July 11, 2018 / 2 Comments
November 28, 2016 / 2 Comments
September 3, 2010
So, let’s begin with a shameless plug…
You may have noticed the new button on the right for The Eerie Adventures of the Lycanthrope Robinson Crusoe. It’s a new novel I co-wrote with Daniel Defoe and H.P. Lovecraft. Pick it up today and watch as I break every single suggestion and rule I’ve ever given here on the ranty blog by writing in Defoe’s style. Plus you’ll have some fun with it and hopefully even find it a bit creepy and chill-inducing at points. You may even shed a tear or two.
But now, back to out regularly scheduled rant…
I’ve prattled on here a few times about writing dialogue. I’ve talked about descriptor issues, genre problems, and more than a few times about spelling. Oh, the rants about spelling. I can feel another one building even now…
What I’d like to blather on about now, though, is a few big things. These issues tend to not be limited to this character or that character. They usually extend across a writer’s dialogue as a whole.
Some of these I’ve mentioned before, and you may notice some common threads between them. I like to break them down like this because I know the little distinctions help me notice this stuff sometimes in my own writing.
Monologues – If you don’t know the term for some reason, a monologue is when a character gives a long speech. Here’s a hint. If a character has a block of dialogue which fills more than half a page, in either script or prose format, it’s probably leaning towards a monologue. If there’s no one else in the room with them when they do this it’s definitely a monologue. Unless your character is named Hamlet and your name is William, this is generally a bad thing.
People don’t talk in monologues in normal, everyday life. Or even in abnormal, once-in-a-lifetime life. They stand out because most of the time they’re either a character thinking out loud or dumping a boatload of exposition, and either of these things can be accomplished in better ways–assuming they’re needed at all. There’s a reason screenwriter Brad Bird made fun of this dialogue habit in his movie The Incredibles.
If one of your characters is giving a monologue, ask why they are. Is it really an inner monologue that could be expressed through action or subtext? Is it an info-dump for the reader that may not be entirely necessary? If there’s someone else there, could this person be breaking that block of dialogue up by asking for clarifications, offering corrections, or even making jokes?
Declamation – Here’s a term you don’t hear tossed around much anymore. It’s when someone speaks in very practiced, rehearsed statements. Have you ever noticed how a lot of politicians or salespeople sound like they’re declaring things even when they’re asking questions? There’s a degree of absolute certainty to their statements that just comes across as false or staged.
Believe it or not, declamation used to be considered a minor art form. No, seriously. Read I, Claudius by Robert Graves sometime and check it out. Or just pretend to buy a car and spend half an hour on the lot. Or watch some FOX News commentaries. It tends to happen in writing a lot when characters are just the mouthpiece for a message from the writer.
Remember that real people–and real characters–don’t have everything rehearsed. They don’t always have the perfect word on the tip of their tongue. They get caught flat-footed and can’t come up with something to say. And sometimes they say the wrong thing.
Here’s an easy trick. If you think some of your dialogue may be more declaimed than spoken, look at the page for a few moments, then look away and try to speak that dialogue from memory. Did you get it word for word? Or did you substitute different words and simpler structure? That’s speaking versus declamation. Same information gets conveyed, but one doesn’t sound rehearsed.
Wooden – If you are wondering, dear reader, what a person means when they refer to dialogue as wooden, it means the lines of dialogue which are presented in such a blunt and dry fashion that they do not sound natural. These sentences tend not to have an organic flow to them. They are difficult to read because of this.
A common sign of such dialogue is a lack of contractions, which, as you all know, are a natural part of speech and conversation. Without contractions, the dialogue becomes stiff, thus the sobriquet “wooden.” A strict adherence to the rules of grammar is not unheard of, as well. These are not the only signs of wooden dialogue, however they are two of the most common.
You may have noticed, dear reader, that the previous two paragraphs lack the usual tone and cadence you may have become accustomed to in these posts. They seem a bit lacking and awkward to read. This is because I am forcing myself to write in a stilted, stiff manner not unlike that which I have seen in the wooden prose of some manuscripts.
And I’m sick of doing that sooooooooo… moving on.
