Obstacles

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

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A Few Common Obstacles.

I’ve been hanging out in Reddit.com/r/writing for a few years now, lurking and occasionally offering comments and suggestions (as u/writer-dude) to new, struggling and/or curious writers. What I’ve discovered on Reddit are many of the same concerns and issues that I’ve confronted while editing clients’ manuscripts. Typically, I can help direct foundering, confused and sidelined writers by presenting modest solutions to these five most prevalent obstacles. And so, in order of increasing concern:

5. Overcoming Inhibitions. The fear of failure is real. So is the fear of success. A fear of ridicule. The fear of isolation (AKA ‘sufficient writing time’). The fear of upsetting friends or family. A fear of not writing a perfect novel…. the list of potential obstacles is quite lengthy. Some call it ‘writer’s block’. Or procrastination. Or ‘waiting for inspiration.’ The real reason(s) for not writing likely has deeper psychological and/or emotional roots. (But this condition is curable!) Is this you? LOOK HERE.

4. How to write effective (or scintillating) dialogue. Don’t know? LOOK HERE

3. Overcoming one’s own ineptitude. Don’t have a clue how to write a novel, but starting out anyway? Afraid you’ll never have what it takes to start or finish? The best way to learn is actually to begin writing. You need not begin a novel or a short story, simply write what comes to to mind. Experiment and explore. Make mistakes and discover ways to improve. However, comprehending the fundamentals of being an author (LOOK HERE), as well as digesting Filmmaker Noel Burch’s The Hierarchy of Competence, can be an essential guideline to perfecting your craft.

2. Plowing helter-skelter through one’s plot with little regard for scene-setting (equally as important) and character-development (ditto). A great novel should seamlessly blend plot momentum with sufficient scene-setting (where/when/why are we in this particular scene?) and character-development (or else why should we care about these uninteresting people?) Unsure? LOOK HERE.

1. Getting Stuck. The most prevalent obstacle (by far) is a novice writer beginning a novel (or story) but very quickly becoming mired in the enormity of such a venture. Many newbies have a vague idea or a partial concept in mind and begin to write in earnest—sometimes 3 pages, sometimes 30—but then what? Once the inciting incident (usually a novel’s opening) plays out, how does one proceed to create an entire, enticing, integral book-length manuscript?

Maybe you sincerely yearn to write a novel. Let’s say that you have a nifty premise about a giant meteor hurling toward Earth. So you create a nice scenario—a young protagonist who’s perhaps an amateur astronomer and who discovers that pinprick of light hurling toward our planet. (The inciting incident in the 1998 flick Deep Impact, BTW.)

Great start! Good impending drama… But suddenly, a whole new world of possibility is in your hands. So many options. So many tentacles. Will the meteor strike? Will it miss? Will we send astronauts into space with nukes? Or launch a rag-tag team of unlikely geologists to save the world (a la Armageddon)? How does once successfully stitch together a coherent, dramatic, conclusive tale? When you find yourself stymied or cornered or fresh out of new ideas, and you’re still midway through Chapter 1, sometimes writing those next 300-400 pages can feel insurmountable.

Q. So, how to proceed?

A. Outline.

See? I told you we’d be back to this one. And while I continue to realize the concept might feel like a giant snoozefest to some writers, outlining is possibly the greatest assurance you have if hoping to finish an unwieldy or foundering novel. Outlining feels hardly creative. Hardly inspirational. More like a math quiz than following the authorial dream. You’re putting your fun-loving, creative Right Brain aside and, fore the moment, relying on your organizational, rational Left Brain to take over. Bummer, right? Well, not necessarily.

Outlining your plot is far more a creative endeavor than you might think. Pondering possible pathways or solutions to problems issues that pop up mid- or late-book can open amazing new possibilities: new characters and/or character traits, new sub-plots, added drama—ideas that the writer had not previously conceived. Outlining can also reveal potential wrong turns or dead-ends in your story line. And ’tis better to delete a few pages of quick notes than 50 pages of text.

Speaking of quick notes, some writers will jot down a dozen quick thoughts, the barest wisp of a road map that they’re able to follow. Others will agonize over a very precise, quite plump outline—a methodical, step-by-step synopsis. Whatever your style, by all means, go for it. Whatever best points your brain in the right direction. (Me? I’ll start off with a 5 or 6 page outline. By my final draft, that outline has grown to maybe 20-30 pages of additional notes.) However, do realize that an outline is simply a guideline—FYEO. You need not add color or drama or emotion. You need not create a work of art; you’re simply jotting down enough info to spark your creative juices. Here’s a for-instance.

