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[process] Stakes and rising action, with a digression on dialog

I had a blog post drafted for this morning, on the privileging of wilful ignorance in our culture, but I woke up in the middle of the night realizing it didn’t have a sensible through line yet. At the same time, my subconscious said, “Hey, let’s blog about stakes and rising action!”

This actually comes from a comment someone made on their blog a week or two ago — I suspect Bear or Scalzi, but my morning brain can’t pull up the reference right now — about writing dialog, not conversation. The remark was, in effect, transcribed conversation is very, very boring, while dialog is a mannered and very specific technique used in narrative fiction to develop character and advance the story.

Conversation:

“Uh, I’m going to gonna go to the store and get some, like, corn chips. Tortillas, I mean.”
“Okay… Damn it. Can you, you, uh, go grab some, er… sauce. I mean salsa. S-salsa. Green shit. You know.”
“Uh, right.”

Dialog:

“I’m heading for the store to buy tortillas.”
“Terrific. Could you please pick up some salsa verde?”
“You got it!”

And that’s being quite kind to the probable literal transcription of such a snippet of conversation.

Think of conversation as the ramshackle hut you built in your grandmother’s backyard out of junk and scrap lumber the summer you were eleven, while dialog is the gleaming JLA clubhouse with missile launchers and pool tables that you had in mind while you were building it. People would much rather read about the pool tables than the eight yards of rusty baling ware and eleven rolls of duct tape. (Unless, of course, you’re writing a story where baling wire and duct tape are plot points or telling details, but I digress.)

So it is with stakes and rising action. I’ve been reading Ken Scholes’ draft in progress of his fourth Psalms of Isaak book, Requiem, having just finished the third, Antiphon. It’s magnificent so far, building on the end of the previous book. Vast conspiracies! Massive, ancient machines! Powers heretofore unheralded striding the world with fire and sword! Great good fun to read, an absolute horror show to live through if one were actually in the world of the story. And I am (hopefully) doing much the same thing with Sunspin.

Yet in real life, the last thing we want is stakes and rising action like that. We can only overtop ourselves so often before even that becomes routinized. The part of the human mind that craves narrative and drama, that consumes dialog, loves the ever mounting tension in a book like Requiem. The part of the human mind that stammers its way through discussing the buying of salsa doesn’t want to do anything of the sort.

I say this as someone who is personally living through stakes and rising action. My cancer journey is an example of powers previously unheralded striding through my body with fire and sword! Surgeries! Ever more intense chemotherapy regimens!

Guess what? It’s not exciting to live that way. In a very strange fashion, it’s even boring. And I’m quite tired of living under the gun of mortality statistics and dreadful chemicals burning through my veins.

Me, I want my excitement on the page, not in my hospital bed. I want my excitement like I want my dialog — mannered and structured according to the contemporary conventions of our genre, with sufficient novelty to engage me and sufficient familiarity to comfort me at the same time.

All of which is to say, go hog wild with stakes and rising action. And with dialog, for that matter. Please, please do that, just as Ken is right now in his work, and I am in mine. None of us read genre fiction for comfort of routine reality. But there’s a part of me that says, eep, characters are people too. They meet their tests, pass them and fail them as the story demands, and get on with their lives and deaths.

And in the end, isn’t that what it means to be human?

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