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 exists in #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—about their fears, their desires, their darkest secrets. 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 half the time. 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—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, Veronica 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 fatal for most of those on Sal’s expedition.

** The 3 Goals when writing dialog. There exists another imperative, elusive attribute necessary when writing great dialog. But this essential tidbit is a bit more difficult to explain. For simplicity’s sake, I won’t dive further until my next post. (See Dialog Part 2.)

 


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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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Basic Plotting (Part 2)

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

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Plotting (Part 2): Plot ahead.

To reit: Can one begin a novel with an incomplete plot in mind? Absolutely. However, the sooner you understand the direction of your novel (its purpose, its story line, its various, integral nuances) the better your ability to create and cohesively complete an intelligent tale.

One suggestion, before (or as you begin) a novel: Consider drafting an outline/timeline.

The process of outlining doesn’t work for all writers (it’s often tedious) but if you’re contemplating your first novel, or if you’ve started a few times and have never been able to write more than a few pages or chapters, an outline/timeline may provide you with the appropriate impetus and excitement to continue. Think of an outline as the basic, skeletal framework of an otherwise unwieldy beast. Even the mightiest of lions, without a backbone, is pretty much a slug. And nobody wants to write a slug.

An outline need be nothing more than a few brief notes you jot as a reminder: What info do I need to impart in this chapter? Who’s included in this segment? What keys fit what locks to forward the overall plot? Lacking an outline, some writers tend to get caught in aggressive wanderlust—on a momentary whim, veering away from an established plot (or idea) into uncharted waters, sooner or later completely unsure of any credible direction.

Some writers, of course, relish this sort of unfettered and unrestricted approach—although I suspect those writers, knowingly or not, have the ability to construct a rough mental map of their whereabouts. For many of us who can’t play chess—or outline novels—in our heads, the fewer false starts and wrong turns, the easier (and far more enjoyable) the eventual process of creative writing.

For instance, an outline can be as simple as:

Chapter 17. The Volvo’s radiator shot, Johnny finds himself stranded in a small, nameless town, somewhere in the middle of the Mojave Desert. Across the crumbling two-lane highway, in the diner, a few townspeople (whom he’ll soon meet) regard him suspiciously as he walks toward the dreary looking post-office/sheriff’s office and—as Johnny discovers—a three-room fleabag hotel. Except for the gas-station/diner across the street, and a distant scattering of drab trailer homes, he sees no other structures. Yet inside the $20/night hotel room, Johnny discovers [INSERT A TWIST HERE.] And the discovery boggles him!

So while the chapter itself may eventually fill 20-30 or more pages and contain several conversations and introduce multiple new characters, even a significant plot twist or two—the gist of choreographing this, or any, chapter is simply to remind you what should or must happen here, at this moment. Perhaps Johnny’s unexpected discovery drives the entire story forward. Or maybe he finds a friend, a useful device—through dialog, for instance—to more deeply delve into Johnny’s motivation for, well… [INSERT MOTIVATION HERE]. Drafting an outline may not immediately supply an author with necessary answers, but it prompts us to think about our plot structure, and all those potential “what if?!” possibilities. It prompts us to ask new questions. An outline should force a writer to create, to improvise, and to improve our original concept. An outline need not contain minutia—only the necessary basics. For some writers, the bare bones of the chapter might be as simple as:

Chapter 17: Johnny gets stuck in Bumfuque. He meets a mysterious stranger. The stranger tells Johnny a secret.

Remember, outlining isn’t a first draft. It’s simply a useful tool.

An admission: Outlining isn’t my favorite part of novel writing, but I typically discover new ideas and characters, and unexpected plot twists, waiting to emerge. So it’s become an integral part of my own personal process. I audition each and every new thought. Sometimes it works, sometimes not. But if a notion doesn’t make the cut, I’ve saved myself a lot of time and heartache dumping it quickly, rather than trying to puzzle-piece a square peg into a round hole.

I found an early outline/timeline that I created for my crime novel On The Edge. I’m including a random snippet below, to better illuminate the intent of the outline; that is to function as a convenient shorthand, reminding the writer: where, what, who, when and how. BTW, the text shown in red indicates incomplete thoughts that I’ll tackle later. Note that the italicized words are in-place chapter openings that allow me, with a quick glance, to more easily reacquaint myself with exactly where I am in the novel. (A timeline isn’t necessary, but if you’re working with multiple characters who must converge in a timely fashion, a timeline can be a life saver!)

