Dialogue (Part 5)

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rules-header-fullA notebook for fiction writers and aspiring novelists. One editor’s perspective.

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Writing Great Dialogue (Part 5):
Writing Dialogue/Monologue in
First Person POV

When I write a novel in First Person (1P) POV, I’m telling my story solely through my protagonist’s inner (as in monologue) voice, from my book’s first word to the last. My protagonist is speaking either directly to the reader, or to him/herself (much like when journaling) and, as the author, I’ve thrown the omniscient narrator out the proverbial window. There’s no unseen, omnipotent voice revealing information unknown to my protagonist. My narrator cannot be aware of what lies beyond his/her perception, nor is aware of other characters’ unspoken feelings, intentions or conspiracies.

And what really pops my bubble is this: One can also assume that any dialogue my protagonist chooses to reveal is not actually character-to-character dialogue. It’s simply my protagonist relating to the reader what words are possibly/probably being spoken. Essentially, more internal monologue. Theoretically, my protagonist might deny the reader specific information, or may even lie to the reader…should the plot dictate that the reader remain misdirected.

For instance, is the dialog below….

…..“I only arrived in town last night,” I said. “Why do you ask?”
…..“Because John Blayne was killed early Friday evening. Somebody matching your description was seen running from the crime scene.”
…..“Well, it wasn’t me, sheriff. I can promise you that.”
…..“And you have an alibi, Mr. Martinez?”
…..“Of course not,” I said with a cautious frown. “Until this moment, I didn’t think I needed one.”

…the truth or a lie? For all we know, Martinez may have killed the dude, but he’s unwilling to confess, even to the reader. Worse, he may have convinced himself that he didn’t kill John Blayne. Meaning that Martinez might be written as an unreliable narrator* Readers won’t know for certain if he’s telling the absolute truth, unless otherwise informed by Martinez himself. Crazy, right?

But I do love writing in First Person POV. It’s my favorite literary voice. I love the option of creating that potentially unreliable narrator—or at least of leaving a sliver of a doubt in my reader’s mind. I also love my ability to use a distinct (clever, cunning, cynical, crazy—and I mean like totally, off-the-wall crazy) voice. I love the option to blow off those many down-to-earth restrictions while writing in an omniscient voice.

For instance, should I decide to describe my initial, distant glimpse of the city of San Francisco as “resembling a 3-day-old birthday cake left out in the sun to melt,” I can do so with firm authority and a twisted panache. Screw those literalists who demand to see paragraph after paragraph of authentic description—all those cramped skyscrapers rising into the heavens, gleaming in the hot summer afternoon. As the book’s narrator, I can scene-set, reveal other characters’ unflattering quirks, and even unspool the plot in any manner (back to front? Sideways? Through an LSD haze?) that I damn well please. First Person POV readers aren’t expecting absolute authenticity so much as absolute personality. Conversations (e.g.; dialogue) should be very distinctive.

Okay… and that’s a new rule as well. Hence Rule #45: First Person POV readers aren’t expecting absolute authenticity so much as absolute personality. When writing in 1P, maximize your character’s personality.

As a 1P protagonist, I can whisper my secrets directly to the reader. I can hate my mother, abhor small children, kick puppies, fear the color mauve, have several dismembered bodies buried in the basement and still—by all outward appearances—appear normal, caring and actually somewhat sophisticated. The reader can be aware of these secrets (if told by the author), but unless my protagonist shares such info via dialogue, other characters won’t have a clue.

Writing in 1P, I can also dig far more deeply into my character’s psyche; into any number of psychoses (should I give my protagonist an issue or two) and I can dive wayyyyy down into the dark room of his/her soul. I can then resurface, revealing whatever jetsam and flotsam I might find there. And, when writing in 1P, I’d better find some interesting shit to divulge. That’s both the joy of writing in First Person and reading fiction in 1P as well.

Don’t be surprised if you (as author) find yourself slipping into co-habitation mode with your on-page alter-ego—whether you directly identify with him/her or not. You’re impersonating someone else, after all—for all intents and purposes, another human being. As the voice of my protagonist, I can discreetly reveal to the reader that my Great Aunt Lucy smells like formaldehyde. Or that I haven’t paid my taxes in eight years. That I’m about to murder the man who raped my sister. I can even whisper my uncertain suicidal tendencies—sharing a most profound secret with the reader, unafraid that some other character might overhear my thoughts and step in with a pat on the head and an a handful of antidepressants.

