Scene-Setting

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

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Scene-Setting: The (often) overlooked
powerhouse in every writer’s arsenal.

You’ve heard this before from me, and now you shall hear it again. Rule #5: Continually scene-set, character-build or move the plot forward. In novel writing, nothing else matters.

Need a refresher? Look Here.

For fledgling and action-oriented novelists, scene-setting is often the most overlooked of these three essential fictive components. Yet proper scene-setting is imperative. One cannot simply rely on plot momentum and character development alone. At least, not when writing a novel.* But many novelists have trouble adequately grounding readers, largely because scene-setting can be radically misunderstood. Do realize that proper scene-setting is a far more complex concept than simply pointing out a big red barn or a hazy afternoon.

Since ‘scene-setting’ is typically considered an all-inclusive term incorporating all five senses, and optionally including how and when, grounding a reader can refer to a multitude of possible sensory enhancements necessary to deconstruct a scene. Scene-setting can (and should) provide powerful imagery—colors, motions, sounds, feelings, fragrances—that add more than a vague or occasional embellishment to your plot and characters, or to their environs.

For instance:

Johnny Rocco was led through the prison yard by his guards toward freedom.

VS.

Johnny Rocco lumbered through the prison yard, his wrists and ankles shackled, with twenty pounds of tempered steel chain wrapped around his waist for good measure. The six guards surrounding Rocco had been hand-picked by the warden, each man heavily armed, and each secretly hoping that Rocco might make some stupid move, a twitch or a smirk, resulting in a particularly bloody demise before the man made it past the yawning front gates to freedom.

I have absolutely no problem with minimalism, and yet if Johnny Rocco’s walk toward freedom is the first line of a new scene or chapter, I do have issues with the opening’s lack of emotional depth and visual stimulation. The latter of these two examples feels far more expressive, and better grounds the reader immediately in this new scene.

Very often when we sit down to begin a new scene or chapter, our brains are already overflowing with stimulating visual momentum; our thoughts crowded with profound, dramatic intent. Just remember that readers cannot see into our mind’s eye! We may visualize quick, fragmented glimpses of a basic setting as we write, but we’re here to tell a story, damn it, and tell our story we will! So we hustle off…

But wait a sec. Exactly where are we again? We may intuit every step that our characters take, but realize that readers need sufficient sensory information (note I didn’t simply say visual information) to accompany our journey.

So how important is scene-setting? It’s crucial enough to be considered a new rule. Rule#17: Every scene we write, before we begin (or before we continue) to propel our plot forward, we must establish a viable setting for our characters, and a firm grounding for our readers.

Another example:

Jane awoke in a haze, lying on a bare cot in a small, unfamiliar gray room. She found herself unable to remember how she’d gotten here—nor much of anything of the last 48 hours, her recent memories vague, her thoughts fragmented. Attempting to move her arms, Jane discovered that her wrists were bound to the cot with thick leather ties.

Shaking her head, she felt a sharp stab of pain. A concussion, perhaps. Had she been knocked unconscious? Jane couldn’t remember. For a long moment she remained still, quiet, warily inspecting her surroundings. A single, wooden door stood across the room. Closed and presumably locked. To her left, Jane observed a solitary window. Worn, muslin curtains swayed in a light breeze, the widow open, revealing a faint hint of rosemary and sage. Lifting her head, she glimpsed little more than a cloudless blue sky outside, and the hazy peak of a single, treeless mountain far in the distance.
. . . . A sudden noise behind the door snagged her attention… (and here comes the plot.)

But before any action begins in earnest, our stage is now set. Perhaps not fully set—but sufficient information has been given readers to ground them in the moment. We can further fill in blanks or add nuance in later scenes or a subsequent chapter. Yet because we mention a door, a window, a distant mountain; most readers will intuit that these items are (or will likely become) necessary elements in our story in some significant—or perhaps insignificant but insightful—way.

So, in our haste, if we write:

Jane awoke in a small room, tied to a cot. She couldn’t remember her name. Suddenly a noise outside the door startled her….

