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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1. Using dialogue as an alternative for action.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Or through monologue:

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

Or through omniscient narration:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He told her that he loved her.

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

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

Trust me.

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

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

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

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Dialogue (Part 6A): Q. & A.

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

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Writing Great Dialogue:
The Q. & A. Page

If you find creating dialogue difficult or frustrating, realize that most fledgling novelists don’t naturally begin their careers writing great dialogue. Dialogue’s a bit of an art, but also a bit of a science. It’s a potpourri of plot momentum, of character revelation and also of helpful scene setting. (And quite simple, once you get the hang of it.) But how to begin? How to improve? I sincerely believe the best way to learn about writing great dialogue is by listening.

My advice is to listen to IRL—”real world”—conversations around you. Listen to angry people. Listen to cheerful people. Listen to people in crisis. You’ll be horrified to discover that probably 70-80% of anything you hear isn’t germane to any particular topic. In a fictive conversations, 90-95% should be essential to your story, or else integral to character development. So determine what conversations are necessary—and disregard what isn’t.

Another suggestion? Don’t worry about fine-tuning dialogue in your first draft. Get the plot-basics down and worry about nuance later. But, yes, do eventually worry about nuance!

To re-it (because I do believe your characters’ spoken words—and/or inner thoughts—to be essential info), dialogue should accomplish one of three tasks: scene-setting, plot-relevance or character development. Coherence is, of course, paramount. So is the passion and resonance of any character’s words. In contrast, most of our real-life, daily, casual conversations are largely superfluous or redundant or random. Totally off-topic. (And, no, don’t write your novel this way. A bit of clever, idle chatter won’t hurt…but use judiciously.) And by all means, delete all those ubiquitous ‘um‘s from your page.

Another factor? Dialogue must be timely. In other words, at what point a conversation appears in your story is as important as the dialogue itself. Meaning that it’s imperative that you reveal each puzzle-piece of relevant information at the precise moment. Would any particular piece of dialogue be better served if spoken in an earlier scene or later chapter? It’s an important consideration.

Unlike omniscient narration, dialogue need not follow any precise choreography (as in: A before B before C before D…etc.). Dialogue is far more fluid, more random, more easily shuffled. Characters can chat about the future, about the past and, if not properly executed (as in bringing conversations back to the here and now in a logical fashion) dialogue may lack logic, seem out of place or feel insignificant. So, yes, timing can be as important as execution

You know you’re getting close to understanding dialogue is when you (as writer) begin to better understand the various characters vying for your attention. You’ll begin to listen—seriously listen—because your book’s characters will actually tell you what they need to say.

Sounds like some sort of voodoo magic, right? But it’s true. You’ll come to superficially know your characters while writing an outline or first draft—and they will ultimately begin to more fully reveal themselves as you continue to write. They will begin to develop cadence and style and a speech pattern that feels real. Some may keep secrets. Some may reveal secrets. But sooner or later they’ll begin to feel like very real people. And that’s when you’ll begin to write great dialogue.

Writers who don’t (or can’t) listen to either their characters or their fellow humans, aren’t often published. Because, yes—plot-essential and/or character-essential dialogue is really that important. Grab hold of a book or two that you absolutely love. Look at nothing else but dialogue. See how it’s done. You may be amazed to discover why a favorite book is indeed a favorite book.

But I digress. Over the years, I’ve come across various concerns about writing dialogue (of the “should I?” and “should I not?” variety), and I’ve gathered those that feel most significant.

• • •

Q. Must I include dialogue in a novel?

A. The short answer is: Yes. Absolutely! Without dialogue, I’m not certain any character can be fully developed for the reader. Can’t be fully revealed or portrayed. Direct dialogue also eliminates the middleman—and that would be you, the author. Dialogue is a conversation directly between a character and the reader. Sure you can circumnavigate direct dialogue (or monologue) with omniscient narration, but the author’s voice doesn’t carry the same intimacy as direct dialogue. For instance, which feels more sincere:

“I love you, darling! I’ve always loved you, since the first moment I met you.”

VS:

He told her that he loved her. That he’d always loved her, since the first moment they’d met.

Certainly, there’s nothing wrong with occasionally using omniscient narration in place of spoken words (and a book should include both variations), although a book lacking any direct dialogue may feel aloof or impersonal. It can be done (in avant garde writings) but not always successfully. Besides, try to find a modern novel that doesn’t include dialogue. Readers are used to seeing active dialogue and, finding none—well, that’s a chance I don’t want to take.