On The Nose – What does it mean when someone tells you you’re right on the nose? It means you’re absolutely correct. Spot on. Got it in one. Right on target. Which is great if you’re doing pub trivia, but not so good in dialogue.
On the nose dialogue has no subtlety to it. It’s when people say exactly what they mean without a shred of caution or concealment. This dialogue isn’t layered with meaning because it’s not even layered. It’s the sheet cake of dialogue. It gets the job done, but only just, and you’re kind of left wondering if it was even worth it.
In real life, people beat around the bush. They’re coy. They feel each other out, in a verbal sense. They use implications, and inferences and innuendoes.
You want a phenomenal example of not on the nose dialogue? Watch Four Weddings and a Funeral and look at the scene about 2/3 of the way through when serial monogamist Charlie tries for a solid minute to declare his love for Carrie before ever getting around to saying it.
So, there you have it. A quartet of dialogue problems that tend to blanket work rather than cropping up here and there. Give your writing a look and see if there’s anything that stands out.
Next time around I want to toss out a few tips for getting from A to B. It really isn’t all that hard. Honest.
Until then, go write.
November 19, 2009 / 5 Comments
A long-overdue pop culture reference for the title, just to get us moving.
It’s always interesting to me when I try to figure out what next week’s blog will be about, for that little teaser at the end of this week’s blog. This week’s started off when I was passing quick notes back and forth with a friend who’s doing the NaNoWriMo challenge this year. He had a clever idea for one of his upcoming chapters, about midway though his work-in-progress, and I… well, I was advising against it. Then someone brought up the same issue on a publisher’s message board I frequent. A few days later, I was reading scripts for a contest and found one where said issue had become one of the problems crippling the screenplay.
What is said problem, you ask?
Well, the first time I ever saw Doctor Who was halfway through a very trippy story arc called “The Deadly Assassin” (which has finally become available on DVD). It was probably the worst set of episodes to try to start watching the show on, because the Doctor spent a good chunk of it in the mind-twisting reality of the Matrix (yes, Doctor Who had a Matrix decades before Keanu Reeves did). A few months later I tried again and WGBH (which only had so many episodes) had circled back around to “Robot,” which was the first Tom Baker story, also featuring the lovely Elizabeth Sladen as Sarah Jane. And that’s how I became a Doctor Who fan, and have remained one for most of my life.
What the heck does that have to do with any of this?
Well, it’s hard to tell, isn’t it? Suddenly bam I’ve gone from the usual rant to some senile doddering about my childhood without any sort of transition.
Transitions are what I wanted to rant about this week. That moment your story goes from this to something else. It can be a shift in character, person, location, or time. Every time you switch, you’re asking your audience to take a moment to readjust. The bigger the shift, the bigger the time of adjustment. Most of us could make it past either a six inch step or a three foot drop, but one’s going to take a lot more effort than the other.
As a writer, you don’t want the audience to think about that adjustment. If everything’s done right, the transitions will be as invisible as the word “said.” If there are too many transitions, though, going in too many different directions, it’s too much like driving on a road covered with speed bumps. You’re asking the reader to pause again and again and again and again. If a manuscript has too many transitions, or too many extreme ones, it’s going to go into that large pile on the left. What would you do if a manuscript made you pause half a dozen times in the first ten pages? Would you keep reading or get back to folding laundry?
I mentioned my friend who started all this off (and who most likely is reading this). Let me be blunt and hope he forgives me. In the middle of his superhero action-intrigue story, he wanted to do an entire chapter in verse. Chaucer-style, Canterbury Tales verse. Why isn’t important for our purposes, just that he was going to do it. He had a very solid reason for it, and I have no doubt he could’ve pulled it off.