…we’re cheating our readers with by withholding ambiance that can greatly enhance the experience that you’re providing. It’s like serving dinner guests bread and butter on paper plates when you’ve promised them Filet Mignon on fine china. Maybe they won’t go away hungry, but they certainly won’t go away happy. Without sufficient scene-setting techniques, our writing can feel dry and emotionally vacant, lacking any sense of style and color and flavor. Realize that all sense of dramatic nuance, of stylistic intent, is easily lost behind a too swiftly moving plot.

Here’s a suggestion: Each time you begin a new scene or chapter, think of yourself as a Broadway set director (a.k.a.; set designer), confronting a bare and empty stage. Your first step? Visualize what’s necessary for the performers. What physical elements will the actors need to fully tell their story? Ask yourself what conditions have changed since the last act? Location? Time? New characters? Mood swings? Because all these changes should be sufficiently revealed before (or very soon after) any forward plot momentum continues. What elements do readers require to believe the reality you’re presenting?

For instance, if this particular act in your stage play takes place in a large living room, the director (also you, BTW, but wearing a different hat) may have characters entering from stage left and stage right simultaneously. Meaning that you, now wearing your set designer’s hat, will need to implement two doorways in the set. If you only reveal only one doorway when first describing the room, your later self may balk—and you’ll find yourself begrudgingly adding or deleting numerous pages to make the scene work properly.

Understand, that many of us (me, included) often skip a great deal of scene-setting (and character development as well) until a second or third draft. So when working on a first draft—then, yes!—by all means focus solely on the plot.

It’s okay for our story to remain temporarily incomplete, because the process of writing is fluid, and still very much in motion. At this stage, the writer has room to maneuver. My own first drafts are filled with gaping holes and unfinished thoughts, even random notes—and God help anyone who tries to decipher my intent if they come upon my incomplete manuscript. I make notations in red (I draft everything on-screen, not paper) and rely on red ink to mark my unfinished thoughts. Thus, my first drafts commonly look something like:

Jane awoke [in a fog? Or is she coherent?], lying on a in a small [describe] room. She found himself unable to remember how she’d gotten here [why? Concussion? Amnesia? Drugs?] She observes her surroundings and… yadda, yadda.

Because sometimes it’s far easier to return and fully embellish a scene once the skeletal frame of the story is already in place.

Okay, so how much detail is too much? Scene-setting is, of course, a matter of personal preference—but also a question of our ability in gauging how much or how little grounding is necessary to properly immerse a reader in any given scene. As novelists, we can spend paragraphs or even pages attempting to properly scene-set in great detail—although I advise writers not filling pages to such an extent that one loses sight of maintaining plot momentum. In the above example, Jane’s waking confusion—plot momentum—is still our primary focus. So a writer must constantly compromise, juggling plot momentum, character development and sufficient (if temporarily incomplete) scene-setting.

One noteworthy caution: When scene-setting, beware of the dreaded red herring. Jane may notice, for instance, a set of sterling salt and pepper shakers on a table beneath the window. If such items are glimpsed in passing, fine. But if Jane dwells for any reason or spends any perceptible time noting their presence—take heed. Because unless that table and those shakers are somehow necessary to the story, I’d suggest brevity. Take too long to establish a minor character, a clue or a prop that will have no relevant bearing later in your story, (such unintended misdirection being the aforementioned red herring) and some readers may be miffed. Sure, it’s okay to tease readers with deliberately misleading clues—Detective Plum believes Mrs. Peacock to be the killer, for instance, only to have Mrs. Peacock die in the next scene—is perfectly okay in a murder mystery. Such intended misdirection is simply a dramatic invention that furthers the plot. But don’t dwell on the unnecessary.

Sense Descriptors

Let’s look at those variables available to create a fully developed scene or chapter. Your options include one or more of the numerous sense descriptors available to more fully inform readers:

• Sight (Visual cues)
This one’s a gimme. A slam-dunk. Either the writer observes (omniscient narration) or a character observes (POV) the various, necessary visuals that ground the reader in a particular reality. The vast majority of novels are primarily visual descriptions. For instance: A castle on the hillside. Belinda’s skin glistening in the moonlight. The zombie’s fiery red eyes. A flock of geese heading south overhead. John arguing with Mary.

Even dialogue, while not directly a visual cue, is typically written as an observable exchange, as visualized between two or more people. So even though we may hear John arguing with Mary, we also see them arguing. The exasperated expressions, the flowing tears, the twisted snarls. An adept writer will weave together both visual and auditory cues for the reader to best grasp the situation.

