Monday, April 29, 2013

Dialogue Part 3


Or: "Who said whatnow?" 


The comments: "Your characters all sound generic/the same." Or "I can't tell people apart when they're talking." Or "Your dialogue scenes are eye-gougingly boring."

What they might mean:
1)    Some, if not all, of your characters talk with a similar vocabulary and sentence structure.
2)    Some, if not all, of your dialogue scenes lack tension.

Let's pull on our serious pants early this week because we're wading into the deeper end of the "Dialogue Revision" Pool. This part of my Dialogue Module might require complete rewrites of your scenes or a literal re-vision of your plot.

To address Point 1, answer these questions: Do you have more than one character in your story? Yes.
Do your characters speak to each other in dialogue scenes? Yes.
Now the most important part: Are your characters clones of each other. Like, seriously, clones that were born/hatched at the same time, raised in the same way, want the same exact thing? No?

Ok, then why do they all sound alike?

Here's where it can get a little tricky. When you're reading your own WIP, you can hear the characters' voices in your head. However, the characters' Voices may all look and sound the same to your readers. (An experienced Beta will pinpoint this quickly, a casual reader may not, but may feel there's something "off" about your dialogue scenes.)

The way to spot it on your own WIP is to take a big chunk of early dialogue and look only at the words the characters say. Try to pick a chunk with only two speakers.

Next, remove the dialogue attribution tags.

Now, can you easily tell who is speaking which lines?

If you can, awesome. If not, tweak the sample. Now would be a good time for those Character 5x5s from the Character Module!

With the Character 5x5s (or whatever Character Bible you're using) pick apart each line of dialogue.

Does each line reflect the Character's background of education, birthplace, reason for being in the story? Are you using words the Character would have picked up at some point? Did you put the words together the way the character would? Did you make the Character sound like a stereotype or a genre trope?

Here's an example of one dialogue line tweaked to reflect information from four different Character 5x5s:

"I want you to steal the next load of slaves and get them ready for the party."

"Procure the shipment, would you? And please make sure they're appropriately dressed for the gala."

"Snatch the next batch of hodads and paint'em up for the hoedown."

"Reappropriate the incoming cargo. Tonight, they should look like low-hanging fruit to besieged peasants."

For your WIP, check your dialogue scenes for how true you stay to the Characters you created. 

Now let's look at Part 2: Lack of tension in dialogue scenes.

This is most likely due to one simple thing, which unfortunately might not be simple to fix:

Each Character speaking should have his or her or its own motive for saying what they say, when they say it.

Buckle down, pen in hand, and examine an early 2-person scene. Let's call them Bob and Andromeda.

If Bob and Andromeda are talking in a scene, that dialogue scene must first fulfill the basic reasons for inclusion:
Does it:
1)    Develop the characters.
2)    Move the plot forward.
3)    Reinforce/develop the themes.

Ideally, the dialogue scene must fill all three requirements to justify its existence. If not, it should be spectacularly strong in two aspects. If only in one, see if you can work it in another way because it would be the first thing on the chopping block for me.

Next, take a look at the scene from your Main Character's perspective. Let's say it's Bob. Does Bob want something from Andromeda? (Answer should be an easy yes. His motive should be fairly clear to the reader because his stake in the conversation becomes the reader's stake in the conversation.)

Now, take a look at the scene from the secondary character's perspective, Andromeda. Does Andromeda want something from Bob? In other words, does Andromeda have a stake in how the conversation ends? This is the sticking point. Finding Andromeda's motive. Could be as simple as not wanting to talk. Could be as complex as trying to hide  her involvement in Bob's horse's murder.

Andromeda's motive must exist and be clear to you, the writer, but doesn't have to be crystal clear to the reader. In fact, as a reader, most of the fun I experience with dialogue scenes is trying to figure out why the fuck people don't just say what they know or what they're hiding, or trying to figure out what they want from the MC. But it's the writer's job to find the sweet spot between showing enough of the secondary character's motivation to make the scene interesting, and showing too much and rendering the conversation too convenient for plot.

In your WIP, if you find a dialogue scene where tension falls or levels off, make sure each person speaking has a personal reason for speaking or resisting.

