Wednesday, July 31, 2013

D is for Dialogue

(Reposted from Fairbetty's World)

The general feeling is that if dialogue in a scene needs the tags, it's poorly written; that writers should aim for conveying emotion through the characters' words instead of spoon-feeding it to the readers in the narration. It is the mark of an insecure writer that he feels the need to give you information that should have been conveyed in the dialogue, to make sure the reader understands that his characters are emoting or what the scene is supposed to reveal. Trust the reader to figure out what the dialogue “means". And after having a couple of critique partners review it, if they point out that a run of dialogue really is too obscure, then take the time to re-write. Beats are easy to add where they are needed. It's harder to extract them, I find.

In the book “Self-editing for Fiction Writers" by Renni Browne and David King, the authors suggest:
“It's best to replace only a few of your speaker attributions with beats. A beat after every line of dialogue is even more distracting than too many speaker attributions. What you want is a comfortable balance."
I tend to agree with that sentiment. Too many tags or beats in a run of dialogue can throw off the momentum of the scene so much that the readers forget what the characters are talking about by the end of the page!

I don't think that all beats and tags are bad. I do think a writer needs to choose her beats wisely and make the most of them. First she needs to understand the anatomy of the scene she is writing: What are the key emotions at play here? How fast is the exchange between characters supposed to feel? What else is going on in the scene? and Which actions are important to the development of the scene?

And now, because examples in real life are always fun, I'm going to borrow from J.K. Rowling to illustrate my point. What I love about Rowling is that she's not perfect. But her characters emotions are perfectly conveyed.

Excerpt from “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban":
“I DON'T BELIEVE IT!" Hermione screamed.
Lupin let go of Black and turned to her. She raised herself off the floor and was pointing at Lupin, wild-eyed. “You-- you--"
“--you and him!"
“Hermione, calm down--"
“I didn't tell anyone!" Hermione shrieked. “I've been covering up for you--"
“Hermione, listen to me, please!" Lupin shouted. “I can explain--"
Harry could feel himself shaking, not with fear, but with a fresh wave of fury.
“I trusted you," he shouted at Lupin, his voice wavering out of control, “and all the time you've been his friend!"
“You're wrong," said Lupin. “I haven't been Sirius's friend, but I am now--Let me explain..."
“NO!" Hermione screamed. “Harry, don't trust him, he's been helping Black get into the castle, he wants you dead too--he's a werewolf!"

Excerpt from “Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix":
“There is no shame in what you are feeling, Harry," said Dumbledore's voice. “On the contrary... the fact that you can feel pain like this is your greatest strength."
Harry felt the white-hot anger lick his insides, blazing in the terrible emptiness, filling him with the desire to hurt Dumbledore for his calmness and his empty words.
“My greatest strength, is it?" said Harry, his voice shaking as he stared out at the Quidditch stadium, no longer seeing it. “You haven't got a clue... You don't know..."
“What don't I know?" asked Dumbledore calmly.
It was too much. Harry turned around, shaking with rage.
“I don't want to talk about how I feel, all right?"
“Harry, suffering like this proves you are still a man! This pain is part of being human--"
“THEN--I--DON'T--WANT--TO--BE--HUMAN!" Harry roared, and he seized one of the delicate silver instruments from the spindle-legged table beside him and flung it across the room. It shattered into a hundred tiny pieces against the wall. Several of the pictures let out yells of anger and fright, and the portrait of Armando Dippet said, “Really!"
“I DON'T CARE!" Harry yelled at them, snatching up a lunascope and throwing it into the fireplace. “I'VE HAD ENOUGH, I'VE SEEN ENOUGH, I WANT OUT, I WANT IT TO END, I DON'T CARE ANYMORE--"
He seized the table on which the silver instrument had stood and threw that too. It broke apart on the floor and the legs rolled in different directions.
“You do care," said Dumbledore. He had not flinched or made a single move to stop Harry demolishing his office. His expression was calm, almost detached. “You care so much you feel as though you will bleed to death with the pain of it."

These two scenes illustrate very different emotions. Characters in both scenes do a lot of yelling, but the timing of the dialogue is the key to the emotions in each scene. In the Prisoner of Azkaban scene, the urgency of the scene is conveyed by quick back-and-forth dialogue. If you remember the same scene in the movie, there are a lot of actions that the characters take (i.e. looking to and from one another; Hermione steps in front of Harry to shield him from Sirius and Lupin; Lupin reaches out to implore Hermione to listen). None of those actions are portrayed in the dialogue, because to add them, while giving you a physically more accurate description, would take away from the momentum of the scene. The readers can just as easily imagine the action as they read the dialogue.

In the second scene, from the Order of the Phoenix, the dialogue progresses much more slowly. The emotion  in this scene does not come from a rapid-fire exchange (although Harry does do a fair bit of shouting), but from Dumbledore's slow and calculated responses. The deep feelings of regret and care for Harry that Dumbledore expresses come to light through his patience in allowing Harry the space to explore his own emotions. The pace of the dialogue allows much more room for beats of character action (all taken by Harry, a detail that is also telling...). But more than that, each beat has a purpose, shows the emotion rather than telling it (more often than not).

As a writer, understanding what your characters are going through and how they would respond to one another in a scene can mean the difference between capturing the readers' hearts and getting lost in the details. The right beats in the right places give meaning to the words spoken and emotions felt by your characters, allowing the reader to peek through the windows in their souls.

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

C is for Conflict

Every good story has conflict. The trick is how you utilize it. Conflict can help your character grow, can give her something to overcome, can peak the reader's interest in the plot. If your character always gets everything she wants without having to fight for it, that can make for a really short, or a really boring story.

