Tag Archives: intermediate writers

Writing Dialog, Part I

universeFor a fictional story to feel real, readers must believe that the universe our characters inhabit existed long before first paragraph and will continue to exist long after the last one (unless you are a nihilist and blow up your universe at the end).

That means each fictional universe has a timeline (even those zany time-travel stories I am not clever enough to write). We need not concern ourselves with the post-story timeline or most of what happened before the story started, since those things do not directly affect the characters. When it comes to writing dialog, though, knowing the character-specific events in the pre-story timeline is critical. Because if our characters haven’t “lived” those unwritten moments, lame dialog may result.

Example 1:

A mother is harping on her teenage daughter to clean her messy room, but her emotion level is disproportionately high for the situation. The daughter, prone to outbursts of clunky exposition, says, “Ever since Dad died, you’ve been taking your anger out on me!”

Example 2:

Two inmates are walking the yard at the penitentiary. Hank, worried about Cletus’s terrible memory, summarizes, “I can’t believe that I’ve spent 15 long years in this joint for a crime I didn’t commit. But, by the grace of God, I just have to survive one more day, because they granted me parole and I will be released tomorrow!”

Example 3:

A husband serves his wife with divorce papers. Inclined to speak in expository list form, she says, “First you pushed my mother-in-law down the stairs and tried to make it look like an accident, then you cheated on me with my yoga instructor, and now you have the nerve to divorce me?”

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These examples all suffer from the same problem: The characters are talking about things they would logically have discussed ages ago… because they already “lived” through them, even if we didn’t write about it. The daughter wouldn’t wait until that moment to mention her mother’s behavior for the first time, since she is clearly aware that Mom’s behavior has changed since her father died. Hank wouldn’t need to give his pal a rundown of what has gone on in his life for 15 years, because Cletus has been seen it happen. And I’m sure the husband and wife have already discussed the yoga-teacher affair at length.

Writing good dialog involves many elements. Relative to today’s discussion, though, a writer can improve her dialog by making sure the answer to the following question is “yes”: Is this dialog exchange in its logical place on the timeline?

With that in mind, here’s how I would rewrite the dialog in the above examples:

#1 – Daughter, as soon as her mom finishes screaming about the messy room: “I didn’t give Dad cancer, Mom.”

Without exposition or histrionics, we know that Dad is probably dead (and that will be clear soon enough anyway), and that Mom has been overreacting to minor issues involving her daughter ever since. Plus, it’s more cutting and hurtful, which reveals the dynamic between them more clearly.

#2 – Hank, to Cletus, whom he has known for years: “You know how many thousands of times I’ve walked this damn yard in the past 15 years? Well, this is the last lap I’ll ever do.”

Hank is still saying something Cletus knows, but now the line has a wistful, hopeful quality, because Hank is about to experience a big life change.

Tragically, Hank is stabbed to death that night by a mysterious figure cloaked in black, thus setting up the new bestselling mystery series Cletus McPhatter – Prison Detective.

#3 – First of all, I’d rather read about the mother-in-law getting pushed down the stairs than about someone handing someone else a legal document, so that’s the story I’d tell. However, I didn’t make up this scenario. Well, maybe I did, but let’s just go with it. I’m jonesin’ for some Taco Bell and want to finish this post.

The wife, after her husband hands her divorce papers: “After all the shit you’ve put me through…”

There’s no need to restate the existence of the divorce papers through dialog. When a bartender asks for your ID, you don’t say, “Here, I’m handing you my driver’s license,” do you? Plus, now we are curious about what horrible things he has done to his wife.

That’s it. I’m off to get a volcano taco. Please share your thoughts below.

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Universe timeline: Big Bang, 13.2 BYA... Earth forms, 4.5 BYA... first Taco Bell opens 51 YA

Universe timeline: Big Bang, 13.2 BYA… Earth forms, 4.5 BYA… first Taco Bell opens 51 YA


Don’t Write Boring – Part II

Overzealous editing?

Overzealous editing?

Last week (before my anti-virus software went rogue and hijacked my laptop), I wrote about chopping the boring parts out of a story to make it better. I meant your own story! The managers at Barnes and Noble are very cross that you smuggled in a pair of scissors and attempted to edit their inventory manually. If you do that again, I shan’t post anymore! Got it?

