Tag Archives: Dialogue

Dialogue: Putting Action Beats To Work

coupleoncoachStories are about people doing things. Along the way, they say things. To one another. As a conversation progresses, it’s necessary to remind readers which character is talking. Thankfully grammar rules help out—requiring a new paragraph for each change of speaker. But if the conversation is lengthy or if it involves more than two people, attributing lines of dialogue by tagging them with said Jane (or Josephine or Jeremy or Giraldo or Jorge) may become necessary.

I say, “May become necessary” because there is another option—inserting an action beat instead. Action beats are nothing more than bits of action.

The best kind of action to use during a conversation is that which shows something about the character, the setting, or the forward movement of the story. In other words, action beats should not be extraneous fillers that add nothing else to the story other than an indication of who is talking. Those types of unnecessary actions detract from the flow of dialogue and may paint an odd picture of characters flailing about while they’re talking. I know, because I’ve written scenes like that. Here’s one in an old version of JOURNEY TO MITHLIMAR, Book 2 of The Lore Of Efrathah:

“Where is Paloh?” Remalín propped himself on his elbow and stared around the campsite.

Bilg swung about. “Paloh!”

Mikkán slumped to his bedroll. “I knew it.”

Medát rushed up behind Jim, booming Paloh’s name in his deep voice.

Not a single said in the exchange, but all that action by four different characters doesn’t accomplish much more than indicating who is talking. In fact, the beats are far more distracting than said would be.

Action beats used in dialogue should accomplish more. First, they give readers action to imagine so that the scene doesn’t devolve into talking heads.

Second, they show character emotion. The best of the action beats in the above example is line three: Mikkán slumped to his bedroll. This line gives a hint at the character’s emotional response to the missing individual. It’s important to use action beats for this purpose because the alternative is to tell the readers what the character is feeling.

Action beats can also serve to provide information about the setting without stopping the conversation to deliver description. In the following snippet of conversation from LIARS AND THIEVES, Josiah is talking to Geret:

[Josiah said,] “I can assign Lieutenant Nidan to devise a slate of games—”

“Fine, fine.”

“And housing. How many are we expecting?”

“See for yourself.” Geret waved in the direction of the advancing force—two columns of soldiers flanking a large conveyance carried on the shoulders of a handful of servants.

“Less than forty it looks like, counting the servants. We can billet them in one of the barracks.”

Without stopping the conversation, the reader “sees” what the characters see.

Action beats can also effectively work with internal monologue to flesh out the setting.

The innkeeper shook her crooked finger in Abihail’s face. “The whole town suffers because of the likes of you.”

Abi squared her shoulders, ignoring the accusation, as well as the hunger pangs prodded to life by the yeasty aroma from the oven. The town suffered all right, as did all the towns bordering the valley, but certainly not because of the dissenters. “I only want a bit of bread, Mistress Trent, and I’ll happily work for it.”

Third, action beats can move the events of the story forward. They can set up or contribute to the conflict. Here’s an exchange between a stranger and the leader of a group of would-be robbers:

“I want no trouble.” From the opposite side of the portico, a stranger gripping the leather strap of a bag slung over his shoulder eased into the open. Sunlight and shadow danced across his face.

Two men, wearing the smocks of fishmongers, mirrored him, one on either side, each with a stiletto in hand.

“If you’re lost, we’re obliged to help you find yer way.” The sturdiest of the two curved his mouth into a tortured grin.

His wiry companion closed to within arm’s distance. “But we can’t let yer lordship visit the undertaker looking like this. Why, you’d be an offense to the dearly departed.” With a flick, his blade sliced apart the ruffled tie around the stranger’s throat, exposing a gold necklace. “See there? Too gaudy fer a funeral. We’ll just help you out by relieving you of such a disrespectful article.”

The others laughed.

The stranger backed up a step, but his voice remained steady. “You’re making a mistake, friend, to your own detriment. I apologize for my foolishness in wandering into your camp.”

Each of the action beats above intend to advance the developing conflict.

