Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Who's talking? - Dialogue and character

Have you ever had to re-read a page of dialogue because you were not clear who said what? There is a simple solution, of course. Use tags. "He said" and "she said" are the most common tags, and they get the job done without calling attention to themselves. The other tags (and there are many) need to be used sparingly. Don't overwhelm readers with he whispered, she shouted, he exclaimed, etc. And new writers are generally cautioned against modifying tags with adverbs period, so avoid "he said harshly."

If you're an experienced writer, all this is familiar to you. You also probably know that using a sentence that shows action and placing the quote next to it sufficiently identifies the speaker.

He strolled over to the window. "That mob is looking ugly."

Another thing writers do is include some sort of a tick. This could be a curse word or a favorite phrase("bless his heart") or a distinct approach to phrasing. (Any Star Wars fan would immediately identify a sentence spoken by Yoda.)

All of this is good, if used in moderation. But the best way to make it clear who is speaking is crafting sentences that reflect the character through motivation and goals, interests, perspectives, and concerns.

Motivation and goals. By definition, strong characters have goals with which they are obsessed. I had a roommate who spoke to everyone he came in contact with about whatever he was trying to acquire or figure out. This extended into unlikely situations where he was quite capable of asking not just mechanics about what oil he should using this car, but sorority girls he took out for ice cream. (He always got the answers he needed, by the way.) Your character is likely to direct conversation toward information that is useful to achieving his or her goals and to tell people how successful he or she is, and update them on progress and how he or she feels about it.

Interests. Similarly, less defining obsessions can work their ways into dialogue. This is most obvious in mysteries, where it seems every consulting detective lives for chess, opera, tobacco, oriental sculpture, antique cars, or some such hobby. I love baseball. You can easily get me to talk about it and its history. I'm also apt to draw a life lesson from a story about a player or a team and use that to make a point. And, of course, the jargon (throw him a curve,  strike out,  swing away) is something that slips into my normal speech (though less so since I've had occasion to speak to international audiences).

Perspectives. The points of view of characters feed into their interpretations of everything that goes on. Not only do these make it clear who is speaking, but these perspectives reveal the values and judgments of the speakers.

Concerns. If your character is neurotic, conversations are likely to be peppered with fear and ways to avoid dangers. The TV series Monk exploited this brilliantly. But it can be done more heroically and positively when your main character's concerns are about others. Making sure a sweetheart or children are taken care of reflects well on your character. Making sure strangers in need, such as panhandlers, get the help they require may be even more distinctively honorable.

The best way to make sure readers know who's talking, ultimately, is to create three-dimensional characters. That's a big job, and sometimes the whole of the character does not emerge until a draft is done. This is not a problem. Everything can be fixed in a rewrite. If you clearly articulate the motivations and goals, interests, perspectives, and concerns of your major characters after your first draft is completed, all of these can be used to rework the dialogue so there is never a question of who is talking.

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Main Points - Clarity in its essence

I gave a reader the first 20 pages of a novel of mine and got lots of interesting feedback. Unfortunately, some of it completely confused me. Here's what I discovered -- She had missed the major conceit of the book, a special talent the protagonist had. Without that, there was no way to make sense of what I was up to and the main selling point for reading the book was lost.

Okay. Let's be fair. Rather than saying she missed the main point, I should say I did not convey it effectively. Either I was ambiguous or I did not highlight it properly. For a trait or pivotal fact about the character, this is easy to fix. Here are some approaches:
  • Looking for potential misreadings - Heinlein said the best class in writing he had was one on giving orders. He was at the U.S. Naval Academy, and, after providing a situation, the student of the day had to write and order. If it was completely unambiguous, he got and A for the day. If anyone in the class could find a way to misinterpret it, an F. Reread the key sentences with no mercy.
  • Repetition - If it's important, keep mentioning it, and it will stick. (This is painful for me to do.)
  • Providing a metaphor - If, for instance, I say that a character is a giant, you'll probably remember he or she is big for the rest of the book. Using an unusual word, like gargantuan, can work, too.
  • Making it consequential - If I tell you a character was abused as a child and then show him or her shirking away from a friendly touch, it's likely to stick in your mind.
Of course, there is more that must be clear and remembered in a story than a character's history or a specific trait. There may be social/magical rules or environmental challenges or alliances. These can be highlighted in the same ways and should be if they are pivotal.

