories, clothing) rather than narrating it mentally. When you brush your teeth, are you thinking about the color of your eyes, the shape of your face, or how tall you are? Your character isn’t either.

If your POV is third-person omniscient, work in the description as you go along:

Toby entered the forge. Mr. Verge was bent over in a cloud of steam where he was dousing whatever he’d been hammering. When he stood up, he was easily twice Toby’s height — and his muscular shoulders were almost as wide as Toby was tall. He pulled out a bright red handkerchief and mopped his face. His short black hair was starting to curl a little in the steam.

“What d’ye have for me?”

“Message from Mr. Sal, sir.” Toby dug the piece of paper out of his pocket and handed it to the smith. Mr. Verge read it quickly, blotting his throat and the back of his neck. His white undershirt was soaked with sweat.

“And I suppose you’ll be wanting your regular payment?” His voice was gruff, but there was a twinkle in the smith’s warm brown eyes.

I’m overdoing it a little for purposes of space, but you get the idea. The camera is sitting on Toby’s shoulder, so we see what Toby sees. When the camera sits on Verge’s shoulder, he might notice his hands are dirty and wash them (so the narration can mention his scarred, blunt-tipped fingers) and then change his clothes (which can be described, along with the house and how he washes his clothes and bathes himself). Maybe save the mention of “short curly black hair” for when Verge leaves the house and puts a hat on, because it’s not something Toby would notice.

In a third-person limited or first-person story, the character might reach for something on a top shelf, check on a prosthetic, brush hair out of their eyes, scratch a bug bite on a tattoo, shout something in their native language, sign to a friend, say morning prayers, put on a ritual garment, etc.

The upshot is that the reader can learn what the character looks like in broad strokes to begin with, and then get more details as the story goes along and the details are relevant.

Who Said That?

Since your character is generally interacting with other characters, you need to differentiate who is speaking, using words like said, asked, and responded. That little snippet is called a dialogue tag. If you describe a movement by the speaker without using a speech-related verb, it’s called an action tag.

In my examples, Mr. Sal shouted is a dialogue tag. It directly attributes the speech to a person. Everything else is an action tag: Someone speaks (“Got it!”), and the action immediately after the speech is by the character who just spoke (Toby dashed off).

Not every piece of dialogue needs a tag, but you should always be able to tell who is speaking. I suggest not going more than two exchanges (A speaks, B speaks, A speaks, B speaks) without some kind of tag. Those few words help keep the reader oriented.

Some pundits will advise you to use said and maybe asked almost exclusively. They claim said is pretty much invisible. And it’s true that said doesn’t call much attention to itself. But these advisors will warn against using any synonyms for the verb to say, slandering them as “bookisms.”

I am a supporter of the judicious use of bookisms when the verb gives information which can’t be conveyed otherwise. Shouted is different from said, or even said loudly. The verb can indicate a specific tone of voice, or clarify when the character’s words are at odds with the tone.

  • “She’s late again,” I growled.
  • “That’s just great,” he grumbled.
  • “I’ll be on time tomorrow!” she lied.

Bookisms shouldn’t be used for every tag, and you can often edit your bookism so that the tone or action is reflected in the text:

  • “Why do I have to go?” she complained.

vs.

  • “Why do I have to go?” She slouched in her chair, arms crossed. “I don’t know anybody who’s going. They’re all your friends. All they talk about is boring work stuff that I don’t understand. Why can’t I just stay home?”

Conversely:

  • “Why do I have to go?” she complained.
  • “Why do I have to go?” she yelped.
  • “Why do I have to go?” she sobbed.

are three entirely different scenarios. Your tags are not just attributing text, but describing movement. Which brings us to the next point.

What Are You Doing?

In the example above, I described the movements of several people: Toby as he runs from Mr. Sal’s store to the smithy, people on the sidewalk, Father Michael, and Mr. Verge. Some of this is action: Toby is running. But some of it is little movements while other action is happening: Verge wipes the sweat from his face as he reads. These little movements are called “stage business.” The idea comes from theatre actors on stage doing things (picking up a prop, gesturing, fiddling with clothing or hair, etc.) while they speak or sing so that they are not just standing motionless and reciting lines at each other. Stage business is smaller and generally not consequential, unlike an action (running, stabbing, hugging, grabbing).

It’s good to sprinkle stage business throughout dialogue, for a few reasons:

  • People in real life don’t stand or sit motionless in one place and talk at each other. They move, they shift, they gesticulate, they pace, fuss with their hair, scratch, make facial expressions, pick things up.
  • Having a little stage business breaks up a wall of dialogue. It gives the reader a little mental breath, a pause, in the character’s speech. And, again, this reflects reality. People pause in between thoughts, and those few words of narration create a break.
  • Describing little actions allows the reader to envision more clearly what the characters are doing. Are they walking? Stirring a pot of soup? Is Person A carrying a picnic basket from the car to the clearing? Is Person B scowling or laughing? Did Person A say something, walk into the room, respond to Person B, and then sit down? Where is Person B relative to Person A, and how does Person A feel about that?
  • Stage business is the perfect place for an action tag, so you as the writer can continue to keep the reader oriented as to who is speaking.
  • Stage business can also cover what’s going on around the characters as they talk and act: Is the radio playing? Are there birds singing or flying around? Are cars going by? Do other people walk past? Is there wind, rain, or snow?

As with all things, don’t overdo it. It’s not necessary to narrate every single moment of action. Dave walked over to the liquor cabinet, opened the doors, pulled out a bottle of wine, opened the drawer, picked up the corkscrew, put down the bottle, put the corkscrew on top, grabbed the bottle at the neck, twisted the screw until the cork popped, pulled the cork out and put it on the table, put the corkscrew down on the table, picked up a glass, and poured the wine is obviously way, way too much detail. Dave got a fresh bottle of wine from the liquor cabinet and poured himself a glass gets the idea across succinctly.

Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is?

Along with your characters’ movements, you will also need to indicate when your story is happening. “When” is the time of day, but can also be the time of year, the season, the weather, and the year itself. Look at George Orwell’s opening line for his dystopian classic 1984:

“It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.”

Besides giving us the month (April), the weather (sunny, but cold), and a rough location on our planet (northern hemisphere, because April is a fall month below the equator), we are given a time… and a time that is nominally wrong, because our clocks go from 1 to 12. Even when operating on military or 24-hour time, clocks don’t ring 13 chimes at 1:00 p.m. So this opening line tells us not just that it’s probably early afternoon, but that something is off about this society (it’s the clocks, all of them, not just one weird clock in someone’s house).

While you don’t have to give constant weather reports unless it’s relevant to the plot, you should indicate that time has passed. This is also a really easy transition to a new scene without slogging through minutiae of movement: Two weeks later, the next day, by lunchtime, the weekend was [weather]. Your readers should know approximately when things are happening, and when scenes are in relation to one another. Readers will assume that two scenes happening in succession are happening at about the same time, unless you indicate that it’s now evening or the next day.

(One more important reminder: if you have characters in different time zones, keep track of what time it is for each character so that a morning phone call in New York doesn’t try to be a morning phone call in London, which is six hours later. A spreadsheet makes this pretty easy.)

Why All the Fuss?

If you don’t describe what’s going on as people speak, move, and interact with the world — if your story is just a script of dialogue, back and forth — then all your reader can envision is talking heads in a gray fog. Your words are the camera. Put something on the screen.

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Images from the BBC. The TARDIS, David Tennant (the Tenth Doctor), Matt Smith (Eleventh), Jodie Whittaker (Thirteenth), Christopher Eccleston (Ninth), Peter Capaldi (Twelfth)