Most adept writers will find ways to weave snippets of scene-setting with  character development and/or plot momentum. For instance:

Riding behind Sir Reginald’s ambling horse, Lady Rockbottom noticed the distant ruins of a castle high atop a granite cliff, towering above the chilly evening’s encroaching fog. Exactly the type of place where the dastardly Sir Evilson would lay in wait for them. The castle, its old walls glowing a ghastly reddish orange beneath the setting sun, appeared little more than a devilish apparition. She feared the elderly Reginald would not stand a chance of defeating the younger, more powerful knight.

• Sound
As a species, we’re inherently drawn to ambient sounds—whether the strains of a finely-played violin or the gentle, distant crash of an ocean surf. We’re also instantly wary of the sound of thunder, of an explosion, or some hapless animal howling in the dead of night. Of two men cursing and arguing loudly in a shadowed alley. Even background chatter—people mumbling, an occasional burst of laughter, glasses clinking—can signify a cocktail party, a single sentence that offers readers a clear perception of location, without having to intricately describe a room filled with inconsequential characters.

Or perhaps little Wanda June is lost in the woods as as soft rain falls. But how the scene might change if she hears a crash of approaching thunder? Or Maurice awakens to the creak of a floorboard long after midnight. Even more subtle ambient sounds—crickets chirping at sunset, the wind rustling autumn leaves—can provide subtle emotional cues to your readers. So don’t lose the occasional opportunity to use sound as a viable grounding tool.

• Touch.
Have you ever written a scene where a character wakes suddenly in the night—the surrounding darkness pitch black and foreboding? So, yes, touch matters. However, for the most part, touch relates to important sensual clues that can better define a condition or observation. For instance; the metal floor felt ice cold beneath James’ bare feet, or Mary awoke to the prickle of countless fat, hairy spiders scrambling over her bare flesh. Sure, Mary can simply observe the spiders—but how much more dramatic to have readers feel the tickle of countless hairy little paws as well.

And yes, spiders have paws.

• Smell.
While not as common as the above descriptors, the ability to reveal scents and fragrances (both exquisite and putrefying) can leave an indelible impact to readers as well. So the next time you’re confronted with a plucky resistance leader chased into the underground sewer system by the evil prince’s guards—take a chance to share the full experience with your readers. Or as my saintly gran’mama used to say, “When you’re covered in shit, you can’t smell the wine.” I suppose the more common, less offensive adage (as taught in Advertising 101) would be: Sell the sizzle, not the steak. In fiction, the same rules apply.

• Taste.
A picture, they say, is worth a thousand words. So are these ‘lesser’ sense descriptors. Again, Taste—like Smell and Touch—can cut through 1000 words of carefully worded narration in a single sentence. To famished little Wanda June, the sliver of chocolate cake tasted like heaven. Simple enough. Profound enough. There’s not a reader in the world who won’t feel the girl’s joy.

• How and Why.
Occasionally there may come a time when specific mechanics of a story scene must be revealed to readers, for clarity’s sake. In Stephen King’s novella, Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption, prisoner Andy Dufresne escapes by crawling through Shawshank’s lengthy sewer system to freedom. A long and particularly gross escape (in both book and film), his friend Red narrates Andy’s escape for the reader. So rather than experiencing Andy swimming through a hundred yards of particularly putrid prison poop, the squeamish among us get an abbreviated version of that trek. Thus, King reveals the How of Andy’s escape and we readers are free to sink into the stench as far as we’d like…and thus the ‘sewer scene’ is more than adequately set.

Here’s another example. Let’s return to Jane for a moment, from where we left off.

Lifting her head, she glimpsed little more than a cloudless blue sky outside, and the hazy peak of a single, treeless mountain far in the distance.
. . . . A sudden noise behind the door snagged her attention. A moment later the door swung open and a man appeared, small and haggard, his head completely shaven. The man wore a black cloak and smelled faintly of formaldehyde.
…..“Ah, Miss Cooper, I see that you are finally awake.” The bald man offered Jane a shriveled little smile. “I have an important question, my dear. Are you listening closely? How did you learn of Dr. Desparado’s whereabouts? Answer that single question and you will be free to leave. However, if you choose to remain silent—ahh, but I can only assure you that you’ll live long enough to regret your decision.”

