Dialogue. (Part 8:) When dialogue doesn’t work

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Writing Great Dialogue (Part 8)
When dialogue doesn’t work.

By now you’re probably aware that I love dialogue. I love its texture, its allure and ambiance, it subliminal mood enhancement (e.g.; the squeal of joy, the cry of alarm, the subtle whisper.) Both the impeccably placed, “I love you more than life itself, my darling Rosette,” and “You’re dead to me, Alfredo,” work exceptionally well on my tender psyche. I love the spoken word’s ability to fully express a character’s mood or emotion, or to more completely develop a character’s true nature. I love its ability to turn the plot on a dime. For instance:

…..“I love you more than life itself, Rosette. You are the most beautiful, intelligent, wonderful woman I’ve ever—” Pierre paused, his eyes widening, his attention suddenly shifting beyond Rosette’s beautiful, intelligent, wonderful shoulder. “Say, isn’t that Mssr. LeBeaux’s missing Rembrandt hanging over your fireplace?”

Meaning that, unlike omniscient narration—where the writer often may need pages of careful planning and a deft hand to shift momentum or to redirect a story’s direction—by merely interrupting a character’s dialogue (in mid-word if appropriate) the writer can provide instant redirection. Or misdirection, should necessity require.

I’m easily goose-bumped when confronting great witty or passionate or nuanced dialogue. So, yeah—me and dialogue, we’re tight. Simpatico. We’re cerebral dream lovers. Fantasy friends. If dialogue were mud and I was a pig… Well, you get the idea.

After spilling countless buckets of digital ink extolling the virtues of dialogue, I’m here to reveal dialogue’s seedy underbelly, its subversive or toxic presence in any novel. It’s a tool, after all. And one doesn’t hammer nails with a hacksaw. Because, yes, misguided dialogue can cause writers a world of hurt.

Here, then, are those areas where I believe dialogue (or prolonged use of dialogue) may not be your best bet. Six scenarios where I’d advise against using dialogue (or excessive dialogue) are:

1. Using dialogue as an alternative for action.

…..“Look at that volcano, Avignon! Have you ever seen such a magnificent eruption in your entire life? Look at all that smoke. Look at all that belching fire. Look at the village burning! Isn’t it breathtaking!”

As a reader, I don’t want to be informed via dialogue about an important visual. If you’re writing about any sort of dramatic incident or event—a passionate kiss, a sinking ship, an erupting volcano?—realize that readers want to live those moments, as close to the action as possible. We want to experience the earth trembling, the heat of the spouting lava, the yearning or the terror or the joy. I want Avignon, and the reader, to be right up there on the side of the mountain, smelling the sulfur fumes and watching the lava flowing dangerously near. So show me the volcano, don’t simply tell me second hand. Show me the battle. Or the love. Or the brain-sucking zombies. I want to feel, smell, taste and observe every crucial detail—and not hear about it second-hand.

Sure, sometimes dialogue can be necessary to prime a potential plot, and that’s okay. Consider (early in Act I, perhaps) this sort of spoken set-up:

…..“Doug’s grandfather was a Marine on Okinawa during the war,” Ben said. “He saw his share of Japanese soldiers charging at him with fixed bayonets. His best friend, Walter, was killed right in front of his eyes. According to Doug’s gran’pappy, three days before Walter died, he found this map.” Ben stared down at the tattered parchment lying on the table between them.
…..“See that little red X in the middle, that’s Sui Gushiku,” Ben continued. “Shuri Castle, it’s called today. The place was destroyed during the war, and rebuilt as a school. But Doug’s grandfather told him a hundred times that Walter swore he’d discovered some sort of secret tunnel. The access is hidden in a nearby forest, hard to find, and leads to an underground chamber beneath the school. That faded X is where Walter supposedly found the statue. Swears it’s solid gold. Treasure chests, too. Dozens of them. Doug thinks there’s a good chance all that loot’s still there, unknown and untouched for nearly a century. Hey, pass the rum, willya?”

So yeah, dialogue can work as a tease. As a prompt. But as a reader, I better soon be following Doug and Ben on an adventure and experience that secret chamber for myself, and not just hear about it from somebody else.

2. Using long-winded or intense dialogue in the middle of action. (Refer again to Action VS. Information). Do not drop an extended dialogue in the middle of an intense action scene. If in doubt, schedule important scenes of lengthy dialogue before or after scenes of intense action.

