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 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 attribution to depict a specific character’s (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: 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, not attribution. When in doubt, err on the side of simplicity. 

If your scene depicts only two characters chatting, you can use attribution (or ‘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, that 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.
…..“Pretty well, thanks.”
or
…..“How are you feeling?”
…..“Pretty well, thanks,” Alice replied.

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

Attribution can be fine-tuned to include descriptive modifiers as well.

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

Alice’s visual response is sufficient to enable the reader to decipher who’s speaking, and also feeds readers subtle clues about a character or plot. You can tag Alice’s comment as well, 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.
…..“Pretty well, thanks,” Alice replied.
…..Richard shrugged, absently touching the bruise on his shoulder. “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 attribution 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, shaking his head. “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.

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—or, of course, [NAME] said—but lacking any other sort of descriptive modifier. True fundamentalists won’t switch between said or asked, should a question be posed. Thus, one would write: “Is that gun loaded?” Mary said.

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 saying: 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 per page. 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.

Thus: “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.

* 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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Dialogue (Part 5): 1P POV

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rules-header-fullA notebook for fiction writers and aspiring novelists. One editor’s perspective.

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Writing Great Dialogue (Part 5):
Writing Dialogue/Monologue in
First Person POV

When I write a novel in First Person (1P) POV, I’m telling my story solely through my protagonist’s inner (as in monologue) voice, from my book’s first word to the last. My protagonist is speaking either directly to the reader, or to him/herself (much like when journaling) and, as the author, I’ve thrown the omniscient narrator out the proverbial window. There’s no unseen, omnipotent voice revealing information unknown to my protagonist. My narrator cannot be aware of what lies beyond his/her perception, nor is aware of other characters’ unspoken feelings, intentions or conspiracies.

And what really pops my bubble is this: One can also assume that any dialogue my protagonist chooses to reveal is not actually character-to-character dialogue. It’s simply my protagonist relating to the reader what words are possibly/probably being spoken. Essentially, more internal monologue. Theoretically, my protagonist might deny the reader specific information, or may even lie to the reader…should the plot dictate that the reader remain misdirected.

For instance, is the dialog below….

…..“I only arrived in town last night,” I said. “Why do you ask?”
…..“Because John Blayne was killed early Friday evening. Somebody matching your description was seen running from the crime scene.”
…..“Well, it wasn’t me, sheriff. I can promise you that.”
…..“And you have an alibi, Mr. Martinez?”
…..“Of course not,” I said with a cautious frown. “Until this moment, I didn’t think I needed one.”

…the truth or a lie? For all we know, Martinez may have killed the dude, but he’s unwilling to confess, even to the reader. Worse, he may have convinced himself that he didn’t kill John Blayne. Meaning that Martinez might be written as an unreliable narrator* Readers won’t know for certain if he’s telling the absolute truth, unless otherwise informed by Martinez himself. Crazy, right?

But I do love writing in First Person POV. It’s my favorite literary voice. I love the option of creating that potentially unreliable narrator—or at least of leaving a sliver of a doubt in my reader’s mind. I also love my ability to use a distinct (clever, cunning, cynical, crazy—and I mean like totally, off-the-wall crazy) voice. I love the option to blow off those many down-to-earth restrictions while writing in an omniscient voice.

For instance, should I decide to describe my initial, distant glimpse of the city of San Francisco as “resembling a 3-day-old birthday cake left out in the sun to melt,” I can do so with firm authority and a twisted panache. Screw those literalists who demand to see paragraph after paragraph of authentic description—all those cramped skyscrapers rising into the heavens, gleaming in the hot summer afternoon. As the book’s narrator, I can scene-set, reveal other characters’ unflattering quirks, and even unspool the plot in any manner (back to front? Sideways? Through an LSD haze?) that I damn well please. First Person POV readers aren’t expecting absolute authenticity so much as absolute personality. Conversations (e.g.; dialogue) should be very distinctive.

Okay… and that’s a new rule as well. Hence Rule #45: First Person POV readers aren’t expecting absolute authenticity so much as absolute personality. When writing in 1P, maximize your character’s personality.

As a 1P protagonist, I can whisper my secrets directly to the reader. I can hate my mother, abhor small children, kick puppies, fear the color mauve, have several dismembered bodies buried in the basement and still—by all outward appearances—appear normal, caring and actually somewhat sophisticated. The reader can be aware of these secrets (if told by the author), but unless my protagonist shares such info via dialogue, other characters won’t have a clue.

