Dialog (Part 1)

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Rules-headerA notebook for fiction writers and aspiring novelists. One editor’s perspective.

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Great Dialog: An absolute necessity. (Part 1)

Let’s assume that we, as aspiring novelists, have sufficient technical, stylistic and plot-building skills. Meaning we can turn a phrase, can fully frame a story, we trust our characters’ various motivations, can discern a verb from a noun, and rarely allow ourselves to dangle a participle. All those crucial factors being securely in place, what becomes the single, most essential quality for writing—not to mention publishing—a truly great novel?

Sorry, but that was rhetorical.

Because the answer is dialog. For my money, few aspects of novel writing can captivate, motivate or emotionally move a reader as will dialog. IMHO, great dialog is more important than solid plot structure. More important than a mellifluous voice. Time and time again, as an editor, when I confront slow or unwieldy dialog, I feel my appreciation, my interest in a manuscript, begin to deflate like a puffer fish on a salad fork.

But enough preamble. Let’s talk about dialog. While omniscient narration* can lay out much or most of a novel, a writer really can’t really tell a whole story without dialog. Can’t fully involve the reader. Can’t fully reveal a character. As importantly, great dialog can be a panacea of sorts—a way for the author to instantly develop a rapport between characters (or between a character and the reader), to fill a vacuum or quickly shift gears, to intentionally misdirect or to clarify and, basically, to solve a myriad of plot-thwarting issues—and in ways that a novel without dialog (or with insufficient or anemic dialog) could ever hope to resolve. Think of dialog as being that essential roll of duct tape in our bag of literary tricks.

But more about using dialog as a problem-solver in a subsequent blog. Frankly, it’s the sheer joy of creating dialog that inspires many of us to fill our stories with the witty, astute, finely-honed verbiage uttered by our characters. Problem-solving is merely an added bonus. So let’s start with the basics.

Here then, the basics.

First and foremost, one creates good dialog by replicating those three basic premises necessary to create a great story line. (See Simple But Exciting—Part II.) Dialog should accomplish one of three specific goals by: 1) Setting a scene; 2) Developing or defining a character, or; 3) Forwarding the plot.

If having only three options seems restrictive, fear not. Your expressive, expansive wildcard is #2: character development. A great deal of seemingly superficial or extraneous dialog can go a long way to help define a character’s personality, motivations, fears and passions, to ultimately create a very real human being. Two characters, hitchhiking through the middle of nowhere, and with no traffic in sight, can fill an otherwise mundane scene with the most tantalizing of conversations. Maybe such character chatter reveals little about the plot ahead, but it can provide a great deal of insight about those people on the page, not only relating to each other, but to readers as well.

A quick example of those three options mentioned above:

1. Scene setting. (Two astronauts float within their space capsule, looking out a porthole at the quickly approaching face of Venus, still a thousand miles away.)

….“Don’t let its alien beauty distract you, Cameron. That evil planet’s scorching hot. You step out of the dome in full sunlight, an’ I’m talking about even in a fully shielded suit, and your face plate will melt in a half second flat. Your skull will pop a half second after that. Even after sundown in the safety zones, most of the rocks out there are sharp enough to slice you to the bone. One false step can drop you down a thousand-foot crevice or suck you into a sand pit before you get a chance to tug on your G-line. I’ve seen storms a dozen times worse than any hurricane on Earth, that hellish wind whippin’ down offa those western slopes without a moment’s notice. You don’t keep your eyes peeled 24/7 and you’ll be dead before you know you’re even in trouble.”

2. Character building. (Two young teenagers walk along a sunny beach. They’ve met only moments before, and they’re talking about their parents.)

….“You think your mom’s bad? Mine won’t even let me have chocolate.”
….“That sucks.”
….“Totally. She says I’m allergic. I mean like deathly allergic. The thing is, I’ve never even tried chocolate. So how the hell does she know, right?”
….“I have some chocolate at home, if you want.”
….“Really?”
….“Truth. You wanna share a Snickers bar?”
….“Yeah, let’s. Sooner or later, I gotta know for sure. Let’s do it.”
….“Well, wait—maybe not. I mean, what if it’s true? I mean, you don’t know for sure it’s not. So, no, let’s maybe get a Coke or something instead.”

3. Forwarding the plot. (A young couple gaze up an aging spiral staircase in a dilapidated old house. A wind howls outside. The lights flicker.)

….“Darling, I’m scared.”
….“I’m telling you, this has to be the way in.” Ralph held up the antique brass key between his fingers. “This is what I’ve been looking for my entire life. A way to unlock the attic door. To see once and for all what’s up there.”
….“But…but what about your grandmother’s warning?”
….“About ghosts? Don’t be silly, Edith. It’s an old attic for criminy sake. Maybe some rats bumping around up there, that’s all. But my grandfather, he was worth millions, and he didn’t take it with him. What we find up there, I think it’s going to make us rich.”
….“I don’t know, Ralph. It feels wrong.”
….“Don’t be scared. Granny will be ninety-seven years old come August. She can’t even remember my name. She’s nothing but a crazy old lady with a strange imagination.” Ralph turned and started up the old stairway. “C’mon, I’ll show you.”

