October 23, 2015 / 4 Comments

Yeah, That’s True, Except…

            Okay, this is late.  A week and a day.  Do you want excuses?  I was away at New York Comic Con and then came home to layouts I needed to go over, on top of all the things I just needed to get caught up on. 
            So, that ate up some time.  Sorry.
            Anyway, I’ve mentioned this idea before, but a few recent blog posts and comments I’ve seen made me want to bring it up again.  If we’re going to talk about writing, we need to agree that any such discussion is going to get broken down into either rules or advice.  Or drinking, but that’s not relevant right now.
            Right now, I’d like to talk about the rules.
            Rules are things that all of us, as writers, have to learn.  No questions.  I need to learn what words mean and how to spell them.  I must have a firm understanding of grammar.  A solid grasp of structure is required.  Characters have to hit certain benchmarks. You may notice these things come up again and again when discussing good writing.  There’s a reason for that, and it’s not that professional writers and publishers and editors are all jerks.  Learning the rules means study and practice and failure and more study and more practice and more failure. 
            Why do I bring this up?
            See, I brought up the rules because they’re a good lead in to what I actually wanted to talk about.  Exceptions.  Those cases where the rules don’t apply. Some people love exceptions.  They approach them two different ways, but usually to get the same result.
            Allow me to explain.
            The thing about rules, as so many people have said, is that I have to learn them so I can understand when and where and how to break them.  Because all the rules are breakable.  Never doubt that.  Pick any rule I mention above, or any other rule I’ve ever blabbered on about here.  Mention it in the comments and I’m sure some of the other folks here can give a dozen examples
            Now, some folks think if the rules can be broken anyway, well, why should I bother learning them?  Richard Matheson and Daniel Keyes wrote stories with lots of spelling mistakes. Cormac McCarthy and Peter Stenson don’t use much punctuation.  If they don’t need to do all this, why should I bother learning it?
            Y’see, this mentality means I’m looking at the exceptions, not at the rule.  Yeah, I can point to a handful of stories that break the rules, but I can also point to tens of thousands that don’t.  More importantly, I can point to hundreds of thousands that broke them and were rejected for it.
            Here’s another way to think of this.  Driving a car means following the speed limit.  The exact numbers vary from state-to state, but we all acknowledge that driving in a school zone requires that I travel at a certain speed. So does going through a residential area or traveling on a freeway.  Makes sense, yes?
            An experienced driver knows there are situations where I can flex those rules, though.  There are times I can go a little faster through school zones or residential areas and not worry about it.  In all honesty, I’ve driven over seventy on the highway next to a police officer and only gotten a raised eyebrow.  A lot of you probably have similar stories.
            And yet… none of us are assuming traffic laws and speed limits no longer apply to us.  We just know how to work within the framework of the laws and when we can step outside of it.  We know the rules and we know how and when to break them.
            Contrast that with the guy who goes roaring through a residential area at 70mph in the middle of the day… and then gets annoyed with the officer who pulls him over.  He’s assuming he’s the exception.  He’s doing the same thing I did, but… he’s really not, is he?
            I can’t start with the assumption that I’m the exception.  That the rules or requirements don’t apply to me.  I’m always going to be bound by the same rules as every other writer, and I’m going to be expected to follow them.  Until I show that I know how to break them.  If I don’t know what I’m doing or why, I’m just a monkey pounding on a typewriter, unable to explain how or why I did something and also probably unable to do it again.
            Also, monkeys do not get paid well.
            Now, there’s another mentality I’ve encountered a lot of online.  This is that other way of viewing exceptions that I was talking about.   They’re the folks who use the exception to the rule as a means of dismissing the rule as a whole.  For example, you say every writer needs editing.  Except, I say, Yakko published his book without editing and it did very well.  Ipso facto, writers do not need to edit.  That rule’s out the window and can be ignored. I could probably give a dozen examples of this without trying, I just don’t feel like writing them all out.  Besides, you’ve probably seen them, too.  Everything I mentioned as a rule up above—and dozens more—there’s someone, somewhere right now arguing that’s a stupid rule that this exception proves doesn’t matter.
