Confronting criticism

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

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Confronting criticism is an essential right of passage that every writer faces along that bumpy road toward publication. Whether you accept or dismiss critical feedback may be crucial to who you are and how you will function as a serious writer.

Okay, so let’s keep this simple. Others may disagree but, for me—as both fiction writer and content editor—only two types of criticism exist. Sooner or later, intentionally or not, most writers will confront either constructive criticism or counterproductive criticism. And knowing the difference—accepting/incorporating what may work, dismissing/ignoring what will not work—could determine our book’s success. If our intention is publication, sooner or later we will face a beta reader (non-professional editor) or a professional editor’s dreaded red pen. The secret is learning to accept (and potentially use) constructive criticism, treating such feedback as another essential tool in your creative toolbox.

How important is constructive criticism? Time for a new rule. Rule #99: Only two types of criticism exist: constructive and/or counterproductive criticism. As writers, we must allow ourselves sufficient head space to consider—meaning accept or dismiss—criticism that can improve the integrity of our work, and also to jettison advice which can detract or derail our story. Seeking credible criticism should not be about collecting accolades or kudos, but rather about improving our work.

When confronting criticism, one word of advice: Leave your dark and stormy writer’s ego outside the door, with your galoshes (…look it up!), mittens and wet umbrella.

It’s crucial to understand the difference between constructive criticism and positive feedback. An easy mistake is confusing positive criticism as constructive criticism and negative criticism as counterproductive criticism because—nope—that’s not how it works. In fact, the opposite is usually true.

The Casual Critique.
(See The Professional Critique below.)

Early on, most writers are hungry for feedback. Lacking a legion of professional editors, agents and publishers hanging outside the window to help us along, a writer’s left with friends and family and, if we’re lucky, an intimate little writer’s group. (More about that in a moment.) And, sure, there’s nothing wrong with asking the guy next door, a distant cousin who writes greeting card jingles, or our Great Aunt Isabel, for advice. If we trust their intellect and our own instincts, certainly we can enlist their support. However, I suggest treating any familial feedback with cautious optimism.

Do be wary of a friend or family member’s beaming critique: Your book is positively stunning. Your writing is poetic, your voice angelic, and your plot absolutely breathtaking.” Such accolades can be the worst possible feedback a writer can receive, should they be spoken to placate or motivate (or politely ditch) you. Pleasant words to hear, sure—but ultimately, if spoken without integrity, the joke’s on the writer.

A better choice? Seek out a beta reader—a non-relational, non-professional fiction reader—someone who reads and critiques simply for the love of reading. And, yes, a well-read friend can serve as a beta reader, but again—seeking criticism shouldn’t be about collecting accolades or kudos. (Signing a publisher’s contract and aggressive book sales will deliver that particular message.) As writers, we’re looking for helpful criticism that identifies overlooked or illogical flaws that weaken or confuse or obscure our writing and/or our message. We’re seeking ways to improve our efforts, and that occurs through occasionally hard-hitting feedback that identifies flaws and, if we’re lucky, offers potential solutions as well.

Let’s say you’re writing a murder mystery. Your protagonist is a disgruntled private investigator. The feedback: “Your protagonist does stupid things” isn’t remotely helpful. However, a thoughtful critique such as; “Your protagonist seems to get by on lucky or coincidental occurrences, but never through logic or cunning or self-reliant sleuthing. I think your protagonist needs to be more proactive in solving the mystery” is pretty good advice. Whether or not you’re able to accept such (potentially) constructive feedback depends upon your ability to free your mind, silence your ego, and consider creative alternatives to your preconceived notions. And writers must trust their own instincts in determining whether or not solicited criticism is valid and useful.

By the way, I know more than a few writers who are loathe to accept any sort of feedback. These writers (some who are struggling with their efforts) abhor suggestions and/or possible solutions to potential problems. They assume—incorrectly—that a novel must be a solitary effort, and that any outside advice somehow diminishes and/or voids the author’s ‘ownership’ of the story. My response is a resounding, “Bogus!” Even if you accept feedback that ultimately forces you to rewrite your entire novel—the book is unquestionable yours and yours alone. Every word that is either axed or that remains resolutely in place (and in what precise order) is ultimately your decision. That’s your call. It’s your book. Period.