A classically difficult way to deliver and emphasize important information is through dialogue. Often, the words are too obviously coming from the writer, put into some poor character's mouth. Even worse is every exchange of dialogue is an opportunity to build characters and make them come to life. Having them dump essential information and speak unnaturally degrades them and kills that opportunity.

One more point: Different readers often attend to different things. A reader of Regency Romances may see a character revealing himself to be a cad based on how he presents his card -- something other readers would miss. A reader of SF could be relied upon to understand an encounter with a minor, but unexpected, source of gravity by a spacecraft on a long mission could be fatal. Those who love Thrillers may be primed to note the failure to encrypt a text message.

But it is best not to assume your audience will detect subtle points. Test with readers to be sure. And don't do what many writers do. Don't tip off your early readers by providing a logline or summary that makes all the essential points. If you do, they may not notice that you did not do the job where it matters, in your story.

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Bonus Scenes -- Less pressure, more fun

Ah, the middle of the book. Somewhere between the halfway mark and three fourths, things start to sour for most writers. This is the slog. One thing I have at the ready to keep me writing is my list of reasons. These remind me of why I need to/must write the novel, and do so in a convincing way. But having good reasons doesn't often make the experience more fun.

I've discovered another trick. It may seem counterintuitive, but I rescue myself my adding scenes.

Doesn't that eat up time and extend the agony of working toward the ending? Not really. While I spend time writing extra pages, what I learn expands my understanding of my characters and reveals the full potential of the plot. This exercise cuts time off of the rewrite and catapults me into the "required" pages that sit on my to-do list.

Here's my process (the first two steps are from an earlier post):
  1. I title the scene. This forces me to think about it holistically as opposed to as a series of exchanges.
  2. I add a subtitle that begins, "In which..." Anyone who has read a lot of older novels is familiar with these subtitles. "In which our heroine Beatrice steals Alexandra's locket." Beware of subtitles where a character "finds out" something or "insults" another character. Ask what finding out leads to. If she finds out her best friend has betrayed her, is she forced to flee Coventry? Ask about the results of that insult. Does Harold challenge Christopher to a duel at dawn?
  3. I write the scene that most engages me. This may be one that raises the most questions or one that is emotionally important. Either or both of these can build a connection with a work, especially if it is missing a vital piece. But, more often than not, the scene I choose to write is the one that promises to be the most fun.
  4. I allow myself to do a lousy job, race forward to parts that are calling to me, and get totally off track. I'll even jump around to write from different points of view if it feels right. After all, there's no pressure here. On paper, this scene is not essential to the story.
  5. I make sure to write any part that is difficult or unsettling, or at least to explore it through detailed notes.
If one bonus does not reconnect me with the work in progress, I'll write another and another until I'm back in the groove. If I need to, I'll write one in the voice of another author -- often the least appropriate with the most outrageous result.

This extra work forces me to dig deeper and to view my work in progress from fresh perspectives. It is a courtship exercise that helps me to fall back in love with the story and rediscover the fun. When I can't wait to get back to my real chapters, I'm done with the bonus scenes.

The value in the insights and rekindled enthusiasm always outweighs the investment in writing. In addition, I find the subsequent work goes faster, with the words spilling out with little hesitation. In general, I've found bits and pieces find their ways into the manuscript. (In one case, a block of a dozen pages fit in without changes.) While I've been reluctant to take detours into bonus scenes, I've never regretted it, and it always has added to the fun.

Thursday, July 9, 2015

Making Friends With Your Characters -- Five tricks

If you're a novelist, you probably spend more time with your characters than with real people. In addition to putting their actions, words, and thoughts into prose, their needs, concerns, and tough choices probably occupy you mind all through the day and possibly in your dreams. If you're like me, they also talk to you, often at the most inopportune times.

I have no interest in devoting such a big chunk of my life to characters who repel or bore me. One of the secrets to productive writing is making the overall experience fun. If it is painful or unpleasant, it becomes something to avoid. And characters play a big part in the experience.

Naturally, the main character should be empathetic, even likable. The MC is the one who keeps the reader engaged. But, for the writer, all important characters should be engaging, even the villains. In most cases, even for pantsers, just telling the story isn't enough to make that connection. More is needed.