            Now, to be clear again, I’m not saying these exceptions don’t exist. That’d be silly—they clearly do.  But it’s important to understand that they are the exception. They’re the unusual rarity, not the common thing.  That’s why we’ve heard of them.  Just because there were a hundred news stories about a writer who turned in a handwritten manuscript on yellow legal pads and got it accepted does not mean the publishing industry prefers handwritten manuscripts or legal pads.  We’re only hearing about it because it’s such an oddball thing to happen.
            Now, I try to point out such things when I can, and I think I’ve been pretty open all along on the ranty blog that exceptions do happen.  But I don’t really push them. Honestly, if I had to offer or explain every exception to every rule, this blog probably never would’ve made it past the second or third post.  And each one would be the equivalent of thirty or forty pages long.  This is kind of a teaching 101 thing.  As I said above, you learn the rules, then you learn the exceptions to the rules. 
            Y’see, Timmy, exceptions don’t disprove the rule—they prove it.  Always.  If not editing or handwritten legal pad manuscripts actually demonstrated that these rules don’t matter, then shouldn’t we be seeing hundreds of examples?  Maybe thousands?
            And yet, we don’t.  The majority of our examples are still people following those basic rules.  And flexing them here and there where they can.
            So why do some people do this?  Why do they convince people to ignore the rules?  We could probably debate that for a while.  Regardless, it’s kind of like looking at a thousand cancer patients, finding that one person who spontaneously went into remission, and then loudly declaring no one needs chemo or to get those growths removed—cancer cures itself!  First, it’s just plain wrong. Second, it belittles the 999 other people who are all struggling to do things the right way and undermines the folks trying to help them.
            Exceptions are great.  They’re why all of us can do so much as writers.  But exceptions can’t be my excuse not to learn.  All these rules have developed over the decades for a reason, and they apply to all of us.
            No exceptions.
            Next time, I’d like to take a quick minute to reveal something.
            Until then… go write.
            Pop culture reference. Well, okay, ten-year-old pop culture reference.
            This week I wanted to talk about… well, talking.  Which I haven’t done in a while. 
            Dialogue’s the lifeblood of fiction.  It’s how my characters move beyond the page and become living, breathing people.  In any sort of storytelling, it’s going to be the key to making them memorable.  In screenplays, it’s going to be what makes them quotable. Sounds corny, I know, but it’s true. 
            Bad dialogue is the fastest way to make sure characters are dead to my readers. It’s almost always the second element of my writing to get picked apart (spelling will be the first).   All of us know what people sound like, so when someone speaks in flat, clumsy, expositional dialogue, it makes them unbelievable. And when a reader can’t believe in my characters, it means they can’t believe in my story.
            Here’s a dozen things I should be keeping an eye out for in my dialogue.  Some of them are related.  Others are unique to themselves
            On The Nose—You may have heard people talk about dialogue that’s “on the nose.”  In simple terms, this is when a character says precisely what they mean or what they’re doing without any subtlety whatsoever.   Nine times out of ten, if someone’s talking to themselves out loud, it’s on the nose.  I’d guess that at least half the time I stumble across it, on the nose dialogue is just exposition (see below). 
            A good way to think of this is old radio-shows, when people had no visuals at all and had to depend on doing everything with only dialogue.  If my characters are speaking like that, I’m doing something wrong.
            Grammatically Correct – Very few people speak in perfect, grammatically correct English, aside from a few freaks with inferiority complexes.  Or Sherlock Holmes.  Or robots.  As for the rest of us, we all speak differing degrees of colloquial English.  Our verbs don’t always line up with our nouns.  Tenses don’t always match.  Truth be told, a lot of “spoken” English looks awful on the page (see transcribingdown below).  This is where some folks choke, because they can’t reconcile the words on the page with the voice in their head.  Which is how I end up with several characters, all of whom speak in a precisely regulated manner which seems highly affected and does not flow by any definition of the term.
            Lack of Contractions– Often found with the grammar issue I just mentioned.  A lot of people start out writing this way because they’re trying to follow all the rules of spelling and punctuation so they don’t get branded a rookie, and ironically… 
            While this is a good practice for your prose, dialogue drags and sounds forced when every word is spelled out in full.  As I said above, most of us use contractions in every day speech—scientists, politicians, teachers, and even military personnel.  Without contractions, dialogue sounds stilted and wooden.  If there’s a reason for someone to speak that way (ESL, robots, aliens, or what have you), then by all means do it.  If my characters are regular, English-speaking mortals, though…
            As a bonus, using contractions also drops your word count and page count.