So anyway…

Writers are known post the beginnings of their manuscripts on online writing forums for critique and feedback. I’ve seen ‘em do it! Many times the opening goes something like, “There were five of us living in the little ranch house on Maple Street. It was my Mom and dad, my brother Jimmy, who was a year older than me, my twin sister Mary, and me, Lisa. Even though the house was small and we didn’t have a lot of room, we were pretty happy. Then, in the summer of ’92, when we went to Mexico for vacation, everything changed forever.”

Writers have many intriguing options for starting a story. What I just wrote is not one of them, but developing writers do it all the time. They begin by explaining.  Just as movie making is so much more than pointing a camera toward pretty people and saying action, writing a good story is so much more than explaining what happened to the characters. For starters, writers have to decide what parts are worth telling.

In the example above, we have five family members, not wealthy, who go to Mexico for vacation, where something happens that changes their lives. With only that information to go on, each of us would take the tale in a different direction. Some of you would write a poignant tale of love and loss. Others would build a mystery. At least a couple of you would turn out an epic saga, and still more would unnerve readers with biological or psychological horror.

I haven’t figured out what type of fiction I’m good at yet, but  I’m not a poet who composes lyrical prose or a worldbuilder gifted at setting up a 10-volume series. I try to skip the exposition and reveal my characters and their lives through action and dialog. I’d start my version of this story with Lisa and clan already on their way to Mexico, flying into a sudden storm, and about to experience a hair-raising landing.

Why? One, because nobody cares about Lisa’s ranch house or how long she’s lived there or what shoes she packed or what brand of dental floss she prefers. We’ll find about her life as we go, through little details and bits of dialog that give clues. Two, because “Lisa’s fingernails clawed helplessly across the stainless steel armrest as the jet bumped and plunged its way through the giant black cloud that came from nowhere” is a much better opening line than the bland drivel I wrote 5 paragraphs ago. And, three, because her frightening descent foreshadows the fact that she will later get sucked into a sandpit in the Yucatan and discover an underground kingdom of mole people who intend to sacrifice her twin sister in honor of their giant black insect god, Garfoobel, at midnight.

Hey, this is my story and I want mole people in it. You gotta pro’lem widdat?

Not everyone writes action-packed commercial fiction, so I’m not suggesting all novels have to begin with a thrill ride. I am suggesting they start with something other than banality. What is your strength as a writer? Emotion? Imagery? Elegant prose? Start there.

Writing Rule #1: All stories are better with Mole People in them.

Writing Rule #1: All stories are better with Mole People in them.


Going back to the “well” (another post about clutter words)

cowOne of the key steps in graduating from intermediate writing to professional-quality writing is getting rid of clutter. I’ve previously posted about this subject in general terms, but today I shall discuss a specific overused word: well.

There’s no need to say someone is “well organized” or an endeavor was “well worth it.” A person is organized or disorganized. Attempting to achieve a goal is worth it or not. The one true way to eliminate clutter is to ask, “Does this word add meaning?” The only purpose “well” serves in the above examples is to dull the impact of the statement. It adds no meaning.

In this context, some words are neutral and can be clarified with “well,” such as “well written.” Saying a book is “written” explains nothing about quality. Telling a waiter that you want your steak “done” won’t get you any closer to your goal of filling your belly with cow meat.

That said, “well written” is bland description of a book. We writers can do better than that, can’t we?

And while we’re lowering the bucket, “well written,” “well known,” and “well done” do not need hyphens, unless preceding or otherwise modifying a noun.

 ♦

Examples of correct hyphen usage for well known:

Godzilla is well known to the urban-planning committee in Tokyo.

Hannibal Lecter is a well-known bachelor.

 ♦

Examples of correct hyphen usage for well written:

Besides the misspelling, Norman’s “Mohter” tattoo was well written.

You probably think this is a well-written blog post, though you are likely to revise that thought and say it is an expertly written post, remembering that you don’t need the hyphen when your noun is modified by an “ly” word.

 ♦

Examples of well done:

“Pa Ingalls, is your well done yet?”

