Dialogue (Part 2): Balance

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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 2)
Balancing ‘Reality’ and ‘Fiction’

As previously suggested, great dialogue should accomplish one of three specific goals. Whenever characters speak, we use dialogue specifically to: 1) Set a scene; 2) Develop or define a character or characters, or; 3) Forward the plot.

And yet there exists another important, although nebulous, element that infuses itself within the dialogue you write. This isn’t a goal per se, but rather an overarching stylistic approach that balances “real-life dialogue” with “on-the-page” dialogue—two wholly different beasts. Meaning that realistic-sounding dialogue might require some effort. A bit of forethought. Of practiced nuance and self-editing. (And then a few more rounds of re-editing.)

Every writer must walk a fine line between the typically inarticulate, incomplete and often rambling real-world verbal diarrhea—sorry! But true!—that our brains somehow manage to interpret, and the vapid, usually boring, just-the-facts-ma’am sort of written dialogue that some of us employ, intent on steadfastly moving the plot forward, and largely at the expense of a fully developed character. Somewhere in the middle is the sweetspot—that perfect blend of casually informal, yet subtly informative, dialogue that readers will consume like buttered popcorn at a Hollywood Premiere.

Blending snippets of useful information (e.g.; plot-building) with tidbits of witty banter (e.g.; character-building) isn’t every-page essential, but more often than not, it’s a really, really good idea. Dialogue can seamlessly marry a character’s personality and purpose (reason for being) in each particular scene. Great dialogue can also intentionally heighten or deflate tension, change attitudes or redirect the reader’s attention. Even if your dialogue’s intent is to simply flesh out a character’s persona, you’re also subliminally, unobtrusively, perhaps manipulatively, pushing the plot forward. Conversely, if you’re actively advancing the plot, you’re also subliminally, unobtrusively (etc.) defining your character(s). (See Dialogue Part 3.)

Let’s say, for instance, that our just-started sci-fi thriller (“The Great Big Giant Meteor”) is about—wait for it!—about a giant meteor. This humongous space rock will likely pulverize Earth a year or two hence. (Original idea, right?) So our principle characters are intrepid yet unsuspecting scientists, with maybe an astronaut or two thrown in for razzle-dazzle. The dialogue example below takes place early in Act 1. In the dozen (or 20 or 50) preceding pages, readers have learned a bit about a charming astronomer named Charlie, his best friend Doug—and we’ve just been introduced the mysterious Andrea, who’s arriving at The Kennedy Space Center aboard a private corporate helicopter. Our dialogue begins innocuously enough (not depicted below) with some friendly banter, and then continues:

…..“Say, I heard you and Andrea attended MIT together,” Doug said. “Quite a coincidence, huh? Crazy, working together again after all these years.”
…..“Yes, and quite a pleasant surprise.” Charlie’s smile radiated a surprising warmth. “I had no idea she’d pursued a career in observational astronomy. Andrea was always more of a people person, not a star-gazer. I thought she’d end up in Washington, maybe lobbying for NASA, hobnobbing at exclusive cocktail parties. I always saw Andrea as being the quintessential social spider intent on trapping some unsuspecting freshmen senator, then draining his wallet in a single gulp. For a good cause, of course.”
…..Doug laughed. “She told me that you two summered together in Hawai’i?”
…..“Yes, at the observatory. Both of us going for our Ph.D’s at the time. We were—for a while we were close,” Charlie said, staring past Doug’s shoulder for a long moment, reliving some silent memory. “I remember those months fondly.”
…..“She said you spent more than a few evenings at Dr. Smith’s cottage in Waikui, pouring over Hertzsprung–Russell diagrams and sipping Mai Tais.”
…..“Dr. Smith?” Charlie’s eyebrow dipped. “No, no, Diana Smith died the previous year, several months before we arrived on the Big Island. Dr. Jones was our C.O.A. liaison at the time.”
…..“Really? I must have got my wires crossed. No matter. Dr. Jones, huh? Yeah, I heard he was a real ball-buster before he retired. Frugal with his accolades. As I recall, the good doctor believes there’s an alien spaceship buried somewhere in eastern Siberia. Crazy, huh? Well, I gotta run, get this photo array off to the digital enhancement guys. Hey, you remember that NQ3 hot-spot you found last week, the one we thought might be a dust speck? Apparently not. McKenzie’s taking another look. She swears it’s in motion. Oh, by the way, how about tennis this Saturday? Don’t say no, Chuck—I’ve already reserved a court…”
…..
All of which means….what to a reader? A half-page of unnecessary banter that goes nowhere? Or something else? Might Andrea’s arrival hint of a potential love interest for Charlie—or something else? And what about the Dr. Smith/Dr. Jones confusion? A simple lapse in memory—or something else? Is there really an alien spaceship buried in Siberia—or something else? And what about that casually mentioned hot-spot? Most readers already engaged in The Great Big Giant Meteor will interpret that particular significance easily enough. But what other subtle goodies lurk within these few paragraphs of chitchat? Yes, we’re teasing the reader, but a competent writer is continually looking for areas or elements from which to evolve or twist a story, to constantly keep readers on their toes.

