Unspoken

On February 19, 2018, Nichole wrote, I want to know what suggestions you might give for the parts of writing that I suppose I would call “background description.” See, I’m a writer who loves dialogue –I love to know what people choose to say and what people say in return. My problem, though, lies with describing what is going on in-between the dialogue.

Allow me to give an example from one of your books I grew-up with: Ever.

“You never crawled,” Aunt Fedo says.

Merem corrects her. “Once or twice you crawled.”

Aunt Fedo ignores the correction. “You were too eager to walk and dance.”

“And climb!” Merem says. She pats Kezi’s hand.

Senat, Merem, and Aunt Fedo laugh.

“Nothing was safe from you,” Senat says, breaking off a section of bread for her.

In this example, using “say” and “said” are the first tools in breaking up straight dialogue as it tells who said it. But, what about the rest? The –as I put it- “background description”- correcting of facts, patting of Kezi’s hand, laughter, and Senat breaking off the section of bread. How would you suggest I write “background description” to break up dialogue?

Christie V Powell wrote back, I think that being able to see the whole thing in your mind would help you nail those details. In writing dialogue, you’re often focused on the words the characters are saying, but you might miss out on everything else going on: real life doesn’t stop when people have a conversation. Visualizing the setting might help.

Also, those little descriptions are a great way to build subtext. Senat handing her bread shows that he’s caring for her. Merem patting a hand is a gesture that shows that she’s an older woman, probably family, showing fondness and possibly a bit of teasing. There is a ton of subtext going on–reading between the lines, if you will. Not everyone will pick up on it, but it makes the story richer.

Here’s a section I’m working on right now (still in progress).

—He nodded slowly, but his guarded expression cleared when he saw her bandaged arm. “Hurt during capture?” he asked. Despite his husky accent, she easily picked out his words.

“No. That tiny griffin…”

“Ah.”

He unwrapped the bandage with fingers scratchy with callouses, but gentle. The wound began to bleed again, but he pressed one hand over it. The warmth grew to heat, higher and higher, but a second before it grew painful he let go. The cut had vanished completely. Mira thought of the Spektrit visitor who had fixed her limp on the beach.

“It brought me to you on purpose. For the healing.”

“He,” the Spectrit corrected. “That griffin is a he. I’m Arvid, Keeper.” He tapped his black collar. “Keepers herd, sometimes heal. You’re a minder. General labor. Sometimes pets…”

She shot the griffin a suspicious look.

I’m with Christie V Powell. The description lets the reader’s senses enter the story to see, hear, smell, and feel what’s going on. And description also allows us to move the plot along with action. In her sample, Christie V Powell even manages to drop in the experience of Spektrit magic or power.

I was just thinking about this in my own WIP. I started a bit of dialogue when an older man, a duke, sits with a young woman and complains about his creaky knees, after he’s demonstrated their effect in the stiff way he sat. But following that introductory moment, the scene becomes disembodied, as I realized just before closing my laptop to get on the train, which I’m riding right now to New York City.

Either I can fix the scene as soon as I open the manuscript again, or I can fix it in revision, after I’ve got a completed first draft. If I decide to delay the repair, I’ll make a note at the top of the first page, along with a string of other instructions to self, to watch out for disembodied dialogue.

So the first step is self-awareness, which Nichole has mastered.

The second step is action. We look at our scene to see what’s missing and what we can use.

In the case of my WIP, my MC, Cima, is embroidering a pillow cushion when the duke approaches her. He’s much higher in rank than she is, but I forgot to make her put aside her embroidery, which she certainly would do–or be rude, which might be useful in a different situation from the one I’m writing. When I revise, I’ll do something with the embroidery.

And he’s a guest! But she doesn’t offer him food! Getting him food, or even starting to stand up if he doesn’t want any, would introduce action.

Let’s go back to Nichole’s quote from Ever. I haven’t looked at the context and I don’t remember what went before or after, but I noticed just now that I left out thoughts and emotions. If I remember right, this scene isn’t from Kezi’s POV, but the POV character would notice how much her family loves her. I hope his reaction came in at some point!

Thoughts and emotions can come only from the POV character or from an omniscient narrator, but there’s always one of those around. The charming thing about thoughts, if we love writing dialogue, is that thoughts are like speech, and yet they do break up the dialogue.

When we want to add description, we start by examining what we have, and we ask questions:

Where are the characters?

What are they doing?

What is the POV character thinking and feeling?

Let’s take the where. Say the characters are having a picnic. What’s the weather? If the wind is blowing, is it blowing away the napkins and paper plates? Do things have to be weighted down with other things? Is there an ant parade? Mosquitoes?  Natural beauty? Who else is around?

If it’s a picnic, eating is probably going on. Who’s a neat eater? Who has mustard on his chin? Who talks with her mouth full? Who serves everybody else?

All of our choices of detail will be guided by our plot and our characters and, especially when we’re near the beginning, what appeals to us.

Here are three prompts:

∙ An argument is great for trying this out. Mariel is furious with Christopher for giving away a secret. Christopher is angry, too. He had a good reason for breaking the confidence. Write the scene, breaking up the dialogue with description. Think about body language and how loud each one gets. Consider the props they can use, like a book slammed down on a desk. Think about where they are and how the environment can enter in.

∙ Two spies have to exchange secret information. Problem is, they’re at a castle ball. There’s no chance for privacy. They keep trying to communicate, but their conversation is broken into repeatedly. Write the scene.