“Nope, still digging.”

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It was this or Blink 182. I chose this.

 


Giving Characters Choices

Source: The Internet

Source: The Internet

Last time around I talked about character motivation, my philosophy being that interesting fictional characters must have intrinsic motivations as well as external goals. Otherwise, they are merely devices that serve the plot. Placed in another story, people should still have the same qualities driving their actions, but toward a different objective.

For example, if you take Luke Skywalker out of the Star Wars universe and put him in a Chicago slum in the 1920s, he’s still a restless young man with big dreams but an unclear picture of his destiny who feels trapped by his circumstances. Maybe he gets involved in organized crime and eventually becomes Don Skywalker. Perhaps he joins the FBI and foils the assassination of Shirley Temple. He might even go into acting and win an Oscar for his starring role in a Mark Hamill biopic. After all, the resemblance is uncanny.

Today I will build on this concept and discuss giving characters choices. Choice is where the character’s motivations intersect with the plot.

In most cases, a writer knows what her story is about, so her characters don’t really have a choice as to their actions. If Luke Skywalker had decided not go to Alderaan with Ben Kenobi, the second half of Star Wars might have been a bit of a downer. But still, we don’t want our heroes and villains to be like marbles rolling down a slide that leads to the climax. We should give them choices, and then give them reasons to make the correct one for the plot.

I got to thinking about this because of a story tossing around my hard drive for about three years now. I believe I created an interesting main character who is appropriately flawed and who has intrinsic qualities that steer his behavior. His backstory makes him sympathetic, if not likeable. I also included plenty of emotion and a dark, dramatic climax.

Disney is too big to sue me

Disney is too big to sue me

But it doesn’t work.

About every six months, I open it up, read it, move a few words around, add or subtract a line, then stick it back in the nether reaches of MS Word. I just haven’t been able to figure out what is wrong with it. Until now, that is.

Upon hard analysis, I have identified the fatal flaw: When my character’s motivations intersect with the plot, he does not make a choice. He just does what I told him to do, and that sucks the tension out of it. Enlightened by this sudden awareness, I now understand the choice he must make and the revisions I must do to set it up. Unfortunately for him and for his likeability factor, he will make a bad choice. Sorry dude.

Think about the choices you’ve made and how things that seemed insignificant at the time have had a profound impact on your life: The party you almost skipped… where you ended up meeting your future husband. That day you ran back into the house to grab a Milli Vanilli CD for the road… only seconds before your idling car was obliterated by a meteor. That time Obi Wan’s ghost told you to switch off your targeting computer, and you used the force to hit an impossibly small opening in the Death Star’s exhaust port, thus saving the galaxy.

Our fictional characters must have options too. Instead of making them follow a pied piper, imagine the plot not taken. Ironically, by giving them choices, we make their outcomes seem all the more inevitable.

Thoughts, comments, insults?

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I promised no more 80s videos, but, darn it, those cats back then anticipated my blog topics so well. If One Direction has a song about making choices, let me know. For next time.


Writing Motivated Characters

Prose is a mixture of technique and artfulness. In my previous posts, I’ve felt confident enough to talk about aspects of the writing craft that are, in my view, technique oriented. Creating good characters, on the other hand, seems like an art form to me.  Let’s see if I can take the fun out of it and get technical!

turtle

Each writer has her own way of building characters, but we all share the same goal of making those literary creations authentic and interesting. Where to start? First I want to consider the major components of a character. I’m no expert, so feel free to add your thoughts or tell me what I missed:

1. History

2. Motivation (Today’s topic. I knew it would come up!)

3. Dialog

4. Action

In regard to history or backstory, many writers create bios of each character, especially for stories with complex family trees, royal bloodlines, or a multi-generational timeline. Others are comfortable with a general sense of their characters’ pasts. When it comes to dialog and action, our literary creations must say and do things that are consistent with who they are.

Which brings us to motivation. We, as writers, should ask ourselves what our heroes, villains, and supporting cast members want to accomplish. Although bit players can be purely functional, our stars must have objectives. Why write a story about them if they have nothing to do?