There are several important things to keep in mind when choosing to use action beats:

men in conversation21. The action should be natural to the character. For example, a stoic character is unlikely to gasp in response to something another person says. Make his action fit his personality.

2. The action should not read like information inserted by the author for the sake of the reader. Rather, the action should seem natural to the situation. For instance, the character shouldn’t take out the medallion his grandmother gave to him just because the author wants readers to know he has the medallion. He should only take it out if he does so as a nervous habit or purposefully to make sure he doesn’t lose it or to secure it in a safer place. In other words, there needs to be a story reason for the action.

3. Action beats should be sprinkled throughout the conversation rather than delivered with every line of dialogue.

4. Finally, in a tense scene that requires a faster pace, omit both action beats and speaker attributions. Let the lines of dialogue speak for themselves. Of course, that means those lines should be full of emotion or whatever meaning you wish them to convey—they should be poignant, powerful, or purposeful. But that description should characterize all lines of dialogue, shouldn’t it. 😉

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A Character’s Voice

    Agents agree: the single most important factor in getting their attention is a strong, unique, and personality-heavy narrative voice. Voice is what defines both your story and your narrating character. Think of voice as kind of like your story’s unique fingerprint. If your book were a band, this would be the sound that makes it recognizable.
    —K.M. Weiland “How to Find Your Character’s Voice”

mouth-837375-mOver and over I’ve read or heard straight from writing professionals’ mouths that voice is one of the elements that sells a book to agents and editors. But what is “voice” when you’re reading words on a page?

The briefest explanation is, voice is personality. In fiction, of course, there are two personalities front and center–the author’s and the point-of-view character’s. In this post, I’m interested in the latter though the two overlap.

First, why is a character’s voice, a character’s personality, so important? Because readers care about characters. They don’t want to read about stock, two-dimensional, plastic people who all act and sound the same. Rather, a character who engages readers comes across as one of a kind, not a boilerplate copy.

Writers, therefore, need to look for ways to bring their character’s personality forward. But how to do that?

The most obvious way is by what the character says. In dialogue each character, not just the point of view character, needs to sound like himself. His personality needs to come out in what he says but also in how he says it.

Voice in dialogue, then, is the fusion of content with delivery.

Content has to do with what the character says–does he swear, apologize profusely, speak in analogies, brag, comment on every particular, ask lots of questions, take conversations on tangents, and so on.

Delivery has to do with her word choice, sentence structure, tone, and manner. Does she bark out orders, clip her words, speak in fragments, drawl, elaborate her answers, speak with urgency, use humor, use down-home sayings, spout job-related jargon, and more.

In other words, each character should sound like an individual with his own way of speaking.

Recently on a website allowing writers to critique various aspects of each other’s work, there was a session for dialogue. Here are a few lines from one entry which illustrate how content and delivery can create a strong, engaging voice:

“I thought you said you had a dog,” he says, dubiously eying the door.

“I do. I also said she was small.”

“That doesn’t sound like a dog. It sounds like a chipmunk on crack.”

I can’t really argue. She does. The door is barely open before she bursts outside, looping around my ankles and barking at Will, hopping on all fours with every outburst.

“That’s a dog?”

“So I’m told.”

“That is not a dog,” he tells me. “It’s a wind-up toy.” He looks into the apartment’s depths, then back down at the frantic pup. “Where’s the rest of it?” (“Talking Heads #13,” from Miss Snark’s First Victim)

small-dog-745346-mIn just these short lines, a picture of the character Will forms. He’s got strong opinions and expectations laced with humor. But the first person character also shows a bit of her personality, not as much by what she says but by what she’s chosen. After all, this little barking menace is the dog she picked for a pet.

Character decisions, then, are a key component for creating a strong voice. Does she choose to hold her tongue instead of confronting the worker who regularly clocks out early? Or does she go straight to the boss? Does he drive the speed limit when his wife is in the car, then let it all out when he’s alone? Does he promise to be home at six for dinner and arrive a half hour early or does call to say he has a business dinner he can’t miss so won’t be home until late?