∙ Write the picnic scene. Decide who’s there and what the occasion is. Bring in the elements I mention above and any others that come to you and sprinkle them in with the dialogue. For the fun of it, make something disastrous happen to end the picnic.

Have fun, and save what you write!

Hear Ye!

Happy new year! May your writing flourish in 2018!

On October 14th way back in 2017, StorytellerLizzie wrote, I was wondering if anybody had some reference material for writing dialogue in a Lord of the Rings/Game of Thrones type universe? I’m playing with an idea of my MC being from a modern time and then being sent to a time/world/etc. where they use more of an “Old English” style of speaking. I mostly need colloquialisms that would replace modern phrases like “take it easy,” “calm down,” and such. Any help would be appreciated!

Lots of you responded.

Song4myKing: “Be still.”“Hold thy peace” (closer to our “be quiet,” perhaps).Verily, my main source is familiarity with the King James Version Bible. But behold, though it hath a few colloquialisms, they do not abound the way they do in common speech. Therefore, I wait with eagerness to see what others have to say.

Melissa Mead: What time period are we talking about? There were some big changes in there, and “Old English” doesn’t sound much like English that we’d recognize. Shakespeare added a whole lot of words to the language, too.

This might help. It’s the “Christmas verses” of the Bible in several languages, and the first few are different versions of English, with dates: http://nielsenhayden.com/makinglight/archives/016555.html#016555.

Tangye: Try replacing single words with more old fashioned words. ‘you’ is an easy word to change. You can say, Thee, Thou, Thy (thy is your, but you get the idea.) One of my other strategies is to use fewer contractions. I think there are lots of ways to do it, so it depends on the exact style you are looking for.

StorytellerLizzie wrote back thusly: Now that I’ve looked at a rough outline of the English language through the years, I think I’m going for more of an Early Modern English vibe, 1440-1604ish. Fancy, but not so fancy that my MC has a huge learning curve just trying to talk to the other characters.

These are great!

Song4myKing’s nod to the King James version of the Bible is inspired, because, according to Wikipedia, it was translated between 1604 and 1611. And so is Melissa Mead’s Shakespeare suggestion, since he, too, was writing at the end of StorytellerLizzie’s period.

I’d recommend not going much earlier than the seventeenth century, because both the King James Bible and Shakespeare are challenging enough for a reader–this reader anyway.

However, despite my recommendation, if you want to do full-throttle post-Chaucerian, go for it. I’d say read a good deal from the period until the reading becomes easy. Work on thinking in period language. The reader may have trouble at the beginning, but if your story grabs her, she’ll hang in. Then, once she gets it, she’ll be immersed and will feel proud of herself for getting there. You might also consider using the same notation system that appears in Volume I of The Norton Anthology of English Literature, both definitions in the margins and in footnotes at the bottom of the page, which will take a lot of the work out of it for the reader. I tried and failed to find a link to a page online, but I’d bet your local library has a copy. Notations can be done in a lighthearted way, too. If we have fun with them, the reader probably will, too.

I’ve mentioned Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court before on the blog. It’s also a time-travel story. Twain mines the old-timey language as well as the trappings of a courtly age to great comic effect. The novel is in the public domain, so here’s a sample from early on, before the main character realizes that he has time traveled:

“Fair sir, will ye just?” said this fellow.

“Will I which?”

“Will ye try a passage of arms for land or lady or for—”

“What are you giving me?” I said.  “Get along back to your circus, or I’ll report you.”

Now what does this man do but fall back a couple of hundred yards and then come rushing at me as hard as he could tear, with his nail-keg bent down nearly to his horse’s neck and his long spear pointed straight ahead.  I saw he meant business, so I was up the tree when he arrived.

Hah!

Since StorytellerLizzie’s story is also a time-travel tale, Twain’s example is particularly instructive. If it’s told by the contemporary visitor, then the narration will be different from the dialogue, as is the case with Twain, but if the POV is third-person omniscient, we can choose whether to go contemporary or old-fashioned.

I do not recommend this, but I’m offering it as either an example of the possibilities or a cautionary tale about the crazy lengths writers can go to. When I wrote Stolen Magic, I decided to limit my vocabulary to words that entered English no later than 1700, so I checked the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) for every word I suspected of later origins. (In case some of you don’t know, the OED is a historical dictionary that lists dates with quotations for every usage and nuance of a word. I subscribe to the online service, which isn’t cheap, but, again, I suspect your library subscribes, too. If you haven’t, I’d recommend looking at it at least once to see how it works and what it offers.) This foolishness slowed down my writing considerably–and I doubt it improved the book. However in StorytellerLizzie’s case, it might be worth checking a word every so often to make sure it isn’t an absolute newcomer. You can search phrases, too, as well as words.

And here’s another probably insane thought: Shakespeare wrote in iambic pentameter, either rhyming or blank verse (no rhymes). Pentameter goes out the window with prose, but iambs are still possible. Iambs are ta DUM, ta DUM, ta DUM, in two-syllable units called feet in poetry. Take this line from Richard III, in which I’ve capitalized the stressed syllables: a HORSE, a HORSE! My KINGdom FOR a HORSE! A poetry teacher once told the class I was taking that Fitzgerald wrote chunks of The Great Gatsby (high school and up) in iambs. I wonder what it would be like to try that, what kind of voice that would create.

