Friday, February 25, 2011

Dialogue Mechanics, part one

Here is the meat and potatoes of writing - dialogue. Good dialogue will not only move the plot along, it also lets us get to know the characters in a deeper way.

The first thing acquisitions editors look for when they begin reading a fiction submission is dialogue. A quote from Browne and King's book says, "The first thing I do is find a scene with some dialogue. If the dialogue doesn't work, the manuscript gets bounced. It it's good, I start reading."

Characters come alive - or not - when they speak. But it's not easy to put the right words into their mouths. You don't want to write dialogue in the same way you talk, with lots of ums and uhs, but you still want it to flow and feel natural. There are tricks to avoid if you want your dialogue to read like the work of a professional instead of an amateur.

Something we tend to do is called "resist the urge to explain" or RUE. We don't even realize we're doing it. Here's an example:

"You can't be serious," she said in astonishment.

If you're like most beginners, you write sentences like this almost without thinking. What could be easier than simply telling the reader how a character feels? If she is astonished, just say so. It saves all sorts of time and trouble, right?

But it's lazy writing. And it patonizes the reader. Remember, "show, don't tell?" Having the character say, "You can't be serious" conveys astonishment. There's no explanation needed. When you explain something that needs no explanation, you're writing down to your audience.

Another thing; "You can't be serious" has a formality and coldness to it. You could also say, "You've got to be kidding!" Or "You pulling my chain, dude?" Who is your character? Male or female? What is their age? Where are they in society? What genre is your book? All these things come into play when writing dialogue.

So, take a look at your dialogue and see if you're explaining what the dialogue has made clear. Then let the characters speak for themselves. If you're not sure, give us an example and we'll talk about it.

Next week, we'll look at dialogue tags and beats.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011


Hey FFFers - where are you? I miss hearing from you.

The next chapter in Self Editing for Fiction Writers is on proportion. A writer can undermine the excitement of a scene with a blow by blow description of every movement the characters make. Writing all the little details not only bores the reader, it also leaves nothing for the imagination and sometimes makes the reader feel patronized.

It used to be that generous, detailed descriptions were the norm, but not anymore. Because of TV and movies, the reader is used to jump-cuts from scene to scene rather than long transitional shots. Here's a short example:

The phone rang. Bob walked across the room and picked it up. "Hello," he said.

That's not too long, but you can write it this way without taking away anything:

The phone rang.
"Hello," Bob said.

It depends on what has happened before the phone rang, of course, but you see what I mean.

We are a microwave society. We like things to move quickly. In your first draft, write all you want. But during revisions, you need to pay attention. Most larger proportion problems can be avoided if you simply pay attention to your story. That doesn't mean you ruthlessly cut every detail. You want to find a balance. You want to create the mood for your scene. Try taking a look at your manuscript as if it were the first time you've ever read it. It helps to set it aside for a few days before you read through it and make changes. A fresh set of eyes is best - so share it with your writing partner or group.

Be honest with yourself. We love our words, don't we? But we have to ask ourselves if something is really needed. Does it add to the story? Does it bog the action down? Does it bore you? If a section or sentence doesn't quite sit right with you, it probably needs to be changed or eliminated.

Fantasy can lend itself to lots of detail. Do you have a scene where you're not sure if you have too much detail? I'm happy to take a look. Let's get talking about writing again!

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Point of View - third person

Okay - let's talk about regular third person, which is my favorite point of view. King and Browne say, "If the first person invites intimacy and the omniscient narrator allows for perspective, the third person strikes a balance between the two."

When I wrote Fairyeater, I wrote in third person, but switched points of view either in a new chapter or a scene change. By knowing what the antagonist was up to, as well as the heroine, it filled out the story and raised tension.

What we need to remember when writing in third person is we can't know what the other characters are thinking or feeling or seeing or hearing, etc. if they don't tell us. We need to stay in the main character's point of view, only switching when there is a clear scene break or a new chapter. It's not easy at first, but it's worth learning this part of the craft.

The POV character can draw conclusions by what they observe or overhear. They can reveal what they know or they can keep it secret - but the reader will know if we write their thoughts. If you have something you want kept secret, even from the reader, then you can't reveal it at all.

Think about it this way: you are at home and your best friend is on vacation. Do you know what he/she is doing? What they're thinking? How they're feeling? How can you unless he/she tells you? It's the same with your characters. There's something intriguing about not knowing what's going on in everyone's head, and it's good to let things out a little at a time.

Here's an example from Fairyeater. The heroine, Akeela, has been raised by a curmudgeonly old hag, Krezma. She can't figure out what she did to deserve such treatment. Then a stranger, Oret, shows up at their hut. He communicates telepathically. Akeela is sent on an errand, but she hides and listens in while they talk about a prophecy. Notice how I reveal things while still staying in Akeela's POV.

Krezma grew silent, smoothing her hand over the words. “I never asked for this. I did not want to raise another child.”

Akeela blinked. Another child?

-Who else could we have turned to? You alone know the power of the Dark Lord and the history of the Guardian-

“Yes, I know. I know. And I am the only one the Fairy Council trusted.” Krezma slid back from the table and stood. She rolled up the scroll. “But I have my own life! My own plans. I have given up much.”

Oret bowed his head. -We know this and are grateful. Has it been so terrible, raising Akeela?-

Akeela held a hand over mouth to keep from gasping.

Krezma sighed. “Nay, it has not been terrible. Akeela is like my own child, and yet, she is not. I am torn. It is not time to reveal her destiny. She is so young. I am unsure she can handle it.”

Akeela sat down on the ground. Her head whirled with questions. She always knew Krezma had no great love for her, but what was the meaning of the prophecy? Why did Krezma want to keep it a secret? What did the words mean? And what couldn’t she handle? Her destiny?

Akeela picked up the basket and crept away from the window as Krezma and Oret’s voices continued. She lifted her skirt and ran all the way to the pond.

King and Browne say: "Sometimes there are good reasons for maintaining narrative distance." I stayed in Akeela's POV, but wrote the scene with some narrative distance because it was important for Akeela to learn this piece of information.

Of everything you can learn about the craft of writing, POV is the most fundamental. It's how you show who your characters are. It lets you show emotions, share a character's thoughts and concerns and sets the tone of the story. Point of view is a powerful tool. I advise you to read more about it in King and Browne's book.

I'd love to see some examples from your writing, too!