The bald man’s entrance—even if his character appears in this one and only scene—is to provide the Why of Jane’s presence in this room, in this scene. Reading on, readers will likely discover the How in a page or two. At the moment, the man’s question is sufficient for the scene (and plot) to move forward. Thus, via dialogue, you’re revealing a snippet of information that readers should find grounding enough to infer Jane’s troubles. She stumbled, intentionally or not, upon a snippet of information that was, for whatever reason, private.

Fail to reveal this information to readers—Jane’s presence here and the reason behind it—and you’ll find yourself with what we editors refer to, in hushed, shaky whispers, as: a big fat plothole.

• Time (and time’s passing).
The right time is no less important than the right location. For most writers, most often, that time is now. As in this instant. Lord Bertram grabbed his broadsword and swung it at the approaching orc. Snarling, the gruesome beast ducked and swung its bloody battle axe. Bertram blocked the blow, stumbling backwards into the shadows…. Every sentence represents a precise moment. Every sentence you write becomes the new Now.

(Also refer to Focus on the Now.)

When we write, we write in a strictly linear fashion. That happened then. This is happening now. What’s gonna happen in the future? (It’s that pesky time/space continuum thing.) One doesn’t usually pause to contemplate the profundity of such potential directional challenges (unless, of course, one’s writing in the Time Traveling arena). Even flashbacks and flash-forwards are linear extracts—that is, scenes or chapters pulled out of an orderly time sequence, and yet then told in a similar, precise order. Then, now, later. If a writer gets it wrong—for instance, doesn’t fully reveal to readers that a character’s ‘back in the then’ or ‘gone to the later’, those readers may become hopelessly lost. And, no, many won’t forgive you. So allow for the proper segue, which can be as simple as a few establishing words:

Several years ago, as I recall, when your Uncle Teddy was in the army…

Or,

Two minutes later, when Stephani warily opened the golden orb’s glowing hatch, nothing of her world appeared remotely the same. The old, asphalt road had been transformed into a carpet of tall grass. The little sapling that she had planted in the yard last month had morphed into an enormous, gnarled Oak. The little house that she’s known all her life had disappeared, replaced by a tall, spindly structure that glistening of polished metals and hummed gently under a blazing ocher sun…

Keeping readers aware of time’s passing—whether a few moments, a few hours or even a few centuries—can be instrumental in properly grounding readers in a story. And time changes can be tricky. The solution is to simply keep the reader advised, as quickly and succinctly as possible.

Jane awoke from a deep sleep with a start. Her wrists remained tightly bound. She stared at the ceiling for a long moment, trying to recall the bald man’s words. Had he been an apparition? His appearance merely a dream? For the hundredth time she tried furtively to remember her name. Beyond the room’s little window, she could see the horizon beginning to darken. Night would be upon her soon, meaning she’d spent an entire day locked in this miserable little place...

• Moods/feelings/emotions.

Can moods and emotions help set a scene? Absolutely. Typically, we need not make any special effort to establish a character’s mood. (“Hello, I’m John! I’m usually a cranky, cantankerous sort!”) Astute writing will usually reveal your character’s mood. But a terse gaze, a taut smile, a little hand-wringing or the drop of a tear can reveal much about the tenor of the scene. Thus, if a character is secretly angry or relieved or nervous—those snippets of info can help readers understand the scene’s intention.

Without properly establishing mood settings for your characters (when and if appropriate), you may as well be writing a telephone directory. The three examples below should aptly illustrate the simplicity (and necessity) of this rationale:

“Don’t do it, Madeline!” Rene said, laughing hysterically.
“Don’t do it, Madeline!” Rene cried out in alarm.
Don’t do it, Madeline,” Rene whispered, a furious whisper in the dead of night.