An Example.

Let’s say you’re writing an adventure novel about a down-on-his-luck loner named Paul, who eventually discovers a gold mine…and then must defend his fortune from various marauders and modern-day pirates. You’ve already written a good 30-50 pages with relative ease and, in a funk, your hapless protagonist is at the end of his rope. Paul’s wife and dog have dumped him for some rich guy living in Greenwich Village. His bank account has fallen to single digits and the mortgage is past due. With nothing left to lose, Paul puts all his belongings in a brown paper bag, jumps into his old, rusting Studebaker and, and…and then what?

Maybe that’s as far as you’ve thought ahead. But once Paul’s on the highway, Paul’s options (and yours) become muddled and confused. This way or that way? So you sit and think, ponder and process, until—wisely!—you begin to jot out a few possible ‘quick-sketch’ scenarios that occur on the poor guy’s Westward sojourn. Any number of them might look like this:

Midway through the Mojave desert, Paul’s car breaks down on a desolate 2-lane highway.

• He waves down a delapidated VW van, but the two stoners inside rob him of his last few dollars. Nah, too predicable.

• After an hour waiting for any sign of life, an old relic of a school bus sputters into view. Paul waves desperately at the approaching vehicle.

• The driver, an old, toothless guy named Benny, affably waves him aboard. Bennie appears slightly drunk, but Paul sees no other options.

• Cackling insanely, Benny begins to tell Paul a story about an abandoned mine a few miles ahead, at the end of some obscure dirt road. He shows Paul a crumpled, 100 year old treasure map and tells him he’s on his way to search for a chest of gold.

Benny pulls a 300-year-old gold-piece from his pocket as evidence of the fortune. Nope. This would be telegraphing their success. Let readers wonder if Benny’s really crazy, and the gold’s simply a hallucination.

• With nothing to lose, and intrigued by the old guy’s story, Paul tells Benny he’ll help look for the treasure.

…etc., etc.

So your outline is really just a series of quick reminders of how you might want to finish your story, scene by scene…with the opportunity to eliminate any possible wrong turns. (I actually jot additional notes to myself, and in RED, reminding my brain why certain scenes might not work and why. Saves myself from second-guessing my rationale, a week or month from now.)

I allow myself to break my own rules myself. For instance, let’s say I’m visualizing old Benny telling Paul about this rumored gold mine. As the scene’s playing out in my mind, a vital dialogue between the maniacal Benny and the wary Paul comes to mind. Absolutely go with it. Write it down and stick the scene in a folder for eventual use. Creativity seldom arrives in chronological order.

“There’s more’n a hun’erd million rumored to be at the bottom of that dagblasted ol’ mine,” Benny said with a solemn nod.

“Rumored?” Paul asked, casting the old man a sidelong glance.

“Well, nobody’s ever seen it, I reckon. But I’ve heard plenty o’ stories to know it’s there. An’ I’ve come to claim it as my own.”

“You have a map,” Paul said.

“Well, yeah, sorta. I kinda drawed it up myself, based on all them rumors I been hearing. Based on absolute facts, mind you.”

“Rumored facts?”

“The best kind,” Benny admitted with a cackle…

Sure, there may be times when snippets of my outline become part of my first draft, and eventually become part of the finished manuscript, if the thoughts are coherent enough. So if you find yourself leaving ‘outline mode’ and actually writing a profound scene or bit of dialogue, go for it. Sometimes creativity sparks where and you when least expect it.

When outlining, there’s no need to write every word in chronological order. (Some writers insist upon this sort of organized logic, and if that’s how your mind works, it’s perfectly okay!) However, my brain isn’t the brightest bulb in the chandelier, so my outline—like my subsequent early drafts—may gradually coalesce in bits and pieces, and sometimes in an outlandishly random order. I usually conceive my final chapter long before I’m too far into my story, so I’ll write it out as soon as the ideas come. The nice thing about having a solid ending outlined or drafted, one tends to make fewer wrong turns…knowing exactly how, why and where the plot and characters need to be to reach that final page.