Each decision a character makes contributes to his voice. But to create a unique voice for her characters, an author must stretch her thinking so that she doesn’t rely on the done and done again—the cranky school teacher, the stuffy judge, the dumb-blond cheerleader, the inattentive babysitter. To develop a character with a captivating voice, an author needs to think beyond the norm.

At the same time, characters need parameters. School teachers do have certain commonalities. Having a teacher decide to come to school in shorts instead of the usual staff dress code is not a way to show his strong voice. It’s the way to have your character get fired. A writer may wish to show that the teacher is caring instead of cranky, but she can’t decide to leave her class unattended so she can counsel a troubled teen. In other ways, teachers must behave like teachers, to a point, and lawyers must behave like lawyers, firemen like firemen and so on.

There’s a balancing act, then, between creating a character who acts in a recognizable way for his position and who acts in a unique way consistent with his personality.

A third tool writers have at their disposal is internal discourse or monologue, used primarily with a point of view character. A character’s thoughts should reveal his attitudes about society, his friends, God, himself, authority, business, money, recreation—really, all of life.

Is she an optimist or a pessimist? Is she hopeful about the future or is she cynical? Does she love her family or is she trying to find one who will adopt her? Does she care about human trafficking or is she thinking about looking for work in the sex industry?

Who the character is, what he’s struggling with comes out in his “private” thoughts. An author should capitalize on the opportunity to bring the life of the character into these thoughts. They should not be generic, ones that any other twenty-five-year-old police rookie would have or ones that any other pioneer woman heading out West in the 1850s would have.

In conclusion a strong character voice depends upon the author knowing the character’s personality, developing it uniquely, and showing it through dialogue, decisions, and internal discourse.

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Characters And Emotion

angry manCharacters in fiction feel, and one goal we writers have is to evoke readers to feel along with them. However, in my reading I’ve noticed some problems connected with character emotions.

One difficulty comes when an author tells what the character is feeling instead of showing it. For example, she might say,

    Fred excitedly picked up the package.

The adverb in this case tells what Fred was feeling rather than showing it. Showing the emotion might read something like this:

    A grin lit up Fred’s face. He picked up the package and ripped off the wrapping.

Rather than naming the emotion, the second example shows what the point of view character sees. Of course, dialogue can amplify emotion. If the character picks up the package and says, “I’m so excited,” then there’s verbal testimony to back up the actions.

Interestingly, dialogue can also be used to undermine actions, or actions, to expose a line of dialogue as untruthful. If a character says one thing, then does another, the reader is left to decipher which actually reveals the character’s emotion.

A second problem, similar to the first, occurs when an author tells what a character is feeling, instead of showing the emotion through internal monologue.

Our friend Fred in the example above might be the point of view character. Instead of telling his emotions, however, or even showing them through action or dialogue, the author can show them through Fred’s thoughts.

    Fred picked up the package. He’d had his eye on it all week, even risked peeking at the card to be sure it had his name on it. It did, but he couldn’t imagine who would give him such an elaborately wrapped gift. Santa must be real after all.

A third problem I’ve noticed concerning character emotion is its total absence. Sometimes writers don’t tell or show what a character feels about something that has just happened. Has the protagonist just been fired? Has she had an argument with her best friend? Did he witness a bar fight? Was she forced to take a class she didn’t want?

Scenes need to show the appropriate action to communicate what’s happened, but they also should show how the character feels about those things. And often those emotions linger and, rightfully, affect what a character does next.

cemetery-roses-1102775-mConsequently, a fourth problem I’ve detected is a character who recovers emotionally much faster than is reasonable. One day he buries his dad who was his best friend, and the next day he is off to see the world. Or she has been left at the altar by her childhood sweetheart, and the next day she opens up an antique shop.

In other words, an event that has, or ought to have, caused great emotion, seemingly has no effect on the character’s next decision or action. Instead, what happens to a character should matter.