A word about writer’s groups and workshops.

I’m aware that some writers are skeptical (or outright afraid) to join or begin a writer’s group. For years I was one of those writers. Me? I didn’t need to join no stinkin’ writer’s group—until, on the advice of a writing friend, I joined one. For several years thereafter, the six (sometimes 7 or 8) of us, all fledgling, earnest but unpublished wannabes, gathered weekly for three grueling hours and learned the fine art of proactive listening.* We also learned to trust one another and, week by week, traded a multitude of beneficial writing suggestions and solutions.

A writer’s group can also train you to not only receive, but to offer, constructive criticism. A group/workshop can motivate you to choose words more precisely and write more consistently, and can harden that notoriously fragile, creative psyche—because sooner or later, somebody’s going to hate your book and will delight in telling you so. And when they do, my advice is this: Don’t take it personally. Collecting rejections and weathering disgruntled readers comes with the territory. Just that those of us who’ve already dealt with critical voices are far more immune to the prattle of strangers.

Whenever somebody tells me that they couldn’t get through a book of mine, I simply smile and offer my condolences. “I’m sorry to hear that. Hopefully my next effort will be more to your liking.” And, for the more fearless among us: I’m sorry to hear that. I’d love to know what you found lacking. Would you care to elaborate? Hey, can I buy you a beer?” Because why not turn a close encounter into a learning experience? You’ll seldom receive a more heartfelt critique.

Learning to ignore toxic or misguided criticism—“You’re stupid! You’re ugly! Your mother dresses you funny!” Or, “Your book sucks doggie balls!”—really is a valuable life lesson. If and when you eventually learn to shrug off such mindless or insincere criticism—an exquisite, clarifying, joyous occasion, by the way—you’ll find yourself a much happier writer. And certainly a happier person.

But I digress. Personally speaking, I used my experience in a local writer’s group to eventually attune my brain to hear every criticism about my style, my plot, my characters (good or bad) with an open mind, to evaluate —sometimes for moments, sometimes for weeks—specific bits of feedback that I considered potentially important. I once jettisoned my entire first act—118 pages—because of my group’s near unanimous advice that my story “really starts on page 119.” Seriously. I gutted one hundred and eighteen pages because my laborious introduction (and way too many secondary characters) did not directly relate to the story that would eventually emerge. I reworked Act I from the ground up and managed to fit my essential introductions into a far more dramatically paced 25 pages, then reworked another dozen or so pages into a feasible segue that blended seamlessly (one could assume) with the remainder of the story. But I spent almost three months pondering the edit before I pulled the trigger and began the rewrites. Still, I don’t regret it for an instant.

One word of advice. If you do find yourself deleting pages, keep a backup copy of your original work. I make constant back-up copies in Dropbox (cloud storage app), because every once in a while I follow some crazy urge, change or kill a dozen pages, only to realize ‘nope—stupid move.’ So keep multiple back ups, just in case.

If you’ve been seeking a local writer’s group and can’t find one, consider starting your own. If you have choices—meaning there are several existing groups in your area—perhaps you can locate other writers in your genre. It’s not necessary of course, just a little icing on the cake. Personally, I think intimate groups of 4-8 can work nicely. Fewer than four opinions and you may find yourself lacking sufficient commentary. With more than 7 or 8 active members, you may discover insufficient reading and critiquing time for each writer. (My weekly group typically ran for 3+ hours. Then tedium begins to creep in. Constructive criticism requires sharp minds and keen observations. So keep it short, keep it sharp.)

With the advent of online forums, writer chats and aggregate communities (such as Reddit’s s/writers) one can find numerous opportunities to meet fellow writers, without even getting out of your ‘jammies. If you can find a few like-minded souls, see if you can branch off into a more exclusive, reliable digital network. The internet—for better or for worse—has negated the need for face-to-face interaction. With the right connections, online interactions can prove just as valuable. Personally, however, I do recommend face-to-face interaction. Writers are hermetic enough. And, like I said, confronting constructive criticism face-to-face builds character.

