Friday, August 17, 2012

A Physical Experiment

by R.S. Mellette

Let's play a game.  It should take about 10 minutes, and be fun for you and educational for us all.  I'll explain why after the game.

Here are the rules:

1. Read the following few words of a work in progress.

"You're in a lot of trouble, young lady." 

Adults say the stupidest things sometimes.  Of course twelve-year-old Suzy Quinofski was in trouble.  She was covered in dirt and dried tears.  Her fingers were cracked and bloody from digging in the ground, and she was being questioned in a police interrogation room.  The man informing her of the obvious was Detective Mark Danner. 

"You don't know the half of it," she said to him.  Actually, he didn't know a tenth of it.  He didn't know a millionth of it.

"Then why don't you fill me in?"

"Because you couldn't comprehend it if I did."

"Suzy!"  Janice Quinofski, a.k.a. Mom, used what Suzy called her "bad dog!" voice, reserved for those rare occasions when Suzy needed disciplining.  Obviously, Mom wasn't accustomed to seeing her sweet, straight-A, multiple-scholarship-contender, daughter acting like a street kid.  This was a whole new world for both of them.

"What, Mom?  It's true."  Then to Danner, "No offense.  I don't think there's anyone on the planet who could understand it."

"It's not that complicated.  I just want to know what happened to Billy Bobble."

"I told you.  He disappeared."

"Disappeared to where?" asked Danner.

"If I knew that he wouldn't be 'disappeared,' would he?"

"There was an explosion," said Danner.

"No, there was an endoplasmic eruption of what we think might be Bose-Einstein condensate on an OTC scale."


When Suzy didn't answer, Danner turned to her mother.  "Off the chart."

"Out of all of that what you didn't get was OTC?" asked Suzy.

"Maybe I'm not as dumb as you think."

Suzy nodded her head toward the two-way mirror that filled a wall of the interrogation room.  "Maybe you've had too many lawyers complain about abbreviations in your transcripts."

"Call it what you want," said Danner to Suzy ...  "Something blew up and it took Billy with it."

"Maybe so," said Suzy, "but not in the way you think."

"How then?"

"If Billy exploded his guts would be all over the school yard.  Did you find any bloody remains in Linda Lubinski's hair?"

"Suzy!  Billy was your friend."

"Is my friend, Mom.  Billy is my friend and I wish they would let me out of here so I could help get him back."

"How would you do that?" asked Danner.

She hung her head.  "I don't know."

"Okay, good.  That was honest.  Keep it up and together we can find Billy."  Suzy's silence passed as capitulation. 

"Your friends have told us—"

"They aren't my friends."

Danner stopped to acknowledge what she said, then went on.  "They told us you and Billy were working on some sort of elaborate magic trick."

"Not a trick.  Actual magic."

"Hey, I need that honesty.  You're smart enough to know there's no such thing as actual magic."

"Okay, if you want to get all Arthur C. Clarke on me; 'Technology advanced to the point of being indistinguishable from magic' - which for you would probably be a cell phone."


"That's all right, Ms. Quinofski.  Suzy, you can be as surly and sarcastic as you like, so long as you tell me what happened.  How did Billy disappear?"

"It's a long story."

"I get paid by the hour."

"You won't believe me."

"Try me."

"Okay."  Suzy glared at him with as cold of a stare as she could muster and told the truth.  "Billy Bobble has a magic wand."


Done?  Good.  Now:

2. In the comments section write a sentence or two describing what the characters in the excerpt look like WITHOUT GOING BACK TO RE-READ IT and WITHOUT READING ANYONE ELSE'S DESCRIPTION. 

3. When you've done that, read the rest of this blog, then feel free to add another comment at the end and read the other descriptions.

You've had to go through this experiment because I am still bitter about something a high school teacher did to me grade-wise decades ago.

It was my senior year.  English Composition.  We were told to write a paper describing a person we knew.  I'm sure our teacher – whose name escapes me – was just following along in the lesson plan.  I don't think she'd been out of college a full year yet.  We were supposed to learn about descriptive paragraphs, so the assignment was to describe a person.

I happened to have an afterschool job in an ice cream shop at the time, and a girl I worked with was extremely annoying, so I wrote about her.  Thing is, I never wrote about what she looked like, only what she said.  The story was nothing but dialogue.