3. Using dialogue as an RDS (Rapid Delivery System). Dialogue can be quite useful as a convenient and conversational way to hasten along all sorts of character development or plot momentum. If done well, a reader won’t even realize that they’re downloading a significant bit of data. However, one should avoid writing a summation of events using dialogue. The fictive summary—basically an abridgement or synopsis of a plot, of a scene, or of a character’s complicated rationale—becomes a passionless, tension-lacking device to quickly whisk readers from Point A to Point B. If a scene is in your book, then it deserves to be told with both passion and panache. The summary lacks both qualities, and (imho) is often the result of lazy writing. If you’re unwilling to paint a complete picture, why should a reader be willing to spend time striving to enjoy such a limited view? For instance:

.….“How did you manage to survive, Penelope?”
…..“It wasn’t too bad. During the summer months, when the zombie hoards were decimating most of the city, we just kicked back and watched TV. Since zombies don’t have a clue how to use elevators, my cousin Kenny and I lived in the penthouse suite of the Ritz Carlton and every week or so I’d take the express down to the basement and raid the kitchen. I mostly lived on cans of soup and, until the power died, frozen beef patties. Oh, sure, the meandering dead eventually found a way in. One of those damn zombies killed Kenny and another ate my dog’s brain, so that’s when I left. And here I am.”

Wait—they killed Kenny? They ate Spot’s brain? Sounds like a great deal was indeed happening up in the penthouse. And yet a great deal of potential drama is told in summation. Meh! As a reader, I want to know how the zombies discovered the penthouse! If Kenny or Spot were important characters in your book, I’d expect a far more dramatic and heartfelt sendoff than a brief word or two. Show us the terror. Show us Spot’s brain in all it’s delightfully gory detail.

4. Using dialogue to introduce reader-feeder. (Reader-feeder being too much information, too quickly compressed, or else information that the writer attempts to reveal to the reader via characters already well aware of that info…and thus without a logical necessity to reveal to one another.)

For instance, let’s say we’re writing a novel about centers on twin brothers, Ed and Ned, who live in a small Midwestern town, and they’re trying to solve their father’s murder. A few pages in, Ed turns to Ned and says, “Our murdered father’s name was Stanley.” Even if readers do not yet know this information, both brothers obviously know it, so the revelation—as written—comes across as reader feeder.

The quick fix is by tweaking the dialogue to more discreetly reveal such info:

…..“You’re Stan’s twin boys, aren’t you?”
…..“That’s right, sheriff,” Ed said. “And we’re here to ask you what you’re doing to find our father’s killer.”

Or through monologue:

…..Our dad, Stanley Jones, didn’t have an enemy in the world. And yet, somebody shot him seven times and left him in a ditch off of the Interstate. No matter how long it takes, me and my brother Ned, we intend to find out who killed him.

Or through omniscient narration:

…..Stanley Jones didn’t have an enemy in the world. Except somebody had shot the old man several times, then left his body in a ditch near Interstate 95. Ed and his brother Ned were bound and determined to discover who killed him. Or die trying.

Since creating/eradicating reader-feeder isn’t dialogue specific, and can subjectively exist on a multitude of level, see Reader-Feeder. (Coming Soon.)

5. Using dialogue as a shortcut for a writer’s fear of depth. As odd as this may sound, some writers (me among them, although I’m getting better) have a subliminal habit of forcing emotions upon characters.

Calvin told Susan that he loved her. She hugged him tightly and, through cascading tears of joy, Susan told Calvin that she loved him too.

So what’s wrong with this? I mean, in rare situations this may work. (This also works in short works of fiction.) But do realize that you’re distancing the reader from visualizing those emotions playing out on the page. Real emotion isn’t always easy to express, and some writers may feel that a simple “I love you,” cuts through all that sticky red tape of oogy emotions. But consider a simple line, such as:

Calvin brought Susan a small vase of flowers from the garden that morning, the same way he’d brought her fresh flowers every morning for the last twenty-five years.

If that isn’t love, I don’t know what is. But by depicting random acts of love in this manner you’re allowing readers to gradually—and more fully—comprehend the depths Calvin’s affection. A writer can conceivably pen a brilliant love story without ever uttering the words “I love you.” It’s the old show, don’t tell theory of novel writing.

In certain situations, there’s nothing wrong with: Calvin told Susan that he loved her Should circumstances dictate, using a more passive narration may create a mood that better fits your intentions. But realize that this sort of faux dialogue typically distances the reader from the immediacy and  passion of the moment. And, after 457 pages of gradually building foreplay in a smoldering, epochal love story, this:

He told her that he loved her.

…ain’t nearly as mind-blowingly fulfilling as:

“I love you more than life itself, Rosette.”

Trust me.

6. Using dialogue instead of monologue. Basically, when a character speaks, that’s dialogue. When a character has a private thought, that’s monologue. Obviously, when a character’s alone on a page, that character will seldom speak aloud—I mean, why bother?—and will resort to a thought bubble to pass along information to readers.

I shouldn’t really be doing this, Irene thought, cautiously reaching for the glowing door handle.