Some writers go through a great deal of character building and that becomes a basis for a relationship. To me, the classic fill-in-the-blanks exercises are sterile. Knowing a character in abstract terms isn't enough. I interview my characters, and often ask open-ended, even quirky questions. That does a lot of the job for me, but sometimes I need more. Here are a few other things I've tried:

Most embarrassing moment -- I think this is a sure way to build sympathy. We have all suffered from embarrassment, and the experience can be vivid and memorable. Now, what embarrasses me may not to embarrass some of my characters, so just putting a character through my embarrassing moments won't always work. But failed attempts usually point me toward something that will expose and distress even the most hardened characters.

Listening to the voice -- Sound is important to me. In my head, I hear the diction, intonation, timbre, and delivery of each character when I am involved with my work in progress. Almost always, these voices come to me spontaneously, but occasionally, I've had to keep my ears open as I've watched TV, sampled YouTube, or eavesdropped a the mall. I suspect some writers shanghai a voice they've heard, and, if the works for you, great. What happens for me is, after experiencing many voices, the character seems to select bits and pieces as his or her own, and I'll get the voice in a quiet moment, without choosing it.

Working together -- For me, the best way to get to know someone is to collaborate on a project. Many of my projects (like this blog) are in my head already, and it's easy for me to get a character to join in. Where they participate, how they need to be managed, and what insights they have reveal them in new ways. (For the less intellectual characters, I may need to imagine help with something physical like mowing a lawn or making a repair.)

Asking advice -- One thing that can get in the way of writing is having a worry or concern. Often, the problem will be interpersonal. Asking advice from characters can help me explore solutions and enlighten me about the character at the same time. Of course, if the character suggests a solution that is criminal, it is best not to put this into practice in the real world.

Introducing to a friend -- I like this best. I don't introduce my characters literally. It all happens in my imagination, so the friends don't need to be in recent contact or even among the living. The important thing is leveraging what I know about friends and how they're likely to react to elicit moments that tell me more about my characters. Often, this is so successful, I'll introduce the characters to a number of friends.

Overall, it's about inviting characters into my real life in some way that is vivid and compelling to me. Not every approach works for every character, and some of these can lead to unpleasant experiences (which can be useful later on). If they are dull through and through, I work to remove them from the story or minimize their participation. They fail the casting call. But, if they are unpleasant or repellant, I'm apt to keep trying exercises until I find one dimension that reveals what I need to empathize with the character, and that is enough.

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Breathing Space - Time for readers to feel

My natural tendency is to write scenes that take little time to develop and pop along as quickly as I dare. While this is necessary for many short stories and often valuable for the first few pages of a novel, it can take away from the experience later on.

Lately, I've been exploring immersion because I want readers to get lost in my stories. My primary approach has been to ask myself after reading if I felt like I was in the world of the story. If yes, why? This has led to a lot of revisions where I have provided more cues to settings, more care with dialogue tags, and a little more description of characters. I'm still using less than many writers, but the results so far seem to be paying off for readers.

One surprise is how this affected the impact of emotional scenes. Because I often end a scene or a chapter with a turn that evokes fear, sadness, foreboding, or joy, the words in the next section do reach a reader who is experiencing these feeling. With quieter starts, building the sense of place, I've found readers have more time with the emotions. They aren't forced to switch gears abruptly and attack new questions or process new information. This settling time allows the reader to have enough time with the sharper emotion. It's more engaging and also deepens identification with the characters.

Since I've discovered this, I've begun to look to see where pacing is used to achieve this effect in the writing of my favorite authors. They do this throughout their stories, with more description and quieter sections prevalent where the emotions are most acute. But they also use this to provide beats, in smaller ways, for less dramatic emotions (such as amusement and emotion). It is an integral part of the pacing for most good authors.

Now that I'm aware of it, I am working to get the amount of quiet writing right throughout my manuscripts. The best clue that it is too much or too little? Reading out loud. I've read my work out loud to find errors, to discover rhythms, and to refine word choice in the past. And now I understand that I have unconsciously used it to get the quiet space right. But not enough.

Thankfully, now that I'm aware of this kind of pacing, I'm seeing (and hearing) more opportunities to get it right. My style will never be languid, but I'm hoping it will feel less hurried.