            Similarity– People are individuals, and we all have our own unique way of speaking.  People from California don’t talk like people from Maine (I’ve lived almost two decades in each state, I know), people living in poverty don’t talk like billionaires, and medieval idiots don’t speak like futuristic mega-geniuses. 
            In my writing, my characters need to be individuals as well, with their own tics and habits that make them distinct from the people around them.  If a reader can’t tell who’s speaking without knowing the complete context or seeing the dialogue headers, I need to get back to work.
            Extra descriptors—I just hinted at this, but it’s worth mentioning again.  Even if I’m using said with a character’s name, it can still wear thin.  I don’t always need to use it, because after a point it should be apparent who’s talking.
            Plus with less words, dialogue gets leaner and faster.  Tension builds in the exchanges because the reader isn’t getting slowed down..
            Not only that, once I’ve got speech patterns down for my characters, I should need descriptors even less.  In my book, Ex-Communication, Stealth’s dialogue could never get confused with Madelyn’s or Barry’s or Freedom’s.  They’re all distinct, and their speech patterns identify them just as well as a header would.
            ExtraNames—Let’s come down on names a little more. If I don’t need them around the dialogue, I need them even less in the dialogue.  Pay attention the next time you get on the phone with someone.  How often do they use your name?  How often do you use theirs?  Heck, when my friends call my cell phone I know who it is before I even answer—and they know I know—so I usually just say “Hey, what’s up?”  We don’t use our names, and  we definitely don’t use them again and again in the same conversation.
            Spoken names can also come across as a bit fake.  It’s me acknowledging the audience may be having trouble keeping track, and throwing in a name is the easiest way to deal with it, rather than the best way.  Remember, if I’ve got two characters who’ve been introduced, it’s really rare that they’ll need to keep using each other’s names.  Especially if they’re the only ones there.
            Accents– This is a common mistake by beginning writers.  I made it a bunch of times while I was starting out, and still do now and then.  Writing out accents and odd speech tics will drive readers and editors nuts.  There are a handful of professional writers who can do truly amazing dialogue, yes, but keep that conditional in mind—only a handful.  
            I show an accent by picking out one or two key words  at most and making those the only words I show it with.  If my character’s Jamaican, stick with “mah” instead of “my.”  For the Cockney fellow, keep the dropped H when he speaks.  Past that, just write straight dialogue.   Just the bare minimum reminders that the character has an accent.  Like most character traits, my readers will fill in the rest.
            Transcription– One thing years of interviews have taught me is that, with very few exceptions, people trip over themselves a lot verbally.  We have false starts.  We repeat phrases.  We trail off.  We make odd noises while we try to think of words.  It’s very human.  However, anyone who’s ever read a strict word-for-word transcription of a conversation will tell you it’s awkward, hard to follow, and a lot gets lost without the exact inflection of certain words.
            One of the worst things I can do is try to write dialogue in such an ultra-realisticmanner.  It will drive my editor nuts and waste my word count on dozens of unnecessary lines.  While this sort of rambling can work great in actual spoken dialogue, when it’s written on the page it’s almost always horrible.  I want to keep it simple so I don’t scare off readers.
            Cool lines—  D’you remember in The Incredibles when Syndrome reveals his master plan?  “And when everybody’s super… no one will be.” 
            It’s an ugly truth–everything becomes mundane when there’s no baseline.  If everyone on my basketball team is eight feet tall, who’s the tall guy?  When everyone owns a Lamborghini, owning a Lamborghini doesn’t really mean anything.    If anybody can hit a bull’s-eye at 100 yards out, hitting  a bull’s-eye isn’t all that impressive.
            The same holds for dialogue.  We all want to have a memorable line or three that sticks in the reader’s mind forever.  The thing is, they’re memorable because they stand out.  For every fun, quotable line in Iron Man 3, there are also pages of dialogue that just advanced the story.  We all remember Tony mocking Rhodey about his friend’s new code name, but how much do we remember about Aldrich Killian’s business pitch about Extremis?