Sure, there are times a character may actually speak aloud when alone—but use this trait sparingly. (Characters who routine mumble to themselves may seem a bit…strange, perhaps?) But monologue is no less important than dialogue in a story, and if you’re writing in First Person voice, monologue may actually become your favored approach to communicating with the reader. Some developing writers will attempt to find another character to fit into a scene, simply to force a dialogue whenever communication is necessary. I’m not sure why. A writer should never be off-put by a character’s personal thoughts. Nor is it likely that a character won’t have private thoughts—even in scenes crowded with people. Depicting characters using inner thought (basically, a tool that allows a character to speak directly to readers) is, imho, an integral part of character development. (Also refer to: Dialogue vs. Monologue.).

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Beast Mode

Beast Mode.

We all have one—a way of reacting to the world that does not involve higher-order, logical processing capacities, nor does it draw upon loving compassion for guidance. This level of reactivity conjures up a survival instinct far more primitive, and it triggers violent behaviors that are far more primal. 

Beast Mode switches on automatically whenever we experience a direct (real and present) threat to our very survival. The energy surge that enables a mother to lift a massive car off an injured child? Beast Mode. The impulse to fling the entire family into a car and barrel through a blazing wildfire to get to physical safety? Beast Mode. The decision to tackle an active shooter in the instant he stops to reload? Beast Mode. The compulsion to run for your life when the shooting starts? Also Beast Mode. 

It’s vital that we do have access to Beast Mode for our own survival, because our physical bodies depend upon it for protection from the more powerful energy flows that exist well beyond our personal control. The challenge? Because we all have a beast mode, and because the primary characteristic of Beast Mode involves switching off instantly our capacity to reason, as well as silencing our more complex emotional center—which it does in order to make certain that all incoming emergency signals get directed where they need to go, and that enough physical energy flows to the body parts that need to react most urgently to whatever emergency is arising for us—we remain expressly vulnerable to anyone who seeks to stimulate us deliberately into activating our Beast Mode. For once stimulated into Beast Mode, we automatically surrender the power to reason, and to feel our more complex emotions, in exchange for a temporary surge in our physical capacity to react to a direct threat upon our lives. 

Beast mode can feel good when it expresses, because it feels strong, alpha, decisive, bold, brave. It enables us to jettison the delicate inner balance between mind, heart, and body that normally keeps our physical dynamism in check. Unleashed, however, Beast Mode enables us to violate civil norms and act violently, selfishly, cruelly, and unapologetically in service to our physical survival. It therefore represents the absolute id of the life force itself, powering up within us and then erupting into the world in a furious outburst of physical energy.

Because it can feel good to express Beast Mode, some people become addicted to the powerful energetic surge that they feel whenever this inner demon comes out to play. Such people can even become conditioned to make Beast Mode their first strategic reaction to the slightest provocation that they suspect may exist “out there” or “in the future.” They learn how to use their minds not to reason through a complex challenge properly, but to tell melodramatic life stories that justify allowing Beast Mode to become their default mode of engagement with most other humans. I find this approach to be a horrible misuse and a waste of the rational mind. It causes people to grow addicted to outrage because outrage gives them an excuse to let out the mindless rage that makes them feel powerful.

Others feel terrified to even acknowledge they have a Beast Mode, and repress it ruthlessly out of fear of what they might do if they ever accidentally unleashed it. These people decide that—rather than get to know Beast Mode and become more masterful at learning how to use it appropriately through greater conscious awareness of both its gifts and limitations—they would do well to tenderize the entire universe sufficiently, so that Beast Mode becomes obsolete in humankind. Some refer to this repressive impulse as “spiritual bypassing” because it avoids the dark and treacherous work of turning inward to meet and explore one’s own Beast Mode. These people, who preach only love and light by cursing the darkness, have condemned Beast Mode before meeting it directly, so they tend to be repulsed by its existence, which they then find seemingly everywhere they look…just beyond themselves. They may even call themselves empaths, but all too often they hide behind the concept of empathy as a means of avoiding acknowledging Beast Mode in themselves. Being “too empathic” to tolerate Beast Mode when it arises in others can often be simply a fear of Beast Mode masquerading as “highly empathic distress.” A fancier, more acceptable name for fear. 

Getting to know Beast Mode—befriending it even—therefore seems essential for our capacity to experience genuine communion and participate successfully in collaborative, creative endeavors. Why? Because those in denial of Beast Mode within themselves cannot be trusted to collaborate congenially once their pressure points get unexpectedly triggered. And those whose “go to” reaction defaults to Beast Mode once the slightest stressors appear cannot be trusted to not disrupt the collaborative creativity underway. 

Those who accept the existence of Beast Mode within themselves, and who have unflinchingly observed Beast Mode in action (both internally and in others) appreciate that—like so many processes in this world—it belongs to the class of energetic behaviors that serves us best when it remains fully available, freely accessible, and rarely (if ever) used to achieve the desired objective. 