Writing workshops—those all-day, weekend or weekly events, can provide powerful motivation. Can wield tremendous influence. Can provide a safe haven and a soothing sense of camaraderie. Because, no, you’re not in this alone. But, yes, you’ll pay for the experience, and a week long event (including room and board) can run a thousand bucks or more. Worth the price of admission? Established workshops aren’t for all of us, but for many writers, they can provide a perfect environment to unpack all those tucked away emotions. Because nothing can mess with one’s head more than the isolation of spending three or six or twelve months confronting a manuscript, while everyone else in the world (or so it seems) parties their nights away. Your best revenge is by adding your name to their crowded bookshelves.

I’ve found longer workshops (a week or more) to provide the motivation to keep one writing. You’re ditching reality and jumping down the rabbit hole—spending days in what I consider a sort of cerebral surreality that feels almost psychedelic in it’s intensity, and with the ability to strip the mundanity of everyday existence from your psyche. You’ll eat, sleep and live writing. You’ll bond with other writers, make some nice connections and you’ll even find a few lifelong friends. I found my wife. So, yeah, I highly recommend it.

The bottom line? Sooner or later, every writer can use a good set of alternative eyes. Stephen King had Tabitha. Leo Tolstoy had Sophia, Harper Lee had Truman Capote, and history wonders if Stephen, Leo and Harper would even be published today without the help of some pretty loyal and brilliantly opinionated company.**

Sooner or later, every published writer is expected to expose her/his work, warts and all, to public scrutiny. My suggestion is, the sooner you develop the crucial social skill of accepting criticism, the better. Don’t let your own critical fears (rational or not!) dissuade you from a second opinion. Every writer’s ultimate goal is to be seen by millions. If you can’t imagine your work being exposed to a beta reader or two, I suspect coping with the potentially soul-crushing reality of mass public scrutiny will be far more difficult to endure. (So start small and work your way up!)

Critiquing Etiquette

A brief note regarding soliciting criticism:

Don’t offer a potential beta reader an incomplete manuscript in rough draft mode. If your novel’s in pieces, unfinished and unwieldy, you’re likely to receive feedback in the same piecemeal, uncertain, unwieldy manner. How can a critic give any sort of credible advice if the work is raw, unfinished and merely pending? This sort of symbiotic relationship is ultimately worthless, a waste of time for both you and the reader. If your book’s half done, you’re essentially asking someone to test-drive a new car without wheels or an engine.

If you’re lost in the middle of a novel and seeking advice on how to continue, instead of offering a half-baked manuscript riddled with blank patches and unfinished thoughts, provide a concise summary in outline form—as comprehensive and detailed a plot-line as you’re able. You’re not looking for polishing or line-editing, you’re seeking basic story options—and, technically, not really criticism at all. You’re seeking help in developing a fictional roadmap from A to Z. You’re still constructing the puzzle. Seeking viable ideas. So, as my old Granny used to tell me, “Don’t worry about the wedding date if you haven’t found a girl yet.”

If you’re lost in the beginning of a story—you’ve written 5 or 10 pages of an impending novel and get stuck—stop writing the novel. Seriously. If you like what you’ve written but don’t know how to proceed, change gears! See if you can finish the work as a short story. Give yourself the opportunity to write 10-20 pages with a definitive middle and end. If you find the idea of writing 300-400 pages too daunting, break it down into more manageable pieces. Think of yourself as writing a series of integrated short stories instead of chapters—and worry not about subsequent chapters you intend to write. (See Rule #16: Focus On The Now.) If you find yourself with a complete story, maybe you’re on your way to writing a collection. However, if you find yourself with more to say on the matter—keep writing, one page at a time.

By the way, whether you’re writing a novel, non-fiction, a short story, even a cover letter to an editor, there’s nothing wrong with soliciting “what now?” advice. More than once (a great deal more) I’ve run into a brick wall and, directed toward anyone within earshot, I’ve lamented, Where should I go from here? Typically, a writer will have various options (and boundaries) in mind: Should the new schoolmarm, Becky Sue, marry Sheriff Bob—or should she be skeptical of his smarmy, big-city ways? Should she marry Bob in Act I, and have them confront Black Bart together? Or should she confront the conniving Bart alone, and bring in Sheriff Bob for a daring, Act III rescue?

