Usually it's pretty obvious that it's fiction: I never actually had an encounter with a troll weilding a plus four bong of smiting, or flown a helicopters over zombie-infested woodlands, or pulled a key out of the inside of my brain. But neither do I mark off the stories with a "Here Be There Fiction" label (other than I try to tag them as writing), so I suppose some confusion is understandable.
(The events of this weekend were real, BTW. I was really surprised by the number of people who thought I was just writing something, and probably figured that I am a deeply disturbed individual. Not that I'm not, but I don't tend to go that real, with real people.)
My stories tend to be dark. One could probably have a field day trying to analyze exactly why that is, but I think that there is likely some part of my psyche that needs to work through some stuff happening on the inside. Or it could just be that I like horror, suspense, and sci-fi, and those become the arenas in which my mind likes to play.
Most of the time they are just exercises, small bits of character development, stylistic experiments. Sometimes they work, sometimes they don't. Sometimes they're just stream-of-consciousness, like the troll bridge bit. Most of that came out of the riddle and trying to find a word that rhymed with wrong, though it actually fits. When I was in college, I did spend an inordinate amount of time stoned (hey, it was the Reagan era), and there was a park with a small stone bridge right next to the campus. Once the image of a troll with a bong got in my head, it just went from there: obviously the bong couldn't just be one of your standard acrylic models that you can buy at Bongs R Us, but had to be magickal, carved with elven runes and posessed of powers beyond those of mortal ken. No self-respecting troll would have otherwise.
I think my writing has improved, particularly dialogue. I used to have a really hard time writing dialogue, it came out very stilted and stiff. Now it seems more like I hear the characters speaking in my head and I just have to write it down. And when that actually gets into a flow, it's a blast.
Writing dialogue carries over pretty directly into writing screenplays. Dialogue is a much bigger tool in a screenplay than it is in a novel or a short story: it's the primary tool for exposition that a writer has. A novel or a short story can deal with internal dialogue and a character's thoughts, where you can't easily do that in a movie without resorting to gimmickry.
Of course, because it is the primary tool, it's also really easy to abuse. Trying to find a way to make two characters talking to each other actually engaging is really difficult. A much better way is to provide a means of telling a story or story elements through visual and auditory clues, giving the viewer an experience that is deeper and more satisfying than just the verbal ping-pong of two people talking. For instance, take this bit of dialogue:
Honey, did you remember to take out the
Um... yeah, I think so.
You think so? You don't remember?
Hey, I've got some other stuff on my
mind, you know? Besides, it's not the
end of the world. If I missed it, I'll
do it when we get home.
But it's going to smell horrible. I put
the chicken guts and skins in there, and
they're going to go bad over the weekend.
Well what would you have me do, Ann? Go
back to the house and fix it right now?
Drop everything and run home?
No, I'm not saying that, I just wish that
you'd remember things like that. You're
always forgetting stuff.</div>
And so on and so forth. Not exactly an overwhelming bit of dialogue, but some things become self-evident: these two are either married or live together, or have some sort of long-term domestic relationship. The quibbles have a subtext that helps to cement the relationship between them based on a kind of shorthand. Social cues. It's how we expect married people to act. And it's pretty easy to see this conversation happening while the two of them are in a car. Barry is driving, Ann in the passenger seat.
But now take the exact same dialogue and drop it into a setting where a man and a woman are getting dressed up in high-tech espionage gear and checking out all sorts of advanced weaponry. There is a story being told just with the imagery that these two are some sort of a professional espionage team preparing for a mission. The conversation not only adds their relationship to the mix, the very casual nature of it in juxtaposition with the rather exciting and suspenseful prep work with weapons and gadgets creates a new bit of information about the two of them, that they are fabulously experienced at this kind of thing.
Or change the setting where the two of them are tied up to chairs back to back with each other and strapped to a bomb with a countdown timer. There is a dark humor there that wasn't there before.
Point being that both of these last two scenes are a lot more compelling than the talking heads version in the first one. And that is something that I need more practice with.
Granted, there is a bit of tail-wagging-the-dog here, since it's much more likely that you will have the scene in mind before the dialogue, but this is more an exercise in writing believable dialogue than scenebuilding. The important thing is that the dialogue does not have to be about what is happening in the scene (and that's a hella easy trap to fall into), and it may often be a better scene if the dialogue is not about the action at all.
In the commentary on the remastered Alien quadrilogy, Dan O'Bannon (Alien, Return of the Living Dead) talks about the difficulty that he had writing some of the dialogue because of the apparent need for exposition. His breakthrough came when he realized that the dialogue needed to be true to the characters, and not to the plot. It was like a dam burst.
I love epiphany.