We are not here to slay some angry, exhausted beast who lives within us, nor to reject it as “unworthy” by locking it away in our subconsciousness and losing the key forever. For it isn’t “a being”, so much as a way of expressing. We are here, therefore, to relax and allow our personal Beast Mode to find its proper place in the human toolbox of energetic ways to self-express. This will allow Beast Mode to be fully loved and accepted for serving us in its highest and best energetic expression whenever its energy is truly required.

— Eileen Workman
Author of Raindrops of Love For a Perfect World
and Sacred Economics (The Currency of Life)

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Dialogue (Part 7): Attribution

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A notebook for fiction writers and aspiring novelists. One editor’s perspective.

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Writing Great Dialogue:
Attribution

Dialogue is perhaps the most essential, the most versatile, of any writer’s tools. One could conceivably write a novel without dialogue (or monologue)—although I wouldn’t recommend it—because dialogue is the humanity that brings a novel to life. Plotting may be its backbone, but dialogue is a book’s heart and soul. However, clarity is paramount, especially in crowded scenes when multiple characters speak. So be certain that you properly identify those characters to the reader.

…..“I love you, Bruce,” Tanya said.

Attribution—that is, to attribute (or ‘tag’) speech to a specific character, e.g.; he said, she said—is a placeholder of sorts, a metaphorical blinking arrow indicating the speaking party. One can also use an attribution modifier (AKA, a beat) to depict either the speaker or the listener’s visual prompts during a conversation: A nod, a shrug, a thoughtful pause, for instance.* About the only advice I can suggest is to integrate these markers as clearly and as discreetly as you’re able. When attribution (and/or any attached descriptive modifiers) become obvious on the page: “I hate every bone in your body,” Jeanette screeched in that loud, obnoxious, maniacal way she usually did when she drank too many Lambrusco wine coolers. …you’ve perhaps tried too hard.** However, as a rule of thumb, allow your characters’ personalities to define each character, and not an overabundance of attribution. When in doubt, err on the side of simplicity. 

If your scene depicts only two characters chatting, you can tag a character sparingly. Readers will understand that two people are taking turns speaking, and that’s usually pretty easy to determine. Something like:

.….“Where’s the vodka?” Steve said.
…..“Over there on the bar,” Linda told him.
…..“No, the bottle’s empty.”
…..She pointed. “There’s another bottle in the kitchen.”
…..“Okay, thanks.”
…..“No problem.”
…..“Hey, would you like another drink?””
…..“Yeah,” she said. “Thanks. A vodka tonic.”

Yes, a new paragraph must separate each character’s spoken words. It’s an important visual indication to the reader.

This is incorrect:
…..“How are you feeling?” Ted asked. “Pretty well, thanks,” Alice replied.

This is correct:
…..“How are you feeling?” Ted asked.
…..“Pretty well, thanks,” Alice replied.

If only two people appear in the scene, this is also correct:

…..“How are you feeling?” Ted asked.
…..“Okay, I guess.”
or
…..“How are you feeling?”
…..“Okay, I guess,” Alice replied.

Because once tagged, Ted’s question or Alice’s reply will be intuitively understood.

And, if you wish too embellish further, by using descriptive modifiers, these visual beats should remain relevant to the moment by adding visual cues to the reader:

…..“How are you feeling?”
…..Alice frowned, absently touching the bruise on her shoulder. “Okay, I guess.”

Alice’s visual depiction is sufficient for the reader to decipher who’s speaking, and also feeds readers subtle clues about a character or plot. Typically, keep the beat and the speaker’s dialogue in the same paragraph, to avoid confusion. You can tag both characters in a snippet conversation, and provide both a modifier and attribution, although it’s not necessary, and may actually feel repetitive:

…..“How are you feeling?” Ted asked.
…..Alice shrugged, absently touching the bruise on his shoulder. “Okay, I guess,” she said.

Too much? (S’up to you!)

Attribution becomes a bit more complicated with three or more characters depicted in a conversation. But the same rules (usually) apply. Use only sufficient attribution necessary to avoid confusion, or to give slight visual cues that can add clarity to the scene that would otherwise look like:

…..“How are you feeling?”
…..“Pretty well, thanks.”
…..“Not me. I bruised my shoulder.”

Okay, so who’s saying what? The simple fix is:

…..“How are you feeling?” Ted asked.
…..“Okay, I guess,” Alice replied.
…..Richard shrugged, absently touching the bruise on his shoulder. “Yeah, I’ve been better.”

Numerous variables apply when considering attributes, and you’ll quickly realize what sort of stylistic cadence best suits your needs:

…..“How are you feeling?” Ted asked.
…..Richard stared forlornly at the overturned bus and said nothing.
…..Alice touched the bruise on her shoulder. “I’ve been better.” She shook her head, wondering how the hell the accident even happened.