Anything can be said in iambs, since to some degree English naturally falls that way, but it takes effort and a thesaurus, and it might slow the writing even more than constantly checking the OED. Still, we can try it with a paragraph and observe the effect. If we like it, we can make the effort with important moments in our story. Or, since the question is about dialogue, we can make a certain character speak in iambs. And there are other kinds of meter as well. I’ve read that Dr. Seuss wrote in anapests (ta ta DUM, ta ta DUM).

Of course, if we’re going for a Lord of the Rings or Game of Thrones sort of voice, we should look at those to get some tips. I pulled my Fellowship of the Rings off my shelf to see what’s going on. Mostly the language is standard modern English, but I did notice, as Tangye suggests, few contractions–some, but fewer than I use. I also noticed words like shall, befall, aye, depending on who’s talking. And the phrasing seemed more formal in the dialogue of some characters, like elves.

As for colloquialisms, I’ve many times used Faugh! instead of Yuck! A source that might be helpful is Louisa May Alcott. If I remember right, Little Women is full of archaic colloquialisms.

We got delightfully into the writing weeds in this post. Here are three prompts:

∙ A time warp has brought together legendary King Arthur, Shakespeare’s Romeo, a lady-in-waiting to Queen Victoria, a bionic person of the 23rd century, and your 21st century MC. The scene is a forest, so no one is sure what the year is. Some may and some may not want to return to their old lives. Write their dialogue as they struggle to understand what’s happened.

∙ For the fun of it, try putting all of this from Twain into iambs:
Now what does this man do but fall back a couple of hundred yards and then come rushing at me as hard as he could tear, with his nail-keg bent down nearly to his horse’s neck and his long spear pointed straight ahead.  I saw he meant business, so I was up the tree when he arrived.
Some of it is already done for you, like the end: so I was UP the TREE when HE arRIVED. (Maybe Twain did this on purpose, but probably not. English likes iambs!)

∙ Your MC has traveled through so many centuries that her head is spinning, and she’s returned with her mission accomplished. She’s discovered the words to a curse that will rob your villain of power forever. Pull out all the stops and have her issue the curse in language that grabs grandeur from biblical times to the distant future. Write the curse.

Have fun, and save what you write!

Thoughtses!

First off, very exciting! Here’s a link to the beginning of the audio version of Writer to Writer: https://soundcloud.com/harperaudio_us/writertowriter_levine?in=harperaudio_us/sets/harperchildrens-audio. At the end, it moves on to another excerpt from a different book. Of course, you can keep going or stop. Hope you enjoy!

On July 26, 2014, Angie wrote, I have a question that pertains both to dialogue and relationship development. I have two taciturn characters who have to spend quite a bit of time together, and are untrusting of each other for a while. The result is that they are both pretty tight-lipped, which makes the scenes feel boring to me. I am hoping to develop their relationship to the point where they want to confide in one another, but am struggling with making that leap, and with creating some natural, interesting dialogue in the meantime. How do you make characters talk when they simply aren’t inclined to do so?

Elisa weighed in with, Thoughtses, thoughtses, use thoughtses! Seriously though, when no one talks, make them THINK. I like it when people have these super sarcastic thoughts about each other without saying anything, its funny. And then one of them can accidentally say a super-sarcastic remark out-loud, and they start a bit of a fight, and then end up laughing (This happens to me and my sister ALL THE TIME!). That breaks the ice pretty well, at least, for me (and my sister).

I’m with Elisa. Thoughtses can wake up our scenes! Especially if our two characters think differently. Since we can never be in anyone else’s mind, we can’t know what’s really going on. Maybe we are all alike when it comes to thinking, but I doubt it.

Let’s start by naming these characters: Victoria and Wilson, and let’s imagine some ways of thinking. I’ll suggest three and you come up with three more:

• Digressive. Wilson starts thinking about how dark it’s getting in the forest and how loud Victoria’s footsteps are and segues to thoughts of night in his bedroom at home to memories of a Halloween sleepover to wondering what his friend who was at the sleepover is doing right now.

• Methodical. Victoria is planning where to sleep tonight and whether it will be better to lose Wilson or to camp together and how she’s going to feed herself and possibly him and how they can work together without ever talking and how she can protect herself in case he attacks in the middle of the night. And she’s coming up with solutions for all of these.

• Irrepressibly happy. Yes, they’re in the middle of a forest. Yes, the king’s evil prime minister is after them. But the air smells so fresh! And listen to the birdsong! Yes, Victoria doesn’t trust Wilson. But he’s a good talker when he talks, which she isn’t, and the gift of gab could come in handy, and the prime minister is the enemy of both of them. And besides, she’s always loved hiking.

Your turn.

Of course, if we’re going to be in the heads of both of them, our POV has to be third-person omniscient. If we’re writing in first person, we have just one mind to work from, which is okay, too. If Victoria is our MC, she can speculate about what Wilson is thinking and what he’s up to.

Each of them also needs to be differently taciturn. Wilson, for example, can be uncommunicative because he’s desperately shy. If we’re not in his mind we can make him blush easily. He can walk behind Victoria on the path, because he’s too unsure of himself to take the lead. But this manifestation of bashfulness can be misinterpreted by Victoria as sneakiness.

Victoria can be silent because she’s a collector of secrets, and she’s learned that she’s more likely to be confided in if she keeps her own conversation to a minimum. Her friends call her The Clam. She’s always been completely trustworthy–although that may change as this tale continues.