And, wait…Charlie plays tennis? That, amigos, is character development. The revelation will most likely have no direct bearing with the aforementioned meteor, but at least we know Charlie gets out of the office. He’s well-rounded. Maybe athletic. Most readers will subliminally remember that factoid…so when Charlie’s running after some little green alien 200 pages hence, we know he’s got the stamina. (The tennis club can also provide an viable alternative environment for our characters, should we want to break up the monotony of the more staid observatory setting.)

What else might these few paragraphs reveal? Maybe Charlie’s good friend, Doug, soon falls in love with Andrea. Or perhaps Charlie comes to believe that she’s secretly working for the Russians (for some as-of-yet unknown, nefarious purpose). Maybe readers won’t be conscious of these potential sub-plots—but the seeds have been subliminally sewn. A reader will patiently wait to see which ones sprout.

Why is scene-setting and/or character development important before revealing too much plot—in this case the discovery of the meteor? Despite how easy (plot-wise) it would be to depict Charlie sitting down at a computer console on page 1, tapping in a few cosmic coordinates and discovering an unexpected celestial body speeding toward Earth, where’s the sufficient undulating tension leading up to that moment? Who is Charlie, anyway—and why should we care about him? Maybe he’s a good person—goes to church, saves the whales, helps old grannies across the street—but until Charlie’s sufficiently developed as a character (one I’ll either love or hate, find empathic or suspicious) any substantial plot-building can wait.*

As the writer, you already know what the reader does not—that the approaching meteor is actually a billion-ton, Denver-sized space diamond in the rough. Andrea’s insanely wealthy corporate bosses have also discovered that fact and have decided to capture the meteor, ease it in a stable orbit around Earth and mine it—and what could possibly go wrong with that scenario? So despite Charlie’s best attempts to destroy or divert the rock, his efforts are continually thwarted by unknown agents. Why? Because we’re stacking additional dramatic obstacles at every turn. And dialogue is going to be instrumental in creating or continuing that drama—a direct (yet typically subtle) information-highway between Charlie and Andrea, between Charlie and Doug and (possibly) between Andrea and the mysterious Dr. Jones. When poor Doug ends up suddenly dead late in Act II, who’s to blame? And why? Questions anew that a competent writer will answer at the appropriate time. And when Andrea’s brother Sergei shows up on page 178… hmm, possibly more complications.

Ah yes, timing! Great dialogue isn’t only about concocting dramatic, informative, and oh-so-witty conversation—but also conversation that appears at just the right moment and in a logical sequence with past and future chatter. When you ask a question in dialogue (“Who would have killed Doug! He didn’t have an enemy in the world!”) allow your reader sufficient time to ponder the answer. You’re not obliged to immediately solve the mystery. Sure, you know—but it’s okay to string along the reader, waiting for the appropriate (and perhaps exquisitely unexpected) moment for the necessary reveal.

My advice is to never (or rarely) reveal too much too fast. In fact, that should probably be a rule. Rule #39: Never reveal too much relevant information too quickly. Whether you’re writing drama or comedy, a thriller or love story, sci-fi, horror or fantasy, continued suspense of one sort or another is imperative. Within each conversation, it’s okay to create a little more confusion or distraction or confrontation. With each provided answer, feel free to ask another question, or two or three. And then, late in Act III (typically your final act) begin to collect whatever loose threads that remain and resolve any unanswered questions.

Oh, and now Rule #39A: ….But relevant or not, always keep dialogue witty and interesting. Seriously. If possible, sneak in snippets of potential drama even into seemingly inane conversations. “I love you, Penelope. I’ll always love you forever!” Sweet. Nice. But what about, “I love you, Penelope. I’ll always love you forever. By the way, I become a bit schizophrenic when the moon is full.” (No, of course you don’t write it that way…but keep potential tension taut whenever possible.)

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*  As always, no writing rule or suggestion of mine should be considered iron clad. (Hell, I don’t even listen to myself all that often.) So if your story demands an immediate burst of plot-essential material, by all means follow your instincts. Crayon outside the lines if it feels right. All I ask is that you understand the fundamentals before attempting to break them.

Why, you ask? Did you ever put a raw egg (shell intact) in the microwave and turn it on HIGH for 2 minutes, unaware of the fundamentals regarding eggs and microwaves? Try it and get back to me. Writing a novel without knowing the rules—well, the outcome is kinda like that.

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Dialogue (Part 1): Basics

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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 1)
Effective Dialogue is 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.

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.