Another concern is avoiding repetition that might quickly lead to reader fatigue, such as when resorting to this sort of mindless overload:

……“How are you feeling?” Ted asked.
……“Pretty well, thanks,” Alice said.
……“I think I bruised my shoulder,” Richard said.
.
…..“I should take a look,” Ted said.
……“I bandaged him up last night,” Alice said.
……“I think I’ll be okay,” Richard said.
……“Let’s see if we can fix this thing,” Ted said.

.It’s perfectly acceptable to add longer snippets of visual clarity during a conversation as well. Typically during conversations—especially longer conversations—one’s characters can subtly continue to move the plot forward.

…..“How are you feeling?” Ted asked.
…..“Pretty well, thanks,” Alice said. She shook her head, wondering how the hell the accident had happened. The last thing she remembered was Richard’s cry of alarm as the bus suddenly swerved off the road and began to tumble down the embankment. “I don’t even know what happened.”
…..“A deer ran out in front of us,” Richard said, remembering the moment. “I’m sorry. I guess I overreacted a bit. Is the bus totaled?
…..Alice nodded. “Yeah, we’re not going anyway soon.”

Even during conversations, your characters should be physically or mentally active. (I mean, how many motionless conversations have you had?) If your characters are little more than limp stick figures throughout the conversation, with little or no visual stimulation or forward momentum, that scene may very quickly become a talking heads scene—and even if the information imparted is important, you may lose a reader’s interest. So, yes, while dialogue is important, active dialogue is crucial. In fact, it’s now a rule:

Rule #55: Don’t just write dialogue, write active dialogue. Avoid ‘talking heads’ scenes by maintaining visual stimulation or plot momentum during intense scenes of dialogue. In other words, if you depict two characters attempting to diffuse a ticking time bomb with thirty-seconds remaining on the timer, they don’t stop diffusing the bomb to carry on a conversation. Keep the plot moving.

A few notes about structure.

Keep all punctuation elements (commas, periods, etc.) inside of quotation marks. 

This is incorrect.
…..“How are you feeling”? Ted asked.
…..“I’m feeling okay”, Alice said.
…..“So am I” somebody else said. (lacking punctuation)

This is correct.
…..“How are you feeling?” Ted asked.
…..“I’m feeling okay,” Alice said.
…..“So am I.” Richard slowly nodded. “I think I’ll be okay.”

This (front loading an attribution) is also correct.
.….“How are you feeling?”
…..Alice said, “I’m okay.”

Also, only use periods as final punctuation of attribution itself. Never: “How are you feeling?” Ted asked?

You can insert attribution (and/or descriptive modifiers) in mid-sentence if spontaneity or heightened drama is necessary.

…..“I don’t think it’s wise—” Paul jerked Andrea’s hand back from the ticking package. “—to touch that thing.”

In longer soliloquies (a soliloquy being a dense solo monologue) it’s okay to provide paragraph breaks in the same manner you’d format any sort of lengthy narrative structure. However, do not provide a closing quote mark between paragraphs. By omitting the interim closing quote, you’re visually alerting the reader that the new paragraph is a continuation paragraph; words spoken by the same person. Thus:

…..Paul said, “I haven’t seen Josh in nearly ten years. I’m not sure I’d even recognize him these days. Not since the accident. I heard the collision messed up his brain. His mother told me he would sometimes wake up at night and swear he could see ghost-like apparitions standing at the foot of his bed.
…..The strange thing is,” Paul continued, “Josh told me once that he used to see ghosts even before the accident. I didn’t tell his mom, of course. I think she’d rather blame his personality disorder on the crash.”
…..“I never knew that,” Andrea said.

Also take note of the two distinct schools of thought concerning attribution. Some writers believe that attribution should only consist of: he said or she said—lacking any other sort of descriptive modifier. True fundamentalists won’t even switch between said or asked, should a question be posed. Thus, one would write: “Is that gun loaded?” Mary said. Another option? Mary stared curiously at the gun and frowned. “Is that thing loaded?”

Such fundamentalists also loath assisted attribution, such as: “Don’t point that thing at me,” Paul said angrily. They insist (and perhaps with some validity) that the dialogue itself should define a moment’s potency, whether fear, cheer or excitement.

The more liberal group of attributionists (of which I’m a cautious advocate) feel that attribution can provide numerous modifiers to enhance a reader’s perception. “I didn’t think to check,” Gary admitted.

Thus, one can say, one can ask, one can query, one can admit, one can call, one can whisper, one can cajole, one can blubber, one can bark, one can wonder, one can insist

By providing additional descriptive modifiers, one can also ask quietly, one can admit freely, one can call loudly, one can whisper suspiciously, one can blubber uncontrollably, one can vehemently insist…as well.