Two totally different stories, right? Both potentially interesting. Both viable novels. But if you’re having trouble deciphering Becky Sue’s intentions (i.e.; plot motivation and/or direction), you need not push ahead, trying to polish a final draft that ‘doesn’t feel right.’ When in doubt, it’s quite alright to ask important “what if?” questions, weigh your options and, if necessary, plot a new course.

Conversely, don’t offer friends and/or family—even if it’s your mom!—a complete 300 or 400 page manuscript and expect an overnight perusal. Proactive reading (that is, comprehensive understanding and the resulting rational feedback) is a lengthy, intense and often laborious process.

Better yet: If you’re looking for erstwhile advice, ask a friend or family member if they’d read the first 10 or 20 pages of your manuscript. It’s a far less obtrusive and demanding request. Shorter excerpts will prompt more in-depth feedback. If you like the resulting comments, and your reader(s) enjoy the assistance, either ask if they’ll read another 20 (or more!) pages, or wait for them to offer. If you have a friend who’s good at editing and is willing to take on the whole novel, awesome! But consider a bottle of wine or even a cash payment ($100-$200 if you can afford it) in return, or offer a return of services if you’re both writers.

The Professional Critique

If a literary agent or a commercial publisher accepts you or your manuscript, (congrats!) your options are truncated. Both agents and publishers are risking that you (and your manuscript) will be successful and profitable, and once they sign a writer as a client, each will strive to produce the best possible book possible. With rare exception, that success will be predicated upon your level of assistance. Both the freelance editor and commercial publisher are taking risks with developing and successfully marketing your book.

Needless to say, neither editor nor reputable publisher*** has the same visceral connection as the writer has to a finished manuscript—but both parties have intrinsic knowledge about producing and marketing books, and if you find yourself in that enviable position of being a contracted writer, their opinions count. A freelance editor’s reputation depends upon delivering (to a publisher) a pristine, professional work of fiction. A commercial publisher will drop upwards of $10K simply producing both a printed book and ebook for publication. Mainstream publishers may even risk additional tens of thousands on marketing, PR and in branding you as a viable—meaning capable of producing multiple profit-making or even best-selling books—author.

My best advice: Go with the flow.

Agents and publishers who see worth and value in your work are only too happy to work with you, if rewrites are advised. But only to a point. Working with a professional intent on helping you publish a book can be both exasperating and blissful, but the fine art of compromise is essential. If you’re a writer loathe to cut a word, to rewrite a scene or take erstwhile advice…it’s time for a reality check.

I can’t speak for other publishers, editors or agents, but at MHP, we’ll sign a new author only with the contractual provision that: The publisher has final say in all matters of publication. Meaning that we’ll spend days, weeks and sometimes months, helping you hone your manuscript. Dozens or hundreds of man-hours helping you to “get it right.” But the final say belongs to MHP, and hopefully with the writer’s full blessing.

There may come a time, however, when neither the writer nor publisher is willing to budge on an issue. In such a case, the final option is yours. Are you willing to break your contract over the issue? Are you willing to seek publication elsewhere—or even self-publication—to ostensibly maintain your precise vision?

S’up to you.

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*Active listening vs. Proactive listening: Active listening is the fine art of fully engaging (listening or reading) and comprehending without judgement. Proactive listening requires a full measure of active listening and subsequently offering constructive criticism as well. And what is criticism, after all, but judgement? However, constructive criticism should consist of a fair and accurate assessment—a far more complex and difficult social skill.

**If you’re into films about writing/writers, check out The Last Station (2009, Christopher Plummer, Helen Mirren). A mesmerizing, dramatic late-life biography of Leo and Sophia Tolstoy.

Also, since we’re here, check out Genius (2016, Colin Firth, Jude Law, Nicole Kidman), a worthwhile biopic of Scribner’s book editor Max Perkins, who shredded (for the best) works by Hemingway, Fitzgerald and Thomas Wolfe.