Also, if you find that some dialogue scenes boil down to a "Question and Answer" session, see if you can weave what the MC finds out into action, introspection, internal monologue or narration, or narrative worldbuilding.

Here's how these two aspects of dialogue come together in your WIP:
Great dialogue is like a symphony. Each character's voice is a specific instrument, and each character has a unique part. Even when several instruments are layered together, you can still hear the violin, the clarinet, the flute or piano. But it's harder to hear the differences between instruments, and therefore, the beauty of the piece, if they're playing the same melody at the same time.

Happy Writing and Revising!
J (follow me on twitter! @joanwip
Coming Up:
More Dialogue
Robert Bevan 
Nat Russo
If you'd like my take on a writerly subject, tweet me! 

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Thursday's Children - TEDtalks

Thursday's Children - TEDtalks

Or: Don't Shoot Yourself in Your Louboutins

 A weekly blog hob where
Writers share their Inspirations.
Join, yo!

You can't win if you don't play.
You can't win if you don't play.
You can't win if you don't play.

This is my mantra right now.

I just finished the Last Looks revision of a WIP I've been working on for a few years.

Doubts are poltergeisting my thoughts. No one will like it. No one will read it. No one will get it. No one will want it.

It's the first story I've done longer than a poem, longer than a flash fiction, longer than my longest short story.

Which people seem to like.

I've even won a few awards.

But here's the crack on that soufflé. Can I bring my A-game to a longer work. Who knows?

Gawd, I want to gouge my eyes out with an ice pick.

I want to delete the whole thing. I want to print it out and set it on fire. I want to pretend I never wrote it never thought it never even dared dream it could be done by someone like me.

I'm no one.
I'm nothing.
I'm just another minnow flash in a swift stream.

But TED says I'm not. TED keeps telling me that anybody can be somebody. Sometimes, TED reminds me that I need to live the life I'd envy someone else living.

TED inspires me. When I'm down about #firstworldproblems, TED tells me "Look at your life, you disgusting, over-privileged, over-spending, consumer whore." Not in those words, mind you, but I get it. I get it, TED.

There's more to be done. Messages that need spreading. TED inspires me to talk to people. Find out their stories. Learn what they mean when they say things under or over or around their words.

TED inspires my dialogue - with other people, with characters in my stories.
TED tells me what people care about enough to fight for. What dialogues need to happen in the great big story of Humanity.

And if those people can change the world, then by the transitive law of mathematics, I can change my own goddamn life.

Or at least, attempt to.
Many great inventions came out of an attempt to invent something completely different.

But, you can't win if you don't play.
No sirree, you can't win if you don't play.
Don't shoot yourself in your Louboutin's, for chrissake! You can't win if you don't goddamn play. 

Here are the TEDtalks that have motivated me recently:

Have you watched a TEDtalk? Have any TEDtalks inspired you? 

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Monday, April 22, 2013

Dialogue Part 2


Or: "As you know, Bob..."

The Comments: "Oh my god, this is eye-gougingly boring." Or "You're infologuing, dude." Or "Stop assuming I'm stupid."

What they might mean:
1.    You're using a character's name too often in dialogue.
2.    You're trying to hide your infodumping in dialogue (hence, my phrase: infologuing.)

Let's put our serious pants on and tackle that first one, because it'll be easy to spot in your WIP.

How often do you use a character's name in your dialogue lines? Especially when there are only two people in a scene, or two people in a conversation.
It might look like:

"I can't believe you just said that, Agnes," said Gordo. "You were at the party too."
"I left early, Gordo," said Agnes. "Way before the poop hit the fan."
"Then I think you instigated it, Agnes. Why else would you have been there in the first place?"
"I was invited, Gordo. Silly little fur-trimmed envelope."

This type of back and forth makes me want to gouge my eyes out with a claw hammer. Why?

