Writing is difficult to talk about. I mean the real thing, the stuff that happens when you are sitting there with your paper and pen or your computer or your stone tablets and chisel and telling a story.
We talk about bits and pieces of writing all the time. We separate out plot, characterization, setting, and theme into neat little boxes so we can study each of them and try to figure out how they work and how to do them better. Then we slice it all in a different direction and look at action and description and dialog as separate things. And this is a good thing. It’s how we understand a lot of the world, from toasters to the Hubble telescope.
Too often, though, some folks forget that when it comes to actually writing, everything has to happen at once. During the brief period when I was teaching classes, I occasionally saw stories that looked as if the author had stuck together a string of writing exercises: here is the two-paragraph description of setting, followed by three paragraphs of description of the character, followed by a page of dialog, followed by a long paragraph of the viewpoint character’s internal musing, and so on. Each exercise was done well, but putting them together didn’t make a story. Reading them was like riding a bicycle over a cobblestone road – ka-THUMP, ka-THUMP, ka-THUMP.
This is not to say that one thing can’t take precedence over everything else. It only makes sense to play to your strengths – a writer who is really good at witty dialog will tend to have lots of witty dialog, and the characterization and theme and plot and so on will probably happen mainly through exchanges of dialog, rather than through action or description. But if the only thing that gets down on paper is a lot of talking heads, what the writer has is a screenplay or a play script, not a novel. And turning it into a novel is going to take more than throwing in a few random lumps of description and narrative summary.
Part of the problem, I think, is that we get used to talking about the bits and pieces of writing. We become accustomed to looking at one thing at a time. When I go hunting for an example of good action, I don’t pay much attention to how well setting or characterization or theme is woven into the passage, because those things aren’t what I’m interested in. If the passage does a lot of other stuff well (in addition to the action), I tend not to mention it, because what I’m talking about at the moment is the action part (or the dialog, or the characterization, or whatever I’m ranting about that day), and the other stuff isn’t relevant to the point I’m making. Experience also tells me that people get really confused really fast if I try to show them more than one unfamiliar thing going on at the same time; after a while, I just quit trying.
But that only works if, once folks have a handle on plot and description and dialog and so on, they learn how to put it all together at once. Most writers figure this out for themselves. For some, like the students I mentioned above, it takes a while, or someone has to point out that they need to do more than one thing at a time. How to do it…well, that varies. Some writers learn by trusting their instincts; some by consciously and deliberately imitating their favorite writers for a while. I learned a lot from actually analyzing some of my favorite writers – when I was getting started, I’d come to a bit where I knew what I wanted to do, but not how to make it all work at once, and I’d stop and spend hours combing my bookshelves, looking for an actual published writer who had done something similar, so I could figure out how they’d gotten everything in and made it work. Some writers learn during revision – they didn’t get everything in the first time, but they can see what’s missing and get it in during the second pass. Some use a layering technique, concentrating on one thing at a time and going over the scene multiple times to make sure they have everything there.
Eventually, most of us learn to do most of the stuff all at once, most of the time, without needing to concentrate on it all at once. But it doesn’t start off that way for most writers, and I think it’s worth pointing that out. It’s not enough to know how to do dialog and characterization and plot and action and so on; one has to learn to do it all together at the same time.