A character who has been mugged, for example, should have some emotional baggage that influences who he trusts or what precautions he takes for his future safety. The events of the story should not continue on as if he has not experienced this trauma.

In short, stories are built on causation. When one thing happens, it should induce a reaction, including an emotional reaction from the character. The author should show this reaction, either through action, dialogue, or internal monologue.

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My Characters Talk Too Much

Tom_Selleck_(2401215467)

I’ve been watching reruns of the old 80s show Magnum P.I. One of the characters is an Englishman named Jonathan Higgins who served in Her Majesty’s military, and has any number of stories to tell about his exploits. Except, he usually launches into those long-winded accounts in the most inopportune times.

In short, Higgins talks too much. He bores most of the characters in the show because he is long-winded, going into apparently needless detail about time, setting, background, before he ever gets to the “what happened.”

Many of us know people in real life who talk too much, too. It’s easy to nod and smile and let our minds drift when this person is talking because there’s a lot of unnecessary fluff before our dear friend/relative reaches the heart of the matter.

Recently I’ve realized my characters fall into this same camp–they say things that aren’t particularly necessary. Surprise, surprise, when they talk too much, their dialogue has the same effect on readers as too much talking has in real life.

What constitutes too much talking in a novel? Here are some of the most common dialogue story stoppers:

1. Speaking in complete sentences. We almost never do in real life, so why should our characters? In this version of “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” the characters all speak in complete sentences (even the mirror, though an example of such isn’t included in these lines):

    As Snow White grew prettier with every passing day, the Queen’s jealousy and anger grew. At last unable to bear Snow White’s beauty any longer, she called her Huntsman and said to him, ‘Take the child into the forest, and kill her, and bring back her heart and her tongue as proof that she is dead.’

    The Huntsman did as the Queen asked – he took the little girl into the forest and prepared to kill her. ‘Please don’t kill me,’ cried Snow White, looking in terror at his big sharp knife. ‘I will run away into the forest and never come back again.’ The Huntsman relented, and let her go. The child ran off through the trees deep into the forest. ‘The wild beasts will kill you, you poor child,’ thought the Huntsman to himself.

2. Answering questions with more information than the other character is asking.
Example:

    “Why did your squad fail to join us outside Ariel?”

    “After the assault at Ringal Peak, we departed under instructions from Eljosh to explore the area around Ariel. When we arrived at the city, we detected no activity, friendly or otherwise. We decided to take a closer look and found it deserted. We headed back to report, but an enemy platoon blocked us. We nearly marched into their camp. . . “

I’ll spare you the rest, but this answer continued for another five sentences.

3. Giving speeches or reports or telling stories (see Jonathan Higgins). Of course, there are exceptions: if the character can tell stories in an engaging manner, an occasional story may be appropriate. Or if being long-winded is part of his character, then at least the opening of a boring story can serve that purpose.

4. Telling a character what happened in a previous scene. This is often a rehash:

    “Can you believe we made it?”

    “I thought we’d die. If it hadn’t been for your quick thinking, Fred, I hate to think what might have happened.”

    “It wasn’t just Fred. You were fearless, too, Lilliana. Why, you stared that old crocodile down as if . . .”

Yes, yes, we know! We just read the scene!!

5. Delivering information that both characters know or ought to know.

Example:

    “You know, Uncle John, my dad, Harry Thomas, was the youngest in your family.”

This example is an exaggeration, to be sure, but any information that the author is delivering to the reader rather than one character revealing to another, needs to go.

There’s an old fable about a too talkative turtle whose end was not a happy one because he didn’t have the sense to keep his mouth closed. In the same way, stories with characters who are too talkative may suffer a sad demise. Readers will become impatient with long-winded, wordy conversations that add nothing new. And we know what happens to books when readers get impatient!

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Show, Don’t Tell: Beyond The Cliché

pulls_weedsMost writers have heard the adage to show rather than tell when writing fiction. When I taught English to seventh and eighth graders, I even taught the principle. And yet, one of the first things a writing professional who critiqued my work uncovered, was problems with showing.

There are actually several ways that “show, don’t tell” can go wrong. First, not everything a character does can or should be shown. Should readers be subject to long scenes of a character brushing his teeth? toweling off after a shower? weeding the garden? It’s possible in some story that these activities do carry some significance and should be fleshed out in a scene, but the chances are, for most novels these are incidentals that ought not receive equal weight with such things as a character leaving her husband or being fired from his job or meeting her birth mother for the first time. So the first rule of thumb should be, show what’s important.

_CrutchesEven showing the important is a bit of a balancing act. Some writers take the idea of showing too far and create what I refer to as “stage direction.”

    Joe sat up, rubbed his eyes, then stood, his left hand resting on the back of the chair. He reached his right hand toward the crutch propped against the wall. Snugging it under his right arm, he inched his left leg forward, then transferred weight to the crutch and swung his injured right leg ahead.

Again, there may be some story that needs these details, but most don’t. Writers should trust their readers to fill in the specifics when they aren’t essential to the story. The above can be improved by eliminating the stage directions:

    Joe grabbed his crutch and limped toward the door.

Besides knowing what not to show, a writer also needs to know what she ought to show. There are four areas which may appear in a scene that require showing: action, description, dialogue, and internal monologue.

First and foremost a writer needs to show the important action, not after the fact as if it happened off stage and someone is recounting the events. Rather, it should take place in front of the reader, either in story time or as a scene in a flash back.

cigarette_smokeIn conjunction with the action, a writer can show the scene. In so doing, he does not stop the story to set the stage, but rather inserts descriptive detail into the story, along with the action. Notice how Mark Bertrand did this in his novel Nothing To Hide, Book 3 in the Roland March Mystery series.

    He stares at me through a cloud of smoke, pleased with this pronouncement.

    We stand around for a bit, soaking up the UV rays and the secondhand carcinogens; then I thank Bridger for the help and get going.

Bertrand could just as easily have stopped the action and inserted a line of description.

    The air is thick with smoke, so thick the sun’s rays could hardly penetrate it.

If he had wanted to call particular attention to the smoke and the sun, that would have been the way to go. But if they are incidental, they can be included along with the action and they add richness to the setting without slowing the story needlessly.

Third, dialogue shows. Rather than summarizing an interchange between two or more people, the writer gives the exact words. However, in the same way that showing can devolve into stage direction, dialogue that’s trying too hard to be realistic, can devolve into the trivial. In the exchange below, I’ve omitted tags and action to show how the words themselves need to go somewhere rather than simply filling space.

“Hi.”

“Hi back. What’s up?”

“Not much. Just hanging out.”

“I see that.”

“So have a seat.”

“Thanks.”

“You want something to drink?”

“No, I’m good.”

“Want to watch a movie or something?”

“What’s the or something?”

This exchange may be realistic, but in most instances there’s not enough relevance to the story for this entire dialogue to be included. The writer would be well served to move past the non-essentials to show the parts of the conversation that move the story forward.

The final area is internal monologue–what a character is thinking. Too many of us writers, when we’re starting out, tell the character’s emotion rather than showing it.

Here’s an example from an early draft of Hunted, Book 1 in The Lore of Efrathah, with the “telling” lines in boldface type:

    Jim glanced to his left and saw, to his surprise, that the shelf upon which he sat extended on in that direction. He hadn’t been aware before that it was more than a slight accidental overhang. He couldn’t see what became of “his ledge,” as he began to think of it, because it disappeared around an outcrop of rock that jutted from the cliff. But his decision was made.

Compare that to this segment from a later draft (and different scene) which doesn’t tell he’s exasperated or uncertain about what to do, but shows it with action and thought:

    Ignoring the stinging from his scraped and bleeding hands, he reached for his cell phone. Except it wasn’t in his pocket. Of course! He’d lent it to Karen. He thumped his head against the cliff, once, twice, a third time. Now what? With no way of telling anyone where he was, he might be stuck on this ledge for an unhealthy long time, considering all his cuts and bruises and whatever he’d done to his ankle.

One caution about showing internal monologue. It’s tempting to front load backstory by having a character remember past events. By using such a device, the writer might feel as if he is showing the character’s thoughts. In fact, he’s giving a clump of backstory. To be effective, internal monologue needs to be delivered in the character’s voice as a natural part of whatever is happening to him. It should never be included because the author wants to tell the reader something so decides to put it into the character’s thoughts.

I hope that difference is clear because it’s pivotal. In one instance the writer is showing the character’s thoughts and in the other he’s dictating to the reader what he wants her to know. Of course, the thoughts that the writer shows the reader should be the important ones which move the story forward. Not every trivial thought a character has is worth showing.

The key to the “show, don’t tell” guideline, then, is balance. A writer needs to show action, description, dialogue, and internal monologue–but not all of any of those.

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Dialogue Tags Versus Action Beats

Dialogue tags–or speaker attributions–tell the reader who is talking in a written conversation. The common wisdom these days is to limit the verb in attributions, with some occasional exceptions, to “said.”

In other eras, strong verbs were in fashion, so characters were often found to mutter, shout, cry, mumble, whisper, and the like. In addition, adverbs often added insight as to how a character delivered lines of dialogue. Consequently a tag might be she said coyly or he said warily.

Many writing instructors today frown on using adverbs in that way, though authors such as J. K. Rowling and Stephen Lawhead use them successfully. The favored approach instead is to replace the dialogue tag with an action beat–a simple action the character does while talking.

Action beats, then, serve to let the reader know who is talking but also show the character in motion.

Some writers might favor one method over the other, but in reality, there is no conflict. Both should be tools in the writers kit.

Below is an example of a conversation taken from the Grimms fairytale “The Dragon And His Grandmother” which favors dialogue tags (attributions marked in bold type).

“I haven’t had much luck to-day,” he said, “but I have a tight hold on three soldiers.”

“Indeed! three soldiers!” said she. “Who cannot escape you?”

“They are mine,” answered the Dragon scornfully, “for I shall only give them three riddles which they will never be able to guess.”

“What sort of a riddles are it?” she asked.

Contrast that to this dialogue which uses action to paint the scene as well as to help the reader keep track of who is talking (subject and verb in boldface font).

When he reached his brother, Jim bent toward him to keep from raising his voice. “Hey, Eddie, you have a minute?”

“It’s your reception, bro. Here, have some food.” Eddie pushed his plate into Jim’s hand and gave him a paper cup. “There’s punch with a little kick, ice tea, or coffee. Take your pick.”

“I just wanted to talk to you for a sec.”

“Talk away.” His brother picked up another plate, piled it with a variety of stuffed pastries, a handful of baby carrots, and a couple cauliflower clumps, then spooned dip into the center.

“Maybe someplace a little more private.” Jim edged toward the patio.

“If this is about the golf tournament, my hands are tied.”

Notice that not every line contains an action beat. Too many actions can distract from the conversation. Nor is there a speaker attribution with every line of dialogue.

James Scott Bell summarizes the principle in “Creating Active Dialogue” (Writer’s Digest, June 2003):

The action tag is often the better choice, because it offers a character’s physical movements … This is not to be done every time, of course. Variety is called for, and often the best choice is no tag at all. If the reader knows who is speaking–because of alternating lines or a distinct manner of speech–that’s often enough.

A word of caution. Be sure the action beat belongs to the person who spoke the line of dialogue. I just completed an Advance Reader Copy of a novel that did not follow this guideline, and more than once I had to go back to check who was actually talking. (I can only hope that the final edition corrected this problem). Here’s a sample:

“Immensely.” Celaena patted Chaol’s arm as she took it in her own. “Now you must pretend that you like me, or else everything will be ruined.”

“You and the Crown Prince share the same sense of humor, it seems.”

“Perhaps he and I will become dear friends, and you will be left to rot.”

“Dorian is more inclined to associate with ladies of better breeding and beauty.” She whipped her head to look at him. He smiled. “How vain you are.”