***What’s reputable? Agents and publishers who charge a service fee or fee-based services, reputable as they might seem (or actually be!), rely on a writer’s money to stay in business. Many such agents and publishers (including in-house editors) can indeed improve the quality of your work. But their professional existence (not your book’s success) is largely based on your bank account, and occasionally on your life’s savings. An unwary writer can spend tens of thousands or more, spend years rewriting based on a bevy of ‘professional opinions’—and still be no closer to selling a commercially viable book. Before signing a contract, ensure that you’re not obliged to pay any up-front fees to ‘ensure potential publication.’
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Dialogue. (Part 8:) When dialogue doesn’t work

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

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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 explain—or subliminally alter—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, my darling Rosette. You are the most beautiful, intelligent, wonderful woman I’ve ever—” Pierre paused, 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) a writer can provide instant redirection. Or misdirection, should necessity require. In a line or two, dialogue can provide a cliff hanger, spill a secret and/or reveal essential plot momentum. Dialogue is an essential tool with 1,001 uses.

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 was mud and I were 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 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. As a reader, I want to feel, smell, taste and observe every crucial detail for myself.

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.

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 appears in your book, then it damn well deserves to be told with both passion and panache. The summary lacks these two 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 struggling 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 that centers on twin brothers, Ed and Ned, living in a small Midwestern town—and they’re desperately 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 some situations this may work. (This tactic 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 of 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 mused, 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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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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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.

– – – – –

* 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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Dialogue (Part 6A): 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:
The Q. & A. Page

If you find creating dialogue difficult or frustrating, realize that most fledgling novelists don’t naturally begin their careers writing great dialogue. Dialogue’s a bit of an art, but also a bit of a science. It’s a potpourri of plot momentum, of character revelation and also of helpful scene setting. (And quite simple, once you get the hang of it.) But how to begin? How to improve? I sincerely believe the best way to learn about writing great dialogue is by listening.

My advice is to listen to IRL—”real world”—conversations around you. Listen to angry people. Listen to cheerful people. Listen to people in crisis. You’ll be horrified to discover that probably 70-80% of anything you hear isn’t germane to any particular topic. In a fictive conversations, 90-95% should be essential to your story, or else integral to character development. So determine what conversations are necessary—and disregard what isn’t.

Another suggestion? Don’t worry about fine-tuning dialogue in your first draft. Get the plot-basics down and worry about nuance later. But, yes, do eventually worry about nuance!

To re-it (because I do believe your characters’ spoken words—and/or inner thoughts—to be essential info), dialogue should accomplish one of three tasks: scene-setting, plot-relevance or character development. Coherence is, of course, paramount. So is the passion and resonance of any character’s words. In contrast, most of our real-life, daily, casual conversations are largely superfluous or redundant or random. Totally off-topic. (And, no, don’t write your novel this way. A bit of clever, idle chatter won’t hurt…but use judiciously.) And by all means, delete all those ubiquitous ‘um‘s from your page.

Another factor? Dialogue must be timely. In other words, at what point a conversation appears in your story is as important as the dialogue itself. Meaning that it’s imperative that you reveal each puzzle-piece of relevant information at the precise moment. Would any particular piece of dialogue be better served if spoken in an earlier scene or later chapter? It’s an important consideration.

Unlike omniscient narration, dialogue need not follow any precise choreography (as in: A before B before C before D…etc.). Dialogue is far more fluid, more random, more easily shuffled. Characters can chat about the future, about the past and, if not properly executed (as in bringing conversations back to the here and now in a logical fashion) dialogue may lack logic, seem out of place or feel insignificant. So, yes, timing can be as important as execution

You know you’re getting close to understanding dialogue is when you (as writer) begin to better understand the various characters vying for your attention. You’ll begin to listen—seriously listen—because your book’s characters will actually tell you what they need to say.

Sounds like some sort of voodoo magic, right? But it’s true. You’ll come to superficially know your characters while writing an outline or first draft—and they will ultimately begin to more fully reveal themselves as you continue to write. They will begin to develop cadence and style and a speech pattern that feels real. Some may keep secrets. Some may reveal secrets. But sooner or later they’ll begin to feel like very real people. And that’s when you’ll begin to write great dialogue.

Writers who don’t (or can’t) listen to either their characters or their fellow humans, aren’t often published. Because, yes—plot-essential and/or character-essential dialogue is really that important. Grab hold of a book or two that you absolutely love. Look at nothing else but dialogue. See how it’s done. You may be amazed to discover why a favorite book is indeed a favorite book.

But I digress. Over the years, I’ve come across various concerns about writing dialogue (of the “should I?” and “should I not?” variety), and I’ve gathered those that feel most significant.