There’s opportunity for fun, as each misunderstands what the other is doing. Victoria, for example, can step into a patch of poison ivy simply because she doesn’t see it in the dusk, but Wilson’s interpretation is that she wants to show him how tough she is. If we can arrange matters so that their silence gets them in trouble, that’s even better. Boredom will be banished.

We might introduce another element to create this tension. Suppose the forest is the home of a band of elves, who have been lied to by people in the past. While Wilson is asleep, an elf joins Victoria, who’s guarding the campfire, and asks why she’s in the forest. Uncertain about whether the elves are allies of the evil prime minister, she says that she and Wilson are brother and sister on their way to visit their uncle. When Wilson’s turn to watch comes, Victoria thinks about telling him of the elf’s visit, but she decides the visit is over, so she doesn’t think she needs to and stays silent. The elf returns and talks to Wilson when he’s on watch duty, and he gives a different story. The angry elves capture the two of them and hold them for trial as spies. Each can blame the other, but they’re talking, and–also good–they’re in danger.

Or, Wilson can look up and see a tree tiger, which I just invented, about to pounce on Victoria. He shouts, “Run!” and runs, too. They both live and start talking and planning how they can avoid being taken by surprise.

What will get them talking depends, at least in part, on their characters. If Wilson is digressive in his thinking, he may get so carried away by his thoughts that he forgets where he is and starts thinking out loud. Victoria can say, “What the heck are you going on about?” Not friendly, but they’re talking.

Or methodical Victoria can reach a point in her planning where she needs to share her ideas with Wilson or they won’t work. She’s uneasy, but she speaks.

Here are four prompts:

• The elves put them on trial and appoint a lawyer, who has a very hard time with two uncooperative defendants. Write the scene or scenes. Part of the fun may be inventing the elves’ judicial system.

• Both Victoria and Wilson are starving. Both are excellent archers, but they’re sure, if they pull out their arrows, the action will be misunderstood. Write this scene.

• One of them, you pick which, is actually an agent of the evil prime minister. He or she is quiet, waiting for the other one to say something revealing or to make a fatal mistake. Write the forest crossing.

• The two are destined to fall in love. Write their gradual evolution from suspicion to infatuation.

Have fun, and save what you write!

More talk about talk

Before I get to this week’s question, I want to let everyone know about two appearances coming up this summer. For members of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI), I’ll be speaking at the national conference, which will take place in Los Angeles from July 30th to August 2nd, although I won’t get there until July 31st. Here’s the link: http://www.scbwi.org/Conference.aspx?Con=6. I intend to talk about subjects that have been raised on the blog, so thanks to all of you for making my speech easier to prepare.

To those of you who are writing for kids but aren’t members of SCBWI, I hope you’ll consider joining the biggest writers’ organization in the world and the most welcoming.  For kids who are writing for kids, sorry, you need to be at least eighteen to join.

The second appearance is for high-school-age people and above. It’s a conference called The Gathering, and it will be held from July 15th to 18th in La Plume, PA. I’ll be discussing my book Ever and also running a workshop on writing for kids. This will be my fourth year doing the workshop but my first as a featured speaker. The conference is always fascinating, good food, okay accommodations, great ideas. This year’s topic is Chaos and Creativity. Here’s the link: http://www.gathering.keystone.edu/.

In June I’ll be touring for Fairies and the Quest for Never Land, but I don’t know where I’ll be yet. I’ll post my itinerary when I get it.

On March 4, 2010, Amy Goodwin wrote… How do you write believable dialogue that is unique to each character’s personality? Every time I try it seems to come out sounding so much like me and more straightforward than I want it. They all seem to say what they think and not think either logically or in directions that suit their characters. How do you get around this and write dialogue that shows characters’ personalities and gets the story moving at the same time? I’m pretty clueless on both.

When you are working out what a particular character is like, think about how she might express her nature in speech. Figuring this  out may take you an entire book or three revisions of the book, but that’s okay,  I get to know my characters slowly. You can give her a speech mannerism in the first seven chapters and decide it doesn’t work in the eighth and remove it or exchange it for something else in revision.

If you’re developing a ruthless character, for example, you might make her interrupt often, without thinking about it, possibly without being aware of her rudeness. She wants what she wants, and she doesn’t care what anyone else has to say on the subject. A character who thinks he knows everything may also interrupt – same behavior, different reason.

In my Disney Fairies books, the character Rani, who sympathizes with everyone, tends to finish people’s sentences for them, sometimes correctly, sometimes not. When the reader sees a sentence completed by a second character, he knows Rani is the speaker.

There are lots of devices – and you can invent your own – to make a character’s speech special for that character and revealing of her inner nature. In life, everyone expresses himself uniquely. You and I have different ways of speaking. We use some expressions more often than others. I may speak in exclamations, you in questions. I may fly from topic to topic. You may stick to the point. A friend may speak so softly that you constantly have to ask her to repeat. Someone you’ve met acts as if everyone else is deaf. I haven’t nearly exhausted the possibilities; they’re legion.

And then there are the gestures that accompany speech. Somebody, perhaps a schemer, twists a length of hair around her finger when she’s lying. Manic Uncle Jack uses his hands constantly as he speaks. Secretive Alma never uses her hands. Insecure Mary moves with you while she talks so you can never avoid meeting her eyes. Bashful Stephan addresses his shoes.

In a movie or a play, this is enviably easy. The audience sees the characters do their physical bits, and the actors have tonal qualities too. We can identify such and such an actor with our eyes closed. But on the page, we have to remind the reader now and then. Someone needs to say to Stephan, “Look at me!” and then the reader will remember that he never does. Somebody has to say to Mary, “Get out of my face!”