            If I try to make every line a cool line, or even most of them, I’m shooting myself in the foot because none of them are going to stand out.  When everything’s turned up to eleven, it’s all at eleven– it’s monotone.
            Exposition—Remember being a kid in school and being bored by textbook lectures or filmstrips that talked to you like you were an idiot?  That’s what exposition is like to readers.
            I should use something like the Ignorant Stranger method as a guideline and figure out how much of my dialogue is crossing that line. If any character ever gives an explanation of something that the other characters in the room already should know (see below) or my readershould know, I need to cut that line. If it’s filled with necessary facts, find a better way to get them across.
            Monologues—This one’s closely related to exposition.  A good monologue can be a major point in any story or film.  By the same token, though, a bad one can bring your story to a screeching halt.
            Is my monologue necessary?  Does it read naturally?  Is it flowing?  Does it fit the moment?  If I’m breaking one of these guidelines and doing it with a 750 word monologue, my manuscript is going to end up in the ever-growing left hand pile.
            Second clue if it’s bad is to count how many monologues there’ve already been.  Yes, that may sound laughable, but you’d be amazed at some of the things I’ve seen.  One script I read for a screenwriting contest had half-page dialogue blocks on almost every page.  If I’m on page forty-five and this is my seventh full-page monologue… odds are something needs to be reworked.
            “As you know…” – If you take nothing else from today’s rant, take this.  I need to find every sentence or paragraph in my writing that starts with this phrase or one of it’s halfbreed cousins. 
            Once I’ve found them, I need to delete them all.  Gone.  Destroyed.
             Think about it.  If I’m saying “As you know,” I’m openly acknowledging that the people I’m talking to know what I’m about to say.  I’m wasting time, I’m wasting space on the page, and I’m wasting my reader’s patience.  This is probably the clumsiest way to do exposition there is.  If I’ve got a rock-solid, lean-and-mean manuscript, I might be able to get away with doing this once.  Just once.  As long as I don’t do it my first ten pages or so.  Past that, I need to get out my editorial knife and start cutting.
            And here’s a bonus tip.  One idea you may have heard is to read your dialogue out loud to find where it trips.  It’s not bad, but if I really want to find out how it reads, I should ask someone else to read it out loud—preferably somebody who hasn’t seen it before or heard me talk about it.  If I’m reading it myself, I know how it’s supposed to sound, where the breaks should be, and what gets the emphasis.  Let a friend or family member who doesn’t know it read it out loud and see what they do with it.
            And there you have it.  A baker’s dozen of dialogue tips which should help your fictional dialogue seem a little more real.  Fictional-real, anyway.  Not real-real.
            Next week…
            I’m going to have to skip next week, I’m afraid.  Rewrites are due on Ex-Isle so odds are I’ll be up late second-guessing myself.  I may put up one of the photo tips.
            After that, I’m open to suggestions, if anyone has any.  Or if anyone made some good ones I’ve misplaced.  If not, maybe I’ll offer a quick idea about drafts.
            Until then, go write.
September 4, 2014 / 4 Comments

Oh, My Nose!

            Okay, I think I’m pretty much caught up with things on my end.  Even have the next four or five weeks planned out.  If there’s something you’d like me to babble on about, though, please drop me a note down in the comments.  There’s a good chance I can fit it into my semi-themed schedule before the end of the year.
            That’s what I’m saying at the moment, anyway.
            Speaking of which…
            As I’ve said once or thrice before, good dialogue is everything.  We learn so much subtle stuff from characters by what they say and how they say it.  There are dozens of words for police, for teachers, for bosses, for jobs, and more.  Does Phoebe call Wakko her boyfriend, her partner, her man, or her boy toy?  Does Wakko think of her as his lover, his bitch, his piece of ass, his significant other, or his friend with benefits?  No matter what their relationship is, the words they each use to describe it tells us something about both of them. 
            One term that comes up a lot in criticism is on the nose dialogue.  I’ve seen it tossed out to beginners numerous times in feedback, but usually without any explanation.  I saw it a lot when I used to read for screenplay contests (and wrote it on many, many forms).