• • •

Q. Must I include dialogue in a novel?

A. The short answer is: Yes. Absolutely! Without dialogue, I’m not certain any character can be fully developed for the reader. Can’t be fully revealed or portrayed. Direct dialogue also eliminates the middleman—and that would be you, the author. Dialogue is a conversation directly between a character and the reader. Sure you can circumnavigate direct dialogue (or monologue) with omniscient narration, but the author’s voice doesn’t carry the same intimacy as direct dialogue. For instance, which feels more sincere:

“I love you, darling! I’ve always loved you, since the first moment I met you.”

VS:

He told her that he loved her. That he’d always loved her, since the first moment they’d met.

Certainly, there’s nothing wrong with occasionally using omniscient narration in place of spoken words (and a book should include both variations), although a book lacking any direct dialogue may feel aloof or impersonal. It can be done (in avant garde writings) but not always successfully. Besides, try to find a modern novel that doesn’t include dialogue. Readers are used to seeing active dialogue and, finding none—well, that’s a chance I don’t want to take.

• • •

Q. Can I open a novel with a conversation (e.g.; dialogue)?

A. Certainly. A line, a scene, an entire chapter… absolutely. One word of caution however. I find that many writers, when opening a novel with scenes of dense dialogue, often forget to adequately scene set. While I find it clunky to intrude upon any scene-opening dialogue for a lengthy narration, certainly ground your readers with a few essential visuals. You can more fully set the stage once the dialogue concludes. Consider the scene-setting (or lack thereof) delivered in these two similar dialogue-heavy novel openings:

BOBBY LELAND felt himself drifting toward a peaceful sleep, his thoughts fading when the woman beside him said, “Here’s what I want, Bobby. Are you listening to me? I want you to kill my husband.”
. . . .  Silence.
. . . .  “Did you hear me?” she asked. “Bobby?”
. . . . “I heard you,” he said. “You want me to kill Elliot.”
. . . . “I want us to kill Elliot. You and I together.”
. . . . “Both of us.”
. . . . “Yes.”
. . . . “You could always make him dinner.”
. . . . “Bobby, I’m serious.
. . . . For some reason, he wasn’t surprised.

And…

BOBBY LELAND felt himself drifting toward a peaceful sleep, his thoughts fading when the woman beside him said, “Here’s what I want, Bobby. Are you listening to me?” Her finger tickled a path across his chest, her breath a hot whisper against his ear. “I want you to kill my husband.”
. . . . They lay naked in chamomile-scented satin sheets, in a room with a marble fireplace, French doors opening to a balcony that overlooked the distant Pacific. Because he and Erica had made a kind of full-throttled reckless love for the last forty-five minutes, Bobby felt mellow to his toes.
. . . . “Did you hear me?” she asked. “Bobby?”
. . . . “I heard you,” he said, safely cocooned in the darkness behind his eyelids. “You want me to kill Elliot.”
. . . . “I want us to kill Elliot. You and I together.”
. . . . “Both of us,” he said, half wondering if he were already dreaming.
. . . . “Yes.”
. . . . He gave it a few seconds, remembering Erica’s previous evening’s attempt at microwaving Cordon Bleu. “You could always make him dinner.”
. . . . Her tongue tutted. “Bobby, I’m serious.
. . . . For some reason, he wasn’t surprised.

Personally, the upper version feels far too “plot-frantic” to properly ground the reader in the “where” and the “why”. (There’s really no right or wrong choice, BTW, simply a stylistic preference.) However, since this is the opening scene of a novel, I find the latter version to offer more grounding, while offering the same plot essentials. A book’s first few pages will often not only introduce various characters, but will also establish the book’s pacing. The top passage feels more kinetic, but also lacks specific nuances that I believe important to further developing those characters—certainly while the reader’s still settling down, getting to know the bare bones of the story.

The continuation of that opening scene then can further enhance both plot and characters (without dialogue), and further establish the book’s overall tenor. We have an idea of their personalities—with dialogue’s help, of course—so now it’s OK to further set the stage.