If the speaker is a major character, you definitely want his way of speaking to go with his nature. If it’s a minor character, you can go generic, mention an accent, for instance, or nothing. Not everyone needs distinctive speech, as long as the reader knows who’s talking.

Amy, if your characters always sound like you, then you know how you sound, which is good. Try underlining the parts of dialogue in your stories that sound just like you. In  notes, list five other ways of saying the same thing. Think about how your sister might say a particular bit of speech, your brother, your best friend, your worst enemy, a teacher or former teacher.

As for dialogue contributing to plot, except for out-of-control events, most of plot grows out of character, and dialogue is an expression of character. Let’s go back to the ruthless character. Suppose she interrupts someone in authority once too often… A plot event happens. Or suppose her interruptions irritate Stephan so much that he actually yells at her. Yelling and surviving it changes him. Maybe yelling at the ruthless character gives him the courage to declare his love for Mary.

Although in general you do want your characters to sound different from one another, you don’t want to overload the reader with a circus of exotic talkers. Usually somebody has to tell it like it is, and often (but not always) that will be your main character. Your main character, if you are telling the story from his point of view, is present in every scene and is the voice the reader will hear in her mind.

Also, once you have established your characters (on the first go-round or in revision), the reader will help you. If shy Stephan is in a scene, the reader will remember (after being reminded a few times) that he’s looking at his shoes or mumbling or blushing. Part of the reader’s pleasure will be in this insider knowledge. If a teacher booms at Stephan, “Speak up, young man!” the reader will squirm right along with him.

In these prompts, think of characteristic ways of speaking, including gestures, for everybody:

• Three different characters habitually address everyone as Sweetheart, and each of them means something else by it. Write a page of dialogue for each one that shows what the speaker intends to convey.

• Two characters are accusing each other of not keeping promises. Make up the promises they’re arguing over, and write the scene three times, once for each of three different pairs of characters. In each case, what would be the plot consequences of the argument if you put it in a story? If you like, write the story.

• A character wants to do something that is certain to turn out badly. Two of his or her friends are trying to talk him or her out of it. Make up the foolhardy act. Decide ahead of time or as you write or in revision whether or not the friends succeed. Write the scene.

Have fun and save what you wrote!

Talk, darn it!

January 28, 2010, F posted this question:  …what do you do if you have too LITTLE dialogue?  I sometimes have to force myself to insert dialogue in a scene….  I’ve heard that there shouldn’t be too much non-dialogue in a piece of writing, because that will turn off readers. But in some scenes there just does NOT seem to be place for it!!  Your thoughts?

And the next day, Arya wrote,  …I fear I have the same problem as F.  And if I do have a moment where dialogue comes natural then I write it where almost every time someone says something I explain what they’re doing:  running fingers through their hair, staring out the window, pacing the room, biting their nails, touching someone’s shoulder).  Is this a problem or a good thing?

One reason readers like dialogue, which I discuss in Writing Magic, is that it creates white space on the page, because speech paragraphs are usually shorter than descriptive ones.  A page with just a single paragraph, for example, looks daunting.  You may have seen textbook pages like this.  My reaction is, Whoa!  I don’t know if I can handle this.  But a page with ten paragraphs of mixed dialogue and description looks much friendlier.

You can achieve comforting white space with short paragraphs, a good technique when a character is alone.  But when two or more characters are together, there’s a more important reason for them to talk than mere white space.  It’s relationships.  Put two people together, even briefly, even strangers, and there’s a relationship.

Not all situations lead to dialogue, of course.  I grew up in New York City, where people are smooshed together, often more than they like.  So in the subway and on the street they frequently guard themselves against contact with silence.  But even in crowded New York City, talk erupts surprisingly often.  Once, a woman on the subway, out of the blue, couldn’t keep herself from telling my husband that he has a beautiful nose!  If a subway train gets stuck between stations, riders may complain to one another.  If the delay is prolonged there will certainly be conversation, and sometimes friendships are formed.

Imagine three characters are scaling a wall at night.  The enemy is on the other side, and silence is required.  No dialogue, but lots of thought, and some of it about the other characters.  Take away the enemy, and they will almost certainly talk.  Okay, maybe the task is so hard that they have no breath left over for speech.  Suppose it isn’t that hard.  Suppose it’s a beginner-level wall in a fitness program, but suppose the characters have never met before.  They’re just thrown together for this task.  Still, each has a personality, and they’re unlikely all to be silent types.

Maybe one is the leader.  She’ll likely feel she needs to give some instruction.  One is scared.  Depending on who he is, he may reveal his fear in dialogue or camouflage it in different dialogue.  Or hide it in silent teeth gritting.  And maybe one is the silent type and won’t speak unless the leader checks on him.  They may not be talking much, but they’ll be talking.

Of course it’s up to you.  Don’t let any of them be silent types.  The leader may be naturally friendly.  Another climber may be given to putting herself down out loud, as in, “There’s no way I’m good enough to climb this wall.”  The third may be curious and may have a series of questions for the leader.  Or he may be nosy and be angling for dirt about each of his companions.

In most scenes your characters won’t be strangers, and they’ll have feelings about one another and be connected in various ways.  If you think about their feelings and what each wants from the others, you are likely to find dialogue inevitable.  What a character wants may be a tiny thing.  A character may even just want conversation for its own sake.  He may looking for reassurance that the other person doesn’t dislike him.  He may feel that social convention demands speech and he can’t be silent.  He may not be comfortable with silence.