Thus:

(Page) 112 • THURS AM
He sat on an aluminum chair in a small room…
Bobby’s questioned by the two cops (Scaggs and Ramona)
who are suspicious of his alibi. Bobby suspects Peter Dumas
is the killer but the detectives don’t share that assumption.

pg 119 • Backstory
Two weeks before Dumas pointed a gun at Elliot…
Elliot and Peter Dumas talk
about the hacked Intek secrets.
Dumas believes the data
is highly confidential, perhaps even
military secrets. He
tells Elliot to drop the matter. Too dangerous
for them
to pursue. Elliot reluctantly agrees—but end the scene
with
Elliot grinning mischievously when Dumas’s back is turned.

• THU PM or FRI AM?
Segue back to present. Bobby and Niki scene (who’s POV?)

but conversation probably about Dumas. Did he or not kill Elliot?
Motives??

pg 124 • FRI PM
Niki Song took a ticket stub and pulled her Celica….
Niki meets with agent Mitch Raleigh. She confirms
that her undercover status has not been compromised.

pg 131 • Backstory
Elliot had died for his sins… (Dumas reflects.) Flashback.
Is he frantic here or self-assured? First glimpse of Dumas’s
sociopathic behavior—or save this trait for later?

pg 135 • FRI PM
Dumas pokes through Elliot’s briefcase, looking for info.
Clues of Elliot’s deceit begin to fall into place.

pg 141 Backstory
(Put this here? Or move before pg 135?)

In a sane world, Mitchell Raleigh knew an agent…
Mitch Raleigh reflects. Worries that
he may be putting Niki
in harm’s way.)

pg 143 • SAT AM
Niki drives to Rancho Madera; meets with Dumas to chat.

pg 150 • SAT PM
She couldn’t stop thinking about Bobby Leland….
Niki searches for Bobby. She finds him and invites him to spend
the night in her guest room.
(Not a romantic scene. More like
two friends making amends.
Careful. Cautious.)

And so on…

Note that a timeline can be as basic as the outline itself. Many plots don’t need to choreograph a timeline. In my case (above) I have several sets of characters who will converge at a specific moment in the story. Thus, by creating even a vague timeline, I’m assuring myself that everybody gets there on time.

So, yeah, thinking ahead helps. Outlining can spark a creative energy that pushes your plot forward, catches wrong turns before they happen, and can even offer new ideas, fresh out of nowhere. So, for most of us, it’s a necessary tool. But, again, s’up to you.
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Finding Your Voice (Part 3)

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

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

 

A.K.A.: First Person vs. Third Person. (It’s a bigger issue than me or him.)

Note: Various writing teachers/critics refer to narrative and authorial voice as an author’s Point of View (POV). However, as not to confuse an author’s own voice with the author’s characters’ voices, I shall refrain here from using POV, and simply refer to narrative or authorial voices as first person or third person, respectively.

The Narrative Perspective—linguistically speaking, deictic referencing—is a grammatical stew of who, when and where, essential information that will greatly influence the tone and tenor of your novel. Who is telling the story—you, the author, or one or more or your characters speaking through you? Might you also choose to impart an all-knowing, omniscient voice to further describe your characters? And when is your story told? (Now or then?) Where? (Here or there.) All relevant questions to ask yourself before you begin to write.

Your options? A list of common perspectives:

• First person/past tense (e.g.; narrator’s voice): I loved Paris.
• First person/present tense: I love Paris.
• Third person/past tense. (e.g.; authorial voice): She loved Paris.
• Third person/present tense: She loves Paris.
• Third person/omniscient/present conditional): She would one day find love in Paris.

Less relevant and not recommended (except as dialog or inner monologue):

• First person/future tense: I will love Paris.
• Second person/past tense: You loved Paris.
• Second person/present tense: You love Paris.
• Second person/future tense: You will love Paris.

Jay McInerney wrote the entirely of Bright Lights, Big City in 2nd person. The novel begins: “You are not the kind of guy who would be at a place like this at this time of the morning…” This voice can sustain a novel—McInerney’s is a very good novel—but not easily and probably not without being regarded by your literary peers as ‘effusive.’ So, no, probably don’t use it.

Finding one’s own narrative perspective—that is writing a novel in first person (1P) vs. third person (3P)—is a bigger issue than simply writing “I am going to town” or “She went to town.” You’ll likely find that your sentence construction, your cadence—possibly your entire plot structure—significantly different, depending on which voice you choose. Visual cues will differ. Character depth will differ. Your character’s thought patterns will differ. Character motivations may differ in terms of your relying on dialog (two characters communicating) versus internal monologue (a character thinking unspoken thoughts to which the reader is privy). You may find your entire writing style shifting to some degree, to accommodate the voice you choose.