But is an external objective enough on its own to make someone real or interesting? Think about yourself. I’m sure you have goals, but you also have the push and pull of your intrinsic nature, which sometimes helps you and other times holds you back. For example, I know I am motivated to control outcomes, and I don’t like surprises. I relax like a turtle does a back stroke: Very poorly. On the other hand, I’m empathetic and see value in other perspectives. If you put me in a zombie apocalypse story, I’ll be the guy telling all the knuckleheads to calm down so we can make a survival plan in a logical, collaborative manner. I have a goal – to survive the zombie onslaught – and an intrinsic nature, which is to impose order and control while still respecting others’ views.

Here’s my formula for character motivation:

External motivation (goal) + internal motivation (intrinsic nature)

Internally, each of us is a cauldron of motivations that are often invisible to others. However,when the stakes are high, our intrinsic natures come to the fore. Going back to the zombie scenario, I can’t be the controlling guy with the diplomatic personality in one scene and the hysterical guy who loses his temper every five minutes in the next. A more plausible dynamic is for me to be frozen by inaction when I’ve imposed my plan but the zombies manage to breach the fortress anyway, since (warning: theme coming) efforts to control outcomes in life are ultimately futile. As I’m being devoured by the undead, perhaps I can say, “You know, I learned a valuable lesson here about living in the moment!”

Motivation: Find lunch

Motivation: Find lunch

Think about the people you know, dig below the surface, and imagine why they act the way they do. Have you ever met someone who puts people down to make up for her own lack of self-esteem? How about someone who tries too hard to please the boss because she needs validation as a human being and doesn’t know how to find it in herself? Combine those internal qualities, give the character an external goal (getting the heroine fired), and – voilà – you’ve got a secondary villain. The main villain is a serial killer hiding in the air ducts, by the way.

Here is a tiny sampling of intrinsic motivations that can be combined with others and, when coupled with an external goal, make one’s literary offspring more authentic:

Wanting to win at all costs and dreading failure. This character often makes the people around him miserable with all his ups and downs, and the world is all about him.

Striving to win approval and craving attention. This person may seek praise from authority figures and try to make others feel guilty. Passive aggressiveness, in other words.

Seeking variety and distraction. This character can get lost in what he’s doing and let people down who were counting on him.

Avoiding social interaction. No one knows what’s really going on behind her nerd glasses!

Assuming all people see things the way you do. He buys his wife a football. She wanted Sex and the City: Season 1 on DVD.

Trying to get everything done yesterday. She’s so wired, she makes the people around her tired just looking at her.

A character is bland if all he has is an external goal.  He needs dimensions. The next time our hero and his sidekick go on a quest to retrieve a magic sword, let’s make the hero a controlling, pushy type with no concern for others’ feelings, and depict the sidekick as an unassertive people-pleaser who gets walked on. The sidekick shouldn’t exist simply to help the hero find the sword. Give her a reason to overcome her anxieties and stand up for herself… even better if doing so is integral to the plot. While we’re at it, let’s teach the  hero a humbling lesson in empathy as he looks for that stupid sword.

On second thought, don’t make the sword stupid. People won’t want to read that.

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I’ve got your modifier dangling right here, pal!

Alternate title: Why we all need an editor – Reason # 53

You know... like nunchuck skills, bowhunting skills, writing skills...

You know… like nunchuck skills, bowhunting skills, writing skills…

Many of the writing problems discussed here in the past, such as failing to eliminate extraneous words, can be overcome through practice and refinement. As our skills develop, we should be able to look at our prose and quickly identify the clutter.

However, even the best of us still need an editor, because we can’t catch everything.  And one of the toughest mistakes to spot in our own writing is the dangling modifier. I’ve seen this hideous little creature show up in plenty of published works, and I’m sure I’ve birthed my share. It often has the troublesome quality of being invisible to its creator yet hilariously obvious to everyone else.

The dangling modifier occurs when the writer mistakenly links an action or quality to the object of a sentence instead of to the subject of that sentence (or vice versa). Or when the writer is not clear about what is being modified.

Or something.

Sorry to sound so English teachery. I hate didactic writing discussions. In less boring terms, a dangling modifier occurs when, um… err… Look here, you’re just going to have to accept that dangling modifiers are plain old boring to talk about! I didn’t invent the bloody things, so let’s try to get through all this as painlessly as…

You know what? Why don’t we go straight to the examples?