            At its very simplest, on the nose dialogue is when my character is saying precisely what they’re thinking with no subtlety to it whatsoever.  It’s the difference between “Do you want to come up for a cup of coffee?” and “Would you like to have sexual relations in my living room now?”  There’s no inference or implications, no innuendoes or layered meanings—no subtlety at all.  It’s dialogue stating the obvious, and I’ve mentioned a few times before how bad it is to state the obvious
            If I have on the nose dialogue, it usually strips away some layers of character, too.  How people avoid saying things is just as revealing as what they’re trying not to say.  If they don’t have those nuances and habits in their voices, they start sounding like robots.  Or cartoon characters. 
            Not the good kind of cartoon characters.
            In real life, people beat around the bush. We’re coy.  We feel each other out, in a verbal sense, and avoid saying things directly.  We use metaphors and similes and white lies and more.
            Here’s a couple things I should be doing to make sure my dialogue doesn’t get too on the nose…
            Casual English—I’ve mentioned before the difference between written English and spoken dialogue.  When dialogue follows all the rules of grammar it starts to get wooden and lose a lot of its flavor.  Sometimes there’s a point to this.  We’ve been taught to expect that aliens, androids, and super-geniuses tend to have very good grammar in stories.
            For the vast majority of us, though, we get a bit loose when we speak.  We use contractions and mismatch verbs and numbers.  It just happens.  Look up above where I said “Here’s a couple of things I should be doing…”  When we don’t, dialogue becomes rigid, and that’s just a short shuffle from being wooden.
            Jargon—Somewhat related to the last point.  The idea of slang has been around for a long time.  Bram Stoker talked about it in Draculaover a century ago, and it’s a safe bet printers developed their own special terminology in the workplace less than a decade after Guttenberg made his printing press.  Everyone has their own set of words and terms that gets used within their particular group, and these words spill out into most of their conversations.  In other words, doctors speak like doctors, engineers talk like engineers, and sci-fi geeks speak like Dothraki.  When my characters lose these basic subtleties, their dialogue starts getting on the nose.
            Humor—Many years back I was on a road trip with a friend and we got horribly lost on the way to meet up with some folks.  It was all back roads and single-lane highways.  When we finally found a sign I could use to locate our position, I discovered we’d somehow got about a hundred miles off-course in about an hour and a half.  No chance we’d meet up with our friends on time.  Possibly no chance of finding a gas station, leaving us stranded in the middle of nowhere.  He saw my expression as I checked the map again and asked what was wrong.
            “Well, the bad news is we’re lost.  The good news is we’re making excellent time.”
            We make jokes at the worst possible times.  Office reviews.  Breakups.  Traffic accidents.  Courtrooms.  Funerals.  It’s just the way we’re wired.  The more serious the situation, the more imperative that release valve is for us.  In fact, we tend to be suspicious or uneasy around people who never crack jokes.  Not everyone and not at every moment, but when there’s no joking at all… it just feels wrong.
            Flirting—Similar to the above, this is another fact of human nature.  We show affection for one another.  We all flirt with friends and lovers and potential lovers, sometimes even at extremely inopportune times.  It’s not always serious, it can take many forms, but that little bit of playfulness and innuendo is present in most casual dialogue exchanges. 
            Like joking, it’s impossible to flirt with on the nose dialogue because it requires subtlety and implied meanings.  Flirting without subtlety generally comes across as propositioning, which gives a very different tone to things.  If no one in my story flirts with anyone on any level, there might be something to consider there.
            Not Using Names—There’s an old mnemonic trick of repeating someone’s name after you meet them.  Great for real life, not so great in fiction. 
            If I use someone’s name every time I speak to them, it starts to sound a little mechanical.  Yeah, even nicknames.  Yeah, even in crowds. We just don’t use names that often.  Think of your last few conversations and think about how often names get used.  Watch your favorite movie and see how often people address each other by name.
            Show Don’t Tell—You’ve probably heard a version of this before, but I’m talking about it in a slightly different way here.  Yeah, it’s clumsy if I’m just using my narrative to describe what’s happening.  It’s even worse if my characters are describing what’s happening.  Especially when they have absolutely no reason for doing it. 
            To be clear, I’m not talking about when they explain what they’re doing (say, trying to perform CPR or maybe cook dinner), but when they’re just speaking their actions aloud.  If you’ve ever heard an old radio-show where the actors had to depend on just dialogue with no visuals, you know what this sounds like.