For instance, consider the sentence: “Don’t do it, JoAnne,” Maria said. With minimal effort, a writer can fine tune a specific emotion or mood. For example, a single modifier can drastically change the nuance of the character speaking:

“Don’t do it, JoAnne,” Maria said excitedly.
“Don’t do it, JoAnne,” Maria said with a laugh.
“Don’t do it, JoAnne,” Maria said, horrified.

However, I do believe a writer should use these more effusive attributions sparingly, and I agree that simple ‘he said’ or ‘she said’ usage should be considered standard fare. Every once in awhile, however, I find it more aesthetically pleasing or dramatically astute for a character to admit or whisper or adamantly insist.

But, again, simplicity and discretion is the key.

“One last note about punctuation!” I belatedly screamed. While this point is somewhat off-topic, it bears repeating: Exclamation points. Don’t use them. If you must, use them sparingly. Rarely. Seldomly. Unless you’re writing YA (because  you have more wiggle room when applying emphasis) I suggest using as few as one or two a chapter. Certainly no more than one every few pages. Just be aware an editor or publisher will remove 95% of these literary cockroaches. Why? Because readers expect you to use your writing skills to infer excitement. Repeated use of ! is the mark of an inexperienced writer, and almost as horrific as using emojis in a manuscript.

BTW: Rarely,  if ever, has a character of mine hissed. However, I don’t believe I’ve ever seen a fantasy novel where at least one evil wizard doesn’t let fly an angry hiss or two. My only suggestion is that one shouldn’t attempt to hiss if there are no inherent essss sounds in a sentence.

For instance: “Seldom have I seen such sniveling incompetence,” the evil wizard hissed.

But one cannot hiss out a sentence such as: “Where did you find that golden goblet, Conan?

“Make sense?” I ask.


* Be careful to avoid repetitive attribution. A page filled with people smiling or pausing or shrugging gets old quickly. If Mary Ellen pauses thoughtfully on page 12, I really don’t want to see her pause again for another 10-20 pages. She can regard Henry cautiously, or stop to ponder the hole in the floor, but frequent shrugging, smiling and pausing becomes quickly annoying to readers. (This is also a valid reason to give characters various traits or tics. For instance, if Mary Ellen wears glasses, she can occasionally nudge. If she’s allergic to spring, she can sometimes sneeze…so these sorts of attributes during a conversation can include completely independent gestures, expressions or movements.)

** Although occasionally, the situation and/or style permitting, I can’t deny that the above sentence could possibly work! Although many of us would probably consider the paragraph somewhat reader-feederish. (Too much info, too compressed.) But never say never.
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Times Like These

During these challenging times, I’m maintaining focus on inner work. I continue to notice that when chaos surrounds me and getting my bearings externally doesn’t work (because our social maps fail), I can always establish an inner “attitudinal alignment” that enables me to center awareness deep within in my core, so that I might meet the apparent chaos from my internal place of greatest strength. 

My seven core be-attitudes? They happen to align beautifully with the seven chakra centers that Eastern philosophy notes as being the power centers within the human body. Beginning at the root chakra and ending at the crown, they are: trust, openness, courage, compassion, kindness, patience, and peacefulness. 

When I radiate these seven be-attitudes I find that I gain the highest degree of clarity about my surroundings as is possible under whatever circumstances have arisen. They keep ME clear. And while in that state, I am able to draw upon the aggregated wisdom of the cosmos, the inexhaustible power of love, and the innate gracefulness of the entire material world to support whatever needs to be accomplished. 
All I need to do is be willing to go within and realign myself to these base attitudes…right now. And since it’s always now, it’s on me to be always willing.

That’s my work. ❤️

— Eileen Workman
Author of Raindrops of Love For a Perfect World
and Sacred Economics (The Currency of Life)

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Dialogue (Part 6B): More Q. & A.

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A notebook for fiction writers and aspiring novelists. One editor’s perspective.

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Writing Great Dialogue:
More Q. & A. (Cont’d)

Continued from the previous post.

• • •

Q. Can I write a novel using dialogue but without monologue?

A. You can…but I wouldn’t advise it. You’re using dialogue (the spoken word) to share vital information with other characters but also with the reader. You’re using monologue to reveal a character’s inner (secret?) thoughts solely to the reader. By truncating or eliminating monologue, you’re insinuating that none of your characters have a cogent notion that readers will find useful—unless that character’s near enough another character to initiate a verbal exchange. You’re basically telling us that none of your characters have a private opinion or an internal concern. That doesn’t seem likely.

I also question why a writer might be reluctant to delve into a character’s subconscious mind. I can understand that if one’s writing about a zombie holocaust or an invasion from Mars, internal speculation may not be high on your list of priorities—but still, I’d be surprised if even the staunchest Martian-blasting astronaut doesn’t have a thought or two worth sharing. For instance: Well, that’s a crazy notion, Muldoon thought of Tully’s idea to storm the Martian base using the last remaining ATV. Meaning that your characters are very likely occasionally sharing some personal asides with the reader, just not with sufficient depth to be considered truly “thought-provoking.”