*

Ex. 1: “Harry told John that he was an asshat, since it was common for him to say rude things.”

Did Harry call John an asshat because Harry is often rude, or was Harry simply fed up with John’s frequent rudeness?

*

Ex. 2: “Mary awoke to find blood on her sheets, suggesting she had turned into a werewolf during the night and killed yet again.”

Did Mary come out and suggest she had killed people the previous night, or did the blood on her sheets suggest that?

*

Ex. 3: “A noted filmmaker in the fantasy genre, The Hobbit marks Peter Jackson’s fourth outing at the helm of a movie based on a Tolkien novel.”

This type of construction shows up in a lot of entertainment articles, and I suspect it’s a product of the writer trying to vary the sentence structure. If you’re reading it quickly, you may not notice that the sentence actually tells us The Hobbit is a noted filmmaker.

I don’t know of any great way to avoid dangling modifiers without an editor. You’ll just have to read and examine the logic of each sentence to make sure it means what you think it means.

You can also go overboard in the other direction. For example, the first sentence in the previous paragraph would be more definitive if it said, “I don’t know of any great way to avoid dangling modifiers if you choose to self-edit rather than to retain the services of a professional editor, who could give your manuscript a fresh read and spot such errors.” I didn’t explain all that because I figured you knew what I meant from the context.

As I’ve said before on this blog, I try to avoid absolutes in regard to writing rules. I ask you: What’s worse, a slight dangle that assumes the reader can understand context, or a perfectly clear, yet clunky and verbose, construction? Sometimes we have to take a cue from Johnny Cash and Walk the Line.


Show me don’t tell me

No, not those mechanics!

No, not those mechanics!

Once a writer grasps the mechanics of composition, it’s time to sit back, fire up the Cuban cigar, and let that novel write itself. It’s all just paragraph breaks and dialog tags anyway. Right?

Wrong! Once you acquire the mechanics, it’s time to animate your prose and turn your story from a bunch of words on a page to a living organism. And how is that done? We’ve all heard writing instructors say those three magic words, and they aren’t lying: Show, don’t tell.

As writers, we must paint a picture with words. We have to put our readers in the room (or spaceship, dragon’s lair, submarine, etc.) with our characters and make the action happen around them. If we expound on backstories, describe past events in depth, and list details, we’re telling. That’s easy but boring. We need to show.

The irony, from my experience, is that experts often tell us to show, but they don’t show us. If you sometimes struggle with how to take your “tell” and make it “show,” perhaps the following example will help. I just made this sequence up, so I hope you appreciate that today’s post has value-added content in the form of a fiction vignette. Who else in the blogosphere gives you free content? That’s what I’d like to know!

Wait… all blogs are free? Oh. I just thought… Uh, let’s just get on with it, shall we?

Here’s my vignette in “tell” form. Try to stay awake:

Stars

By Joe Bland

Clark had been staying late at the bar with his buddies every night for weeks, playing cards and drinking beer. He kept promising Andrea that he would stop; that we would start coming home early, spend more time with her, and try to make things like they were in the beginning of their marriage. He wanted to make it right, because he still loved her, even if their relationship had grown stale.

He meant to leave early tonight! He really did. But he and his boys were drinking and laughing and having a great time. He didn’t care that he lost money in the poker game.

Andrea would care; she’d be pissed. Just after she got done being pissed about him getting home at three in the morning, which he was about to do yet again. He pulled in the driveway, got out, and tiptoed up the porch stairs, trying not to make noise but failing.

Andrea liked to watch TV and sometimes fell asleep in front of it. Clark hoped that was the case tonight. He peeked through the window to the living room, but it was dark in the house. She must have gone to bed. He’d catch hell tomorrow, but at least he would be able to sneak in.

He located the house key on his key ring, trying not to make jingling noises as he did so, and unlocked the door. He slipped quietly inside and closed it, then listened to hear if Andrea was stirring. He was reaching for the light switch when…

Sorry, I was getting bored with all that telling and became worried you were, too. My mechanics as a writer are sound enough that the tale was easy to follow, but who would want to follow it?