Writing in 1P, I can also dig far more deeply into my character’s psyche; into any number of psychoses (should I give my protagonist an issue or two) and I can dive wayyyyy down into the dark room of his/her soul. I can then resurface, revealing whatever jetsam and flotsam I might find there. And, when writing in 1P, I’d better find some interesting shit to divulge. That’s both the joy of writing in First Person and reading fiction in 1P as well.

Don’t be surprised if you (as author) find yourself slipping into co-habitation mode with your on-page alter-ego—whether you directly identify with him/her or not. You’re impersonating someone else, after all—for all intents and purposes, another human being. As the voice of my protagonist, I can discreetly reveal to the reader that my Great Aunt Lucy smells like formaldehyde. Or that I haven’t paid my taxes in eight years. That I’m about to murder the man who raped my sister. I can even whisper my uncertain suicidal tendencies—sharing a most profound secret with the reader, unafraid that some other character might overhear my thoughts and step in with a pat on the head and an a handful of antidepressants.

Sure, I can write about my Great Aunt Lucy similarly in 3P POV, superficially revealing much of the same information—but writing in 1P allows you (imho) to more fully share these feelings. Your protagonist can internalize a great deal more, and thus deliver a far more profound psychological impact on the reader. (Should you so desire.) Such intimacy can provide a far more profound, and personally exhilarating, writing experience. (Sometimes writing in 1P can feel pretty much like self-therapy.) Because, know it or not, you’re delving into your own soul as well.

Ah, but what about dialogue, you ask?

On the surface, one might assume that dialogue is dialogue. That writing dialogue in 3P is no different than dialogue in 1P:

…..“You’re looking lovely today, Suzanne,” Paul said.

…..“You’re looking lovely today, Suzanne,” I said.

But a funny thing happens when you begin to inhabit a 1P character who’s begun to feel at home in your brain. Writers will begin to re-think their words to better match the texture of their protagonist’s personality. In a way, it’s like channeling Elvis. So, “You’re looking lovely today Suzanne,” Paul said(.), can morph into:

…..“Have I ever told you, Suzanne, that whenever you look at me, I melt a little inside?”

I speak from personal experience. Several years ago I began writing a book about a guy living in San Diego who wanted to a screenwriter. I began writing in 3P, but my character seemed to sputter about a dozen pages in. And then I had a revelation. After all, I was a guy living in San Diego trying to write a screenplay. Feeling that sort of close, warm and fuzzy kinship with my protagonist, I began re-writing the book in 1P. For awhile I felt very self-conscious, like I’d been leaving the bedroom drapes open at night and the neighbors were clandestinely peeking in. And this guy in my head, whom I’d named Charlie, wasn’t me. He was both far braver and far more stupid than I. Yet, after a dozen or so pages, I forgot about me being me and freely gave my unconscious self over to Charlie. His manner of speaking changed. His cadence changed. Even his vocabulary changed. (That part was particularly freaky. He was using words that I didn’t even know I knew. Seriously.) And I think the story is far better for having made that transition.

I often tell people who ask that I don’t choose my characters as much as they choose me. And Charlie’s one guy who can prove it.

– – – – –

* Unreliable narrator: A character or voice (most often found in 1P POV) who is, or may be, intentionally fabricating some, most or all of the story. Typically in 3P POV, the reader assumes that the story’s characters (and, of course, their sage puppet master) are telling the absolute truth—because, why the hell not? In those instances when a criminal, maniac, small child, captive…etc. is speaking, the reader can be made aware by the author (or simply through the veracity of the dialogue) that falsehoods abound. However, in 1P novels, it’s quite possible for the author to be intentionally manipulating the reader with the apparent sincerity of a saint. All along, however, and only toward the novel’s completion—if ever—does the reader discover that we’ve been fooled or outwitted by the narrator. And hopefully to the betterment of the book.



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Dialogue (Part 4): Monologue

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Writing Great Dialogue (Part 4):
Dialogue vs. Monologue

“I love you, Carlotta,” he said.

I love you, Carlotta, he thought.

So…what’s the difference? To Carlotta, probably a great deal. And to the reader as well. To recap a bit, both spoken dialogue and inner monologue* are integral parts of the same revelation delivery system (with the omniscient narrator being the third option—the all-seeing author revealing anything and everything of necessity to the reader).

A fourth option also exists—and one I suggest using rarely (if ever). But more about this often unwelcomed intruder in a moment….

