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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1. Using dialogue as an alternative for action.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Or through monologue:

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

Or through omniscient narration:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He told her that he loved her.

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

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

Trust me.

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

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

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

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

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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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Dialogue (Part 3): People

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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 3):
The best works of fiction aren’t about
plotting. They’re about people.

Why do we write? Or, more specifically, for what purpose do we write? (Okay, and let’s forget about that Pulitzer for a moment.) But what is it that we hope to convey to our readers? What do we assume will move or excite or enrich an audience? How do we create characters or ideas that might remain in a reader’s thoughts for a month or a year or a lifetime?

The simple answer is, of course, to tell a good story. But let’s dig more deeply. What exactly defines a Great American Novel? (Or a Great Nigerian Novel, for that matter.) As fiction writers, are we attempting to reveal the truth about…what? The truth about truth? About deceit? About pride or prejudice, war or peace? About fate or luck? About zombies or ghosts, aliens or evil step-mothers? About falling in love or coping with death? About fitting in or dropping out? In a real sense, whatever our genre, or topic, whatever our slam-dunk story line, there’s a deeper importance—one that infiltrates all plots and genres and fictive rationale. One that connects author and reader.

Because, for me, the key isn’t about writing “What Happens.” It’s about “What Happens to People.” No matter our story, whatever our genre, whatever our goal, we’re ultimately writing about characters who are important to us. Who feel real to us. But when a writer truly cares about his characters (the good, the bad and the ugly), readers have no choice but to also care deeply for them. And one of the most cogent ways to reveal a character? Through dialogue. Through internal monologue. A paragraph or two of primo dialogue can be worth a chapter or two of banal omniscient narration.

For instance:

.….They strolled in the cool sand for several minutes without speaking, neither of them pushing it, Bobby’s thoughts somewhere on the horizon. Maybe their entire walk destined to silence, but Nikki wanted this conversation—needing it for both their sakes—and she looked at him finally. “Were you in love with her?”
…..“Erica? No. It never—I don’t—it wasn’t ever about love. I’m not even sure she was capable.”
…..“What about you? Have you ever been in love?”
…..“I don’t think so.”
…..“Love’s like a migraine,” she said softly. “You know it when you feel it.”
…..“Maybe just a slight headache, once or twice,” he said with a smile.
…..“It’s a complicated process, Bobby.”
…..“Yeah. Too complicated.”
…..“Oh?”
…..“Too many expectations,” he amended. “Of becoming something you’re not. The spontaneity dies and suddenly being yourself isn’t good enough any more. You feel yourself being molded—crammed into an uncomfortable box. Somewhere you know you don’t belong. Do you know what I mean?” he asked.
…..“Yes,” she said. “I do.”
…..“Maybe somewhere out there—” He shook his head, almost didn’t finish, but then shrugged away the inane incoherence of his own thoughts and said, “—there’s a woman willing to let me be me. Willing to accept the flaws, you know?”
…..They walked for a long moment, her silence this time, before she said, “You know what? You’re like a blind perfectionist, Bobby. You know what you want but I’m not sure you could see it right in front of your face.”

Note that the above dialogue may not be furthering the plot, but it is adding to our understanding of two main characters (development)—and thus, it’s important information to the reader. Allow yourself to truly feel your actors, to expose your characters—warts and all. Remember, in life, there are no 100% heroes and no 100% villains. Even Adolf Hitler painted pretty pictures. Gandhi threw tantrums. So permit your characters to fully inhabit themselves—allow them to speak freely about who they are and what they want, both to you and to your readers. And when you feel moved by what you’ve written, that’s when you know you have a the workings of a great novel. To reit:

Rule #41. Great fiction isn’t about ‘what happens’. It’s about ‘what happens to people.’

The above rule isn’t meant to dissuade anyone from concocting an amazing, consistently dramatic, plot-twisty magnum opus. If you’ve discovered the mother-lode of great plots, and believe you have a logical and rational reason to frontload that information, go for it! However, one word of advice. While you’re plotting your epic masterpiece, don’t allow your characters so sit there like lumps, watching reruns and eating bonbons until the plot comes knocking at their door. Give them substance and give them purpose that excites the reader…even before the plot reveals itself. Once we’ve established our characters—either partially or fully—once we’ve given them flesh and bone, hopes and dreams, courage and fear, imperfections and eccentricities, now we can let loose the proverbial Hounds Of Hell.