Near the beginning of the mystery I’m working on now, which is in early stages and has no title yet, several of my characters are on the deck of a boat watching a dramatic sunset.  The dragon, Masteress Meenore, says,

    “Some would call it a portentous sunset,” IT said.
    Evil portents?
    “But rational creatures do not put any faith in auguries.  One can deduce nothing from them, and common sense reminds us that no sunset is the same.”

IT – the dragon – starts talking only to show off ITs intelligence.  What follows is a discussion of magic.  Some characters disagree with IT.  There’s a dispute but no real anger.  These characters are being sociable, passing time on a boat where the opportunities for action are limited.  And they’re debating ideas I want to introduce into the story.

When one person speaks, in fiction and life, another often wants to respond, to agree, disagree, ask for clarification, steer the conversation another way.  If you ask yourself what the other characters think and feel about an initial statement, you can open the dialogue floodgates.

Now for Arya’s question:  Generally it’s good – terrific! – to include movement along with dialogue if you don’t overdo it.  These little acts can reveal character or show where people are physically, and they break up solid dialogue, just as you want to break up solid narrative.  The nail biter and the pacer may be anxious at the moment or anxious as a constant state, and the reader will get that.  The character who touches the shoulder of another person may be showing dominance or reassurance or demonstrating his touchy-feely nature.  My example above would be improved by a little physicality.  This would be better:

    “Some would call it a portentous sunset.”  White smoke rose from ITs nostrils in a wide, lazy spiral.

The reader knows that smoke spirals mean IT’s happy, so information has been revealed.  The other advantage is that I can cut “IT said,” which now takes up unnecessary space.  We don’t want every dialogue paragraph to be accompanied by a gesture, but many can be.  You can always take a few out when you think you’ve gone too far.

Here are two prompts:

The first is to go back to a scene, or more than one, in one of your stories that seems dialogue weak.  Think about the characters in the scene and how they feel toward one another, what they want, what their thoughts are, and what their thoughts might move them to say.  When one character speaks, see what another might say in response.  Put in as much dialogue as you can create.  You can delete the excess later.

The second prompt takes us on a hike through beautiful countryside in a national park.  No danger is looming.  There is no need for the characters to talk, but they do.  Try one or more of these possible groups of hikers.  In each case, limit the number of talking characters to no more than four.  Mix gestures in with the conversation.

•    A group of campers and two counselors.

•    An elder hostel group with a younger tour guide.

•    A family group.  You make up the members.

•    Participants in a program for troubled teenagers and two counselors.

•    Bird watchers.

•    Scientists engaged in finding and tagging wolves.

After you’ve written a page, have one of the characters say something that shocks everyone else.  Then write another page of dialogue.

Have fun and save what you write!

On another subject, several weeks ago Priyanka asked about writing from the perspective of characters much older than she is.  I am weeks from tackling this, but I read an excellent article in yesterday’s (March 2nd) New York Times in the Science section that has bearing on the topic.  Priyanka and anyone else who feels uncertain about inventing older characters may find the article helpful.  The title is “Old Age, From Youth’s Narrow Prism.”  I’m sure you can access it online.

Goodbye Dialogue Land

On January 4th, 2010, Inkquisitive asked, “...do you have any help for those of us who seem to live in Dialogue Land? I know you have touched on this a little before, but do you have any suggestions on how to convert a conversation-heavy scene into more action? My book is starting to look like a play (which I do not want) with bits of narrative strewn among a majority of conversation. Thanks.

Here are some suggestions for getting from Dialogue Land into Action Land.

Suppose your main character’s objective is to restore a friendship.  In real life and fiction that’s usually achieved with words, but this time your job is to get there with minimal dialogue.  Consider how your main character, James, can win back Hanna’s trust with few words, and not a letter either.  You don’t have to retreat into wordlessness, however.  James can be thinking like crazy.  In addition to thinking, what can he do?

Or, write a story with a main character who is not a talker.  She may not even be much of a verbal thinker.  She expresses herself by action.  Make her mad at someone.  How does she deal with her anger without talking or screaming or explaining her feelings?  Bring in more characters and stick mainly to action.

Silence can pack a huge emotional wallop.  In life and in fiction when one person stops talking to another, you have explosive tension.  Friends doing something together without a word – walking in the woods, cooking, sitting by a fire – can convey companionship and peace.  Setting can help, and so can body language.  Two people slumped in chairs in a hospital lounge suggest grief or hopelessness.

Think of a retreat in which the participants have vowed silence.  In spite of the silence, however, relationships are formed, feelings conveyed.  Try writing about a main character at a silent weekend retreat.  Make her want something that is counter to the intentions of the retreat.  How does she go about getting what she wants?  One way to approach this might be through humor.

Maybe this can’t be done entirely without words, but what fun it would be to write – or read – a mystery set in a place of silence.

When you find yourself locked in dialogue, think of it as being stuck on the phone.  Your cousin has called.  You love him, but he’s a chatterbox, and after a while you remember that you’ve eaten nothing for eight hours or a light bulb needs changing or you promised to mow the lawn, so you look for a friendly, unhurtful way to get off the phone.  Try the same technique in Dialogue Land.  Think of a reason for one of your characters to end the conversation.  Break everybody up and move the story to a different location.  Make the next scene a solo one.  Your main character is alone.  He has no one to talk to.  What does he do?