The key to precise communication with your readers is, of course, knowing when to use what. Dialogue is an information exchange between two or more characters. Monologue is an information exchange between a character and the reader. Omniscient narration, BTW, is an information exchange between the writer and the reader. A quick for-instance:

Dialogue: “I’m not sure you fully understand the danger,” Daniel said, rubbing his chin whiskers. “The road ahead isn’t exactly safe, Mrs. Phelps. Even if we make it, you’re not going to like what we find at the other end.”

Monologue (3rd Person): Daniel absently rubbed his chin. He wasn’t sure Mrs. Phelps understood the dangers ahead. This isn’t going to be easy, he thought to himself. Even if they made it, he wasn’t sure she’d like what she’d find waiting at the other end.

Monologue (1st Person): I’m not sure Mrs. Phelps understood the dangers ahead. I scratched the stubble on my chin, taking time to ponder the consequences. This wasn’t going to be a safe journey for either of us. Even if we made it, I wasn’t sure she’d like what she’d find waiting at the other end. (See more about First Person Dialogue in Dialogue Part 5.)

Omniscient Narrator: The road ahead would be long and arduous. Perhaps even dangerous. The driver rubbed his chin, searching for words. Neither Mrs. Phelps or Daniel McKay would like what they’d find waiting at the other end.

If plot-building is the backbone of a novel, dialogue is its heart and soul. One can destroy monsters, rocket to Mars, fall in love or join the circus—but without the ability to directly interconnect between on-paper characters and flesh-and-blood readers, there’s really no way to tell a complete or compelling story. Dialogue provides that ability to stir emotions, bonding fictional characters and living beings. The next time a work of fiction brings you tears of either laughter or heartbreak, a shudder of joy or fear—stop and look again at whatever passage is fueling your emotions. Most likely, there’s a healthy amount of dialogue involved.

Dialogue can also quickly and easily define a character’s personality. Even lacking external modifiers (expressions, physical tics or other attributes) one can pretty much infer the differences in the two personalities below:

…..“Mr. Jenkins, I’d like your permission to date your daughter. I know it sounds old-fashioned, but I just want you to know I respect Linda, and that my intentions are honorable. I’ll have her home by ten, sir.”

…and:

….“Hey, is Linda around? We’re hittin’ the Bijou tonight, once she gets her ass in gear, then maybe drive down to Paradise Cove for a little after-hours hoochie-coochie, if you know what I mean. You gotta light for my spliff, Mr. J?”

So consider dialogue as a great introduction (or addition) to initial character development. In fact, I’m not sure any character is fully realized before opening his or her mouth—and why so many fictive works begin with dialogue or else integrate dialogue or monologue within the first page or two. A character who seldom speaks is likely to be much more difficult for a writer to define, even if silence is an intended character trait.

Newspapers, Radio and TV.
(Revelation from afar)

There’s yet another form of revelation delivery—the type of communication that, if you’re a beginning or uncertain writer, I would strongly suggest avoiding. However, I’m aware of some writers who jump to use this fictive device, hoping for a quick infusion of pertinent info, so here I go…

As a reader, few gimmicks annoy me more than “a suddenly introduced outside source”—a TV or radio broadcast, a blog or newspaper article—barging into the story, intruding upon a cast of characters that I’ve slowly come to love or hate. OK, so on rare occasions, this gimmick may function as a bona fide tool, and can work successfully.** However, when improperly or indiscriminately placed, using mass media not only screams neophyte to the reader, but tends to send any impending drama or emotion in a scene down the proverbial drain.

Why? Mass media is a particularly sterile delivery system and tends to pull the reader out of the immediacy, the intimacy, of a story. Plotting is largely about questions and answers, after all—Does she love me? What’s behind this locked door? Will we survive charging into this forest filled with armed Lutherans?—and most readers will be repulsed (repulsed, I tell you!) by a lazy writer and the quick, easy cheat of stepping outside of an established story-line to drop a bit of relevant information.

But do be aware that many writers misuse these devices—delivering lengthy, rambling synopses of some plot-specific tidbit. As a reader, deluged with such a vapid delivery, I’ll glaze over after the first paragraph and either quickly peruse or skip the rest. Realize that you’re distancing the reader from both plot-tension and character nuance. So if you feel you must use mass media as a plot device, use it sparingly.

My suggestion is—rather than deliver a 100-200-word TV news report or rambling, lengthy newspaper or news-feed article—truncate the info by allowing your character(s) to becoming involved ASAP. If you’re able, bypass any direct television intrusion (in the example below) all together. For instance, and let’s say we’re writing about a cranky, old, hard-drinking PI, who’s hoping to solve a murder mystery:

…..I thumbed the remote, hoping to catch the last quarter of the Celtics game while I polished off the remnants of a quickly-warming six pack of Rolling Rock. I wanted to wash away the last vestiges of Mrs. Patterson’s troubles, and drinking myself into a stupor was a time-honored option. But the TV blinked on and there was Mrs. Patterson herself—an old photograph anyway—brooding above a Breaking News crawler.
…..I didn’t have to wait for the newscaster to explain the details—I knew the signs. The flashing lights, the meandering CSI technicians, the grimacing on-the-spot reporter; I pretty much knew that Mrs. Patterson had joined the dearly departed. So much for my theory that the woman had killed Stanley for his money. Meaning someone else had killed Mr. Patterson—and now his wife—hoping to get their hands on all those missing millions. Which more or less dropped me back at square one…

So, sure, feel free to insinuate a news source (TV, radio or newspaper) to push your plot forward—but make such an emotionless intrusion relevant to your character, who then makes it relevant to the reader. In this case, my crusty PI takes over and brings the story quickly back into his own POV, where hopefully the reader is quite comfortable by now. Now you can add a few additional plot-points (mascaraing, perhaps, as character-building) as well…

…dropped me back at square one.
…..The helpful TV news-lady droned on. “Mrs. Stanley Patterson, 72, had been one of several suspects in her husband’s disappearance and presumed death three months ago. She is survived by her two sons and a step-daughter….”

…..I took another sip of tepid brew and stared at the tube long enough to get the gist. A suspected burglary, gone wrong. Always a suspected burglary, gone wrong. Every damn time. The thing is, suspected burglars usually don’t stab their victim multiple times, and the coroner’s office appeared fairly specific in that regard. Multitude times. A pretty pissed-off burglar, if you ask me. And I was fairly certain the police would be asking me, come sunrise. Which gave me an idea….

I offer the same advice for a newspaper story. Instead of concocting a lengthy article (as fun as that may be to create!), give the reader the gist and have a character take over at the first opportunity:

…..I shuffled down the porch steps in a faded Red Sox T-shirt and tattered boxers—probably giving old Mrs. Quimbly across the street an eyeful. I was probably the only guy left on the block who read the morning paper—but I was also the only guy on the block with two cockatoos, Stan and Ollie, and I’d rather have them pooping on yesterday’s news than my counter top. I reached down for the paper and immediately saw the glaring headline: Wealthy Heiress Murdered in Brighton. I didn’t need to see more—my gut already told me that Mrs. Patterson was dead, and so much for my theory of who killed her husband…

Also note that newspaper articles (TV and radio too) don’t rely on detailed or ‘chatty’ information. So if you’re going to use mass-media, study those formats. Don’t try to sneak in clever or intimate clues, because initial reports are typically vague, incomplete and often incorrect. They don’t rely on ‘unsubstantiated reports’ or speculation by friends and neighbors. Just the facts, ma’am. So maintain the integrity of whatever medium you’re using. Otherwise, you’ll lose credibility.

But otherwise, yeah—used with a little discretion, it’s okay to give your readers a glimpse of the daily news.

One last note: Don’t confuse using mass media (as described above) with using character-centric media—for instance somebody reading a passage from a mother’s diary, a series of love letters, even a chatroom exchange—these are all tools that can be used to reveal specific info. Readers tend to be comfortable with characters writing or calling or texting.

– – – – –

* Monologue. Don’t confuse monologue (AKA: inner monologue. AKA: thinking) with soliloquy, a scene where a solitary character speaks thoughts aloud. An insane Lady McBeth’s infamous “Out, out damn spot” for instance. Inner monologue is simply a character’s unspoken thoughts—unknown to other characters, but crystal clear to the reader. If Shakespeare is lost on you, think of Tom Hanks’ longer conversational interactions with a volleyball named Wilson.

** Mass Media. My rule of thumb, when reading/editing manuscripts, is: The shorter the intrusion, the better. A headline, for instance, is OK. A brief snippet of a newscast is OK. So writing 25 words or less is fine. Fifty words is stretching the envelope. One hundred or more words is inviting narcolepsy. A few stanzas of song or poem (for instance, to infuse a specific mood), or a Want Ad (to lure an unsuspecting character to certain doom) can be worthwhile. These are scene-setting or plot-building tools. However, please understand that fabricating an entire 200-word article just to extract a line or two of worthwhile information—well, that’s taboo (…unless you have a very excellent excuse).


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