Sure, I can write about my Great Aunt Lucy similarly in 3P POV, superficially revealing much of the same information—but writing in 1P allows you (imho) to more fully share these feelings. Your protagonist can internalize a great deal more, and thus deliver a far more profound psychological impact on the reader. (Should you so desire.) Such intimacy can provide a far more profound, and personally exhilarating, writing experience. (Sometimes writing in 1P can feel pretty much like self-therapy.) Because, know it or not, you’re delving into your own soul as well.

Ah, but what about dialogue, you ask?

On the surface, one might assume that dialogue is dialogue. That writing dialogue in 3P is no different than dialogue in 1P:

…..“You’re looking lovely today, Suzanne,” Paul said.

…..“You’re looking lovely today, Suzanne,” I said.

But a funny thing happens when you begin to inhabit a 1P character who’s begun to feel at home in your brain. Writers will begin to re-think their words to better match the texture of their protagonist’s personality. In a way, it’s like channeling Elvis. So, “You’re looking lovely today Suzanne,” Paul said(.), can morph into:

…..“Have I ever told you, Suzanne, that whenever you look at me, I melt a little inside?”

I speak from personal experience. Several years ago I began writing a book about a guy living in San Diego who wanted to a screenwriter. I began writing in 3P, but my character seemed to sputter about a dozen pages in. And then I had a revelation. After all, I was a guy living in San Diego trying to write a screenplay. Feeling that sort of close, warm and fuzzy kinship with my protagonist, I began re-writing the book in 1P. For awhile I felt very self-conscious, like I’d been leaving the bedroom drapes open at night and the neighbors were clandestinely peeking in. And this guy in my head, whom I’d named Charlie, wasn’t me. He was both far braver and far more stupid than I. Yet, after a dozen or so pages, I forgot about me being me and freely gave my unconscious self over to Charlie. His manner of speaking changed. His cadence changed. Even his vocabulary changed. (That part was particularly freaky. He was using words that I didn’t even know I knew. Seriously.) And I think the story is far better for having made that transition.

I often tell people who ask that I don’t choose my characters as much as they choose me. And Charlie’s one guy who can prove it.

– – – – –

* Unreliable narrator: A character or voice (most often found in 1P POV) who is, or may be, intentionally fabricating some, most or all of the story. Typically in 3P POV, the reader assumes that the story’s characters (and, of course, their sage puppet master) are telling the absolute truth—because, why the hell not? In those instances when a criminal, maniac, small child, captive…etc. is speaking, the reader can be made aware by the author (or simply through the veracity of the dialogue) that falsehoods abound. However, in 1P novels, it’s quite possible for the author to be intentionally manipulating the reader with the apparent sincerity of a saint. All along, however, and only toward the novel’s completion—if ever—does the reader discover that we’ve been fooled or outwitted by the narrator. And hopefully to the betterment of the book.



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Dialogue (Part 4)

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rules-header-fullA notebook for fiction writers and aspiring novelists. One editor’s perspective.

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Writing Great Dialogue (Part 4):
Dialogue vs. Monologue

“I love you, Carlotta,” he said.

I love you, Carlotta, he thought.

So…what’s the difference? To Carlotta, probably a great deal. And to the reader as well. To recap a bit, both spoken dialogue and inner monologue* are integral parts of the same revelation delivery system (with the omniscient narrator being the third option—the all-seeing author revealing anything and everything of necessity to the reader).

A fourth option also exists—and one I suggest using rarely (if ever). But more about this often unwelcomed intruder in a moment….

The key to precise communication with your readers is, of course, knowing when to use what. Dialogue is an information exchange between two or more characters. Monologue is an information exchange between a character and the reader. Omniscient narration, BTW, is an information exchange between the writer and the reader. A quick for-instance:

Dialogue: “I’m not sure you fully understand the danger,” Daniel said, rubbing his chin whiskers. “The road ahead isn’t exactly safe, Mrs. Phelps. Even if we make it, you’re not going to like what we find at the other end.”

Monologue (3rd Person): Daniel absently rubbed his chin. He wasn’t sure Mrs. Phelps understood the dangers ahead. This isn’t going to be easy, he thought to himself. Even if they made it, he wasn’t sure she’d like what she’d find waiting at the other end.

Monologue (1st Person): I’m not sure Mrs. Phelps understood the dangers ahead. I scratched the stubble on my chin, taking time to ponder the consequences. This wasn’t going to be a safe journey for either of us. Even if we made it, I wasn’t sure she’d like what she’d find waiting at the other end. (See more about First Person Dialog in Dialogue Part 5.)

Omniscient Narrator: The road ahead would be long and arduous. Perhaps even dangerous. The driver rubbed his chin, searching for words. Neither Mrs. Phelps or Daniel McKay would like what they’d find waiting at the other end.

If plot-building is the backbone of a novel, dialogue is its heart and soul. One can destroy monsters, rocket to Mars, fall in love or join the circus—but without the ability to directly interconnect between on-paper characters and flesh-and-blood readers, there’s really no way to tell a complete or compelling story. Dialogue provides that ability to stir emotions, bonding fictional characters and living beings. The next time a work of fiction brings you tears of either laughter or heartbreak, a shudder of joy or fear—stop and look again at whatever passage is fueling your emotions. Most likely, there’s a healthy amount of dialogue involved.

Dialogue can also quickly and easily define a character’s personality. Even lacking external modifiers (expressions, physical tics or other attributes) one can pretty much infer the differences in the two personalities below:

…..“Mr. Jenkins, I’d like your permission to date your daughter. I know it sounds old-fashioned, but I just want you to know I respect Linda, and that my intentions are honorable. I’ll have her home by ten, sir.”

…and:

….“Hey, is Linda around? We’re hittin’ the Bijou tonight, once she gets her ass in gear, then maybe drive down to Paradise Cove for a little after-hours hoochie-coochie, if you know what I mean. You gotta light for my spliff, Mr. J?”

So consider dialogue as a great introduction (or addition) to initial character development. In fact, I’m not sure any character is fully realized before opening his or her mouth—and why so many fictive works begin with dialogue or else integrate dialogue or monologue within the first page or two. A character who seldom speaks is likely to be much more difficult for a writer to define, even if silence is an intended character trait.

Newspapers, Radio and TV.
(Revelation from afar)

There’s yet another form of revelation delivery—the type of communication that, if you’re a beginning or uncertain writer, I would strongly suggest avoiding. However, I’m aware of some writers who jump to use this fictive device, hoping for a quick infusion of pertinent info, so here I go…

As a reader, few gimmicks annoy me more than “a suddenly introduced outside source”—a TV or radio broadcast, a blog or newspaper article—barging into the story, intruding upon a cast of characters that I’ve slowly come to love or hate. OK, so on rare occasions, this gimmick may function as a bona fide tool, and can work successfully.** However, when improperly or indiscriminately placed, using mass media not only screams neophyte to the reader, but tends to send any impending drama or emotion in a scene down the proverbial drain.

Why? Mass media is a particularly sterile delivery system and tends to pull the reader out of the immediacy, the intimacy, of a story. Plotting is largely about questions and answers, after all—Does she love me? What’s behind this locked door? Will we survive charging into this forest filled with armed Lutherans?—and most readers will be repulsed (repulsed, I tell you!) by a lazy writer and the quick, easy cheat of stepping outside of an established story-line to drop a bit of relevant information.

But do be aware that many writers misuse these devices—delivering lengthy, rambling synopses of some plot-specific tidbit. As a reader, deluged with such a vapid delivery, I’ll glaze over after the first paragraph and either quickly peruse or skip the rest. Realize that you’re distancing the reader from both plot-tension and character nuance. So if you feel you must use mass media as a plot device, use it sparingly.

My suggestion is—rather than deliver a 100-200-word TV news report or rambling, lengthy newspaper or news-feed article—truncate the info by allowing your character(s) to becoming involved ASAP. If you’re able, bypass any direct television intrusion (in the example below) all together. For instance, and let’s say we’re writing about a cranky, old, hard-drinking PI, who’s hoping to solve a murder mystery:

…..I thumbed the remote, hoping to catch the last quarter of the Celtics game while I polished off the remnants of a quickly-warming six pack of Rolling Rock. I wanted to wash away the last vestiges of Mrs. Patterson’s troubles, and drinking myself into a stupor was a time-honored option. But the TV blinked on and there was Mrs. Patterson herself—an old photograph anyway—brooding above a Breaking News crawler.
…..I didn’t have to wait for the newscaster to explain the details—I knew the signs. The flashing lights, the meandering CSI technicians, the grimacing on-the-spot reporter; I pretty much knew that Mrs. Patterson had joined the dearly departed. So much for my theory that the woman had killed Stanley for his money. Meaning someone else had killed Mr. Patterson—and now his wife—hoping to get their hands on all those missing millions. Which more or less dropped me back at square one…

So, sure, feel free to insinuate a news source (TV, radio or newspaper) to push your plot forward—but make such an emotionless intrusion relevant to your character, who then makes it relevant to the reader. In this case, my crusty PI takes over and brings the story quickly back into his own POV, where hopefully the reader is quite comfortable by now. Now you can add a few additional plot-points (mascaraing, perhaps, as character-building) as well…

…dropped me back at square one.
…..The helpful TV news-lady droned on. “Mrs. Stanley Patterson, 72, had been one of several suspects in her husband’s disappearance and presumed death three months ago. She is survived by her two sons and a step-daughter….”

