Here’s an exercise that gives you an opportunity to employ a distinctive voice and modulate as you like. It also gets you targeted practice in dialogue stage directions and tagging, as well as character and setting description. Plus, I think it’s a lot of fun.
1) View the opening 2 minutes of the film Vernon, Florida, a 1981 Errol Morris documentary about the town of the same name. (Apologies to the rights holders for using this content without permission.)
Your task is to compose prose based on the action onscreen. We’ve all seen films adapted from books. Think of this as adapting a book from film.
For example, after watching the opening 2 minutes, read the follow paragraphs, which derive from it:
On a rural road with no curbs, a yellow truck rolls through, trailed by a cloud of white smoke. Far too voluminous to be exhaust, the plume is shot out like a jet from the truck bed. It is, one supposes, insecticide.
At an intersection in the tiny town, yellow street lights flash. The truck rolls through, streaming its white jet, while two giant trees tower above the clapboard shops.
Using its blinker, the truck swings off the main road, and a white convertible passes straight through the toxic plume.
Notice I’m using present tense. You should do the same when you write.
This documentary is largely made up of footage of several colorful town residents being interviewed, telling about their lives. At the bottom of the page, I’m providing you with a transcription of the dialogue you’ll use. This is not about inventing characters or action or dialogue. You don’t have to imagine anything. The content of the scenes is given to you. Your job is to select words and phrases that reflect how you see what you see.
When you visualize the scenes in your story or novel—or whatever it is you want to write—you’ll see and hear events like a film. This exercise strengthens your perceptive muscle, the ability to hold that footage in your mind, pause, perceive and write as needed. In the case of working from this video, when you’re done writing, you can compare your prose to the footage and see how thorough, accurate, and colorful you’ve been. When you’re drafting your own work, only you will know how thoroughly, accurately, and colorfully you’ve written.
How to Do It
When characters speak, on screen or off, add tags, and stage directions around the spoken lines. For example, the first speaker is off-screen initially, but you can describe his voice—the sound of it, the manner in which says what he says. When he appears on screen, he’s sitting on a bench. For characters, just like everything else in every shot, describe as much as you would write if this were your scene and you wanted your readers to understand the person, the place, the time of day or year, the setting, the atmosphere, and anything else you observe in the footage.
Don’t worry too much about the timing or the shape of paragraphs right now. Just capture what you’re witnessing and give it the flavor of your initial impressions.
Dialogue tag: Tags are things like: he says, the man remarks, the woman asks, etc.
Stage directions: Those descriptive phrases that capture the manner in which characters speak and act as they’re speaking. Stage directions depict:
- tone of voice
- physical movement
- pauses, emphases
- throat clearing, laughter, tics, etc.
The Task, Demonstrated
For example, here’s the first scene with the funny old man, converted into prose:
“Reality,” says a creaky old man’s voice. “You mean this is the real world? Huh? I never thought of that.”
On a hazy afternoon, the old man sits on a bench outside City Hall. A younger man in jeans seems to be raking the lawn—though there isn’t much of a lawn, more dirt than grass. The man talks on.
“My mother and I, we had a house in Chicago. Well, we figured, well, we’d get out of there, you know, while the getting’s good. And so then when I got to Vernon, well, I called up these real estate people—they sent me their phone number.”
Sitting on the bench, he wears a dirty stocking cap and a wool blazer. “So then I seen a picture. Well, the property was $2,200. You know, of course it was—they claim it was too much,” he says. His black eyeglasses seem to ride up high on his face. “But, uh, well, it wasn’t too good. It wasn’t a castle, you know. But it was a house. You know, 5 lots. So, okay—bought it. Had a mortgage for four years. Paid off.”
His hands rest together atop a cane like Salvador Dali of posed in interviews. Now he flips one hand out, suggesting the ease of life once a mortgage is paid.
“So I don’t have to pay no rent, see? No taxes. Old age.”
A bleak smile spreads across his face, and he laughs. “No taxes,” he repeats.
The yard keeper comes out to his blue truck, and bangs his gloves on the bed before getting in. Starting the engine, he chugs onto the main road. A minute later, an 18-wheeler hauling gasoline roars through town. The old man doesn’t seem to notice.
Watch the next segment, from 4:18 to 6:07, and build prose around the raw dialogue provided below, adding visual descriptions, descriptions of things heard, dialogue tags, stage directions, and whatever else you think will fully convert the film content into book content.
You can either watch short bits, stop and write lines, or watch the entire two minutes, come back and watch again.
Hint: your first description should be of the trees, meadow, and sky seen at 4:18. Hint #2: the speaker uses several effective pauses and emphases.
The Turkey Hunter, raw dialogue transcript
You gotta like outdoor sports. I’ve always loved it, especially turkey huntin’. I killed my first turkey when I was ten years old. I can’t tell you how many I’ve killed, but I’ve killed a lot of ‘em. I run a business—I close the business down if I have to, to go turkey huntin’. It’s just something that I like. It’s just in me.
I can’t tell you how I feel. It’s just a hell of a sport, that’s all. Sometimes you can be standing around and hear one [??] to the ground. You just look for rows, fire trails, until you pick up fresh tracks, and you know which way he’s going. Just go to that area, stop, listen, and hope you hear one.
Sometime they gobble quite often, and sometimes it’s five, ten, fifteen minutes. And later on in the morning, sometimes it’s every thirty minutes. You just can’t tell. They’re a smart bird. The smartest we got in this country. See, now, we spend time like this day in and day out, day in and day out, and not hear nothing. But you know they’re here.