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 components (Refer again to Simple, But Exciting) necessary to create a great story line.  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 overtly restrictive, fear not. Your creative, 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 subtly tease a reader or arouse curiosity, not to mention that dialogue can quickly move the plot forward in various ways. (Hey, I just found a tattered old treasure map in my grandfather’s attack. Do you think it’s real? Let’s find out!)

You can also utilize dialogue to impart necessary info, 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 relating to readers as well.

A quick example of those three necessary components 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,” Captain Taki said. “That evil planet’s scorching hot. Step one foot out of the Safety Dome in full sunlight, even in a fully shielded suit, and your face plate will melt within a half-second. Your skull will sizzle and pop before you even feel the pain. After sundown’s not quite lethal, but you gotta be careful. Many of the rock formations out there are sharp enough to slice your suit and slit 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 far 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.”
…….“No chocolate? That sucks.”
…….“Totally. She says I’m allergic. I mean like deathly allergic. The thing is, I’ve never even tried chocolate. So how the hell does she know, right?”
…….“Hey, my mom keeps a few Snickers bars in the freezer. I’ll give you one, if you want.”
…….“Really?”
…….“Truth. Wait—you’re sure about this, right? My mom will be pissed if you croak out on the kitchen floor. She’s kind of a neat freak.”
…….“Yeah, I’m sure. Sooner or later, I gotta know. Let’s find out.”
…….“But what if it’s true? What if you get all convulsive and explode or something? Not cool. So maybe we get a Coke or something instead, okay?”

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

…….“Darling, I’m scared,” Edith said.
…….“I’m telling you, this must 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 monologue) 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 the likes of 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—once again a 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.
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– – – – – – – – – –

* Omniscient Narration (a 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 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 heard 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 fictional 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 and equally 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 and/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.)

So…can action and information co-exist in a scene? How separate is separate? Certainly, these two attributes can occasionally brush together…but brush lightly. Referring back to brothers Miles and Ian, 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, the following scenario would be considered taboo:

As their horses gallop toward the booming cannon, the two men rushing 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.
…..“What, 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 character, 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 blossom 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. Her letters may dramatically change the lives of both men, and thus the scene deserves undivided attention. Or else place her in a scene after the charge; 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 in her own right.

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 of its 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 damn 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? And when is a writer best served to use it?

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

…..“My dear, favorite brother 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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Basic Plotting (Part 2)

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

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It’s all about the drama, dahlings.

Books and blogs about “plotting a novel” are as ubiquitous as leaves on a summer tree. I suspect some of these efforts are actually very good. Others? Not so much. That being said, let me cut to the chase. Good plotting can be explained in one word: Drama.

Yup. Tension. Uncertainty. Double-cross. Forbidden love. Hatred. Amnesia. War. Politics. A sinking ship. In other words, drama. It’s all about the drama, dahlings. That’s the secret ingredient; a very, very important element of successful fiction. Writing a book that’s lacking dramatic impact? It probably won’t (IMHO) sell.

And don’t confuse drama as “some little ruckus” that one sprinkles sporadically around a story. Drama isn’t a garnish. Nor is it specifically reserved for those dark, thunderous Shakespearean epics where witches cackle, swords clash and treachery abounds. Drama can be as aloof as a secret glance, a snicker, a subtle movement. Drama is a constant that should infuse every fictive work. That should be a rule—and so now it is! Rule #27. Make drama your novel’s constant companion. It lurks upon every page—either undulating or overwhelming—ready to spring or having already sprung, hiding, panting, waiting to lunge again. Drama can shout or whisper to the reader. Sometimes it even hides in plain sight, waiting for the perfect instant to snatch away banality. To dissolve normality.

And yet, don’t confuse drama with impending tragedy. Yes, a tragic tale is fraught with drama. A child’s death, a war, an emotional breakdown, a marital conflict… all dramatic, fictive situations that a writer can utilize to build a story. But what about light-hearted romance? What about comedy? Realize that every romantic tale is laden with great gobs of interpersonal drama. And comedy, even slapstick comedy, is simply drama interpreted through a playful or joyous lens. But it’s still about drama, first and foremost.

Don’t believe so? Think of any comedic film. (I’ve discovered that remembering a film sequence is far easier than remembering a specific snippet from a book. And easier to dissect as well.) For instance: Notting Hill. Lovely romantic comedy—and filled with drama. The Holiday? Filled with drama. Annie Hall? Filled with drama. The Princess Bride? It’s a Wonderful Life? The Hangover? Drama. Drama. Drama. And drama. Remember Finding Nemo? The little guy loses his mother and 99% of his siblings. Gets lost at sea. Almost eaten by a shark. Captured and confined to an aquarium. Makes a daring escape. It’s funny—but it’s also constant drama!