Also, note that outlining need not be a complete, beginning-to-end procedure. Often times I’ll outline a few scenes or chapters ahead, then write my draft until I catch up—and then repeat the procedure again. Basically, the art and science of outlining is: Whatever works best for you.

Okay, so end of the Outlining sermon. Either you’ll give it a try, or you won’t. (As always, s’up to you!) But mark my words, Missy… you’ll be back. On their hands and knees, they always come back.

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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 sensory enhancements necessary to fully develop a scene. Scene-setting can (and should) provide powerful imagery—colors, motions, sounds, fragrances, emotions or reactions to stimuli—that add more than a vague or occasional embellishment to your plot and characters, or to their environs.

For instance, consider:

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 Johnny 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 an 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. Both examples adequately depict plot-momentum. However, one is doing so with a visually stimulating, potentially dramatic ambiance.

Very often when we sit down to begin a new scene or chapter, our brains are already overflowing with getting here-to-there; our thoughts crowded with profound, dramatic intent. 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 toward that final destination.

But wait a sec. Exactly where are we again? As writers, we may intuit every step that our characters take, but readers need sufficient sensory information (note I didn’t simply say visual information) to accompany our journey. Do remember that readers cannot see into our mind’s eye! They need sensory reminders, every step of the way.

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, Jane 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 revealed to sufficiently ground readers in the moment. We can further fill in blanks or add nuance in later paragraphs or scenes or in subsequent chapters. 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, even if they simply provide a stimulating visual beyond her confinement that readers might ponder.

On the other hand, if you visualize a ragged hole in the roof above Jane’s head, but that hole provides no relevance to your plot or your character(s), why mention it?! So be judicious with your rationale to include any unnecessary snippet of sensory information, because knowing what tidbits not to reveal can be as important in knowing what to reveal.

However, in our haste to move our plot along, if we reveal too little descriptive or sensory info, we may easily underwhelm readers. Consider:

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

…because we’re cheating our readers by withholding descriptions (or ambiance) that can greatly enhance our intended experience. Kinda like serving dinner guests bread and butter on paper plates when they’re expecting Filet Mignon on fine china. Maybe they won’t go away hungry, but they certainly won’t go away happy. Without sufficient scene-setting, 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 theatrical set director (a.k.a.; set designer), confronting an empty stage. Your first step? Building a new reality. Visualize what’s necessary for the performers, and then what’s necessary for the audience. What physical elements will the actors need to fully tell their story, both in terms of location and stage props? What elements will the audience need to feel fully enveloped in your story?

The next step? Ask yourself what conditions have changed since the previous scene? A new local? A new time? New characters? Mood swings? Because all these changes should be sufficiently revealed before (or very soon after) any forward plot momentum continues.

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 moving your plot forward. For the moment, the color commentary can wait.

Meaning 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 to myself—and God help anyone who tries to decipher my intent if they come upon the 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? Naked? Okay, so why naked…simply for titillation, or is there a logical reason?], lying on a cot in a small [describe] room. She found herself unable to remember how she’d gotten here. [why? Concussion? Amnesia? Drugs?] Cautiously, she observed 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.

Sensory 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 sensory 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 flying south overhead. John arguing with Mary.

Even dialogue, while not directly a visual cue, is typically written as an observable exchange, as experienced 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 pouty lips, all combine for a definitive visualization. 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
The creak of a floorboard in a old, haunted house can provoke as much terror as a room filled with ghosts! 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. Not to mention the aforementioned, classic floorboard squeak of a potential intruder. We’re also instantly wary of air raid sirens, of alarm bells or distant explosions, of an owl screeching 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 as clear a perception of location, without having to describe a room’s lavish contents or clog a reader’s attention with a host of milling, yet 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 the howl of wind, a crash of thunder? 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 unrelenting and foreboding? Staring frantically into the abyss, Wanda June feels a feather-light tickle brush against her cheek. 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 if you allow readers to feel the tickle of their hairy little paws as well.

Because 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 old granny 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 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. Rather than simply stating that Andy escaped through the sewer, Red’s colorfully grotesque commentary gives readers a delightfully gruesome moment to consider Andy’s trek through a hundred yards of pasty, putrid prison poop. Readers get a little sensual ride (visual and olfactory) along with the How of Andy’s getaway. Because that’s how it’s done!

