"I'm not generally given to flattery. That was just one damned eloquent piece of commentary." — Peter Watts, to me. (Yes, that Peter Watts.)
I had blocked on what the question meant, wondering in essence whether it inquired as to whether I prefer to write sex scenes or fight scenes. sabotabby suggested, quite rightly I think,
In general, my favourite scenes are those in which dialogue predominates and in which the dialogue itself is clever and witty.
Dialogue is one of my strongest traits as a writer, but humour is one of my weaker areas. By 'humour' I don't mean jokes or insults, but those small, wry comments that most of us make in conversation (or at least, that most of us appreciate in conversation), those moments when talk stops, and the other person laughs and says, "That's right!" or "Good one!", or even just smiles to acknowledge a bon mot.
More than just clever and witty, of course, dialogue ought to illuminate character, relationships and especially needs to advance the story (usually meaning the plot, though there can be exceptions).
Since this excersie is for me more than it is for you, and is intended in part to get me back to writing, I trust you'll indulge me in the following excerpt. If I can't stand it by the time I've typed it out, maybe I'll be free of this damned albatross.
It was a miserable morning, cold and drizzle, like far too many that spring, and the hosue was crowded with grumpy grownups and cranky kids. Sunshine had disappeared again, and Ash was bored, bored as only a seven year-old can be.
Ashera was moping.
She moped through the living room, and then followed the hallway into the kitchen, where Hairy Jack was holding forth on the virtues of organic fertilizers (which he never called 'horse shit'; he called it 'manure'; Hairy Jack did not like to swear) to a couple of recent visitors from the City.
He grinned at Ash when she came through the door. "Hey there, sweetheart! Watch'a doin'?"
Although Ash did not much like Jack, she knew he never said "No" to anything. So she moped all the way into the kitchen.
"I lost my cookie."
"Well, that's just terrible. Where did you lose it?"
Shaking her head slowly, Ash looked up and grinned her Shy Grin.
"Well," laughed Hairy Jack, "if you've lost your coookie, we'll just have to get you another one." He got her cookie from the cupboard. "Just one, now, Ash, okay?"
She took it from him, but didn't reward him with even a hint of a smile.
Phil was sitting in an old armchair near a window, where she read by the light the Sun forced through the clouds. Her thick legs were pulled up before her, her feet resting on the cushion. She did not appear to hear the general hubbub around her, or the little girl making her way towards her.
Ash tugged at Phil's outstretched hand, pulled the book from in front of her face. "Phil, I'm bored."
"Fuck off, Ash, I'm busy." The words were harsh, but Phil's tone was simply tired. She was reading, and didn't want to do anything else; she certainly didn't have the energy to match that of a seven year-old. "Why don't you go find Mao?"
"Mao's a baby; I don't want to play with him."
Phil sighed. "Well, I don't want to play with you right now. Why don't you find something to read then? Like I am."
"I don't want to read."
"Then go play outside!"
"Jesus Christ, Ash, I don't care what you do; I want to read my fucking book, okay?"
It is easy, at any age, to work oneself into a fit of self-pity. It is especially easy when you're seven. But Ash knew Phil well enough to know that tears would get her nowhere; still, she enjoyed laying on a little guilt as much as anyone.
"Nobody likes me," she whined, and then she turned and went outside.
"Put on your fucking coat!" Phil shoulted after her, but she did no more when Ash — as she expected — ignored her.
"Where the fuck is that kid's mother anyway?" Phil wondered idly. Sunny was an indifferent parent at best, and as her child grew older, Sunny seemed to be less and less interested in her. Phil had tried to speak to her about it, but Sunny would just laugh it off. "Ash gets all the love and attention she needs, Phil. She's surrounded by Love!"
"Not from you," Phil said, once.
Again, Sunshine had just laughed. "Ash knows I love her," she said. "Don't you worry about her; she's a beautiful kid."