Before I continue any further—one important note. When I speak of dialog, I’m referring to both external and internal communication—because both spoken words and internal contemplation share equal importance in a novel.

External (verbal) dialog:
….“My dear Mrs. Smith, you’re looking quite fetching today.”
….“Do not attempt to humor me, Mr. Jones,” Veronica said crossly. “You’re presumptuous to believe that I’ll ever allow you to marry my daughter or inherit my wealth. I’m well aware of of your scheming ways, sir. Good day.” She turned and continued her stroll down Elm Street.

…or internal (subconscious) monologue.
….“My dear Mrs. Smith, you’re looking quite fetching today.”
….Veronica offered the man a tepid smile, well aware of Mr. Jones’ intentions. He’ll never sway me with his fancy talk, she mused, her gaze unwavering. Her emerald eyes blazed, the voice inside her head oozing with contempt. You don’t want to toy with me, young man. I’m well aware of your scheming ways. I shall never allow you near my daughter or her wealth. Without a word, she turned and continued her stroll down Elm Street.

But more about the complexities of internal/external differences later as well.

However, before moving along to Dialog (Part 2) one reminder (because now it’s Rule #30): Create dialog that (like plotting) accomplishes one of three specific goals: 1) Sets a scene; 2) Develops a character, or; 3) Moves the plot forward.

– – – – – – – – – –

* Omniscient Narration (a reminder). Typically when writing in third-person (past or present) omniscient narration provides a pansophic (all-knowing!) perspective that offers information to the reader unbeknownst to your characters. For instance, the following sentence is omniscient: Deep in a forgotten cave burrowed beneath Old Hickory Mountain, a storage chest had been buried centuries ago, hiding the bandit Juan LaFortuna’s missing treasure—an immense fortune that would prove lethal for most of those on Sal’s expedition.

 


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Action vs. Information

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Rules-headerA notebook for fiction writers and aspiring novelists. One editor’s perspective.

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Action vs. Information:
The Oil & Water of Novel Writing

Years and years ago a prolific pal of mine, author Matthew Pallamary (who teaches a pirate’s workshop at Santa Barbara Writer’s Conference) uttered one of the most profound adages I’d ever heard. Matt apparently got it from Barnaby Conrad, who may have heard it from playwright/director David Mamet…so I suspect this little gem may have been around for years. But it remains one of the best tidbits of advice that I know. The simple truth is:

Information is the enemy of Action.
Action is the enemy of Information.

Meaning that, as a writer, it’s my obligation to choose one or the other concept (action-based or informational) to define each scene I develop. I can either depict (spectacular) action or provide (revealing) information to a reader. But I cannot simultaneously provide both, as the two concepts are inherently incompatible. Action sequences typically rely on external cues; on visual, sensory-heightened but otherwise superficially detailed observations. Conversely, information dissemination tends to internalize, and either through omniscient narration or dialog provides pertinent revelation, newfound knowledge or secrets unbeknownst to other characters or to the reader.

For example, let’s say I’m writing a fictional account of the Crimean War (1853-1856). Midway through my tale, I describe a gallant yet foolhardy British cavalry charge into Tennyson’s infamous Valley of Death.* Hidden amid the rocky hills surrounding the valley, dozens of fortified Russian cannon open fire and obliterate most of the advancing horsemen. As the smoke clears, two survivors of the bombardment—brothers, by the way, Niles and Ian—stand bloodied and haunted among their dead comrades. The men talk in a hushed whisper, speaking through tears about the heroism of their fallen comrades, about the enemy they see gathering on the precipice ahead, about the unlikelihood of ever again seeing the lovely Lady Desiree, the woman back home they both love.

The cavalry charge? That’s action. I want my audience breathless—so it’s all thundering hooves and glistening sabers and a distant blare of bugles whipped away by the wind. Explosions and carnage. Glimpses of both unfettered bravery and agonizing death. Action.

But then—cut to a new scene—the big guns have fallen silent. The two brothers crawl toward each other, dazed and isolated on the body-strewn battlefield. Ian begins to bind Niles’ wounds. They speak intimately about life and death and love and—for the reader—that’s information. Character-building usually is. The brothers ponder the probability of their impending doom, not to mention Ian’s long-overdue revelation of his love for Desiree.

As a writer, I’ve intentionally separated the frenetic action sequence (a fictive inhalation) from the more serene informational (a fictive exhalation) sequence. (Refer again to Rule #8: Keep your characters moving. Push them toward drama—inhale—or pull them away again—exhale.)