Important information. Revealed discreetly.
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In a nutshell: When beginning to write or plot a new scene or chapter, stop to evaluate what’s different. What’s changed? How does this scene vary from the last scene? If your last scene ended at high noon and it’s presently midnight, yet you don’t reveal the glowing street lamps or the starry sky until we’re three pages in—that’s a blunder. If a new character has entered the scene, and the writer fails to reveal his presence, and your character beings conversing with this unseen dude three pages in—that’s a blunder. If your evil faerie godmother’s been dressed in black robes for several chapters—and in this scene you’ve draped her in red velvet, but forget to tell readers until three pages in—that’s a blunder. Why? Because you’ve cheated readers into believing in various specifics (the time of day, who’s in the scene, even a change of clothes) that are presently untrue. For readers, that can be quite off-putting. So, when confronting a new scene, make a checklist, mental or otherwise, of what might be new, different or worth mentioning.
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*Can’t seem to get the hang of scene-setting after many attempts at failures at writing a novel? Is detailed world-building not your forte? Perhaps consider writing a screenplay. Seriously. Script writing is basically dialogue (really great dialogue, mind you) accompanied by the barest bones—a suggestion, really—of visual composition. Even plotting is written with a bare-bones simplicity. The trick is, of course, that a screenwriter must accurately describe the necessary components as quickly, bluntly, as possible.

However, unlike a completed novel, a screenplay is merely the first step in a multi-leveled project where you (the screenwriter) have little-to-no say in the project once the script is complete. Subsequent writers, producers and the director may tear your original script to shreds before the camera’s begin to roll. The finished product (a.k.a. a major motion picture) may look nothing like your original idea. On the other hand, screenwriters are paid increasingly, delightfully robust fees for their effort and can afford to grin and bear it, whilst driving their Bentley’s to Beverly Hills Savings & Loan, their pockets laden with golden faerie dust. But I digress. Suffice it to say, screenwriting can be a viable option.

For instance:

EXT. (exterior) . . . FARMHOUSE — DAY
Old ANGIE is sitting on a rocking chair on the front porch. Farmhand HANK is standing in the dirt driveway. Overhead, storm clouds are threatening.

ANGIE.
You get that back field plowed yet?

HANK
No, ma’am. Water pump gave out again. I gotta run into town,
get some new parts.

ANGIE
Storm’s comin’. That ol’ tractor’s gonna rust, if’n a downpour comes.

HANK
(Frustrated)
Not a dang thing in the world I can do about the rain, Miss Angie.

ANGIE
Well, for one, y’all can stop waistin’ time by jawin’ with me.

Basically, your scene-setting needs are as simple as expressing: A farmhouse. A brewing storm. A bit of anger. It’s up to the director or set director to work out the minutia. As a script writer, you’re strictly working on dialogue and character development.
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If I can suggest only one book to curious, wannabe script writers, it’s William Goldman’s (Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kid, The Princess Bride) Adventures in the Screen Trade. The book is as much a homage to Hollywood as it is a glimpse into what it might take to write a successful script. It’s a light, breezy and fun read…and yet contains a great deal of valuable info and advice.
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Dialogue. (Part 8:) When Not to Use Dialogue

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

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Writing Great Dialogue (Part 8)
When not to use dialogue.

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

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

Meaning that, unlike omniscient narration—where the writer often may need pages of careful planning and a deft hand to shift momentum or to redirect a story’s direction—by merely interrupting a character’s dialogue (in mid-word if appropriate) a writer can provide instant redirection. Or misdirection, should necessity require. In a line or two, dialogue can provide a cliff hanger, spill a secret and/or reveal essential plot momentum. Dialogue is an essential tool with 1,001 uses.

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

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

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

1. Using dialogue as an alternative for action.

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

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

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

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

So yeah, dialogue can work as a tease. As a prompt. But as a reader, I better soon be following Doug and Ben on an adventure and experience that secret chamber for myself.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Or through monologue:

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

Or through omniscient narration:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He told her that he loved her.

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

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

Trust me.

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

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

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

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Dialogue (Part 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, alternating freely—and if those conversations are not properly executed (as in bringing conversations back to the here and now in a logical fashion) your characters may seem to lack logic, their dialogue out of place or 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 novel 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. (See examples and details in When Not To Use Dialogue.)

• • •

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’re visually entertained while absorbing crucial plot info.

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

• • •

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

 


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Dialogue (Part 5): 1P POV

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

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

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

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

For instance, is the dialog below….

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ah, but what about dialogue, you ask?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

– – – – –

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



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Dialogue (Part 4): Monologue

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

“I love you, Carlotta,” he said.

I love you, Carlotta, he thought.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

…and:

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

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

Newspapers, Radio and TV.
(Revelation from afar)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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* 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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