A beautiful kid, Phil thought, was something a friend would say, not a mother. But she didn't know what she could do. She certainly couldn't force Sunny to be more attentive, and Ash seemed well enough adjusted, consering her living circumstances ... Still, Phil worried about Ash more than she did the other kids around the place, and she was never sure if it was just because she liked Ash more than she did the others or not.
None of which was going through Ash's mind as she tromped through the wet grass and the mud towards the Forest and the stream. Her thoughts were only on her own miseries, on her isolation. Though she was comforted, a little, that it was no longer raining.
She made her way to her Tree and clambered into the familiar crook nearly ten feet off the ground.
She had not been thee long before she heard the footsteps.
Hair Jack ambled into sight. Ash said nothing, hoping he wouldn't notice her.
But he stopped nearly right beneath her, his hands on his hips, and looked around. Then he sighed heavily and sat lon a root at the base of the tree. Ash held her breath. Finally, she exhaled, as quietly as possible. Her legs were getting cramped, but she didn't want to get down, or even move. Hairy Jack had not acknowledged her, but she was sure he knew she was there.
She looked up, knowing that she could climb higher. She didn't think he could reach her there; the higher she went, the smaller the branches were.
Well. Her legs were starting to hurt; she wasn't going to be able to out-wait him. She cleared her throat.
Hairy Jack started, looked up. Grinned. And stood. "Why hello there, little Ashera! Have you been spying on me?" Mud dripped from his jeans.
"Hi Jack," she said. And thought: I was here first; you're spying on me! The thought made so much sense that she shouted it at Hairy Jack.
Jack laughed and Ash tensed, ready to leap to the next branch. "I wasn't spying on you, princess; I didn't even know you were here." He stretched and groaned dramatically. "No, I just had to get out of the house for a little while. Too much noise, too many people. You know?"
Despite herself, Ash nodded.
"That's a beautiful tree you're sitting in, Ashera." Jack leaned against the trunk, rubbed the bark with his palm, as he looked up at her.
"It's my tree!" Ash almost shouted.
Jack grinned. "A beautiful tree ..." He ran his fingers slong the smooth part of the bark. "I bet it's drier up there than it is down here ... You must have quite a view up there."
Ash looked around. "It's quiet," she said.
Jack nodded. "That's why I come here; to be where it's quiet. Do you mind sharing your quiet with me, Ash?" He lifted his leg as if he was preparing to climb.
"I guess not." She stood up in the crook and reached for the branch above. Too high. She grabbed the smaller of the two main branches and braced her legs against them, shimmed up to the next one and then to the one above that. This one took her weight, but sagged a little. The one above bent alarmingly when she pulled herself up and onto it. She inched her way toward the trunk and hoped the branch would hold.
When she looked down, she saw that Hairy Jack was staring up at her. Staring right up her dress. Ash closed her legs and — forgetting for a moment her fear of falling — then reached down to pull it tight around her.
Hairy Jack was grinning. He pulled himself up and into the crook of the tree. "This is great, man. Thanks for giving me your spot." Ash just stared at him.
Hairy Jack laughed. "So, how's the weather up there?"
At the age of seven, Ashera was already a cynic. "That's dumb," was one of her favourite sayings. She used it now. "That's dumb!" she shouted. "It's a bad, stupid dumb joke!" she screamed. "It's dumb! It's dumb! It's DUMB!" She was surprised to find she was crying, feeling a helpless rage that threatened to topple her from her spot at the base of the thin and swaying branch 20 feet off the ground. She gripped the trunk tightly with one hand while she shook her fist with the other.
"Now you get out here!" she shouted. "I want to be alone. I want to be aloneIwanttobealone!"
Jack stopped smiling. "Hey man, cool it, be cool," he said. And Ash heard fear in his face, saw it in his eyes.
She screamed even louder. "You leave me alone Hairy Jack! I don't like you. Get out of my tree! Get out of my tree! Get out of my tree!