Or think of Rule #41 this way. Put an eclectic cast of chatty characters on a luxury liner slowly sinking in the icy Atlantic and you’ve likely got a page turner. Put that same boat in the same predicament—but with nobody aboard—and what do you have? A scholastic essay on buoyancy, I suspect.

One issue I’ve encountered when reading manuscripts concerns character classism: characters—especially protagonists—who are destined to live through the novel (and typically loved by the author) are largely well conceived and fully formed, full of life and joy, witty and urbane—sometimes real as real can be. And then there are the story’s second class citizens, background characters who sometimes seem to be barely breathing, roughly sketched, often dull and lifeless. These are minor characters that I realize (as a reader) are going to die, or else drift off the page sooner or later. Even if these characters have only a modicum of stage time, they need authorial love too. They need your full attention and development. If these characters aren’t fully honed, when they leave the story, or die, readers won’t really care. But a reader should care. If a reader isn’t made to care about a character—either one we’re supposed to love or we’re supposed to hate—there’s probably no reason for that character brought to life in the first place.

So, back to the basics. Let’s return for a moment (see Dialogue Part 2) to our aforementioned sci-fi thriller, The Great Big Giant Meteor. Remember our beleaguered hero, Charlie? Let’s say, early still in Act I, Charlie and his former girlfriend, Andrea, are walking on a moonless night, staring up at the heavens. Maybe that long extinguished spark between them has ignited again. The meteor is still a distant, undiscovered speck in the sky.

Q. How do we fill all those pages before the meteor’s presence is known?

A. With astute, meaningful character development.

For instance, let’s reveal Charlie re-examining all his long, lost feelings, testing those emotions he’d abandoned years ago. Do they oh-so-coincidentally talk about some billion-in-one chance that some as-of-yet undiscovered meteor might hit Earth? Of course not. (That would be telegraphing, and that’s taboo.) Besides, if you’re going to show the collision 100 or 200 pages hence, you certainly don’t want to talk about it now. Why ruin the suspense? Instead, Charlie and Andrea ingratiate themselves to the reader by talking about themselves in a multitude of seemingly incidental, gradually revealing and ultimately intriguing ways. And, as they begin to rediscover each other, the reader begins to discover them too. And no, they’re not talking about favorite laundry detergents either. That’s also taboo. (Because it’s boring.) But what about:

…..“Look at those stars,” Charlie said, staring upward into the cloudless night. “My God, it’s breathtaking. You know, I’ve always assumed only two types of people inhabit this world—those who look up and see irrelevant pinpricks of light, and those who see infinite potential, who ponder the very nature of existence.”

Or what about:

…..“I got married, Charlie,” Andrea said. “After you left Hawai’i, I met a man at Hickam, and we fell in love. It was all rather rushed and impromptu.”
…..Aware of the somber tone in her voice, sensing her sadness, he said, “Didn’t work out, huh?”
…..“It never had the chance,” she said, shaking her head. “He was an astronaut. His name was Paul McPhearson.”
…..Charlie’s
mouth formed a surprised oval. “You mean Major McPhearson? The Orion-4 Mission commander?”
…..She nodded. “Paul’s mission died somewhere on the dark side of Jupiter. They never found the spacecraft. He’s still out there, somewhere. Whenever I look up, Charlie, I think a big part of me is looking for him. Silly, I know, but he’s up there, and every night, over and over, I replay those ten thousand potential reasons why he never came home to me. I can’t help myself. I can’t just let it be.”
…..“I’m so sorry,” Charlie said, his voice shaking.

Such personal revelation not only contributes to the reader’s comprehension of our characters, but (in this case) keeps the reader subliminally aware of what’s out there—the meteor, of course—the universe being an infinite, largely unknown and often lethal place. It’s wise to seldom allow our readers to drift too far from the undulating drama that, sooner or later, will show itself.

Or think of character-building this way: Create characters interesting enough—in this case Charlie and Andrea—that even if an impending world-ending meteor doesn’t exist in your story line, your characters are complete and stimulating enough to keep the reader riveted. Keep us glued, even if your book is simple story between two space nerds looking for love.

That’s what great dialogue can provide.

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