Friday, February 13, 2009

"Business," Attribution, and the Choreography of Gaze

A while back, some of Emma Darwin's musings impelled me to write a post about thinker attributions. Emma has since added a comment on that post, and one of her points has got me thinking (an action I resist to the utmost under normal circumstances):

I'm interested in your riff of my post, since it originated in my thinking not about the attributions at all, but about what I rather pretentiously call the choreography of gaze.

I rather like "the choreography of gaze" as a term. Emma doesn't view it primarily as attribution, though when mixed with POV character observations it performs that role. I think these sorts of descriptions play three simultaneous roles: 1) cement us more firmly into POV (which amounts to attribution); 2) make the scene more vivid; and, 3) describe action and provide stage direction.

The eye of the character is one of the most powerful tools for this, but any of the senses can be employed this way (She smelled stale tobacco on his coat when he stepped closer). Sight is arguably the most objective of our senses. Smell and touch in particular are quite intimate and subjective, and don't have much range; it's possible to imagine someone casting the consciousness of a character around a scene through smell, but it would be an odd approach--probably something you'd use if the character were locked in a darkened room (or if you were rewriting Patrick Susskind's Perfume).

All that by way of digression, however. What I was really thinking about is another one of those terminological gaps we have in the craft of writing. "She said" is a dialogue tag; "she thought" is a thinker attribution. But what do we call indirect attributions?

Hunh? Indirect attributions? If I had better terms, I'd use 'em, but an example makes it clear. You can nail down who is talking through a dialogue tag (direct attribution):

"Sure, he brought the burritos," Paul said. "But that was two hours ago."

or you can do the same thing like this:

"Sure, he brought the burritos." Paul scratched his head. "But that was two hours ago."

In the second case, we know Paul is speaking, though there is no specific speaker attribution, just action that points to the speaker. From a craft point of view, what's that called?

The only short term I've ever heard for it is "business," jargon from the stage for general fiddling about (lighting cigarettes, rearranging things on the desktop, dragging back one's hair with a free hand). The word has a somewhat dismissive tone to it, and it's sometimes justified; there's an awful lot of scratching, stretching, sniffing, and smoking that goes on simply because someone has tired of writing "Paul said."

In the example above, Paul could have done any number of things that would do little more than avoid another "said." But suppose we write:

"Sure, he brought the burritos." Paul sucked at a bleeding fingertip and spat out a fragment of nail. "But that was two hours ago."

Now, I'm not sure what the context of the preceding paragraph is, since I just now made it up and have no idea what is going on or where we are; but I'm pretty sure it accomplishes more than standing in for a dialogue tag. If I wrote such a thing in a novel, I'd be saying something about Paul's character, making the scene a little more vivid, and, en passant, also letting the reader know it is Paul speaking.

Is there a term for this? Apart, that is, from the somewhat-perjorative "business" (which most people don't seem to recognize)? I wish there were a simple word or phrase, because I'm often tempted to tell writers who have asked me to read their manuscripts that, "Instead of a dialogue tag, this would be a perfect place to insert..." Insert what, exactly? " of those sequences of actions that attributes the dialogue while simultaneously achieving other goals of the scene"? I guess we could call it 'indirect speaker attribution', but we're writers--can we come up with pithier jargon than that?

Whatever we call this sort of dialogue-attribution-by-action, it is a simpler matter than the indirect thinker attributions of the 'choreography of gaze" Emma was discussing. A dialogue tag is nothing more than a fingerpost to a speaker--though, as shown above, when the attribution is done indirectly it can in principle do a great deal more. An indirect thinker attribution is inherently more nuanced. I can't do better than to quote the example from her original post:

So often 'he looked' 'she thought' 'they wondered' can go, and be replaced by a straight statement of what they're seeing, thinking, wondering. But if you want to make the reader conscious of the seer's/thinker's/looker's consciousness, then it helps if you focus the reader on that consciousness operating. It seems to me that this:

I found a comfortable chair, and he poured the drinks and then turned away towards the window. Was that all he was going to do? Wasn't he going to say anything?

has a subtly different effect from this:

I looked for a comfortable chair and sat down, and watched as he poured the drinks and then turned away to stare out of the window. I stared at his back view. Was that all he was going to do? Wasn't he going to say anything?

It's one of those incredibly important subtleties which are crushed when a bad teacher of writing peddles a rule like always cutting out the apparently surplus-to-requirements 'looks'.

Those gazes are a form of "business." In dialogue we might be able to infer without any doubt who is speaking, but still wish to add business/action to enrich the scene. Emma's example is even more unambiguous than most, as it is being told in first person; there is never any doubt whose thoughts or observations are being presented.

In her first example, we are essentially being given reportage followed by unmediated thoughts. In the second case, we are being given an additional dimension, a layer of self-awareness, where the narrator knows she is observing, and reports on how she goes about it.

The first example is faster and more minimalist. The second is richer, more anchored in consciousness, and increases our identification with the narrator.

Which is better? That depends on the totality of the scene. The first example moves us along faster to arrive at the two questions in the narrator's mind; it is economical and suspenseful. The paragrpah exists mainly to demand we leap to the next paragraph and get some answers.

The second example slows us down, recalibrates us, makes us hesitate in a longer moment of the narrator's self-consciousness. This gives it a feeling of less urgency, but greater portentousness; it anchors us in the moment of uncertainty, and creates a tiny instance of what some writers call a "suspense pocket."

Either one might be the right choice depending on the author's intent, but Emma is dead right when she says the effect is different.

I still don't have better names for this than "business," though. In one case, speaker business, in the other, thinker business. I'd love to be able to call these attributing fingerposts something else. Anybody got a name for these devices?


Janet said...

I think the word you're looking for is a "beat". Don't ask me where I heard it. Probably at AW, though I think I've seen it elsewhere too.

Tim Stretton said...

Have to say I've always called this "business". It doesn't have any pejorative overtone for me.

"Beat" fits as well. I think Lawrence Block may have used the term.

David Isaak said...

Hi, Janet, Hi Tim--

Yeah, I'm familiar with "beat"--originally a screenwritng term. And sometimes when a scropt wants to emphasize a pause, the screenwriter will literally write "(beat)" or insert some sort of 'parenthetical' describing business: "(dropping phone and turning)".

Parentheticals are also used to describe how a line is delivered. In that context, they are often called 'wrylys' because of their all-too-common use "(wryly)".

In fiction a beat signifies a rhythmic change, but doesn't necessarily attribute dialog. For example in:

"I'm just tired, that's all." A crow flew past the window, cawing. "I think I'll take a shower."

the crow line is a beat, but it doesn't do any speaker attribution.

Guess I'll just keep calling it "business" until something else comes along.

Anonymous said...

Yes, in theatre a 'beat' is one of two things - the same kind of not-really-quite-a-pause as in scriptwriting, or in Stanislavskian work it's the time between the character conceiving an intention, and acting on it. (At least, that's what I remember - it's been a long time since I read An Actor Prepares, but I keep meaning to go back to it. It has a lot to say to writers about process).

David Isaak said...

Hi, Emma--

I've never read Stanislavski, not being a thespian.

Confusingly, the screenwriting crowd has also started using something they call "story beats," which insofar as I understand it is nothing more than a list of major events in a story--i.e. what normal people would call "an outline."

Why they think they need an additional term isn't clear to me, but I think that if they needed one they should have considered coming up with a term not already in use.

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