Let’s try “showing” the vignette instead. Notice how we can convey every piece of information in the “tell” version without repeating a single line from above or resorting to exposition:

Stars

By Me

Clark jammed the shifter into ‘park’ and cut the engine as fast as he could. Why are pickup trucks so much damned louder at three in the morning than at three in the afternoon?

He stared at the house, looking for signs of life. Quiet as a graveyard, he thought. Keeping his eyes on the upstairs bedroom window, he spit the wintergreen gum into the wrapper and stuck the wad in the ashtray.

She’s still smell the booze, but he had to try.

Clark turned the handle downward, slowly, and nudged the door with his elbow. The dented sheet metal popped and he grimaced. He shot another glance at the house… still nothing going on.  He crept out, swiveled his head as if about to commit a crime, and then pressed the driver’s door shut with his shoulder.

Do driveways stones always make so many snaps and pops? He hopped over to the grassy side and made for the porch steps, whispering, “jeezuss,” when the stair creaked. He shook his head. How come these sounds never conspired against him when he got home at a normal time?

From the porch, he crouched before the side window to the living room, hoping to see the flickering of a TV left on and Andrea passed out in the couch. He cupped his hands against the cool glass to block the moon’s reflection and peered through. The couch was empty, the afghan folded into a perfect square. Too perfect.

Shit. She was going to kill him tomorrow. Especially when she discovers how much he lost in the poker game.

He rubbed his hand print from the glass with his sleeve – why leave evidence? – and reached into his pocket, clutching the keys tightly to silence them. He squinted to confirm he was using the correct one, swept himself silently into the house, and shut the door, thanking God for inventing the WD-40 he’d sprayed onto the hinges a week earlier.

He stood. Save for the hum of the fridge, the house was black and still and silent. Andrea was upstairs, asleep, dreaming of killing him, probably. Rather than fumble in the dark and knock something over, he decided to take the risk of turning on the florescent light over the sink. He ran his fingers across the wall, feeling for the switch, trying to avoid the coffee can full of pens.

The throwing star pinned his sleeve to the sheet rock before his brain even registered the whooshing sound. He yanked free and turned, ready to run for the truck, but realized his keys were no longer in his hand.

The ceiling-fan light over the kitchen table flickered to life. He froze, gripping the door knob, and looked behind him across the room. Andrea stood in the archway to the living room, dressed in billowing black, her index finger poking through the ring and swinging the keys back and forth.

“Looking for these?”

Clark turned to face her, glancing quickly at his empty hand. “How did you-”

She unleashed a second star, which imbedded in the door frame a quarter inch from his right ear. “You forget you marry ninja?”

Oh shit. She told him she was retired.

Clark fell to his knees. “Baby. I can explain! Sylvester… you know Sly… he started having stomach cramps. Me and the other guys, we took him to the hospital.”

Andrea crossed her arms. “Don’t bullshit me. I got no shortage of ninja stars!”

“It’s true! Sly is in the ER, getting his appendix out. The other guys stayed, but I said I couldn’t stand to be away from my baby another minute, so I-”

She kicked the door to the basement and it fell open. In the stairway, a large net dangled, imprisoning three men, a six pack of Milwaukee’s Best, and several playing cards.

“These guys, you mean?”

Sylvester, his face smashed against the netting, managed a feeble wave.

Clark’s eyes welled. He bowed his head. Ninja punishment was legendary. And swiftly chosen.

Andrea stood over him. “You take me to outlet mall every weekend for six month!”

He nodded.

“You get Brazilian wax. I like you smooth down there.”

Clark whimpered.

“And…. My mother stay with us for one year!”

The neighborhood dogs howled at the unearthly cry issuing from the little blue Cape Cod on Sullivan Street. It’s the place all the kids call, “The House of Flying Stars.”

All right. Maybe I got carried away there, and I haven’t taken time to refine it. But I hope that by showing the vignette instead of telling it, I brought it to life just a little bit. Yes, it was way harder to write than the “tell” version, but nobody said this writing thing was a cake walk.

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 For more about showing not telling, here’s this year’s Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee Rush singing the lead track from their Presto album from 1989: