Wednesday, September 21, 2011

"Shut Yer Cake-hole!": Dealing With Dialogue

Let's cover dialogue today.

You'll hear this advice a lot (and I'm paraphrasing here): "Your dialogue should sound like real people talking."

Good advice, right?

Right.

Except when it's not.

See, when most folks here this, they immediately think: "My dialogue needs to sound exactly like people talking at Starbucks."

And instead of dialogue, they end up writing what amounts to a transcript.

Now why the hell would someone want to read a transcript?

Dialogue--dramatic dialogue--isn't a transcript of conversation. It simulates real conversation. It doesn't replicate it.

Let's go over that again:
Dramatic dialogue simulates real conversation. It doesn't replicate it.

"Simulate" is the operative word here.

So how do we do that? How do we simulate real conversation?

Here are three keys to keep in mind...

SAY YOU, SAY ME
People speak different depending on a variety of factors: place of origin, educational level, culture, etc. A literature professor at Oxford will speak very differently from an Appalachian miner. And that miner won't speak the same as a surfing enthusiast from Santa Monica, California. William F. Buckley sounds completely different from Joe Pesci in Goodfellas.

Next time you're at the mall or sitting in Starbucks, listen to the conversations around you and take notes. Listen to the rhythms of speech and look for the following elements:
  • Fast or slow
  • Melodic or monotone
  • Complex vocabulary or lots of slang
  • Word choice
  • Favorite expressions
  • Complete sentences or fragmented sentences
Don't take that as an exhaustive list, but just a few things to get you started.

Once you hear those elements in speech, give them to the characters in your WIP. Have one person speak quickly but using a complex vocabulary. Or another speak slow and melodic but uses lots of slang. Mix and match.


SAY IT FORWARD
Dialogue should move the story forward.

Real conversations spends a lot of time chit-chatting. The weather. The kids and family. The game last night. The latest gossip. A lot of this before you actually get to the point of the conversation.

Drop the chit-chat.

Every spoken line needs to have a purpose in the story. Will it reveal character? Will it establish backstory? Will it heighten tension or conflict?

If it doesn't none of these things, cut it, cut it, cut it.

Get right to the meat of the conversation.


SAY IT, BUT DON'T REALLY SAY IT
Avoid "on the nose" dialogue.

I'm stealing this advice from the world of screenwriting.

"On the nose" dialogue is dialogue that says exactly what it means.

It's boring.

Avoid it as much as possible.

People will rarely say what they truly feel and truly mean. They'll hedge. They'll tiptoe. Beat around the bush. And if they think they've been found out, they'll vehemently deny it.

Let's look at this example:
LEIA: I love you.
HAN: I love you, too.
Ugh. Booooring.

Now compare it to the exchange we all know and adore:
LEIA: I love you.
HAN: I know.
Speaks volumes, doesn't it.

Or this one:
"Dana--How could you sleep with him?"
"You drove me away."
"I love you."
"No, you don't. You love your job more than me."
Blah blah blah-bitty blah.

Now try this:
"Was it worth it, Dana?"
"What do you care?"
"I do care."
"By coming home late every night? You're kidding. Tell me you're kidding."
"And Bill?"
"I felt like me again. The real me."
I'd keep reading. Wouldn't you?

So there you have it. My three keys to dramatic dialogue. Use them.

Or at the very least, try them out and see if they put a kick into your dialogue.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Surveyin' Mah Readers

Tomorrow marks the 14th installment of my Writing Tip Wednesdays post series.

I'm hoping to write more but before I do, I want to find out the following from you, Mah Readers:
  • How helpful are these posts?
  • What topics would you like me to cover?
Or, am I way outta my league with these and should go do something else? Like herding cats?

Let me know in comments.

And now, over to all-ya'll...

Monday, September 19, 2011

On TURN COAT by Jim Butcher

I just finished Turn Coat*, book 11 of the Dresden Files. A fun read, as usual.

But really, Jim Butcher, sir? I figured by now Harry would know the difference between a "clip" and a "magazine."

Yeah, yeah--I understand it's from Harry's POV. But the incorrect usage makes me go "gaahhk".

Oh and the Indiana Jones-revolver comment? Let's not forget Indy also used a Browning during the fight in Marion's tavern.

If you haven't read the series, go get started. Now.

If you are reading the series, yes, I'm behind.


*This is an affiliate link to Amazon. If you buy from this link, I get a little extra to help pay for a mocha or two.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Enter, Kicking Ass: Your Story's Opening

Your beginning is gonna be key. If it sucks, you're losing your reader right at the start and that's bad.

In order to make your beginnings work, you need to make sure you have the following:
  • Hook
  • Status Quo
  • Shift
HOOK
First thing you gotta do is "hook" your reader.

Most people think this means starting with a bang--literally. A gunfight. A big chase, battle, or other action sequence. A grisly murder. A shocking line of dialogue.

Sure. If that works for the type of story you're writing then go for it.

Basically you're trying to open with an image, an action, or a description that pulls the reader into your story and immediately impacts a primary character.

If you decide to open your story with the weather, make sure it's more than just a description. Make that description work. Instead of opening with
It was a dark and stormy night
and then going on to describe how dark and how stormy it was, why not open with something like
It was a dark and stormy night and Caitlin cringed as the wind slammed into the picture windows yet again, praying hard they wouldn't break.

Because those things were out there.

And they went through open windows first.
Here, you're not just opening with a description of the weather. You're also giving context to that weather in terms of plot development.

The whole point of the "hook" is to make the reader want to read more and with this kind of a beginning, your reader will want to read more, to find out what those "things" are and why they go through open windows first.

STATUS QUO
Once you've got them, set up the world of the story. That means introducing the setting, the protagonist, the antagonist, and the various relationships between important characters.

Here, you're describing the "normal" before the "un-normal" happens. Your MC has a dog, is estranged from his parents, and lives a dull, boring life. Or your MC is an angsty teen who just wants to go to the Academy but constantly gets stuck behind at home to work on the condensers on the south ridge.

Once you've done that, it's time for the "un-normal," otherwise known as...

SHIFT
You've drawn the reader into the story world. You've shown him the "normal" state of the world for the protagonist.

Now we get to the end of the beginning.

Now we violently unquo the quo.

We turn the protagonist's world upside down. Horribly upside down. An event happens that upsets the status quo and moves the story into the middle.

This is where your hero discovers the ring he's inherited is a powerful object and it's being hunted by servants of the Dark Lord. This is where the galactic farmboy from a backwater planet finds his aunt and uncle have been killed by the bad guys so he has to leave the planet or get killed.

From here, your story spins itself toward the middle.

And things start to get interesting.

(Check out this post for more on writing the middle.)

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Go Buy Other People's Books

A couple of fellow writer folks I want to promote here on the blog.

First is D.S. Moen and her short "A Sword Called Rhonda" now available on Kindle.

And Diana Rajchel has written a workbook for you magic practitioners out there called The Spellcasting Picture Book. Available on Kindle.

Show 'em some support and grab a copy.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Prevent Ball-Sucking Middles

You know it happens. Every time. Every story.

Your beginning opens with a bang. You have an ending that zings.

But your middle sucks balls.

So how do you fix it? How do you give it cojones?

How do you conquer your story's middle?

Here are two ways:
  • Failed Solutions

  • Rock Throwing
FAILED SOLUTIONS
Think of it as "two steps forward, one step back."

Your main character sets out to overcome the story problem. As soon as he tries, it fails. He tries another solution. More fail. Tries another. Another fail. Over and over until he figures out the one solution that actually works. From there, your story moves toward the ending.

But the point is this: He tries. He fails. Lather. Rinse. Repeat.

And don't forget--make your hero fail hard.

ROCK THROWING
I remember reading a great description of how to build a story: "Get your hero up a tree. Throw rocks at him. Get him down from the tree."

The story middle is where you throw rocks at your hero.

That means you put obstacles in his way that keep him from directly solving the story problem. You make things hard. You turn up the heat.

If he's trying to reach the magic sword, the Dark Lord's henchmen and minions attack him at every turn. If he's trying to solve the disappearance of the rich debutante, this is where he finds red herrings, puzzling clues, and heavies that harrass him.

Get the picture?

You can even combine them. When your main character tries to solve the story problem, the bad guys attack.

Let's say you're writing a fantasy novel. Your hero has to find the magic sword to save the kingdom. First, he's gotta find the wiseman who knows the location of said sword. When he finds the wiseman, have him run into the villain's henchmen. Even better--have the henchmen kidnap the wiseman. Now our hero's gotta rescue the wiseman and defeat the henchmen before he can find out where the sword's located.

So now you've got these two methods to create a good story middle. Question is: How many failed solutions do you use in your story? How many thrown rocks? How many of both?

Depends on your story. There's really no hard and fast rule for this.

My tip: Have at least one failed solution or one thrown rock. If you don't, you won't have a story. You'll just have an event.

And an event sucks more balls than a saggy middle.