Jack watched her warily. He hesitated, studying the tree for a moment, as if calculating the strength of its limbs.
Ash kept yelling, kept ordering him to get out of her tree.
Suddenly, he seemed to give up. He jumped, but hit the ground badly; his left foot gave way beneath him.
He tried to stand. "Uh —" He groaned, "Shit ..." and slowly toppled onto his side.
Overhead, Ash still screamed at him.
Jack crawled to the base of the tree and pulled himself up. "Aw man," he said, "stop it. Please stop it!"
"You get away from my tree!"
"Ash, sweetie, I hurt my leg; I can't walk. Please, princess, you gotta go get someone from the house."
Ashera stopped screaming. Hairy Jack was panting and sweating; his face was all scrunched up. He balanced — badly — on his left leg. Ashera didn't think he was faking. And she wondered, growing confused: What was I so scared of?
She looked down. "Get away —"
"Aw man, please ... sweetheart, you've gotta get help! I can't crawl all the way to the house."
"— from my tree!" Suddenly Ashera felt good; she felt strong, stronger than she had ever felt before — she was nothing like getting her way with one of the other kids; not even Mao, who already was bigger than she was.
She felt strong. She felt safe.
But she wasn't taking any chances.
"Go on," she said, almost grinning now, though her heart still beat wildly. "You crawl over to that tree over there."
"Ash, come on ..."
"You go over to that tree over there. Or I'm not going to help you."
She folded her arms and waited. Hairy Jack stared at her, but she did not look him in the eye. "I won't help you if you don't go sit by that tree, Hairy Jack."
"What's the matter, Ash? You know me ... Now come on down and run to the house for me."
Ashera shook her head. "You go to that tree or I won't help you." She sat down carefully, dangling her legs on either side of the thin branch. She did not look down for a long time.
When she did at last, Jack was half-way to the other tree. Crawling through the wet leaves and mud. He didn't look scary now. She raised her head and closed her eyes, thinking of nothing at all until she heard his voice calling to her.
"I'm at the tree, sweetie! Now please, man, will uyou go get someone to help me?"
Ashera shook her head. Hairy Jack had scared her badly. Now that she had him, she wanted more.
Carefully, she stood up. The wind whipped at her dress and hair, and she felt like a story-book queen. "I want you to tie your shoes together," she said, barely loud enough for Jack to hear her.
"What? What!" Hairy Jack was angry now. Hairy Jack was furious.
Ashera raised her voice a little, enough to hide its quiver. "You heard me Hairy Jack! You tie your shoes together or I won't go for help."
Hairy Jack snarled. Hairy Jack clenched his fists. Hairy Jack shouted, "You're the one who's gonna need help once I get my hands on you, you little bitch!" Hairy Jack got to his feet, fast. He stood straight for a timeless instant, then his face went white, his eyes went wide with surprise and pain. Hairy Jack sat down. Hairy Jack curled up and moaned.
Ashera was a curl who got her own way more often than not, but she wasn't cruel; she didn't enjoy seeing people hurt, or sad. But somehow, this was different. Ashera didn't like Hairy Jack; in fact, she hated him.
And now he was calling her names.
"If you want me to get help, Hairy Jack, you'd better listen to me!"
Hairy Jack stopped moaning and uncurled enough to look at her again. At her face. "Okay, princess," he gasped, "what do you want now?" Painfully, slowly, he sat up.
"Tie your shoes together." Ashera felt strong; her voice didn't tremble at all.
"Why princess? I can't even walk? This isn't a game, you know." His words were concilliatory, but she heard the tone of an adult who thinks little kids are stupid.
"You're a bad man, Hairy Jack. Now tie your shoes together, or I won't help you."
Hairy Jack shook his head and muttered something Ash couldn't quite hear. But, with trembling hands, he did what he was told.
"Now, will you please go and get someone?"
Ash shook her head.