…..I took another sip of tepid brew and stared at the tube long enough to get the gist. A suspected burglary, gone wrong. Always a suspected burglary, gone wrong. Every damn time. The thing is, suspected burglars usually don’t stab their victim multiple times, and the coroner’s office appeared fairly specific in that regard. Multitude times. A pretty pissed-off burglar, if you ask me. And I was fairly certain the police would be asking me, come sunrise. Which gave me an idea….

I offer the same advice for a newspaper story. Instead of concocting a lengthy article (as fun as that may be to create!), give the reader the gist and have a character take over at the first opportunity:

…..I shuffled down the porch steps in a faded Red Sox T-shirt and tattered boxers—probably giving old Mrs. Quimbly across the street an eyeful. I was probably the only guy left on the block who read the morning paper—but I was also the only guy on the block with two cockatoos, Stan and Ollie, and I’d rather have them pooping on yesterday’s news than my counter top. I reached down for the paper and immediately saw the glaring headline: Wealthy Heiress Murdered in Brighton. I didn’t need to see more—my gut already told me that Mrs. Patterson was dead, and so much for my theory of who killed her husband…

Also note that newspaper articles (TV and radio too) don’t rely on detailed or ‘chatty’ information. So if you’re going to use mass-media, study those formats. Don’t try to sneak in clever or intimate clues, because initial reports are typically vague, incomplete and often incorrect. They don’t rely on ‘unsubstantiated reports’ or speculation by friends and neighbors. Just the facts, ma’am. So maintain the integrity of whatever medium you’re using. Otherwise, you’ll lose credibility.

But otherwise, yeah—used with a little discretion, it’s okay to give your readers a glimpse of the daily news.

One last note: Don’t confuse using mass media (as described above) with using character-centric media—for instance somebody reading a passage from a mother’s diary, a series of love letters, even a chatroom exchange—these are all tools that can be used to reveal specific info. Readers tend to be comfortable with characters writing or calling or texting.

– – – – –

* Monologue. Don’t confuse monologue (AKA: inner monologue. AKA: thinking) with soliloquy, a scene where a solitary character speaks thoughts aloud. An insane Lady McBeth’s infamous “Out, out damn spot” for instance. Inner monologue is simply a character’s unspoken thoughts—unknown to other characters, but crystal clear to the reader. If Shakespeare is lost on you, think of Tom Hanks’ longer conversational interactions with a volleyball named Wilson.

** Mass Media. My rule of thumb, when reading/editing manuscripts, is: The shorter the intrusion, the better. A headline, for instance, is OK. A brief snippet of a newscast is OK. So writing 25 words or less is fine. Fifty words is stretching the envelope. One hundred or more words is inviting narcolepsy. A few stanzas of song or poem (for instance, to infuse a specific mood), or a Want Ad (to lure an unsuspecting character to certain doom) can be worthwhile. These are scene-setting or plot-building tools. However, please understand that fabricating an entire 200-word article just to extract a line or two of worthwhile information—well, that’s taboo (…unless you have a very excellent excuse).

 


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Black Hole or Space Donut?

 

Event Horizon Telescope Collaboration

Hilton Ratcliffe is Skeptical

 
Muse Harbor author Hilton Ratcliffe doesn’t shy away from controversy. In fact, the South African astrophysicist is quite certain that little of what we perceive about the cosmos is, in reality, reality. “Do black holes actually exist?” Ratcliffe wonders. “Let us not concern ourselves with what black holes are in the minds of cosmologists and theoretical physicists. Suffice it to say that black holes are theoretical constructs—monstrous objects presumed by some to exist in deep space—that possibly and ominously portend our extinction as a species and portray the eventual, inevitable doom of the entire universe…And which [Stephen Hawking], in January 2014, finally admitted might not be real after all.”

Which is our way of saying, What the heck’s out there? Is speculation better than a blatant species-wide shoulder shrug? Is there any problem in admitting we don’t know what lies within the infinite playground surrounding our own ‘little blue dot’?

Mr. Ratcliffe adds, “It is profoundly important that I state up front what this book is about: the power and influence of belief over data-driven science in creating our opinions, and the eternal, polarising conflict between belief and instinct in the development of our mindset…Please bear in mind that I am not proposing an alternative model of anything; I am merely tendering a method that favours objectivity in the development of all theories and philosophies, whatever they might be.”