My teacher gave me a B+.  I think.  I do remember she thought I'd be all excited about the plus.  "It's really good," she told me, "but you didn't do the assignment.  You didn't describe the character."

"Sure I did," I complained.  "Tell me what she looks like."

I kid you not, a police sketch artist could have drawn a picture from her description, and you'd have sworn it was a photo of this girl.  I nailed it.  I put the image of the character in her mind.

No go.  Still a C+.  Or B+.  Whatever it was, it wasn't an A.

Flash forward years later to someone giving me advice on screenwriting.  "You don't want to paint too clear of a physical picture of the character because you don't know what star might read the script.  If you say she looks like Pamela Anderson, and the script lands on Meryl Streep's desk, then you've screwed up."

But now I write novels as well as screenplays, and I like using actions and dialogue to make the reader think I've told them what the character looks like, when in fact, I've only given them clues and they've filled in the rest.


I'm fooling myself and what I think is style is simply laziness.  Honestly, I don't know, which is why I created this experiment.

If you wrote a description in the comments – and I hope you have, because this post will be embarrassing without them – go back and re-read the excerpt to see if you can find where you got your ideas from.  The writing is from my latest WIP, Billy Bobble Has A Magic Wand.  I'm curious if the magic has worked.

R.S. Mellette is an experienced screenwriter, actor, director, and novelist. You can find him at the Dances With Films festival blog, and on Twitter, or read him in the Spring Fevers anthology.


Debra McKellan said...

...I feel like I'm being tricked!! lol

Suzy's covered in dirt and tears, and her fingers are bloody. I don't remember the Det. or Suzy's mom being described.

I'm going to go back and feel stupid, aren't I?

Debra McKellan said...

Oh, good, it wasn't a trick.

Yeah, you paint a picture of what the characters are like, but not what they look like. Personality can't translate into physical features.

LD Masterson said...

I've got Suzy as a clean, girl-next-store type with a simple hair cut, no strange piercings, no makeup. I think she's white with light colored hair. Mom is a little vague. Suburban, conservative but not overly so. The cop is tall, thin, also white, in his thirties. He's been a detective long enough to deal with the unusual but not so long that he's lost all patience.

LD Masterson said...

Okay, I knew that most of my description came from my own eyes. Was I anywhere near where you wanted me?

ProfeJMarie (Janet Rundquist) said...

White (all of them). Middle class. Suzy is dirty from an explosion and I feel like she is smallish and maybe even non-descript. The detective felt like he'd be wearing a suit.

ProfeJMarie (Janet Rundquist) said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
ProfeJMarie (Janet Rundquist) said...

(Sorry about the delete, I discovered I had a confusing sentence in there...)

I don't hold a lot of stock with heavy description of physical characteristics. I like basics, and then the rest comes through, as you say, with dialogue, actions, thoughts, etc. So as an overall effectiveness of character? This snippet does the trick. Names and dialect, btw, told me white. Dialect and mom's reactions told me middle class, detective's responses that seemed to indicate he was not surprised or irritated by Suzy and her attitude told me suit.

Re: your teacher, I will give a teacherly perspective. I would probably give the same kind of grade since I imagine what the exercise was trying to get at was to focus on details - sometimes purpose and product don't always match (and sometimes students do what they want, in spite of directions). I guess I would also wonder, were the directions open ended to describe the person or to specifically describe the person's appearance?

At any rate, I will also say - absolutely truthfully - if my student came to me like you did and basically proved his point, I'd recognize that he DID understand the exercise and mastered it creatively. End result: grade changed and permission to use his writing as an example. :D

Cindy Dwyer said...

I pictured a suburban setting with a white, middle income family. I don't remember strong details about the girl, so I'm going with average build, brown tangled hair. I'm picturing her with torn clothes and skinned knees. She's very smart, but I'm thinking no glasses or you would have mentioned them.

Now, I've gone back and read the whole thing. I see your teacher's point about you missing the mark on her specific assignment. But, you've done a fabulous job for a scene from a YA book.

As a reader, I prefer to create my own vision of characters with minimal description. In fact, if an author drags on for a whole paragraph describing someone, I tend to skipped that part anyway.