Radical cutting also may help.  Do all these words need to be said?  Can some just be eliminated?  Suppose your characters are talking about an event that they all witnessed.  Try showing the event.  Your characters can have thoughts about it, but let the action unfold as it happens.  If one of the characters missed the occurrence, you can just say in narration that he was told.

I have not done this recently, but it might be a good idea:  Watch an old silent movie.  In silent movies there were occasional speech lines shown on the screen, but almost everything was accomplished without them.  Observe how it was done.

Look through picture books.  Granted, these are simple stories, but they might be useful anyway.  See what the images convey, because you can write in images.  You can write about facial expressions and reduce the necessity of having someone say what he’s feeling.

Often the motivation for dialogue is to develop character, and dialogue is wonderful for that, but think how your characters can reveal themselves without words.  We learn a lot about Kirby if he combs his hair in a mirror while Kathleen weeps on the sofa a yard away.

I’ve saved the most obvious for last, because it is obvious.  Write an action story:  a chase, an escape, a natural disaster.  These can be dialogue heavy too, but don’t let yours be.  When your characters start getting chatty, make the roof cave in or the bad guys show up.  Tie your characters up with tape across their mouths.

Prompts are scattered through this post.  Here they are, collected:

•    Restore a friendship in a scene.  No more than ten words may be spoken.

•    Write a story about a main character who isn’t a talker and isn’t a verbal thinker either.  You may want to get her mad at someone.  Or do something else with her.

•    Set a story at a silent retreat.  Your main character wants something and it isn’t silence or spiritual growth.  What happens?

•    Watch a silent movie (I love Buster Keaton) or read a bunch of picture books.  Use one of them as the basis of a story with little dialogue.

•    Write an action story about a chase or an escape or a natural disaster.  Or all three!  When any of your characters speak, don’t let the speech go beyond a single line.

Have fun and save what you write.

Local talk

On December 2nd April posted this comment: What’s your opinion on placing an emphasis on dialect? For example, Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.

What about the words accompanying dialogue? Some people are sticklers for only using “said,” even with questions (instead of “asked”). Others use quite a variety of words to give more… shall we say, “expression” to the dialogue. And I know some don’t care either way, so long as the word isn’t an adverb/ends in “ly.” What say you?

I love Twain, and I adore The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. But Twain, even though his voice is often modern, wrote in a different era. Different conventions applied. I don’t know if anyone today would name a character after a berry, either. Maybe, but the writer would have to have an important reason for doing so.

A writer would also have to have a powerful reason for using dialect, more powerful than simply establishing a regional feeling. Even if you get the dialect exactly right, which is hard, readers are likely to think you didn’t. Speech rings differently for each of us.

You can describe a dialect in narration, and then the reader will know it’s there. If I were introducing a certain species of New York accent (I’m a New Yorker), I might talk about the tortured r and the distorted long i and the attachment of a final g to the next word when that word starts with a vowel, as in Long Gisland. I might even give a sample as I just did and then return to standard English.

Choice of expression also can portray a region. You all is southern and only southern in my experience. Maybe these aren’t New York-isms, but it seems to me I hear Right? and Am I crazy? a lot here. My late friend from Minnesota used to say oofta! frequently. Pay attention to local phrases and use them, but don’t overdo or you’ll shift into parody – unless you have parody in mind.

There are more tools to situate our characters, because locales often live up to type. My books have taken me all over the country. On the streets of San Francisco and nowhere else I have overheard conversations about spirit channeling and fruit fasting. If I’m traveling for a publisher, I’m assigned local media escorts, who take me to schools and bookstores. In LA my escort one time was a starlet, and a car service driver had written a screenplay. When I sign books in southern states the children seem to have three-syllable and hyphenated first names more often than anywhere else. You can use details like these to establish place.

But again, be careful and specific, and use a light touch. We don’t want to alienate readers who actually come from these places. It’s fun – and safe – to adapt these techniques to fantasy, to invent regional characteristics for a fictional world. Make up your own, though. Don’t have your Quachappians saying oofta!

I talk about said and other speech verbs in Writing Magic. I like said because it fades into the background, as does asked. I’m not sure I approve of myself for this, but I use cried a lot. Cried suggests emotional intensity better than yelled, which, to me, is just about volume. I’m fine with speech verbs that convey information, like yelled, shouted, whispered, because I can’t tell a character is doing any of those things unless I’m told. Whispered can be used in a scene where quiet is called for. The word needn’t be repeated, because the reader will assume from then on that everybody is whispering unless told otherwise.

I’m opposed to questioned, exclaimed, snarled, blubbered – because they draw attention to themselves and away from the actual speech. I use blurted sometimes, so I guess I don’t mind it, although if you can convey blurting without actually writing the word, so much the better. I just looked at my latest manuscript and found continued, burst out, called, even squeaked, which I think is okay because the character’s throat was closing on her.

My favorite writing teacher insisted that speech verbs have to involve speech, so it’s wrong to write, She laughed, “That’s funny.” because you can’t laugh words. It should be, She laughed. “That’s funny.” or some other way of putting it. Notice the period rather than the comma after laughed.

About adverbs describing speech, like “That’s awful,” he said emphatically. – I’m sure I’m sometimes guilty of them, and sometimes you need them, but as infrequently as possible.

It’s great not to need speech verbs at all. One way to eliminate them is to break speech up with action like this: “I’m scared.” Sally twisted the ends of her scarf. “Did we step into a horror movie?”