Conflict adds intrigue, creating tension in the narrative. It comes in many shapes and forms, both internal and external.
(wo)man vs. (wo)man - Harry vs. Voldemort; Ulysses vs. Medusa; Hector vs. Achilles... in each of these instances the villain is (eventually) corporeal, someone that must be defeated to ensure the hero's survival. The odds are stacked against the hero and he will have to use all his wits to gain the skills necessary to overcome his foe.

(wo)man vs. nature - Katniss vs. the Hunger Games arena... technically this is woman vs. a machine taking the form of nature, but you get the point. Fire and rain, lack of water and food, tracker-jackers, mockingjays, and muttations, all these "natural" forces test Katniss's skills and ability to survive, and teach her about herself (and the reader about her).

(wo)man vs. self - Ista vs. herself (Paladin of Souls, by Lois McMaster Bujold... love her, btw)... In this lovely novel Ista has to learn to move past the trauma she has experienced and allow herself to be open to using her gifts for the good of other characters in the story. The external conflicts here are secondary to the internal conflict, and her character grows and changes in beautiful ways by “The End."

Knowing your character's back story can help you discern when conflict will come up (ex: Hermione's muggle-born status fuels her desire to excel; Sirius and Snape's past animosity causes clashes when they are forced to work on the same side; Snape's love for Lily Potter motivates him to agree to protect her son, but his hatred for James Potter makes him antagonize Harry at every opportunity). The best conflict has a reason, even if it never has a resolution. Snape never forgave Harry for being James' son and it's hard to tell if Harry ever forgave Snape for killing Dumbledore... but the poignancy of the emotions that the conflict between those two characters creates is one of the most memorable aspects of that series.

So what conflicts arise in the lives of your characters (major OR minor)?

Saturday, July 27, 2013

B is for Backstory

(Cross posted from Fairbetty's World)

Back story is a tricky topic. You can't live with it and your MC can't live without it! The term “Back story" encompasses all those things that may have happened to your main character (or to the townspeople he's trying to help) before we meet him in the first pages of your book.

Take the first chapter of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone**. J.K. Rowling sets the stage and the characters for her epic YA series in the first chapter and reveals a surprising amount of back story to her readers succinctly and with masterful characterization and style. By the end of chapter one we know all we need to know about the Dursley family and have tantalizing bits about Dumbledore, McGonagall, and Hagrid to carry us further into the story... as well as some crucial details about Harry Potter himself. Chapter two begins ten years later! We don't get any detail about what those ten years entailed, and we don't really need them because the characterization of Harry and the Dursleys in the subsequent scenes tells us everything, and I mean everything, we need to know just what happened during those ten years. But you can bet that J.K. Rowling knows what every minute of every day of Harry's childhood was like.

Each piece of back story that you know for your character can help create a more richly rounded picture of him (i.e., how and why he reacts to given situations, why he knows or thinks what he does about certain topics). You may think that it's just as important for your reader to know all this back story as it is for you. Honestly, though, it's not important... at least not yet.

SOME of this back story information is pertinent to the novel. MOST of it is not. Certain bits of back story, when they are revealed, dramatically enhance the action and push forward your plot. Knowing which bits are which can be difficult. Having someone read your manuscript with a critical eye and point out bits that don't pertain directly to the plot can help a lot!

Don't throw out or summarily delete all those delectable details, though! Someday you will have fans who will devour those bits. Save them for the special edition you release to your adoring fans after you've hit the bestseller list! Which bestseller list am I talking about? That is up to you.

**Editorial confession... I love Harry Potter deeply and dearly. I will likely use examples from that series a considerable amount during this series. If you love Harry Potter, too, I think we're meant to be BFFs for life. If you DON'T like Harry Potter... I'm sorry but it's just not going to work out between us...

A is for Action

(cross-posted from Fairbetty's World)

A stands for Action

Action is the main vehicle for getting your characters from “Once Upon a Time," to “The End." Without action, your MC would never learn that he is a wizard, find that golden ticket, stand up against the oppressive regime that forces children to fight children to the death, or fall in love with his best friend. Your MC wouldn't even be able to get out of bed in the morning!

One of the main pitfalls of the beginning writer is the tendency to want to describe everything, to tell the reader about the details of setting and characters, even down to the brand of jeans or what cars are driving by on the street. We spend hours crafting the perfect sentence that will describe exactly what everything in our head (or in front of our eyes) looks like. While nothing is more important that setting the scene, when it comes to details (or the overuse of them), less is more! They call this concept “Show, don't Tell." If the detail is important, somehow it will fit into the action.

This is not to say that a manuscript should be all action, but action moves the plot forward while description puts the plot in neutral... it's not moving backward, but it's not really going anywhere. Finding the balance that fits your plot is the key. If we're having a thrilling car chase or a heated argument, the rest of the details will naturally fall in the background (into that less is more category). If the MC is pondering the meaning of life while sitting on the edge of Santa Monica Pier, it's possible that the details will be more relevant to what you're trying to convey.

While some readers are philosophers, and some texts need accurate description to be understood, most readers are just looking for the action and they'll skim right over that detailed description of what the ceremonial knife set looked like. Even if they read it word for word, there's no guarantee that what they see is what you see. There are some things that have to be let go.

I know it's hard, but take a look at your WIP (work in progress). Locate those chunks of descriptive prose. Yes, you were poetic, an artist unparalleled. Now decide if that description really adds to the theme/symbolism/plot/character in a way that the reader will connect with. Can't decide? Ask an honest friend or a crit partner. If the answer is no, consider cutting it out of the action and squirrel it away for the supplemental materials they'll want to print after your book has made you famous.