I’ve even known a writer or two whose characters verbally mumble their thoughts aloud. “Well, that’s a crazy notion,” Muldoon mumbled to himself. I mean, sure, that option may work on occasion—but to have an entire novel filled with people mumbling to themselves might seem a bit…strange. The simplest solution, of course, is: Well, that’s a crazy idea, Muldoon mumbled to himself thought. Bingo! You’ve broken the interior monologue barrier!

• • •

Q. Can I start dialogue in the middle of a conversation without confusing my readers? In other words, can I leave out the boring parts of a conversation?

A. Leaving out “the boring parts” is an important lesson for any novelist to learn. One of the more functional (e.g.; amazing) attributes of dialogue is the writer’s ability to so utterly control what is said and how it’s said. Where omniscient narration carries a weighty set of rules that must ground the reader to conventional standards, dialogue offers far more flexibility and room to maneuver. When writing dialogue, a writer can quickly segue in and/or out of various situations or expectations, can easily infuse character development, or can alter moods—providing comical relief in stressful situations or gravitas in lighter moments. In the middle of a conversation, the fictional speaker can abruptly change subjects, can call forth past memories, or speculate upon the future. A character can whisper secrets or outright lie (to both the reader and to other characters.) One can be quite insane, and babble accordingly. A character can solve a crime via dialogue (a la Charlie Chan) or sway opinion (a la Mr. Smith in Washington.)

Dialogue is the window into your characters’ souls (so use it accordingly). With a few spoken words, a writer can jump-start a plot or add unexpected twists and turns. Dialogue can juggle emotions, upend assumptions, can fill plot holes and reveal important secrets. Dialogue is probably the single most useful, versatile, functional tool in a novelist’s tool kit. So think of dialogue as the ‘duct tape’ equivalent—meaning it has 1001 uses and can solve a lot of problems.

For instance:

“Luke, I am your father.”

Need I say more?

(Okay, so in Star Wars: Episode V, Darth actually says, “No, I am your father.” But—just like Casablanca’s non-existent line: “Play it again, Sam“—Mr. Vader’s assumptive words have become ingrained in our collective psyche. And, back to the point, a few simple words can be as potent as any epic visual or action sequence. A few words can change everything.)

As for beginning direct dialogue (the ‘he said/she said’ part) in the middle of a conversation that’s already taking place—that’s perfectly okay, so long as the reader is suitably grounded. For instance, let’s say we’ve depicted two old friends who meet, quite by happenstance, on a cross-country train.* They haven’t seen each other for many years. Grounding, in this case, means using omniscient narration to sufficiently depict their initial chitchat—maybe they embrace and casually small talk for a few minutes, before allowing direct dialogue to continue with “the heavy work”…

…..They talked about their spouses and their children and, over a nice bottle of pinot noir in the dining car, Donna told Tom about her recent divorce. Tom told Donna about his moving away from Springfield, several years before, after his wife’s sudden death. Donna had always been a West Coast girl and offered him a frown. She remembered how much he loved sailing, and how often they’d spend evenings staring off into the ocean.
…..“Do you ever miss it, Tom?” she asked. “Living on the Pacific Coast?”
…..“All the time,” he replied wistfully.
…..“And you’ve never found a reason to return?”
…..“Not yet.”
…..“Maybe we can change that,” she said with an inviting smile.

So, yes, one can narrate characters into a conversation and then switch to direct dialogue whenever the words themselves become important enough to evoke the emotion, mood, or the precision, that you desire. Could you write the above conversation without direct dialogue? Of course.

….She remembered how much he loved staring off into the ocean and asked him if he missed the Pacific Coast. He told he did, quite often in fact, gazing at her with a wistful expression. But Tom explained that he’d never found a reason to return to California. She wondered aloud if, perhaps, he’d never found sufficient reason. Sipping her wine, she wondered if she might be able to change his mind.

So, sure, it’s possible—but authorial narration doesn’t always carry the same passionate resonance that direct dialogue can impart upon the reader. Essentially, the reader is distanced by the author, functioning (often unnecessarily) as a third-party go-between. So my advice is allow the characters to speak for themselves as much as possible.

For the record, I’m more comfortable with this sort of authorial narration in a short story, where a limited word count might necessitate truncating various elements. But when writing a novel, I’d much rather drown myself in direct verbiage than a summary of characters’ emotions.

• • •

Q. What’s meant by “timing” in dialogue?

A. Timing—in a book, in a movie, in a musical piece—is simply the precision of one’s choreography, the accuracy of one’s stage direction, the smooth transition from one thing to another. For instance, consider: John hit Rocky in the nose. He cocked his fist and swung. VS. John cocked his fist and swung. He hit Rocky in the nose. The precise order of one’s sentence structure is the choreography of a character’s words or actions. A writer is directing two (or more) actors to perform (or converse) in a timely, logical sequence. One doesn’t want to “put the cart before the horse” (as my granny used to say). But one doesn’t want to put the horse too far in front of the cart either.