Groucho Marx once said,“Comedy is when you slip on a banana peel. Tragedy is when I slip on a banana peel.” And yet both banana-based scenarios contain drama—both genres must provide a continual tool bag of genre-specific dramatic moments to survive, and to thrive in its fictive form.

Refer again to Rule #8, which states, in part: Keep your characters moving. You’re either pushing characters toward drama or pulling them away again.

I can’t really give a writer much additional structural information on basic plotting. Have an idea? Play with it! Test it! My personal belief has always been: write what you feel, write what you want. (So long as it’s dramatic, of course.)

And do understand that dramatic plotting isn’t always about remarkable external circumstances, about drooling zombies or horrific wars or big ships slowly sinking. Good plotting is also about (and sometimes only about) great character development. (Check out these flicks: The Madness of King George. Or Before Sunrise. Or Pride and Prejudice. Beautiful films, with stories predominately carried by superb dialogue. Or meta-classics like Mindwalk and My Dinner With André.) I’ve often said that if you lock two interesting people in a closet and give them great, dramatic dialogue, I’d rather read that book than about all the Transformers in the world.

So, yeah, successful plotting is a combination of great dialogue, great timing, great suspense (comedic or tragic) and certainly great writing in general. Good drama is larger than life. Deeper than reality. Great plotting is the result of daydreaming that begins with a single, simple “what if?” concept.

Remember Rule #27. And don’t confuse drama as “some little ruckus” that one sprinkles sporadically around a story. Drama isn’t a garnish. Drama is your story’s constant companion.
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Basic Plotting (Part 1)

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

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“I want to write a book, but…”

The fiction writers that I know, we’re all daydreamers at heart. The obstacle confronting us is that—well, we’re all daydreamers at heart. And, sorry to say, but daydreams don’t magically turn into completed novels. The truth is that daydreams—those misty thought-bubbles from which all novels spring, and the reality of churning out a book—sitting down to actually write a few hundred thousand words—requires two completely different facets of a writer’s personality. Two very different abilities.

Our Right Brain—that artsy-fartsy, huggin’ and feelin’ hemisphere—is content to sit on a comfy couch all day, dreaming about pirates or unicorns or maybe what happened that one night at summer camp. Our Left Brain—the logical, mathematical, factual part—pays the bills. Sets the alarm clock. Saves for rainy days. For many of us who write (or sing or paint or photograph or philosophize), our Left Brain may be underutilized—and is probably suspicious of why we’ve chosen to write a novel and how this career choice is going to pay for the kids’ college tuition. Yet it must, sooner or later, take the cerebral baton from our Right Brain and run with it.

And trust me, that race will be a marathon.

As previously mentioned, passing the baton from our Right Brain creative self to our Left Brain logical self is where a great many novels stumble and fail. A hazy notion may sprout, may grow a leaf or two, but then the idea of developing an entire tree’s worth of leafy green ideas fills us with dread and discomfort. Many of us will—either temporarily or permanently—dissolve back into a safe, complacent daydream. Should we never attempt writing again, we’ll always wonder, …what if?

And writers do sometimes plow through those fears, push themselves to go the distance and even become published authors. A few even become household names. But each one of us, sooner or later, has to take the chance and write those few few words, then paragraphs, and pages. And for some of us, even though the fear persists, a stronger emotion takes over. Maybe it’s the risk of a dare, or the sense of impending accomplishing or (and ain’t nothing wrong with this…) an intense yearning for fame and fortune.

However, it’s important to understand that the process of “writing a book” begins long before the physical act of writing begins. For those wannabe writers who fall in love with the concept of being published, and then sit down to write a story—only to discover they don’t know what to write about—just realize that those writers are deep diving into the shallow end of the pool. Attempting to climb a ladder with the bottom half the rungs missing. Framing a roof before pouring a foundation. And attempting many other lame clichés as well.

My suggestion? Allow yourself sufficient time to establish enough of a story to solidify a few solid ideas. You not have concocted an entire story, but it’s useful to have determined at least an inciting incident and whatever the resulting results. Or establishing a character’s personality enough to ground readers who this person might be, and what’s the motivation? In other words, have a few scenes or chapter’s worth of material stored up so that when you first sit down to write, you’re not staring into some endless black void of uncertainty. For many writers, having a vague semblance of a plot or a strong character personality is enough for the Left Brain to intuit where the Right Brain is coming from. And that’s all it takes!

Another option? Don’t think of yourself as sitting down to write a novel. Think of yourself as writing a short story. Don’t worry about what might happen 200 pages later—stay in the moment and write what that particular moment brings. Give your brain a pleasant little jump start, perhaps 1000-2000 words… and see where that leads you. Very often that short-story-of-an-idea will soon expand in scope and complexity—and now you’re on your way… to all that aforementioned fame and fortune.

Refer again, should you desire, to: Where To Start. And: Focus on the Now. And: First Drafts.

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