Whatever those philosophies, we here at Muse Harbor believe Hilton’s thoughts to be heretically fabulous, filled with personal insights and brilliant speculations—with the caveat that, far out there—as well as deep in here—we often don’t really know what we’re talking about. Are the world’s great scientists, at a loss for certain knowledge, simply “smoking our socks?”

 

 

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Dialogue (Part 3)

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rules-header-fullA notebook for fiction writers and aspiring novelists. One editor’s perspective.

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Writing Great Dialogue (Part 3):
The best works of fiction aren’t about
plotting. They’re about people.

Why do we write? Or, more specifically, for what purpose do we write? (Okay, and let’s forget about that Pulitzer for a moment.) But what is it that we hope to convey to our readers? What do we assume will move or excite or enrich an audience? How do we create characters or ideas that might remain in a reader’s thoughts for a month or a year or a lifetime?

The simple answer is, of course, to tell a good story. But let’s dig more deeply. What exactly defines a Great American Novel? (Or a Great Nigerian Novel, for that matter.) As fiction writers, are we attempting to reveal the truth about…what? The truth about truth? About deceit? About pride or prejudice, war or peace? About fate or luck? About zombies or ghosts, aliens or evil step-mothers? About falling in love or coping with death? About fitting in or dropping out? In a real sense, whatever our genre, or topic, whatever our slam-dunk story line, there’s a deeper importance—one that infiltrates all plots and genres and fictive rationale. One that connects author and reader.

Because, for me, the key isn’t about writing “What Happens.” It’s about “What Happens to People.” No matter our story, whatever our genre, whatever our goal, we’re ultimately writing about characters who are important to us. Who feel real to us. But when a writer truly cares about his characters (the good, the bad and the ugly), readers have no choice but to also care deeply for them. And one of the most cogent ways to reveal a character? Through dialogue. Through internal monologue. A paragraph or two of primo dialogue can be worth a chapter or two of banal omniscient narration.

For instance:

.….They strolled in the cool sand for several minutes without speaking, neither of them pushing it, Bobby’s thoughts somewhere on the horizon. Maybe their entire walk destined to silence, but Nikki wanted this conversation—needing it for both their sakes—and she looked at him finally. “Were you in love with her?”
…..“Erica? No. It never—I don’t—it wasn’t ever about love. I’m not even sure she was capable.”
…..“What about you? Have you ever been in love?”
…..“I don’t think so.”
…..“Love’s like a migraine,” she said softly. “You know it when you feel it.”
…..“Maybe just a slight headache, once or twice,” he said with a smile.
…..“It’s a complicated process, Bobby.”
…..“Yeah. Too complicated.”
…..“Oh?”
…..“Too many expectations,” he amended. “Of becoming something you’re not. The spontaneity dies and suddenly being yourself isn’t good enough any more. You feel yourself being molded—crammed into an uncomfortable box. Somewhere you know you don’t belong. Do you know what I mean?” he asked.
…..“Yes,” she said. “I do.”
…..“Maybe somewhere out there—” He shook his head, almost didn’t finish, but then shrugged away the inane incoherence of his own thoughts and said, “—there’s a woman willing to let me be me. Willing to accept the flaws, you know?”
…..They walked for a long moment, her silence this time, before she said, “You know what? You’re like a blind perfectionist, Bobby. You know what you want but I’m not sure you could see it right in front of your face.”

Note that the above dialogue may not be furthering the plot, but it is adding to our understanding of two main characters (development)—and thus, it’s important information to the reader. Allow yourself to truly feel your actors, to expose your characters—warts and all. Remember, in life, there are no 100% heroes and no 100% villains. Even Adolf Hitler painted pretty pictures. Gandhi threw tantrums. So permit your characters to fully inhabit themselves—allow them to speak freely about who they are and what they want, both to you and to your readers. And when you feel moved by what you’ve written, that’s when you know you have a the workings of a great novel. To reit:

Rule #41. Great fiction isn’t about ‘what happens’. It’s about ‘what happens to people.’

The above rule isn’t meant to dissuade anyone from concocting an amazing, consistently dramatic, plot-twisty magnum opus. If you’ve discovered the mother-lode of great plots, and believe you have a logical and rational reason to frontload that information, go for it! However, one word of advice. While you’re plotting your epic masterpiece, don’t allow your characters so sit there like lumps, watching reruns and eating bonbons until the plot comes knocking at their door. Give them substance and give them purpose that excites the reader…even before the plot reveals itself. Once we’ve established our characters—either partially or fully—once we’ve given them flesh and bone, hopes and dreams, courage and fear, imperfections and eccentricities, now we can let loose the proverbial Hounds Of Hell.

Or think of Rule #41 this way. Put an eclectic cast of chatty characters on a luxury liner slowly sinking in the icy Atlantic and you’ve likely got a page turner. Put that same boat in the same predicament—but with nobody aboard—and what do you have? A scholastic essay on buoyancy, I suspect.

One issue I’ve encountered when reading manuscripts concerns character classism: characters—especially protagonists—who are destined to live through the novel (and typically loved by the author) are largely well conceived and fully formed, full of life and joy, witty and urbane—sometimes real as real can be. And then there are the story’s second class citizens, background characters who sometimes seem to be barely breathing, roughly sketched, often dull and lifeless. These are minor characters that I realize (as a reader) are going to die, or else drift off the page sooner or later. Even if these characters have only a modicum of stage time, they need authorial love too. They need your full attention and development. If these characters aren’t fully honed, when they leave the story, or die, readers won’t really care. But a reader should care. If a reader isn’t made to care about a character—either one we’re supposed to love or we’re supposed to hate—there’s probably no reason for that character brought to life in the first place.

So, back to the basics. Let’s return for a moment (see Dialogue Part 2) to our aforementioned sci-fi thriller, The Great Big Giant Meteor. Remember our beleaguered hero, Charlie? Let’s say, early still in Act I, Charlie and his former girlfriend, Andrea, are walking on a moonless night, staring up at the heavens. Maybe that long extinguished spark between them has ignited again. The meteor is still a distant, undiscovered speck in the sky.

Q. How do we fill all those pages before the meteor’s presence is known?

A. With astute, meaningful character development.

For instance, let’s reveal Charlie re-examining all his long, lost feelings, testing those emotions he’d abandoned years ago. Do they oh-so-coincidentally talk about some billion-in-one chance that some as-of-yet undiscovered meteor might hit Earth? Of course not. (That would be telegraphing, and that’s taboo.) Besides, if you’re going to show the collision 100 or 200 pages hence, you certainly don’t want to talk about it now. Why ruin the suspense? Instead, Charlie and Andrea ingratiate themselves to the reader by talking about themselves in a multitude of seemingly incidental, gradually revealing and ultimately intriguing ways. And, as they begin to rediscover each other, the reader begins to discover them too. And no, they’re not talking about favorite laundry detergents either. That’s also taboo. (Because it’s boring.) But what about:

…..“Look at those stars,” Charlie said, staring upward into the cloudless night. “My God, it’s breathtaking. You know, I’ve always assumed only two types of people inhabit this world—those who look up and see irrelevant pinpricks of light, and those who see infinite potential, who ponder the very nature of existence.”

Or what about:

…..“I got married, Charlie,” Andrea said. “After you left Hawai’i, I met a man at Hickam, and we fell in love. It was all rather rushed and impromptu.”
…..Aware of the somber tone in her voice, sensing her sadness, he said, “Didn’t work out, huh?”
…..“It never had the chance,” she said, shaking her head. “He was an astronaut. His name was Paul McPhearson.”
…..Charlie’s
mouth formed a surprised oval. “You mean Major McPhearson? The Orion-4 Mission commander?”
…..She nodded. “Paul’s mission died somewhere on the dark side of Jupiter. They never found the spacecraft. He’s still out there, somewhere. Whenever I look up, Charlie, I think a big part of me is looking for him. Silly, I know, but he’s up there, and every night, over and over, I replay those ten thousand potential reasons why he never came home to me. I can’t help myself. I can’t just let it be.”
…..“I’m so sorry,” Charlie said, his voice shaking.

Such personal revelation not only contributes to the reader’s comprehension of our characters, but (in this case) keeps the reader subliminally aware of what’s out there—the meteor, of course—the universe being an infinite, largely unknown and often lethal place. It’s wise to seldom allow our readers to drift too far from the undulating drama that, sooner or later, will show itself.

Or think of character-building this way: Create characters interesting enough—in this case Charlie and Andrea—that even if an impending world-ending meteor doesn’t exist in your story line, your characters are complete and stimulating enough to keep the reader riveted. Keep us glued, even if your book is simple story between two space nerds looking for love.

That’s what great dialogue can provide.

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Dialogue (Part 2)

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rules-header-fullA notebook for fiction writers and aspiring novelists. One editor’s perspective.

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Writing Great Dialogue (Part 2):
Balancing ‘Reality’ and ‘Fiction’

As previously suggested, great dialogue should accomplish one of three specific goals. Whenever characters speak, we use dialogue specifically to: 1) Set a scene; 2) Develop or define a character or characters, or; 3) Forward the plot.

And yet there exists another important, although nebulous, element that infuses itself within the dialogue you write. This isn’t a goal per se, but rather an overarching stylistic approach that balances “real-life dialogue” with “on-the-page” dialogue—two wholly different beasts. Meaning that realistic-sounding dialogue might require some effort. A bit of forethought. Of practiced nuance and self-editing. (And then a few more rounds of re-editing.)

Every writer must walk a fine line between the typically inarticulate, incomplete and often rambling real-world verbal diarrhea—sorry! But true!—that our brains somehow manage to interpret, and the vapid, usually boring, just-the-facts-ma’am sort of written dialogue that some of us employ, intent on steadfastly moving the plot forward, and largely at the expense of a fully developed character. Somewhere in the middle is the sweetspot—that perfect blend of casually informal, yet subtly informative, dialogue that readers will consume like buttered popcorn at a Hollywood Premiere.

Blending snippets of useful information (e.g.; plot-building) with tidbits of witty banter (e.g.; character-building) isn’t every-page essential, but more often than not, it’s a really, really good idea. Dialogue can seamlessly marry a character’s personality and purpose (reason for being) in each particular scene. Great dialogue can also intentionally heighten or deflate tension, change attitudes or redirect the reader’s attention. Even if your dialogue’s intent is to simply flesh out a character’s persona, you’re also subliminally, unobtrusively, perhaps manipulatively, pushing the plot forward. Conversely, if you’re actively advancing the plot, you’re also subliminally, unobtrusively (etc.) defining your character(s). (See Dialogue Part 3.)

Let’s say, for instance, that our just-started sci-fi thriller (“The Great Big Giant Meteor”) is about—wait for it!—about a giant meteor. This humongous space rock will likely pulverize Earth a year or two hence. (Original idea, right?) So our principle characters are intrepid yet unsuspecting scientists, with maybe an astronaut or two thrown in for razzle-dazzle. The dialogue example below takes place early in Act 1. In the dozen (or 20 or 50) preceding pages, readers have learned a bit about a charming astronomer named Charlie, his best friend Doug—and we’ve just been introduced the mysterious Andrea, who’s arriving at The Kennedy Space Center aboard a private corporate helicopter. Our dialogue begins innocuously enough (not depicted below) with some friendly banter, and then continues:

…..“Say, I heard you and Andrea attended MIT together,” Doug said. “Quite a coincidence, huh? Crazy, working together again after all these years.”
…..“Yes, and quite a pleasant surprise.” Charlie’s smile radiated a surprising warmth. “I had no idea she’d pursued a career in observational astronomy. Andrea was always more of a people person, not a star-gazer. I thought she’d end up in Washington, maybe lobbying for NASA, hobnobbing at exclusive cocktail parties. I always saw Andrea as being the quintessential social spider intent on trapping some unsuspecting freshmen senator, then draining his wallet in a single gulp. For a good cause, of course.”
…..Doug laughed. “She told me that you two summered together in Hawai’i?”
…..“Yes, at the observatory. Both of us going for our Ph.D’s at the time. We were—for a while we were close,” Charlie said, staring past Doug’s shoulder for a long moment, reliving some silent memory.
…..“She said you spent more than a few evenings at Dr. Smith’s cottage in Waikui, pouring over Hertzsprung–Russell diagrams and sipping Mai Tais.”
…..“Dr. Smith?” Charlie’s eyebrow dipped. “No, no, Diana Smith died the previous year, several months before we arrived on the Big Island. Dr. Jones was our C.O.A. liaison at the time.”
…..“Really? I must have got my wires crossed. No matter. Dr. Jones, huh? Yeah, I heard he was a real ball-buster before he retired. Frugal with his accolades. As I recall, the good doctor believes there’s an alien spaceship buried somewhere in eastern Siberia. Crazy, huh? Well, I gotta run, get this photo array off to the digital enhancement guys. Hey, you remember that NQ3 hot-spot you found last week, the one we thought might be a dust speck? Apparently not. McKenzie’s taking another look. She swears it’s in motion. Oh, by the way, how about tennis this Saturday? Don’t say no, Chuck—I’ve already reserved a court…”
…..
All of which means….what to a reader? A half-page of unnecessary banter that goes nowhere? Or something else? Might Andrea’s arrival hint of a potential love interest for Charlie—or something else? And what about the Dr. Smith/Dr. Jones confusion? A simple lapse in memory—or something else? Is there really an alien spaceship buried in Siberia—or something else? And that casually mentioned hot-spot? Most readers will interpret that particular significance easily enough. But what other subtle goodies lurk within these few paragraphs of chitchat? Yes, we’re teasing the reader, but a competent writer is continually looking for areas or elements from which to evolve or twist a story, to constantly keep readers on their toes.

And, wait…Charlie plays tennis? That, friends, is character development. The revelation will most likely have no direct bearing with the aforementioned meteor, but at least we know Charlie gets out of the office. He’s well-rounded. Maybe athletic. Most readers will subliminally remember that factoid…so when Charlie’s running after some little green alien 200 pages hence, we know he’s got the stamina. (The tennis club can also provide an viable alternative environment for our characters, should we want to break up the monotony of the more staid observatory setting.)

What else might these few paragraphs reveal? Maybe Charlie’s good friend, Doug, soon falls in love with Andrea. Or perhaps Charlie comes to believe that she’s secretly working for the Russians (for some as-of-yet unknown, nefarious purpose). Maybe readers won’t be conscious of these potential sub-plots—but the seeds have been subliminally sewn. A reader will patiently wait to see which ones sprout.

Why is scene-setting and/or character development important before revealing too much plot—in this case the discovery of the meteor? Despite how easy (plot-wise) it would be to depict Charlie sitting down at a computer console on page 1, tapping in a few cosmic coordinates and discovering an unexpected celestial body speeding toward Earth, where’s the sufficient undulating tension leading up to that moment? Who is Charlie, anyway—and why should we care about him? Maybe he’s a good person—goes to church, saves the whales, helps old grannies across the street—but until Charlie’s sufficiently developed as a character (one I’ll either love or hate, find empathic or suspicious) any substantial plot-building can wait.*

As the writer, you already know what the reader does not—that the approaching meteor is actually a billion-ton, Denver-sized space diamond in the rough. Andrea’s insanely wealthy corporate bosses have also discovered that fact and have decided to capture the meteor, ease it in a stable orbit around Earth and mine it—and what could possibly go wrong with that scenario? So despite Charlie’s best attempts to destroy or divert the rock, his efforts are continually thwarted by unknown agents. Why? Because we’re stacking additional dramatic obstacles at every turn. And dialogue is going to be instrumental in creating or continuing that drama—a direct (yet typically subtle) information-highway between Charlie and Andrea, between Charlie and Doug and (possibly) between Andrea and the mysterious Dr. Jones. When poor Doug ends up suddenly dead late in Act II, who’s to blame? And why? Questions anew that a competent writer will answer at the appropriate time. And when Andrea’s brother Sergei shows up on page 178… hmm, possibly more complications.

Ah yes, timing! Great dialogue isn’t only about concocting dramatic, informative, and oh-so-witty conversation—but also conversation that appears at just the right moment and in a logical sequence with past and future chatter. When you ask a question in dialogue (“Who would have killed Doug! He didn’t have an enemy in the world!”) allow your reader sufficient time to ponder the answer. You’re not obliged to immediately solve the mystery. Sure, you know—but it’s okay to string along the reader, waiting for the appropriate (and perhaps exquisitely unexpected) moment for the necessary reveal.

My advice is to never (or rarely) reveal too much too fast. In fact, that should probably be a rule. Rule #39: Never reveal too much relevant information too quickly. Whether you’re writing drama or comedy, a thriller or love story, sci-fi, horror or fantasy, continued suspense of one sort or another is imperative. Within each conversation, it’s okay to create a little more confusion or distraction or confrontation. With each provided answer, feel free to ask another question, or two or three. And then, late in Act III (typically your final act) begin to collect whatever loose threads that remain and resolve any unanswered questions.

Oh, and now Rule #39A: ….But relevant or not, always keep dialogue witty and interesting. Seriously. If possible, sneak in snippets of potential drama even into seemingly inane conversations. “I love you, Penelope. I’ll always love you forever!” Sweet. Nice. But what about, “I love you, Penelope. I’ll always love you forever. By the way, I become a bit schizophrenic when the moon is full.” (No, of course you don’t write it that way…but keep potential tension taut whenever possible.)

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*  As always, no writing rule or suggestion of mine should be considered iron clad. (Hell, I don’t even listen to myself all that often.) So if your story demands an immediate burst of plot-essential material, by all means follow your instincts. Crayon outside the lines if it feels right. All I ask is that you understand the fundamentals before attempting to break them.

Why, you ask? Did you ever put a raw egg (shell intact) in the microwave and turn it on HIGH for 2 minutes, unaware of the fundamentals regarding eggs and microwaves? Try it and get back to me. Writing a novel without knowing the rules—well, the outcome is kinda like that.

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