            This kind of clumsy dialogue immediately tells the reader that I’m not picturing this scene at all.  For screenwriters, this kind of thing is almost guaranteed to get my script tossed in the big pile on the left, because I’m clearly not thinking about what’s on screen.
            Talk with other characters—This may sound silly, but if someone’s talking, they should be talking with someone else.  Nine times out of ten, if a character’s talking to themselves, it’s on the nose dialogue.  All those monologues about stress, long ethical debates, Yakko psyching himself up, Dot trying to figure out how to get past the thirteen Hydra agents… odds are every bit of that is on the nose dialogue.
            I also shouldn’t try to get around this with a “sounding board” character.  Talking is communication, which means it has to be a two-way street.  If I’ve got someone who serves no purpose except to be the other person in the room while someone thinks out loud, then they’re not really serving any purpose. 
            And that’s six things I should be doing with my dialogue.  I don’t need to do all of them, but if I’m not doing any of them… well…  Maybe my dialogue’s a little on the nose.  Or maybe a lot on the nose.
            Next week, I want to talk about inflation.
            Until then, go write.
September 15, 2012 / 4 Comments

This AND That

            Sorry for the delay.  I was out of town all of yesterday and a lot of today’s been spent playing catch up.  Of course, if I’d been thinking ahead, that wouldn’t’ve happened. And I’d have that post about thinking ahead done.

            Instead, let me give you a quick tip.  This one’s inspired by a book I just finished reading.  It frustrated me on several levels…
            One of the joys of being an author is finding clever ways to influence the reader.  When I know I’ve guided the reader down one path of assumptions—or maybe away from the correct set—that’s a great feeling.  There’s a lot of ways we can do this, but the most common one is formatting.  After all, the way the words sit on the page affects how the reader takes them in, and if I’ve got a good grasp of how said reader will interpret that layout, it lets me manipulate them a little more.
            The catch here is that I can’t use the same formatting trick for multiple things.  If we were watching a movie and I told you all the people dressed in red were robots, and then the movie introduced a dozen characters in red who were aliens, there’d be some serious problems with my interpretation of the movie.  If I establish that every scene with blurry edges is a flashback, I can’t also use blurry edges to mean a character is having a clairvoyant vision.
            For example…
            In Ex-Heroes the character of Zzzap always speaks in italics without quotation marks.  Like I mentioned above, it’s a visual trick to show that, in his energy form, he doesn’t sound or talk quite like a normal person.  His voice has a buzz, an edge, that separates it from normal dialogue.
            The catch is that it means I have to be very, very careful about using italics anywhere else.  A lot of authors use them to indicate a character’s thoughts, but that was right out for me.  It’d get too confusing—especially in any scenes Zzzap was in.  And confusion is one of those things that breaks the flow of a story.
            The same with emphasis.  It’s common to use italics when you really want to accent something.  But I had to be careful using them in Ex-Heroesbecause if I led off a sentence with italics it’d look like Zzzap was speaking.   And if that causes a moment or two of confusion, well… there goes the flow again.
            In the book I just finished, the author used quotes for dialogue, but he also used them for character’s thoughts.  So more than once there were paragraphs like this…
            “Okay, nobody move!” shouted Phoebe.  “The shock of me yelling should keep them off guard for a few moments,” she thought.  “Put your hands behind your heads and get on your knees,” she continued out loud.
            See the problem there?  There were maybe a dozen points in the book that shook me for a moment, and at least half a dozen where it broke the narrative and I had to look back to figure out if that last bit had been spoken or thought.  That’s almost twenty chances for me to put the book down in frustration.
             If I want to do something different in your manuscript, format-wise, that’s fantastic.  Hell, Cormac McCarthy has pretty much built a career of it.  But I need to be consistent.  I can’t say that all dialogue will be in quotes and also have thoughts in quotes.  I can’t tell you that writing in all caps means text messages but also have it indicate telepathy two pages later.
            Make sense?
            “Make sense?”
            MAKE SENSE!?!?
            Thinking ahead to next time, I’ll have that post about keeping ahead done by then.
            Until then, go write something.
            And be consistent about it.