Writing is an exploration. You start from nothing and learn as you go. ~ E. L. Doctorow

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

"Playground Power Struggle": An Exercise with Status Play and Dialogue Tags

Two boys playing on my street inspired me to write this week's assignment, which required me to dive deeper into dialogue, experimenting with as few dialogue tags as possible.  The few tags employed act as anchors to inform the reader which character is speaking.  Any other attributes to inform the reader are through description of action. Enjoy.  Your feedback is always appreciated.  

Playground Power Struggle
By Laura M. Campbell

School bus 81 pulled into Willow Hill Estates just before four o’clock.  The weather unseasonably warm for a Friday in February filled all the children with hysterical energy after a long day of classes.  Laughter and chatter floated out the cracked windows while they grabbed their book bags and lunch boxes preparing to get off the bus.  Andy pressed his face against the window, scanning the crowd of parents for his mother’s red coat.  His gaze moved over to the playground.  Only a few young children were running around. 
His friend Chris leaned over his shoulder.  “Do you see your mom?”  He leaned back and bounced in his seat as the bus driver turned the corner near the community pool.   
“Yeah.”
“Do you think she’ll say yes?”  Chris stood up, holding on to the back of the seat as the bus driver pressed on the brake.    
Andy shrugged.  “I don’t know.”  He stood up and slipped his arms through the straps of his book bag.  Then, fell back into the seat when the bus came to a stop.  
The children’s voices grew louder while they pushed one another down the steps and out the door.   
The bus driver shook her head.  “No pushing.” 
Andy’s foot hit the ground and he ran towards the parents.
“Mom.  Mom.”
“I’m right here, honey.”  She waved.  He couldn’t see her face through the light brown hair blowing around her face.
“Mom, can I go play with Chris?”
“You have karate tonight.”
“Please Mom.  Just for a little bit?”
She placed her hand on his boney shoulder.  “Ok.  Under one condition.”  He nodded.  “When I say it’s time to go in, you can’t give me a hard time.  You need to eat dinner before you go to class. Ok?”  She ruffled his brown hair.
He pulled his head away.  “Ok.”  He tore off his book bag and handed it to her.  The bag hit the ground before she could grab it.  He dug the rubber sole of his black Converse sneakers into the sidewalk and ran towards the play set.  “Chris.  I can play.”
The two boys met at the edge of the play area.  Chris stepped up on the wooden barrier surrounding the enormous playground as Andy approached.  He swung his arm over his head towards the play set. “Let’s go.” The eager little boy followed him to the metal cargo net, kicking up wood chips.  
Andy pointed at Chris’s feet.  “Your shoes are untied.”
“Who cares?”  He didn’t stop running until he stood right in front of the metal net. 
“I usually climb into the tree house here,” Chris said.  He put his foot on the chain mixed in the wood chips and leaned over to place his hands on the chain in front of him. 
“This is a tree house?” He watched as Chris climbed.  His head moved side-to-side, taking in the entire structure.  It didn’t look like a tree house.   The three slides reminded him of a stairwell or an escalator in a building.  The bridge looked as if it connected to separate buildings.  A little blonde girl climbed onto what looked like a fireman’s pole, but there were discs evenly spaced on the pole to the ground.  She sat down and spun with her legs stretched out in front of her down the pole.  His forehead wrinkled as he figured out what it could be.   
“Yeah.  That’s the game we play.” Chris’s hand slipped and his face fell through one of the open squares.  Some of the other children laughed.  “Shut up.”  He regained his grip and climbed the rest of the way to the platform without falling.  Chris looked down at his new friend as he climbed onto the net. “Don’t worry if you can’t get up.  It takes a while to get used to.” 
Thirty seconds later, he was standing on the platform.  Chris put his hand on his hip and frowned.  “Whatever.”
Andy used the railings to pull himself up to the higher platform.  Overlooking the structure, his imagination redesigned the play set, creating a new game.  “I think this would make a great space station.”
“This is a tree house.”  Chris curled his fingers. 
“Yeah, but it might be fun to try.”
Several other children shouted in agreement.  Chris looked down and kicked his foot across the platform.     
“And, anytime you’re on the wood chips you have to walk real slow and jump around like they do on the moon.”
“That’s stupid.”
“And this slide here will be our emergency escape chamber.” 
“It doesn’t look like a space ship.” Chris’s cheeks flushed red as he listened to his friend lay out the rules to the elaborate game.
“No, a space station.” 
“Whatever.”  Chris stared at his feet.  “I don’t know.”
“We can use this pole with the discs as a ladder to reach the control panels, if the station breaks down.  And the bridge leads to another station.  So, you have to walk slow there, too.”
“What happens if you don’t walk slow?”  Chris’s face scrunched together, his eyebrows creating a “V.”
“You’re sent to the sick room.  You wait a minute, then, you can play again.”
The knuckles on Chris’s hand were turning white.  “Who’s in charge?” 