Here’s another example. Let’s return to our hapless Jane for a moment, tied to a cot and lacking any sense of coherent memory.

Lifting her head, Jane 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 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—whether his character is your novel’s arch villain, or simply a bit player who appears in this one and only scene—is to provide the Why of Jane’s presence in this room. Reading on, readers will likely discover the How in a page or two. (Simply a drop of Rohypnol, my dear, discreetly added to your morning coffee,” the bald man explained with a cackle.) At the moment, the man’s nefarious comments are sufficient for the scene to move forward. Thus, via dialogue, you’re revealing a snippet of information that readers should find grounding enough to infer Jane’s troubles. The reader intuits that more data will soon be revealed.

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).
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). Flashbacks and flash-forwards are linear extracts—that is, scenes or chapters pulled out of an orderly timeline, 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. Her mother’s house, the tidy home she’d 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. For instance, if your last scene or chapter ended at high noon and this scene/chapter begins after sundown—and all other variables being identical—be sure to inform readers of the shift ASAP. If I’ve left the previous scene under the midday sun and suddenly I’m reading about the twinkling stars or glowing streetlights 3 or 4 pages into a new scene, and without any previous indication of the time change…well, consider that taboo. 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 specific, in-your-face effort to establish a character’s mood. For instance: “Hello, I’m John, your new neighbor! I’m usually a cranky, cantankerous sort, so stay away from me!” isn’t necessary, when, “Yeah, yeah, so I’m your new frickin’ neighbor. BFD,” John grumbled from the doorway. will nicely suffice. Astute writing will best reveal your character’s moods and overall persona. 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 ultimate 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 three days have passed between the last scene and this one, and you don’t tell readers—that’s a blunder. If a new character has entered the room, 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 us for several pages—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 wardrobe change) that are presently untrue. For readers, those omissions can be quite off-putting. Or outright confusing. So, when confronting a new scene, make a checklist, mental or otherwise, of what might be new, different or worth mentioning. And then mention it.
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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, and accessibly—think ‘basics’—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, script doctors, 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 little or nothing like your original idea. On the other hand, successful screenwriters are paid increasingly and delightfully robust fees for their efforts 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 (68) is sitting on a rocking chair on the front porch. Her house is decrepit, the paint peeling. Plastic covers one broken window. Young farmhand HANK is standing in the dirt driveway. Overhead, storm clouds are threatening.

ANGIE.
You get that back field plowed yet, boy?

HANK
(peering past the sagging old barn, toward the empty fields)
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 wastin’ time by jawin’ with me an’ git a move on.

Basically, your scene-setting needs are as simple as expressing: A farmhouse. Empty fields. 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 working on dialogue and character development, with the merest hint of location setting.
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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 adequately developed for the reader. Situations can’t be fully revealed or portrayed. Nuance established. 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. Short stories can also navigate successfully using omniscient narration. But 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 risk. Not to mention that my characters always have so much to say.

• • •

Q. Can I open a novel with a conversation (e.g.; dialogue)?

A. Certainly. A line, a scene, an entire chapter… absolutely. For instance, one can use an omniscient narrator—an unseen, ethereal presence—who speaks directly to the reader. (The Stage Manager in Our Town, for instance.) Or one can provide a Shakespearean-esque soliloquy to set out  various facts and conditions before the story begins. (Think of the now iconic scrolling yellow text that opens Star Wars: Episode IV.) The information could as easily have been spoken to the audience by a young Skywalker. A writer can also jump into an as-yet introduced character’s deep and meaningful thought process. (Stephen King often opens his books in such a manner.) Or open in the midst of a conversation between two or more unmet characters. Readers will intuit that introductions will be forthcoming and will wait patiently, so long as they find purpose and sufficient provocation in such a soliloquy.

One word of caution however, when opening on a lengthy monologue or dialogue: 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.

Did you intuit that these two characters may be together in bed? Perhaps.  But very little is visualized. How does this lack of scene definition effect the passage? Now consider:

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. The uppermost version was more or less my first draft effort. By the time I’d laid down another four or five drafts, I had gathered sufficient knowledge of who these two people were to offer more intimate details to readers. The topmost effort (at 93 words) might suffice some readers’ expectations, although I believe the latter effort (using only 35 additional words) more aptly visualizes their environment and personalities. The latter scene is my final draft and published version of the book’s opening chapter.
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Continued…

 


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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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