We know Sally is the one talking if she has the paragraph to herself, which is a good way to avoid confusion. Action also lets the reader see what’s going on. It can shed light on a character, too, or heighten tension.

Here’s a prompt: A deli sandwich maker, a retired dress saleswoman, a stay-at-home dad, a college student, a lawyer, and a physical therapist are on a train that gets delayed. One of these characters (or any others you choose) starts a conversation, and the rest join in. Some may speak on cell phones as well. Write down what they say. You may want to try the conversation/debate/argument, whatever it turns into, a few different ways, experimenting with speech verbs, action, and placing the characters regionally. Have fun, and save all the versions.

Talking talk

Before I get to Hope M’s posted comment about dialogue, I want to mention what I heard on the radio recently in an interview with Madeleine Albright. I’m always on the alert – when I remember – for verbal tics, the phrases people repeat unawares that give a clue to their souls. Madeleine Albright had a telling one. Often, she began an anecdote by saying, “I have to tell you.” This from a former Secretary of State! How many times did she really have to tell a head of state something, and how many times was she unable to say what she wanted to? So, to psychoanalyze her without a license, this oddly candid expression migrated into her ordinary speech.

It’s marvelous when we can find such a revealing conversational tic for a character.

Here’s Hope M’s topic request: I would like to hear what you have to say about dialogue. Although it comes easily to others it most definitely does not come easily to me! It usually ends up going along the lines of he said…she said…he said and so on…droning on and on until I get bored and delete it all.

I’m not sure this is a dialogue problem. The problem may be telling a story entirely in action or in just action and thoughts so that dialogue becomes inessential.

For example, two friends are getting dressed together for a party. One of them, Merry, wants to look particularly great because she’s been teased at school for her lack of style. She tries on one thing after another and is convinced everything looks awful. Her friend, Lara, on the other hand, isn’t thinking about anything except the argument she just had with her father. Lara puts on whatever and sits on the bed, staring into space. The reader, since this is told from a third-person POV, has witnessed both the teasing and the argument with the father and is waiting to see what happens at the party. The conversation that goes on between the friends is polite and inconsequential, because each one has her mind on something else.

That’s okay. In this instance you might keep the dialogue minimal. Or you could go the other way. Merry could ask Lara’s opinion about one outfit after another. Lara could be a polite, supportive friend until she snaps. She says something mean, like, “You’re so insecure it’s ridiculous.” Merry answers with, “You’re so selfish it’s incredible.” They start to get into it just when Merry’s mom knocks on the bedroom door and says it’s time to leave. The argument is unresolved. Both girls have to go to the party bearing the weight of it, and the reader has another reason to worry.

Dialogue that’s working for the story is unlikely to bore you or anyone.

When introducing a character I want to make an impression, often even with minor characters who may have only a few lines. Dialogue, action, physical description, and, depending on POV, thoughts are the major tools for introducing a character. When you’re presenting him for the first time, think about what he can say and what the reader will get from it. For example, in Fairest the Snow White character, Aza, has two brothers who don’t come into the story much, but I wanted to distinguish them, so I made the older brother Yarry blunt. He says whatever he thinks with no tactful coating. If everybody is tiptoeing around a subject, Yarry goes straight at it. He’s the first to say that Aza is ugly. Obviously, he says this in words, dialogue.

Dialogue can move the plot along. In Fairest again, Aza discovers that she’s going to the royal wedding. The revelation comes through dialogue while she’s helping a duchess dress:

“Have you grown taller? I believe you’ve surpassed Ethele.”
“Your skirt next, Your Grace?”
She looked at me appraisingly. “Ethele’s gowns would fit you.”
Occasionally guests gave cast-off clothing to Mother. Dame Ethele’s gowns were clownish. I demurred. “Thank you, but–”
“Not to keep! To wear to the wedding.”

The most economical way to advance plot is by telling, which can distance the reader. But dialogue is economical too. I convey the information about the wedding in just a few lines. As bonuses we see the duchess being imperious and Aza being clueless; character development is enhanced.

You can create a character who is prone to vacuous chitchat. In life, people who drone on are usually covering something. If you show the reader what your character is covering, even a motor mouth won’t be boring.

When you’re writing a scene with dialogue, think about the goals of each character. Maybe one is probing, the other concealing. Or their goals may not be related. Maybe one is probing and the other is practicing being charming. Doesn’t matter what the goals are. If the dialogue is backed up by motivation, it isn’t likely to be boring either.

Dialogue is great for emotional tension. In the party preparation scene, suppose Merry fears her friend is slipping away from her. When Lara doesn’t show the interest Merry wants, Merry becomes more and more desperate. Lara, on the other hand, still considers Merry her best friend, and wants some attention for herself, but she is absolutely lousy at asking anyone, even a best friend, for help. You may need more than dialogue to convey all this; you may need thoughts and action, too. But the dialogue can be the most powerful.

I love dialogue. When I have characters showing off their natures, I’m enjoying myself so much that I think more is better. Then I have to go back and trim, or even get out my ax. Sometimes dullness is just overload.

Here are three dialogue prompts:

Write a separation scene. Two characters are parting forever or for a long period. Each is important to the other, but not everything about their relationship has been positive.

Write a first-meeting scene in which each character has big expectations for what will result from the encounter.

Write a reunion scene in which each character is burdened by his perspective of the old relationship.

Have fun! Save what you wrote.