Also, when writing in 1P, using a narrative or narrator’s voice, you’re restricted to solely using the “I” character to impart knowledge to the reader. Mary may be thinking about killing me, but I don’t know that for certain. Only your principal character will reveal thoughts to the reader—an attribute that can be both incredibly illuminating and restricting. If you’re writing in 1P, you’re allowing the character to speak directly to the reader. For instance, Barbara Kingsolver begins her novel The Bean Trees:

“I have been afraid of putting air in a tire ever since I saw a tractor tire blow up and throw Newt Hardbine’s father over the top of the Standard Oil sign. I’m not lying. He got stuck up there.”

However, should you, as author, choose to tell your story from your own perspective, you’re speaking in authorial voice. You’re writing in 3P, typically in either past or present tense. In the novel Prodigal Summer, Kingsolver begins:

“Her body moved with the frankness that comes with solitary habits. But solitude is only a human presumption. Every quiet step is thunder to beetle life underfoot; every choice is a world made new for the chosen. All secrets are witnessed.

“If someone in this forest had been watching her—a man with a gun, for instance, hiding inside a copse of leafy beech trees—he would have noticed how quickly she moved up the path and how direly she scowled at the ground ahead of her feet.”

Using authorial voice, you have the added bonus of alternating with—should you choose—an omniscient voice. As omniscient narrator, you’re essentially a puppet-master looking down upon your characters and providing the reader with an objective overview of their lives. Interestingly, in Prodigal Summer (above), Ms. Kingsolver shifts to present tense to reflect her omniscient voice in the second line.

Remember the Stage Manager in Thornton Wilder’s play Our Town? (It’s been a staple in high schools for decades.) Mr. Wilder ingeniously offers his omniscient voice a living stage persona, a character unseen and unknown by the other actors. Early in Act I, the Stage Manager states: “Over there is the Congregational Church; across the street’s the Presbyterian. Methodist and Unitarian are over there.” The Stage Manager is not speaking to the actors. He’s speaking to the audience. The actors are oblivious to the Stage Manager’s presence.

Another example—and advantage—of writing in 3P is switching freely between authorial voice (shown in italics below) and omniscient voice (in bold italics):

As Jonathan stumbled through the steaming Manaquirian jungle, he felt a sudden sting on his shoulder. Christ, he hated mosquitoes. He considered them nothing more than tiny, insufferable vampires, sucking the lifeblood from any creature who dared enter their blistering realm. Little did Jonathan know that this insect would infect him with a lethal strain of malaria that would, without an antidote, inexorably dissolve his brain into a soggy beef broth.

It can be a good way to build drama.

If you write in 1P, do realize that we, your readers, won’t know (until Jonathan himself tells us) that his brain is turning to mush. If Jonathan doesn’t know, we don’t know either. However, there exists subtle methods to invoke a similar sort of faux omniscient information. No, you’re not using omniscient voice. You’re cheating by creating a useful backstory. Or hearsay. Or conversations with convenient strangers. Thus:

As I stumbled through the steaming Manaquirian jungle, I felt a sudden sting on my shoulder. Christ, I hated mosquitoes. They’re insufferable buggers, little more than tiny vampires sucking the lifeblood from any creature who dares enter their blistering realm. Years ago, while camped in Tupana, I’d heard horror stories about a rare killer mosquito hiding in this part of the Amazon. It was a new breed of insect whose sting would slowly dissolve a human brain into a soggy beef broth. I hoped to God one of those little lethal bastards wouldn’t find me, as the nearest medical facility, and the nearest antidote, awaited me in Manaus, a good fifty miles away.

Different voice? Sure, and likely a different style, subliminal or not. For instance, I didn’t intend to alter the above translation (3P/1P), but each voice demands nuance and subtlety. It’s not as simple as switching from him to me. Your novel will be quite literally built around the specific voice you use.

So… not sure which voice to use? Might I suggest allowing yourself a few pages to toy with different perspectives? Write a scene in 3P and then rewrite those same pages in 1P. Try past tense. Try present tense. Does a particular voice call to you? Do you feel yourself able to better express yourself more articulately using a particular voice? Personally, I find this exercise to be one of the more enjoyable guilty pleasures of beginning a new book.
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