Dialogue (Part 1): Basics

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

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Writing Great Dialogue (Part 1):
An Absolute Necessity.

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

Sorry, but that was rhetorical.

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

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

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

Here then, the basics.

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

If having only three options seems restrictive, fear not. Your expressive, expansive wildcard exists in Premise #2: character development. A great deal of seemingly superficial or extraneous dialogue can go a long way to help define a character’s personality, motivations, fears and passions, and to ultimately create a very real human being. Dialogue can also tease the reader or pique curiosity. (“Hey, do you really think that old house is haunted?”)

You can also utilize dialogue to kill time, or to provide a suitable segue between other, more visually active scenes. For instance, two characters, hitchhiking through the middle of nowhere, can fill an otherwise mundane scene with the most tantalizing of conversations—about their fears, their desires, their darkest secrets. Maybe such character chatter reveals little about the plot ahead, but those pages can provide a great deal of insight about the people inside your head, not only relating to each other, but to readers as well.

A quick example of those three options mentioned above:

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

….“Don’t let its alien beauty distract you, Cameron. That evil planet’s scorching hot. You step out of a dome in full sunlight, even in a fully shielded suit, your face plate will melt in a half second flat. Your skull will pop a half second after that. After sundown’s no better. Most of the rocks out there are sharp enough to slice you to the bone. One false step can drop you down a thousand-foot crevice or suck you into a sand pit before you get a chance to tug on your G-line. I’ve seen storms worse than any hurricane on Earth, winds whippin’ down offa those western slopes without a moment’s notice. You don’t keep your eyes peeled 24/7 and you’ll be dead before you know you’re even in trouble.”

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

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

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

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

Before I continue—one important note. When I speak of dialogue, I’m referring to both external (the spoken word) and internal (private thought) communication—because both spoken words and internal contemplation share equal importance in a novel. For example:

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

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

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

– – – – – – – – – –

* Omniscient Narration (another reminder). Typically when writing in third-person, omniscient narration can provide a pansophic (all-knowing!) perspective that offers information to the reader unbeknownst to your characters. For instance, the following sentence is omniscient narration: Deep in a forgotten cave burrowed beneath Old Hickory Mountain, a storage chest had been buried centuries ago, hiding the bandit Juan LaFortuna’s missing treasure—an immense fortune that would prove fatal for most of those on Sal’s expedition. The author knows where the gold’s hidden and the fate of the expedition and so do the readers. But not the characters.

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

BTW, what do I mean by emotionally or descriptively setting a scene in dialogue? A quick example:

Emotionally: “Get out, Rebecca! You slept with my brother and I hate you for that! Don’t ever come back!”

Descriptively: “Don’t go in there, Rebecca. The cave is dark as death, and cold as ice. They say you can feel the devil inside that cave, whispering in your ear, taunting you that you’re about to lose you soul.”


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Action vs. Information

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A basic rule of thumb to follow would be (and not always, mind you, but more often than not):
Scene-setting: Information
Character-building: Information
Plot-building: Action or information (although tread carefully, as building a plot via information may feel like reader-feeder.**) It’s normally crucial to show the reader your plot as it unfolds, not tell the reader via conversation. In other words, Ian telling us about the cavalry charge is not nearly exciting—to a reader—as seeing the charge in all it’s action-packed glory.
Forward Plot Momentum: Action

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

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

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

So then, what is dialogue?

…ah, the perfect opportunity for a cliffhanger. (So see Dialogue.)


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

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

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


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Huge In East Texas

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

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

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

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

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

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Hello, Portland!

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

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

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Into Our World of Anxiety and Fear Come the Raindrops of Human Transformation

Raindrops Of Love For A Thirsty WorldSan Francisco, CA (April 20, 2017) –– A timely spiritual guide to surviving and thriving in today’s pervasive, gloomy atmosphere of alienation and fear, the new book, Raindrops of Love For a Thirsty World, lays out a path to life‐long self‐actualization, and reconnection through a shared consciousness. The author, Eileen Workman, has summoned the profound wisdom of The Life Force in a series of loving messages. These communications come at an opportune time, as we drift in a sea of anxiety and worry, deeply shaken by recent political, economic and social crises, and starved for connection due to divisiveness.

A decade ago Workman experienced a startling spiritual awakening. Abandoning her high‐powered, highly‐paid role in the financial world, she opened up to a channeled gift of eloquent, soul‐stirring passages from what she calls LIFE –– “The Life Force” –– a field of energy and love that transformed her life and her relationship to humanity.

In four parts, Raindrops of Love For a Thirsty World encourages readers to undertake selfexamination in a way that encourages them to fall back in love with themselves and learn to practice healthy self‐discipline, self‐awareness and self‐love.

Part I ‐ Soft Love: The Wonder of Self‐Realization
Part II ‐ Tough Love: The Challenge of Self‐Discipline
Part III ‐ Self‐Love: The Responsibility of Self‐Actualization
Part IV – Life Love: The Freedom of Self‐Governance

As receivers of these compelling, wise messages from LIFE, readers are exhorted to manifest their greatest gifts in the world, which is exactly what the author decided to do when she changed the direction of her own life. This personal transformation and connection to the limitless love of LIFE is the key to a rewarding, meaningful life.

Encourage others to realize that your amazing ingenuity and imagination, when filtered through the perspective of life awareness, holds the power to generate awesome new creative potential . . . This is why I encourage you to trust the living process . . . For you live within a self‐organizing, self‐scaffolding field of living love that manifests as light.

Speaking directly into the heart and soul of each reader, Raindrops of Love For a Thirsty World enables them to wed their minds and hearts in a holy communion. That marriage enables us to move beyond the influence of collapsing social systems and political and economic hostilities. Through the clarity of our newly realized life purpose and enlightenment as received from the Raindrops of Love, we can transform ourselves and the world.

I know how confused you have felt . . . and how you’ve struggled to find your proper place in the world. I’ve watched you grow lost in the dramas of human society. In this precious now moment, you can reclaim your native tongue and commune with me in our mutual language, for the language of Life has been ever your birthright, Beloved.

About the Author

Eileen Workman spent sixteen years in the financial industry as First Vice President of Investments at a major Wall Street firm. After a profound spiritual awakening, she departed the high‐powered world of money and wrote Sacred Economics: The Currency of Life, which questions assumptions about the nature of capitalism. The book is about directing our attention toward the purposeful design of a more compassionate, cooperative, and abundantly flowing economic system from a spiritually‐driven perspective. “ . . . one of those rare individuals who not only talks the talk of the financial world because she worked in it, she also walks the walk of one who has made meaningful changes in her own life to reflect the ideals she believes in.” In her new title, Raindrops of Love For a Thirsty World, Workman calls down the wisdom and the words of the Life Force, inviting us to embrace our fullest capacity as a species.

# # # #

Book Information
Title: Raindrops of Love For a Thirsty World
Pub Date: April 20, 2017
Author: LIFE, as shared with Eileen Workman
Publisher: Muse Harbor Publishing
List Price: $18.95
ISBN: 978-1-61264-207-9
Format: Quality Trade Paperback and Kindle
Distributor: Ingram
Information: www.warwickassociates.com
Subjects: Spirituality, Personal Growth
Rights: World

 

 

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