"I want you to pull down your pants."
"My pants!" Another argument ensured, this one longer than the last. Ash could articulate no reason (even to herself) for the demand, but it was important to her that he obey it; she felt almost compelled to humiliate him. Before the argument was over, Hairy Jack had called for help, but no answer came. The house was a long way off and everyone was probably inside anyway.
Hairy Jack tried one last gambit. "Ash honey," he whined, "I'm not wearing any underwear."
"I don't care." She tried not to grin; somehow, that made it even better.
"Aw man ..." But Hairy Jack undid his jeans.
Ahera had seen a lot of cocks in her short life, both of little boys and of grown men; no one wore clothing while swimming or when having a sauna. She had seen how different they were from her own cunt but she had never given them a lot of thought. But she had never seen a cock that looked like Hairy Jack's. It stuck straight out, instead of hanging; it was long and thick and a kind of ugly purple colour. Ashera stared at it. Hairy Jack's cock looked scary, though she didn't know why it did so.
"Okay!" she shouted. "Now pull them all the way down. To your ankles!"
Jack grunted and grimaced and groaned as he did what he had been told. His cock was still long and hard. "Okay," he hissed when his pants at last met his ankles. "Now will you go?"
Ash wanted nothing more than to get away from that cock; she turned and made her way down the tree as fast as she could. She touched the ground and started walking, turning just before she passed from sight of the treet, "That's my tree, Hairy Jack. From now on you leave it alone!"
As soon as she was sure he couldn't see her do it, she broke into a run and didn't slow down until she reached the house. She stormed in and broke into tears in the middle of the living room.
Sunshine looked up from the couch. "Sweetie, what's wrong?"
"Hairy Jack," Ash gasped. "He's hurt!" she said and then broke once again into sobs, standing in the middle of the living room.
"Oh," said Phil, putting down her book, "that ass-hole."
"What happened to him?" Sunshine asked.
"He tried to get me!" Ash wailed. "He was climbing my tree!"
"Did he fall?" Sunshine said.
"What do mean, he tried to get you?" Phil broke in as she stood up and went to the little girl then crouched before her.
"He was chasing me!"
"Why was he chasing you?" Phil said.
"I don't know!" Ash was ignoring her mother now. She grabbed Phil's shirt, buried her face against the big woman's shoulder. "He wanted to climb my tree. I didn't want him to, but he did anyway!"
"Were you rough-housing?" Phil had said before, "That ass-hole plays too fucking rough with the kids." "Did he hurt you?"
"He scared me! He climbed my tree!"
"Now look, Ash. I'm tired of this." Sunshine had a short attention span at the best of times, and the conversation was going in circles. "What happened to Jack?"
"He fell. He hurt his leg. He can't walk. I made him tie his shoes together, so he couldn't get me."
"Now that's just silly, Ash. Why would Jack want to get you?"
"I don't care! I don't care I don't care I don't care!"
"Ash, I'm getting tired of —"
"Shut up Sunny." With a gentleness that might have surprised many of the people in the room, Phil stroked Ash's cheek and thumbed away a tear. "It's okay, Ash; it's okay. You're safe. No one can get you now."
She held Ash close until the girl stopped crying.
"But what happened to Jack," someone asked again. "Where is he, anyway?"
With a growing sense of annoyance, Phil realized the voice once again belonged to Sunshine. "Who gives a shit," she muttered.
But Ash now stood straight. She sniffled and wiped her eyes. "He's still near my Tree. I said I'd get help."
Phil couldn't say no to that. "Do you want to show me where he is?" Ash sniffed again and took Phil's hand.
Well. There wasn't a of wit in that dialogue, but I think it holds up pretty well anyway. And those are the kind of character interactions I enjoy writing. Interactions that hint at the nature of the characters, that suggest motivations and threats and emotions that may not be explicit, and dialogue that moves the story along and also makes me want to find out what happens next.