• • •

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

A. Certainly. A line, a scene, an entire chapter… absolutely. One word of caution however. I find that many writers, when opening a novel with scenes of dense dialogue, often forget to adequately scene set. While I find it clunky to intrude upon any scene-opening dialogue for a lengthy narration, certainly ground your readers with a few essential visuals. You can more fully set the stage once the dialogue concludes. Consider the scene-setting (or lack thereof) delivered in these two similar dialogue-heavy novel openings:

BOBBY LELAND felt himself drifting toward a peaceful sleep, his thoughts fading when the woman beside him said, “Here’s what I want, Bobby. Are you listening to me? I want you to kill my husband.”
. . . .  Silence.
. . . .  “Did you hear me?” she asked. “Bobby?”
. . . . “I heard you,” he said. “You want me to kill Elliot.”
. . . . “I want us to kill Elliot. You and I together.”
. . . . “Both of us.”
. . . . “Yes.”
. . . . “You could always make him dinner.”
. . . . “Bobby, I’m serious.
. . . . For some reason, he wasn’t surprised.

And…

BOBBY LELAND felt himself drifting toward a peaceful sleep, his thoughts fading when the woman beside him said, “Here’s what I want, Bobby. Are you listening to me?” Her finger tickled a path across his chest, her breath a hot whisper against his ear. “I want you to kill my husband.”
. . . . They lay naked in chamomile-scented satin sheets, in a room with a marble fireplace, French doors opening to a balcony that overlooked the distant Pacific. Because he and Erica had made a kind of full-throttled reckless love for the last forty-five minutes, Bobby felt mellow to his toes.
. . . . “Did you hear me?” she asked. “Bobby?”
. . . . “I heard you,” he said, safely cocooned in the darkness behind his eyelids. “You want me to kill Elliot.”
. . . . “I want us to kill Elliot. You and I together.”
. . . . “Both of us,” he said, half wondering if he were already dreaming.
. . . . “Yes.”
. . . . He gave it a few seconds, remembering Erica’s previous evening’s attempt at microwaving Cordon Bleu. “You could always make him dinner.”
. . . . Her tongue tutted. “Bobby, I’m serious.
. . . . For some reason, he wasn’t surprised.

Personally, the upper version feels far too “plot-frantic” to properly ground the reader in the “where” and the “why”. (There’s really no right or wrong choice, BTW, simply a stylistic preference.) However, since this is the opening scene of a novel, I find the latter version to offer more grounding, while offering the same plot essentials. A book’s first few pages will often not only introduce various characters, but will also establish the book’s pacing. The top passage feels more kinetic, but also lacks specific nuances that I believe important to further developing those characters—certainly while the reader’s still settling down, getting to know the bare bones of the story.

The continuation of that opening scene then can further enhance both plot and characters (without dialogue), and further establish the book’s overall tenor. We have an idea of their personalities—with dialogue’s help, of course—so now it’s OK to further set the stage.

. . . . Her tongue tutted. “Bobby, I’m serious.
. . . . For some reason, he wasn’t surprised.
. . . . At 42, seven years older than Bobby, few people could have guessed her age by looking at her. Long and sleek and perfect, happenstance and heredity had gifted Erica Garmond a graceful neck, high cheekbones and hypnotic azure eyes; platinum blonde hair that fell straight, curling slightly inward where it brushed against her throat, and lips poised on the verge of a chronic pout. Erica seemed to be one of those women who’d simply stopped aging. Not that she didn’t work hard to maintain herself: up for aerobics at 6:15 every morning, her afternoons occupied with tennis or jogging. Almost too rich and certainly too thin, the way Stan Muca described her. Stan was an artful observer and carouser himself, head pro and Bobby’s boss back at Rancho Madera Tennis Club.*

Now (imho) the reader has sufficient grounding, so any remaining dialogue can continue with little interruption. Realize that, if the situation warrants, any initial conversation can continue for pages before switching to the omniscient narrator’s voice. So chat away, if the situation dictates. But give the reader sufficient grounding ASAP—even in dialogue-heavy scenes and certainly when beginning new chapters. Sufficiently grounded, now the writer can return to the conversation at hand—in this case a conversation that firmly establishes the first act of the novel.

• • •

Q. Can I use dialogue to express action? (That is, using dialogue instead of depicting specific action to your readers.) An example: Lily said, “That volcanic eruption was the most amazing experience I’ve ever encountered! It was horrible. The lava flow devoured an entire town. You should have been there!”)

A. Sure, you can tell us via second-hand dialogue, but why? (Because, yes, we readers indeed should have been there.) Using dialogue to pass along urgent or visual info to the reader can feel distanced and less relevant. As a reader, if I’m watching an intense action flick about an active volcano, I better damn well feel the heat for myself. What I don’t want is some talking-head narrator standing in front of a potted plant, telling me, “That volcanic eruption was the most amazing experience….” Keep the ‘talking-heads’ (see below) to a minimum. If plot-essential narratives are important, run your characters ahead of the lava flow for a few pages, find a safe spot for a terse, tense conversation, then get them moving again. (See Simple But Exciting Part 1.)