1.    The constant naming of who is talking and who they're talking to implies that I'm too stupid to keep this straight in my head. There are two people for glob's sake. It's not hard.
2.    The extra syllables, the forced comma pauses, the repetitive rhythm all contribute to sapping the scene of tension. Go back and read the sample again. Feel that comma pause and lull every time you have to read a character's name?
3.    The worst crime: having the characters say the name of who they're talking to is like purple prose in that it calls attention to the person's name, not what's going on in the story, not what's being said. It's a reminder that the reader is reading a story, not living it.

Caveat! There are good reasons to use a person's name in dialogue, though, so don't go hog wild cutting them out.

The two main reasons for doing this are:
1.    Refresh the reader's knowledge of which line belongs to which character. (self-explanatory).
2.    Manipulate focus. What this means is to have a speaking character use another character's name with a specific purpose, like intimidation - "Don't toy with me, Agnes"; revealing secret knowledge by calling the character a name they, or the reader, doesn't know the other person knows or whatever; or to imply what comes next may have multiple interpretations but the character being addressed should interpret it in a specific way, etc.

Let's improve our example. Here's the original.
"I can't believe you just said that, Agnes," said Gordo. "You were at the party too."
"I left early, Gordo," said Agnes. "Way before the poop hit the fan."
"Then I think you instigated it, Agnes. Why else would you have been there in the first place?"
"I was invited, Gordo. Silly little fur-trimmed envelope."

Here it is, tweaked by taking out unnecessary name mentions:

"I can't believe you just said that," said Gordo. "You were at the party too."
"I left early," said Agnes. "Way before the poop hit the fan."
"You must have said something, done something, to set them off. Lord, Agnes, I should've kicked you out soon as I saw your pasty-ass shins coming down the stairs."
She slunk towards him. "As long as those silly little fur-trimmed invitations keep showing up in my mailbox, I'll keep...coming."

Now let's tackle Infologuing (infodump disguised as dialogue.) AKA, "As you know,Bob" syndrome.

This is usually found, but not restricted to, Fantasy and Science Fiction. It's an attempt to insert an infodump, information that's not necessarily apropos of anything in the scene, in order to worldbuild or give the reader knowledge that seems necessary.

It looks like:
Doc Jenyu filled the beaker with acid and said, "As you know, Bob, the molecular composition of Bromites makes them disintegrate in water."
Or: "You and I both know the Carmelians won't accept a truce," said Lord Nefario.

See the bolded words? If those or a variant show up in your WIP, it's a signal you're infologuing.

Here's where it gets tricky. You could try just cutting them, but it's like putting a bandaid on a deep puncture wound; you're only covering the bigger issue.

An "As you know, Bob" in your rough drafts was an effort to educate the reader of things the POV character and the speaker already know. It's usually a well-known fact in your WIP's universe. While writing, you may have been conscious enough not to dump the info in a block of narrative but now it's in the dialogue.

When you come to a section like this, ask yourself - Does it:
1)    develop the character
2)    move the plot forward
3)    reinforce a theme
4)    belong in conversation
5)    sound like the character
6)    sound like a conversation these particular characters would have

There are a few ways to get around this, and changing the dialogue can actually strengthen the scene's tension.

For example, if it's common knowledge in your world, there might be a way to show it.
Doc Jenyu filled the beaker with acid and said, "As you know, Bob, the molecular composition of Bromites makes them disintegrate in water."
 - Maybe the POV character can witness this, or take great pains to keep a Bromite away from water. (That is, if this information is absolutely necessary to understand/be immersed in your pocket universe. Otherwise, cut the whole mention of Bromites and water.)

Another more involved but commonly used method is to have a young character learn about your WIP's universe from a mentor or worldly peer. Think Harry Potter learning from Hagrid and the Weasleys. Or the kid characters learning from tutors in Game of Thrones.

If you can't add these scenes to your word count, think of your POV character as the mentor, internally commenting and maybe judging the ways of his/her/its world.

Caveat! Sometimes it's beneficial to use phrases like "You and I both know this ain't gonna fly."
Again, though, be conscious of using it to highlight the moment, perhaps highlight the futility and frustration of knowing something is true, but hoping for a different outcome.

Happy Writing and Revising!
J (follow me on twitter! @joanwip

Coming Up:
More Dialogue
Robert Bevan 
Nat Russo
If you'd like my take on a writerly subject, tweet me!