Can action and information co-exist in a scene? How separate is separate? Certainly, these two attributes can occasionally brush together…but brush lightly. Consider, for instance:

Acrid smoke drifts across the now silent valley. Niles suddenly draws his pistol and aims at his brother—but then shoots a Cossack who’s crept up behind Ian, ready to pounce with a gleaming scimitar. Ian turns, stares for a moment and returns to his comments, his thoughts once again focused on Desiree.

So, yes—a bit of cross-pollinating is perfectly legit; tidbits of action amidst an informative scene is fine. And, yes, one can intermingle snippets of information amid the action—but avoid attempting to force mass quantities of action and information into the same scene. Because the last thing a reader expects, midway through an exhilarating cavalry charge, is a flashback or a history lesson or a love sonnet. For instance, here’s a taboo:

As their horses rush the two men toward certain death, their sun-drenched sabers held high, Ian turns to Niles and admits that he’s in love with his brother’s fiancée, then demands a frank and earnest conversation about the matter.
…..“Now?” Niles shouted incredulously over the roaring wind.
…..“Yes, this very instant, I’m afraid,” Ian replied. “It’s terribly important to me, Niles. And by the way, don’t forget that you owe me twenty quid…”

Um… no. Because whatever raw emotion I’ve thus far developed is now moot, the drama unnecessarily deflated. Sure, Ian may love Desiree, and she may be weighing heavily on his mind—but now isn’t the time or the place to bring that particular plot thread to the page.

But what if Desiree is important to the story? What if my entire novel is based on a decades-long love triangle. So where does Lady Desiree belong?

Some writers may believe that she belongs exactly when and where she pops into mind—but consider how her sudden appearance will effect the overall pacing and the reader’s emotional quotient. As previously stated, her character certainly doesn’t belong here, in the middle of a raging battle. Amid the carnage, poor Desiree’s attempt for a modicum of stage presence feels extraordinarily misplaced. The importance of her presence, or her words, may easily become lost as readers gloss over this unexpected, lilac-scented intrusion, eager to learn how the attack concludes.

The simple solution? Alternate action and information scenes. (As in often, throughout the entire novel.) Because a more opportune moment for Desiree to bloom would be during a scene or chapter before the cavalry charge, for instance as she tearfully pens letters in her Wembly Park bedroom for both Ian and Niles—letters that may dramatically change the lives of both men. Or else place her in a scene after the charge, perhaps as a flashback in Ian’s memory. Perhaps we see her swoon into the arms of dear Uncle Clive as she’s notified by courier of Ian and Niles’ status as MIA, both men presumed dead. So allow Lady D. and her thoughts sufficient ‘quiet time’ to fully engage the reader.

Be aware that the primary advantage of alternating action and information scenes is in potentially increased drama. How delightful, plot-wise, should Ian reveal his affection for his brother’s betrothed in the chapter preceding the cavalry charge! How might Niles’ thoughts be distracted or tormented as he lines up for the assault in the following scene? Now you’ve piqued the reader’s curiosity—and possibly created a perfect cliffhanger that you’ll tie together in an appropriate, upcoming chapter. Might Ian die (your readers will wonder), his love for Desiree forever unrequited? Might brother turn on brother? So, yes, separating action and information scenes has definitive advantages. Intuiting how and when to separate these two crucial elements can nicely turn up the heat in terms of tension and future plot-development.

A basic rule of thumb to follow would be (and not always, mind you, but more often than not):
Scene-setting: Information
Character-building: Information
Plot-building: Action or information (although tread carefully, as building a plot via information may feel like reader-feeder.**)
Forward Plot Momentum: Action

For those uninterested in the Crimean War, let’s say I’m writing a gently comedic romantic coming-of-age tale. Action can be all about the rampant teenage angst and confusion and turmoil leading up to a first kiss. That slow, undulating tension can be as terrifying as the whole British cavalry charging forward toward certain death. Because what’s action if not a sensationalized visualization of dramatic events?

Oh yes, so now it’s a rule. Rule #26: Don’t mix Action and Information. Keep these two incompatible concepts separate.

And—because every rule has its own #!@$!%?! exception—let’s consider dialog. Dialog can certainly be action-oriented. (“If I ever see your ugly face again,” Sheriff Bob shouted, “I’ll shoot you dead where you stand!”) But dialog can also prove informational. (“I’m afraid I’ve never told you, Penelope, about the letter hidden inside father’s wall safe.” Bertram slowly swung open the heavy steel door. “I believe it’s time you finally know of our nefarious family secret.“)

So then, what is dialog?

…ah, the perfect opportunity for a cliffhanger.

 


*The Charge of the Light Brigade by Alfred, Lord Tennyson. It’s what people read before Twitter.

**Reader-feeder (a quick guide):
…..“Steve, I just got a phone call from the hospital. I’m sorry, but Mother passed away last night.” (is not reader-feeder)

…..Steve, I just got that phone call from the hospital we were both dreading all week long. I’m sorry, but our mother, Mary Anderson, passed away last night.” (is reader-feeder)

 


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Index

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Rules-headerA notebook for fiction writers and aspiring novelists. One editor’s perspective.

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Welcome to the blog!
……Here’s what’s what.

My name is Dave Workman. I’m an acquisitions and content editor for Muse Harbor Publishing. I began writing Rules of Engagement for beginning (or curious) writers, based on what I perceive to be fundamental obstacles that many of us confront when beginning, or struggling through, a new novel. Perhaps I can offer useful advice—or maybe not—although I certainly know what excites me as a reader, and what excites me as an editor who accepts and rejects manuscripts. Thus, the following blog may be worth a look.

1. Good Writing, Bad Advice.
Rule #1: Finish your book.
Rule #2: Don’t listen to anybody if the advice doesn’t resonate.

2. Simple, But Exciting (Part 1)
Rule #7: Write in clear, precise sentences.
Rule #8: Keep your characters moving. (Either push your characters toward drama or pull them away again.)

3. Simple, But Exciting (Part 2)
Rule #5: Continually scene set, character build or move the plot forward. (Nothing else matters.)

4. Exciting, But Simple.
Rule #3. Always write for yourself.

5. Active Writing (Part 1): Active Voice.
Rule #20: Don’t extend a scene past the “just enough” point.
Rule #12: Write only what matters. Leave out the boring parts.

6. Active Writing (Part 2): Active Language (Grammar)
Rule #6: The Jumping Cow Rule (Active vs. Passive Voice).

7. Active Writing (Part 3): Active Composition (Plotting)
Rule #14: Develop your story from A-to-Z. (Know where you’re going)

8. Where To Start.
Rule #11: Get acquainted with your story. (Discover your core elements.)

9. Perfection.
Rule #25: Perfection in writing doesn’t exist.
Rule #4: Do the best you can.

10. Action/Reaction.
Rule #10: In fiction, for every action, provide a reaction.

11. Show, Don’t Tell.

12. What’s Your Intention?
Rule #29: Your characters may remain elusive or distracted, but your prose must remain clear and concise.

13. Focus on the Now.
Rule #16: Focus on the now. (Stay in the moment.)

14. Hammering It Out.
Rule #25: Write one thought at a time. (And don’t worry about the rest.)

15. My Favorite Films About Writers and Writing (A personal aside.)

16. Finding Your Voice (Part 1)
Rule #9: A great novel is not so much what you tell, but how you tell it. That’s a writer’s style.

17. Finding Your Voice (Part 2): Do your characters speak to you?
Rule #12: Shut up and let your characters tell their own stories.

18. Finding Your Voice (Part 3). Point of View: Narrative vs. Authorial Voice

19. Basic Plotting (Part 1): Right Brain (creative thinking) vs. Left Brain (critical thinking). Unfortunately, we need both halves.

20. Basic Plotting (Part 2): Plot ahead.

21. Basic Plotting (Part 3): It’s all about the drama, dahlings.
Rule #27. Make drama your novel’s constant companion.

22. Action vs. Information: The Oil & Water of Novel Writing.
Rule #26: Don’t mix Action and Information scenes. Keep these two incompatible concepts separate.

23. Dialog (Part 1): Great Dialog: An absolute necessity.
Rule #30: Create dialog that (like plotting) accomplishes one of three specific goals: 1) Sets a scene; 2) Develops a character or; 3) Moves the plot forward.

 


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Huge In East Texas

The East Texas Writers Guild awarded April, Maybe June Third Place in the Young Adult: Book Cover Award category! Congratulations to our own Dave Workman, and to Shalanna Collins.

“The East Texas Writers Guild is proud to announce the top three winners in the Blue Ribbon Book Cover Contest for Young Adult novels.

Linda Pirtle, president of ETWG, pointed out that entries were submitted from across the United States from California to New Jersey, as well as from Great Britain, Australia, British Columbia and Ontario, Canada. It was indeed an international contest.”

Entries were judged by a team of artists and designers in the Dallas area.”

You can buy a copy of April, Maybe June right here.
 

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Hello, Portland!

Raindrops Of Love For A Thirsty WorldWe’ll be in Portland April 7-9 for the Independent Book Publisher Association’s Publisher’s University conference, because there’s always more to learn about this wacky business. We’ll be the ones with the MHP tattoos! (Not really. We’ll probably have some sort of identifying lanyards around our necks, though, so watch for that.)

Sorry for that deceptive Read More… link – that’s all there is. Except for this: Eileen Workman’s Raindrops of Love for A Thirsty World is arriving on April 20th – pre-order your paperback or Kindle copy today!

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