The thing was, he’d actually had several point of view shifts in his novel already. Some of them were basic shifts– we’d go from third person focused on him to third person on him. Then there would be jumps to first person narratives. And epistolary chapters. And flashbacks. Plus a frame that was a flash-forward. So it wasn’t just that he wanted to do a chapter in verse, it’s that he wanted to do a chapter in verse on top of everything else. All fine and good on their own, but as they begin to pile up…
As a brief but relevant segue, let me talk about Dean Koontz for a moment, author of (among many, many others) Watchers, Dark Rivers of the Heart, and the Fear Nothing series (which I really hope he goes back to some day). Early in his career, Koontz wrote a great little book called How To Write Best Selling Fiction It’s gone out of print, and the author himself has said he’s got no interest in seeing it re-issued. I think a lot of the reasons for both are political, because in this book young Koontz did say a lot of blunt, rather unkind things about publishing, gurus, and wannabe writers. Now, in all fairness, many of these things were completely true, and still are today. They’re not what people want to hear or admit, but, as a friend of mine once told our boss, if you wanted a cheerleader you should’ve hired one. If you can find a copy– grab it (they go for big bucks on eBay). If you can find it online, download it, memorize it, and delete it. Than write an angry letter to Writers Digest Books telling them how they’ve forced you to resort to piracy.
Back on track, though.
One thing Koontz stresses, and you can see it in his work, is to never shift viewpoints within a chapter. Use the chapter break itself as the big pause and try to have as few little ones within it as possible. Now, I’d never go as far to say you should never switch within a chapter, but I also think Koontz has a solid track record backing him up.
So, a few quick tips for transitions…
Fewer – This is the easiest one. The simplest way to avoid troubling shifts is… well, avoid them. Look at the transitions in your writing and figure out how many of them can be trimmed out or consolidated. Is it harder to tell a story with fewer transitions? A bit, yes, but far from impossible. Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope doesn’t have one transition in it. It’s a single continuous film narrative from start to finish. Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe only has two in the entire novel. It switches to an epistolary journal for a few dozen pages and then back to the regular narrative. There aren’t even chapter breaks.
Smaller – As I mentioned above, it’s easier to go down a six inch step than a three foot drop. It’s easy for a reader to go from third person, past- tense to another third person, past tense. It’s a bit harder to start in third person, past tense and jump to second person, future tense section and then back… or to a first person, present. Likewise, jumping between the thoughts of a Harvard professor and a golden retriever is going to be a bit jarring. Bigger jumps mean bigger pauses to adjust, and also more of a disruption in the flow of your story.
Smoother – One way to lessen the impact between sections is to make the transition as organic as possible. A common way of doing this is by creating parallel structure in text or dialogue to keep up a certain rhythym. Another is to do continuations, where, for example, a question gets asked in the first part but the answer is given after the transition.
Make Them Have Purpose – Is there a real reason the story’s going from this point of view to that one? If so, your readers will be more willing to accept the change. If not, it’s just going to frustrate them more. Much like when I prattled on about structure, if the shift doesn’t accomplish something in the story, you shouldn’t be doing it. Make sure the story as a whole is focused, and that there’s a real reason we’re suddenly spending a page with Wakko, the wannabe actor who’s working as a waiter on weekends and about to serve a drink to the main character.
Now, there is sort of a halfbreed flipside to this. A common problem, especially in screenplays, is a complete lack of transitions. Gurus and how-to books tell people to cut description, cut words, cut everything. So fledgling writers take that advice and cut… well, everything.
The problem with that approach is, while it sounds wise on the surface, what it really does is leave you with nothing on the page and nothing between scenes. Suddenly, we’re in a house with Jane. What kind of house? Old? Modern? Is it the present day? Are we in the kitchen at lunchtime? The bedroom at midnight? And while I’m still reeling trying to figure out where we are and why Jane is yelling at George, suddenly we’re in an office. A newspaper office? A telemarketing office? Is it real office or a field of cubicles? Too late, now we’re with George in his car…
I’ve set down a lot of scripts like this while I was reading for contests. None of them went in the pile on the right.
So, there’s my random musings on transitions. Hopefully not too random.
By the way, the reason “The Deadly Assassin” was so hard to follow as an introductory episode was because it took place across a virtual landscape formed from the stored memories of the Time Lords. In other words, it was a mish-mash of settings with no transitions between them. It would’ve been so much smoother if I’d said that up front, yes…?
Next week we’re getting into the holidays, so I won’t take up too much of your time. I may talk about it, though.
Until then, go write.