Exercise the first: Brandon Sanderson’s pyramid of abstraction
We’ll be using this specific podcast for two different exercises. Mary Robinette Kowal gives an intro to her exercise in the beginning, but doesn’t flesh it out until the end of the episode. We’ll focus on it next time. For now, let’s work with Brandon Sanderson’s Pyramid of Abstraction. (Starts at 3:11 of the podcast)
The basic premise:
A scene needs to be built on a layer of concrete imagery. After the base of the pyramid is established, a writer can include fewer bits of concrete description to make room for the more abstract elements of the scene, i.e. dialogue. As we move up the pyramid, we’ll push the heavy descriptors out of the way as the character’s conflicts take center stage.
Simple enough. I’m going to be applying the principle to a scene beat (a smaller piece of a larger scene) I already have sketched out as mostly dialogue with some minor staging thrown in.
You don’t have to have finished dialogue for this to work. (probably) Place holders for the general trajectory of the scene will work too.–“(veiled comment on how bad he smells),” Bek said.–You know where it’s going? Rock on.
(Bek examines the tapestry of Theo’s home. It hangs on one of the walls of his tent.)
“Do you like it?” Theo asked. “My sister made it for me when I got my first assignment.” (beat) “So I’d have home with me out here.”
“She sits and weaves all day?” Bek asked. She would never have time for that, she’d be dead. (contrast his tidy “luxurious” existence to Bek’s)
(Theo smiles at the slight. Not realizing it or ignoring it.) “You’ll like her. She’ll like you. She likes weddings. She’s got a girl, Kid’s age. She’s (his sister) older and bugs me about settling down, but the girls back home…”
(He trails off, melodramatic.)
“They don’t know what life is out here,” he said.
“Neither do you,” Bek said.
“And they don’t have your sense of humor! They certainly couldn’t rip a horn off a rogue’s skull and punch a hole through it’s head.”
“You underestimate your peers.”
There’s my rough notes. Now, where do we put our lines of description? I’m going to take Sanderson’s suggestions straight out of the podcast and apply some numbers to it, like my little abstraction topped pyramid above.
The blocks go 4-3-2-1. That’ll do.
“But Meg!” You say, “This is art, not math.”
Art is math.
But really we’re just making it simple because I need simple rules to follow. Description and I do not get along and kindergarten is easier with simple, concrete rules (Don’t hit. Don’t bite.), concrete like our descriptors. Feel free to deviate at your leisure.
Here’s our pyramid of simple rules. 4-3-2-1. Stack that shiz up like cheerleaders.
4) The base – Four sentences of description – That’s a paragraph. That seems reasonable if we have no idea where we are in space time. I can live with that.
3) The first step up – Start our Dialogue but keep it grounded – We’ll kick it into interesting with some talking. Cause that’s what people do. They blab about stuff. But we’ll mix in some staging. Are they dancing? Punching each other? Staring longingly?
2) Half and Half – Staging and Dialogue in Equal Measure – They are talking and we don’t need much now, but include the important bits. Is someone reaching for a gun? Thematically brushing their hair in a metaphor about untangling the threads of their life?
1) Straight up conversation – Bring on the drama – But add some tags. You aren’t Hemingway.
Lastly, and not very pyramidily, we’ll do the thing Sanderson mentions at the end that is a little bit of a deviation. (Who doesn’t love deviants?)
He suggests bringing our reader back to earth (or wherever your story is taking place) with a final poignant, concrete element. Full circle, not at all like a pyramid.
0) Concrete image – Bring us back down – Hit your reader with one more bit of concrete, thrown down your scene’s Button, and Bam! Done.
Writing is the easiest thing in the world. Why aren’t we all famous?
So let’s apply the steps, shall we?
——– 4 ——–
Kid closed her eyes and Bek reapplied the damp cloth to the child’s forehead. She’d sit by her side on the floor of this tent until Kid fell asleep.
The back wall of the tent rustled as the breeze of the morning rolled in with the sun. The heavy tapestry hung tied to the back two poles of the tent. Miniature humans milled about their woven dwellings, their embroidered Horn counterpoints lounging on pillows or standing on pedestals.
The fictional scene of a town with high walls and stone houses rippled as Theo pulled a box from the corner of the tent.
——– 3 ——–
“Do you like it?” he asked. He’d caught Bek staring at the variant colored threads. He sat down beside her on one of the tent’s blankets, the rest of his furnishings as luxurious as the tapestried wall of the tent.
“My sister gave it to me when I got my first assignment.” He reached a hand forward, and ran a finger over the tiny Horns standing in a circle around a thread pyre. “So I’d have some home with me out here.”
The Horns were woven out of purple threads, materials harvested from sheep, cleaned, dried, spun and dyed using pigments it took more man hours to collect than Bek could ever afford. The clothing and blankets she and Kid carried came in whatever color the dead animal left them.
The tapestry had traveled with Theo everywhere and remained clean and vibrant, a testament to both the dye’s quality and his lack of hardships.
——– 2 ——–
“She’d have to weave for months,” Bek said. Bek couldn’t imagine standing prone, back to the world as she worried over a tangle of threads. She’d be eaten or starved before she reached the halfway mark.
Theo smiled at her. “Two years. She started as soon as I started my apprenticeship. You’ll like her. She’s clever too.”
Bek doubted they shared the same idea of the definition.
He continued to stare, that stupid grin on his face, just as clean and groomed as his domicile.
——– 1 ——–
“She’ll like you too. She likes weddings,” he said.
Bek attempted to hide a grimace. Her face contorted despite her efforts.
Theo carried on, ignorant, his grin persisting. “She’s older, has a girl Kid’s age. Always bugging me about settling down.”
(Need a beat)
“But the girls back home, they don’t know what life is out here.” Theo sighed and leaned back onto one of the larger pillows.
“Neither do you,” Bek said.
He laughed. “And they don’t have your sense of humor! They certainly couldn’t rip a horn off a rouge’s skull and punch a hole through its head.”
——– 0 ——–
Bek tightened her grip on the cool wet cloth sending lines of liquid rolling down the side of Kid’s temple.
“You underestimate your peers,” she said.
Sanderson’s pyramid got me excited about applying description to my all dialogue scene notes. That, in and of itself, is an accomplishment. I like exercises where the bare minimum is outlined so I know exactly how much description I have to drudge through.
Breaking it down into goals for each tier helped me get it done. As I worked, I found the lines blurring between sections, but I think that’s desirable. My plan was to address any bumpiness later with the good old editing rasp, but it seemed to sort itself out.
Was the product fabulous? Eh. It’s a draft and there is more description than when I started. Tiny steps. The exercise did what it was supposed to. It gave me a framework to integrate the dreaded description bits with my dialogue.
Bonus notes from Chappy: (Because he is an endless source of truth and wisdom)
“Scenes provide a structure to tell a story. This method provides a structure to build a scene.”
“You don’t want to be formulaic. Seen from a distance, the pyramid should seem like a smooth incline, only when dissecting the parts should you see the elements.”
So we’ve got a tool in our kit for pacing and placement of descriptive elements. Next goal: make those elements stronger.
Next time’s exercise should lead us down that path. We’ll be taking a look at Mary Robinette Kowal’s framework for practice portraying setting through the lens of a character’s emotional state and their profession.