Here’s an example: Let’s say you’re writing a romantic comedy. The plot is this: Rick loves Lucy. Your 378 page novel is all about Rick falling in love and, at the end, about Rick and Lucy living happily ever after. However, here’s the trick: only once in your book are you permitted to utter this phrase: “I love you, Lucy!” But only once.

Ahhh…. a conundrum!

Sure, you can visualize two people falling in love in as many ways as possible—sunset beach walks, champagne-drenched evenings by a roaring fire—and Rick can spout Shakespearean love sonnets as much as he wants. But that essential utterance of, “I love you, Lucy!” is sacrosanct, pay dirt, nirvana—and, again—the line can be used only once.

So… where might those words be best utilized? Right up front, on page one? Kind of a spoiler, isn’t it? How about on the last page? That might work, but by now, Rick’s love might be so obvious to the reader that the words have lost their effectiveness. But what about that big, serious argument midway through the novel? Maybe Lucy’s upset, frustrated, walking out the door for the last time. What about then? Might those words—unexpectedly uttered in such a predicament—work their magic? Perhaps so. Or maybe not.

There’s no right or wrong answer, by the way. A proficient writer could make the phrase work in numerous situations. The key being that, where a knowledgeable writer ultimately places that line becomes precisely where it belongs. So treat those words—not to mention every other line of dialogue you write—with the same appreciation for their dramatic impact and/or significant revelation.

• • •

Q. How do I visibly differentiate dialogue from monologue on the page. Should I use ‘single quote marks’ for monologue?

A. Typically not. At least I’ve only rarely come across that format. One option is to use italics to differentiate monologue from dialogue—in cases where a character’s thoughts are short (a line or two) or when your juxtaposing two or more characters simultaneously speaking and thinking:

…..“You’re not going out dressed like that, young lady.”
…..“Why not, mom,” Carol whined. It’s not like you give a damn anyway. “Everybody’s wearing Speedos to school.”
…..“Well, you’re not everyone, Bernice.”
…..No, I’m not. Just a girl who has a Nazi commandant as a mother.

The option is to tag your characters with attribution:

…..“You’re not going out dressed like that, young lady,” Mrs. Smith said.
…..“Why not, mom,” Carol whined. It’s not like you give a damn anyway, she thought. “Everybody’s wearing Speedos to school.”
…..“Well, you’re not everyone, Bernice.”
…..No, I’m not, she thought angrily. She didn’t know any other girl in school who had a Nazi commandant for a mother.

• • •

Q. Must my characters’ dialogue be totally plot-relevant?

A. I believe dialogue should either be relevant to my plot or—as equally important—relevant to my characters. (Refer to the basics in Dialogue Part 1 should you desire.) In the early stages of a story, plot-centric dialogue may likely be considered overkill. For instance, if my protagonist will be eventually diagnosed with cancer, sitting around talking about a distant possibility of having cancer feels far too coincidental. (It’s also considered telegraphing.) Obviously, if my intent is to depict a character sitting in a doctor’s office on page one, about to learn of the test results on page two, that’s a different situation. Still…! If that’s the case, a word of concern: Knowing about a plot-motivator (in this case, cancer) before we know a bit about any specific character, may feel a little invasive or obtrusive for readers. My rule of thumb? Properly introduce characters—if only superficially—before you put them in harm’s way. Or love’s way. Or whichever way your plot is pointing.

It’s also important for readers to settle into a physical realm, so properly set the stage—both visually and emotionally. Perhaps, before cancer strikes, this rural Virginian family has been planning a long-awaited trip to Australia. Dad, mom, the three kids and the dog are excited, and so we readers have glimpsed a cheerful family, preparing for the vacation of a lifetime. And now—oops, almost forgot about that last-minute doctor’s appointment! So I’ve allowed readers to get to know my characters—hopefully to relate and care about them—before I drop them into an intense situation. If readers don’t know the central characters, the sudden cancer diagnosis isn’t nearly as traumatic than if we do know, and like, these people.

When characters are written as likeable, we’re more empathetic to their fear and concern. Conversely, when a character’s written as unlikable (for instance, an antagonist) the reader’s more likely to fear and loath their presence. Both our heroes and villains should be well-rounded and created with proper motivation and personality before the story’s too far along. Dialogue’s one of the best ways to reveal those traits.

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* Speaking of trains, If you’re having doubts about the power of dialogue, check out Alfred Hitchcock’s Strangers On A Train (1950). The entire plot revolves around a single, random conversation. Also check out the—aptly named—The Conversation (1974). Francis Ford Coppola directs Gene Hackman in an intense, dialogue-rich murder mystery.

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