“We can take turns.”  Andy smiled at Chris, hoping he would agree to the game.  Several other children asked if they could play. 
Chris turned and ran across the bridge.  Half way across, the planks of the bridge caught his foot and he fell.  He picked himself up.  “This game is stupid.  I don’t want to play it.”  He whirled around and jumped off the stairs.  “I’ve got a better idea.  Why don’t we have a jumping contest?”
The smile on Andy’s face drooped.  “Ok.”  He walked across the bridge, dragging his feet. 
“Come on, it’ll be fun.”  Chris ran towards the swings.
With each step, Andy made sure both feet hit each stair before moving on to the next one.  He stared down through the round holes in the brown rubbery material, counting each individual wood chip.  “How does the contest work?”
“What?  I can’t hear you.”
He looked up to see Chris waving his hand through the air, trying to get him to move faster.  “I said, how does the contest work?”
Chris spent a minute explaining the rules.  “Basically, you swing as high as you can.  Someone counts to three and we jump off the swing.  The farthest jump wins.”
“I guess I can do that.”
Chris saw Jimmy climbing up the twisty slide.   “Hey, Jimmy.  You be the judge for our jumping contest.”  The little boy lost his grip, slid down and flew off the slide.  He brushed the wood chips from the back of his jeans, and ran over to the swings. 
Chris held his arm out with his index finger pointing towards the wooden barrier.  “Stand over there, Jimmy, so you can see who jumps the farthest.  You count to three when I tell ya.”
“Ok.”  He smiled and ran to his position, his sneakers squishing into the wet grass.
“Andy, you take this swing and I’ll take this one.”  Chris sat down and situated himself. 
Andy sat down.  The seat felt lopsided.  He looked up and saw a kink in the chain. 
Chris smiled as he kicked himself off the ground, pumping his legs to get moving.   “Are you ready?”
“I just need…a minute…to fix…my swing.”  He jingled the chain hoping to undo the kink. 
“That swing is always like that.”  Chris leaned back on the swing with his feet in the air and smiled up at the sky as he swooshed past.
Andy’s hair tickled his ear while he shook the chain around, but the kink wouldn’t come out.
“I don’t have all day.”
“I guess I’m just going to have to use it broken.”
“Don’t worry.  I always win anyway.”  He laughed under his breath.
Andy kicked off the ground.  The swing jerked every time he passed under the pole.  He didn’t let it deter him.  With his lips pressed together, he pumped his legs harder.
“Ok, Jimmy.  You can start counting to three, now.”  Chris pushed his chest out to gain more height. 
Andy shimmied towards the edge of the black rubber seat.  He dug his legs deep to get the speed he needed to launch himself.
“One.”
Chris moved to the edge of his seat and turned his head to check out his opponent.  “Good thing the grass is soft.  That way you won’t get hurt when you fall.”
“Two.”
Andy ignored him and kept pumping his legs.  His t-shirt fluttered around him from the speed.
“Three.”
Both boys passed under the pole.  As they approached the highest point, they kicked their legs and jumped from the swing.  Their arms flailed through the air.  Thump.  Thump. 
Andy teetered on the balls of his feet.  He gained his balance and looked to his right.  He saw Chris lying on the ground behind him. 
“Andy wins.”  Jimmy jumped up and down with a toothy smile. 
  “That’s not fair.”  Chris picked himself up.  “I wasn’t ready.”  He tried to brush the grass stains from his knees.    “Redo.”
“Andy.”  A familiar voice broke through the sound of blood pumping in his ears.  He glanced towards the melodic voice.  “It’s time to go in,” his mother said.  She waved to him as she walked across the grass with his book bag. 
He started running towards his mother.  Stopped.  Turned his head.   “Listen, I gotta go.  My mom’s calling me.”
Chris leaned towards him with his arm stretched out.  The elbows of his shirt wet.  “Wait.”
“Maybe we can play again tomorrow.”  He waved goodbye.           
The hot redness crawled up Chris’s throat, spreading across his face.  His hands balled into fists.   “Sure.”  The word barely made it through his gritted teeth.  He stomped away, pushed Jimmy and climbed back on the play set.    
  
During revisions, I toned down the excessive use of Andy's name.  I'm wondering if it is still used too often.


Are there enough physical traits to picture the characters?


Is the dialogue fluid?


Is the weather prevalent enough to complete the image of the scene?          

2 comments:

Michael Offutt said...

Is Andy's name used too often? No. Personally, I thought that it was used in just the right amount.

Are there enough physical traits to picture the characters? Yes.


Is the dialogue fluid? Yes.

Laura, this was a great piece that you wrote here. I looked for anything that I thought might be out of place, reading critically, from the white knuckled hands (showing me instead of telling me) of the boy's rising anger to the absence of dialogue tags. This shows that you are a masterful writer.


Is the weather prevalent enough to complete the image of the scene? Yes.

Laura Campbell said...

I appreciate you taking the time to provide your feedback. I'm glad everything worked out the way I wrote it. I'm very excited to start my third assignment. I plan to take a more comedic approach. Keep your fingers crossed.

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