Remember, you’re always pushing your characters toward drama (a fictive inhalation)—i.e.; showing us characters in peril on a volcanic island, watching the eruption, screaming their fool heads off—or pulling them away again (a fictive exhalation)—i.e.; escaping by motor boat at the last possible second with relieved sighs, and now, yes, let the earnest conversation begin…before the motor sputters and dies, and now you’re back for another round of nail-biting action.

This is important enough to be a rule. Thus is born Rule #48: Don’t use dialogue as an alternative to directly depicting action or drama. Show us the drama, don’t expect a character to tell us about it second-hand.

• • •

Q. What are ‘talking heads?’

A. David Byrne aside, a ‘talking heads’ scene is as implied: The writer is using dialogue as a device (often a sign of ‘lazy writing’) to explain action or information instead of taking readers on a memorable, impactful visual experience. Remember all those old superhero flicks where the villain has captured the hapless hero and, before dropping Super Protago into a boiling vat of snake oil, embarks on a five minute soliloquy to explain—to the audience—all of the story’s loose ends? And during which time, our protagonist usually finds a way to escape? Well, that’s a talking head scene. And it’s far less exciting than…well, than just about anything else one can choose to write on the page.

With a bit of preparation and forethought, most or all of those low-energy explanations and unrevealed issues can and should have been previously explored—either through shorter snippets of dialogue or action sequences. If you find yourself writing pages that attempt to “explain” persnickety plot-holes, you’ve probably missed various opportunities to have previously (and often actively) imparted that information to the reader.

If you must include a talking heads scene, do it the way George Lucas, Willard Hyuck and Gloria Katz developed Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. Remember the dinner scene with the maharaja? The scene with the monkey brains, the moist beetles the deep fried scorpions? That’s an example of a talking heads scene—necessary information transmitted to the audience—and yet most viewers had no idea, otherwise transfixed by a comical depiction of a rather gruesome meal. So instead of being bored by a constant barrage of idle conversation, we were visually entertained all the while we were absorbing crucial plot info.

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

• • •

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

 


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Dialogue (Part 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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Dialogue (Part 2): Balance

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

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Writing Great Dialogue (Part 2):
Balancing ‘Reality’ and ‘Fiction’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

– – – – – – –

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

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

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Dialogue (Part 1): Basics

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rules-header-full

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

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Writing Great Dialogue (Part 1):
An Absolute Necessity.

Let’s assume that, as aspiring novelists, we have sufficient technical, stylistic and plot-building skills. Meaning we can turn a phrase, can fully frame a story, we trust our characters’ various motivations, can discern a verb from a noun, and rarely allow ourselves to dangle a participle. All those crucial factors being securely in place, what then becomes the single, most essential element necessary for writing—not to mention publishing—a truly great novel?

Sorry, but that was rhetorical.

Because the answer is dialogue. For my money, few aspects of novel writing can captivate, motivate or emotionally move a reader as will dialogue. Great dialogue is, IMHO, more important than solid plot structure. More important than a mellifluous voice. Time and time again, as an editor, when I confront slow or unwieldy dialogue I feel my interest in a manuscript begin to deflate like a puffer fish on a salad fork.

But enough preamble. Let’s talk about dialogue. While omniscient narration* can lay out much or most of a novel, a writer really can’t tell a whole story without dialogue. Can’t fully involve the reader. Can’t fully reveal a character. As importantly, great dialogue can be a panacea of sorts—a way for the author to instantly develop a rapport between characters (or between a character and the reader), to fill a vacuum or quickly shift gears, to intentionally misdirect or to clarify and, basically, to solve a myriad of plot-thwarting issues—and in ways that a novel without dialogue (or with insufficient or anemic dialogue) could ever hope to resolve. Think of dialogue as being that essential roll of duct tape in our bag of literary tricks.

But more about using dialogue as a problem-solver in a subsequent post. Frankly, it’s the sheer joy of creating dialogue that inspires many of us to fill our stories with the witty, astute, finely-honed verbiage uttered by our characters. Problem-solving is merely an added bonus. So let’s start with the basics.

Here then, the basics.

First and foremost, one creates good dialogue by replicating those three basic premises necessary to create a great story line. (See Simple But Exciting—Part II.) Dialogue should accomplish one of three specific goals by: 1) Setting a scene; 2) Developing or defining a character, or; 3) Forwarding the plot.**

If having only three options seems restrictive, fear not. Your expressive, expansive wildcard exists in #2: character development. A great deal of seemingly superficial or extraneous dialogue can go a long way to help define a character’s personality, motivations, fears and passions, and to ultimately create a very real human being. Two characters, hitchhiking through the middle of nowhere, can fill an otherwise mundane scene with the most tantalizing of conversations—about their fears, their desires, their darkest secrets. Maybe such character chatter reveals little about the plot ahead, but those pages can provide a great deal of insight about the people inside your head, not only relating to each other, but to readers as well.