Chris van Soolen said...

she's twelve, so... Ok, I'm guessing Suzy is about 5'2", piercing dark eyes, a hint of a sarcastic smile at her lips because she knows things you don't, and probably pale skin because she's not an outdoor person. Since there was an explosion, I'm betting she's roughed up, and her hair is probably short because she doesn't have the time nor inclination to mess with it. If it is long, I'm betting it's always in a braid or pony-tail.

Danner: typical investigator, suit, very calculating and observant, patient when he needs to be, not afraid to push buttons, and has the build to back it up.

Mom: She sounds put together. The make-up, the clothes are fresh and clean and probably well styled. Depending on their social status, they're probably the best she can afford.

Chris van Soolen said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Chris van Soolen said...

Ok, after reading the rest of the blog, I see what you did there... lol! I like that you give me enough to fill in my own details. I'm guessing we'll all differ in face shape and hair color, but we were all in about the same place on who they were and what they looked like. That was awesome :)

RSMellette said...

I want to thank everyone who played the game.

There is no right answer to the question of what the characters look like, since I never really discribe them in the book. At least, not yet.

Reading all of these comments made me think, Dennis Haysbert (the guy with the great voice that does the Allstate Insurance Commercials) would be great as the Detective.

Funny how almost everyone sees them as White. Upper Middle Class, sure. Educated, yes. What does it say about us in this 100% NOT scientific study that all of the white readers saw them as white and our one person of color didn't get a picture at all?

Any Socialogy Students here? I smell a Thesis Paper here! :)

ProfeJMarie (Janet Rundquist) said...

Haha, dear Mr. Mellette, you must have done some digging to determine that all of your commenters are indeed white. :D

To be fair, not everyone assumed the detective was white.

This kind of question is always very interesting, so I wonder if it was secretly the primary one hidden in your head as you wrote this post? What a fascinating discussion that would be to ask if we assume a certain ethnicity and why.

RSMellette said...

Obviously not ALL of the people commenting here are White. I was going by the pictures, mostly - but as I look back, you're right. I was making assumptions as well.

I didn't mean it to turn into this type of discussion, but it is facinating.

Matt Sinclair said...

A little late, but I can play games as well as anyone: I saw Suzy (and her mom) as white, middle-class people. I imagined the detective as such too. I had blonde hair on little Suzy, and mom wore a Mommy cut that had seen better days. But I also pictured the room the way I wanted to see it and the table and chairs and even the somewhat grimy two-way mirror. As has been said many times, less is more. Let the reader imagine the room with your having shared the most salient points and your readers will love you. Nice job, RS!

Cat Woods said...

Stepping in to comment.

Suzy is a little blonde thing with ponytails and no make up. She's too mature to bother with such things. She's wearing newly dirty shorts and tshirt. The kind you can tell were clean before the explosion because she's got that neat scientific mind.

Mom is well-presented: clean, confident even while a bit nervous. She's not pretentious in the slightest, down to earth. Her hair is darker than Suzy's, but still blonde-naturally highlighted, very middle class.

The detective is African American. Rugged, yet professional. He's worked is way up and deserves the respect he gets. However, he's on the slim side, not muscle bound, short hair and clean shaven. A very simple gold wedding ring on his finger because he's patient with the fam and was married before silver became the new thing.

And before I read the rest of your post, I'm just going to guess that you actually never provided any of these details. I've read your writing before and know it's sparse in terms of detail. Something I'm thankful for because I dislike thorough descriptions that don't allow me to connect with the characters and often make me skip entire pages at a time.

Because I can describe your characters so thoroughly means that you let me connect to them in the way I wanted to. Otherwise, I wouldn't have had a feckin' clue, as I would have skipped your entire passage!

Fun game.

RSMellette said...

Thanks, Matt and Cat - and everyone else.

I do struggle with how much discription to include, since I come from theatre and television, where we have people for that.

I guess the difficulty is to find the right amount to keep as many people as happy as possible, which is the tight rope we story tellers walk.

Tracy Bermeo (A2Z Mommy) said...

I hate to say it but I don't know what Suzy looks like, or her mom. I get the smart-pretty visual, but nothing distinct. Bloody fingers and dirty clothes, but no hair color, eye color, clothing style.
Did I miss it? Going back to read.