. . . . Her tongue tutted. “Bobby, I’m serious.
. . . . For some reason, he wasn’t surprised.
. . . . At 42, seven years older than Bobby, few people could have guessed her age by looking at her. Long and sleek and perfect, happenstance and heredity had gifted Erica Garmond a graceful neck, high cheekbones and hypnotic azure eyes; platinum blonde hair that fell straight, curling slightly inward where it brushed against her throat, and lips poised on the verge of a chronic pout. Erica seemed to be one of those women who’d simply stopped aging. Not that she didn’t work hard to maintain herself: up for aerobics at 6:15 every morning, her afternoons occupied with tennis or jogging. Almost too rich and certainly too thin, the way Stan Muca described her. Stan was an artful observer and carouser himself, head pro and Bobby’s boss back at Rancho Madera Tennis Club.*

Now (imho) the reader has sufficient grounding, so any remaining dialogue can continue with little interruption. Realize that, if the situation warrants, any initial conversation can continue for pages before switching to the omniscient narrator’s voice. So chat away, if the situation dictates. But give the reader sufficient grounding ASAP—even in dialogue-heavy scenes and certainly when beginning new chapters. Sufficiently grounded, now the writer can return to the conversation at hand—in this case a conversation that firmly establishes the first act of the novel.

• • •

Q. Can I use dialogue to express action? (That is, using dialogue instead of depicting specific action to your readers.) An example: Lily said, “That volcanic eruption was the most amazing experience I’ve ever encountered! It was horrible. The lava flow devoured an entire town. You should have been there!”)

A. Sure, you can tell us via second-hand dialogue, but why? (Because, yes, we readers indeed should have been there.) Using dialogue to pass along urgent or visual info to the reader can feel distanced and less relevant. As a reader, if I’m watching an intense action flick about an active volcano, I better damn well feel the heat for myself. What I don’t want is some talking-head narrator standing in front of a potted plant, telling me, “That volcanic eruption was the most amazing experience….” Keep the ‘talking-heads’ (see below) to a minimum. If plot-essential narratives are important, run your characters ahead of the lava flow for a few pages, find a safe spot for a terse, tense conversation, then get them moving again. (See Simple But Exciting Part 1.)

Remember, you’re always pushing your characters toward drama (a fictive inhalation)—i.e.; showing us characters in peril on a volcanic island, watching the eruption, screaming their fool heads off—or pulling them away again (a fictive exhalation)—i.e.; escaping by motor boat at the last possible second with relieved sighs, and now, yes, let the earnest conversation begin…before the motor sputters and dies, and now you’re back for another round of nail-biting action.

This is important enough to be a rule. Thus is born Rule #48: Don’t use dialogue as an alternative to directly depicting action or drama. Show us the drama, don’t expect a character to tell us about it second-hand.

• • •

Q. What are ‘talking heads?’

A. David Byrne aside, a ‘talking heads’ scene is as implied: The writer is using dialogue as a device (often a sign of ‘lazy writing’) to explain action or information instead of taking readers on a memorable, impactful visual experience. Remember all those old superhero flicks where the villain has captured the hapless hero and, before dropping Super Protago into a boiling vat of snake oil, embarks on a five minute soliloquy to explain—to the audience—all of the story’s loose ends? And during which time, our protagonist usually finds a way to escape? Well, that’s a talking head scene. And it’s far less exciting than…well, than just about anything else one can choose to write on the page.

With a bit of preparation and forethought, most or all of those low-energy explanations and unrevealed issues can and should have been previously explored—either through shorter snippets of dialogue or action sequences. If you find yourself writing pages that attempt to “explain” persnickety plot-holes, you’ve probably missed various opportunities to have previously (and often actively) imparted that information to the reader.

If you must include a talking heads scene, do it the way George Lucas, Willard Hyuck and Gloria Katz developed Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. Remember the dinner scene with the maharaja? The scene with the monkey brains, the moist beetles the deep fried scorpions? That’s an example of a talking heads scene—necessary information transmitted to the audience—and yet most viewers had no idea, otherwise transfixed by a comical depiction of a rather gruesome meal. So instead of being bored by a constant barrage of idle conversation, we were visually entertained all the while we were absorbing crucial plot info.

If you find it necessary to divulge crucial information, don’t just drop two characters into a hay field and let them babble on. Find a way to visually stimulate the reader. Distract us with literary brilliance!

• • •

* Excerpted from On The Edge. By yours truly.
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Continued…

 


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