A quick example of those three options mentioned above:

1. Scene setting. (Two astronauts float within their space capsule, looking out a porthole at the quickly approaching face of Venus, still a thousand miles away.)

….“Don’t let its alien beauty distract you, Cameron. That evil planet’s scorching hot. You step out of a dome in full sunlight, even in a fully shielded suit, your face plate will melt in a half second flat. Your skull will pop a half second after that. After sundown’s no better. Most of the rocks out there are sharp enough to slice you to the bone. One false step can drop you down a thousand-foot crevice or suck you into a sand pit before you get a chance to tug on your G-line. I’ve seen storms worse than any hurricane on Earth, winds whippin’ down offa those western slopes without a moment’s notice. You don’t keep your eyes peeled 24/7 and you’ll be dead before you know you’re even in trouble.”

2. Character building. (Two young teenagers walk along a sunny beach. They’ve met only moments before, and they’re talking about their parents.)

….“You think your mom’s paranoid? Mine won’t even let me eat chocolate.”
….“That kinda sucks.”
….“Totally. She says I’m allergic. I mean like deathly allergic. The thing is, I’ve never even tried chocolate. So how the hell does she know, right?”
….“I have some chocolate at home, if you want.”
….“Really?”
….“Truth. Hey, you wanna share a Snickers bar?”
….“Yeah. Sooner or later, I gotta know for sure. Let’s do it.”
….“Well, wait—I mean, maybe not. I mean, what if it’s true? You don’t know for sure it’s not. And I sure as hell doesn’t want your mom mad at me.”
….“My mom doesn’t even know you.”
….“Even worse. So, no, let’s maybe get a Coke or something instead.”

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

….“Darling, I’m scared.”
….“I’m telling you, this has to be the way in.” Ralph held up the antique brass key between his fingers. “This is what I’ve been looking for my entire life. A way to unlock the attic door. To see once and for all what’s up there.”
….“But…but what about your grandmother’s warning?”
….“About ghosts? Don’t be silly, Edith. It’s an old attic for criminy sake. Maybe some rats bumping around up there, that’s all. But my grandfather, he was worth millions, and he didn’t take it with him. What we find up there, I think it’s going to make us rich.”
….“I don’t know, Ralph. It feels wrong.”
….“Don’t be scared. Granny will be ninety-seven years old come August. She can’t even remember my name half the time. She’s nothing but a crazy old lady with a strange imagination.” Ralph turned and started up the old stairway. “C’mon, I’ll show you.”

Before I continue—one important note. When I speak of dialogue, I’m referring to both external and internal communication—because both spoken words and internal contemplation share equal importance in a novel.

External (verbal) dialogue:
….“My dear Mrs. Smith, you’re looking quite fetching today.”
….“Do not attempt to humor me, Mr. Jones,” Veronica said crossly. “You’re presumptuous to believe that I’ll ever allow you to marry my daughter or inherit my wealth. I’m well aware of of your scheming ways, sir. Good day.” She turned and continued her stroll down Elm Street.

…or internal (subconscious) monologue.
….“My dear Mrs. Smith, you’re looking quite fetching today.”
….Veronica offered the man a tepid smile, well aware of Mr. Jones’ intentions. He’ll never sway me with his fancy talk, she mused, her gaze unwavering. Her emerald eyes blazed, the voice inside her head oozing with contempt. You don’t want to toy with me, young man. I’m well aware of your scheming ways. I shall never allow you near my daughter or her wealth. Without a word, Veronica turned and continued her stroll down Elm Street.

But more about the complexities of internal/external differences later as well.

However, before moving along to Dialogue (Part 2) one reminder (because now it’s Rule #30): Create dialogue that (like plotting) accomplishes one of three specific goals: 1) Sets a scene; 2) Develops a character, or; 3) Moves the plot forward.

– – – – – – – – – –

* Omniscient Narration (a reminder). Typically when writing in third-person omniscient narration provides a pansophic (all-knowing!) perspective that offers information to the reader unbeknownst to your characters. For instance, the following sentence is omniscient narration: Deep in a forgotten cave burrowed beneath Old Hickory Mountain, a storage chest had been buried centuries ago, hiding the bandit Juan LaFortuna’s missing treasure—an immense fortune that would prove fatal for most of those on Sal’s expedition.

** The 3 Goals when writing dialogue. There exists another imperative (yet elusive) attribute necessary when writing great dialogue. But this essential tidbit is a bit more difficult to explain. For simplicity’s sake, I won’t delve any deeper until my next post. (See Dialogue Part 2.)


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