The offending paragraph is the last one. The back and forth is clear up to a point, but her action following his line of dialogue in the same paragraph is the confusing element. An adjustment in paragraphing would make it clear:

“Dorian is more inclined to associate with ladies of better breeding and beauty.”

She whipped her head to look at him.

He smiled. “How vain you are.”

What are your thoughts concerning speaker attributions and action beats? Do you favor one or the other?

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The Ins And Outs Of Backstory, Part 3

Learning to handle backstory correctly is vital. Some agents and editors talk about it as the element that shows an author is either a competent professional or still in the “learning” stage. Consequently, I’d like to take a closer look at how to weave backstory into fiction using dialogue and internal monologue.

By way of review, backstory delivered in dialogue (or via any other technique) must first be necessary to the story at that particular point, and not a moment sooner. Second, it must contribute to present conflict.

While I believe those points to be true, I don’t believe they show a writer exactly how backstory should fit into dialogue, so I’m backtracking a bit today to give a few basics.

Backstory must fit the story situation

Backstory must be a fitting topic of conversation for the characters in their present circumstances. In the middle of a battle, for example, asking a buddy if he’s ever been horseback riding wouldn’t fit.

Now if two bandits were looking for a way to escape a police sweep and spotted a couple horses in a pasture up ahead, one asking the other about his past experience with horses would be natural.

Second, backstory must add information that the characters don’t already know. It’s tempting to use the “gentle reminder” as a way of conveying backstory, but experienced novelists resist. Here’s an example of “reminder speech.”

“You remember, Jack. We were just kids when Uncle Sal moved in with us for a summer, and that’s when the trouble started.”

Such a reminder nudge happens in real life, but in fiction it almost always comes across as the author talking to the reader rather than the speaker talking to Jack.

Third, the dialogue needs to be worded in the characters’ voices, delivered with the emotion appropriate for the moment. If a character speaks in short sentences or fragments, then the backstory needs to be delivered in the same way.

If the character uses particular jargon, whether regional or job oriented, those words should come into play when appropriate. The main thing is, the characters should sound like individuals. They shouldn’t all sound like the author. And when they deliver lines of backstory, the same must be true.

Fourth, the backstory should be part of a give-and-take conversation, not one lengthy speech. In real life, people rarely string together substantial chunks of information. We tend to interrupt each other, to ask questions, even to move to tangential topics rather than steering a straight course. In other words, the conversation needs to develop organically.

Lastly, appropriate internal monologue — character thoughts — can be interspersed throughout the conversation to give added snippets of backstory.

Below is an example of backstory delivered through dialogue and some internal monologue, taken from HUNTED, the first book in the fantasy The Lore of Efrathah (a story I know well enough to navigate quickly to backstory. 😉 )

Here’s the set up for this scene: Jim has fallen into a parallel world. Among the exiles who found him in a system of tunnels is a young woman he’s attracted to. However, he anticipates returning to his world as soon as possible, so is trying to resist the attraction. Nevertheless, after a meeting, he stays behind to apologize to Elisá (pronounced l-e-SA) for what transpired in an earlier encounter.

Elisá stared up into his eyes as if searching for something she couldn’t find. “Of course. Friends forgive each other such things. You are my friend, are you not?”

“Yes, absolutely! It’s just that, in my world, friends aren’t always that … sure of each other.”

As she stepped toward the exit, Jim took her elbow to guide her into the maze of tunnels.

“Your world sounds complicated.” She pointed the way, and together they sauntered toward the central cavern.

“It’s probably just me. I wish I had friends that I felt sure of, but most of the people I spend time with just want a piece of me.”

Elisá glanced up at him from the corner of her large chocolaty eyes. “A piece of you!”

He chuckled softly. “Doesn’t make much sense, I guess. Back home athletes are looked up to. So lots of people want to get our autograph, have their picture taken with us, that sort of thing. And we’re paid well, so people we know have ‘suggestions’ for how we should spend our money. It’s hard to tell if any of them are really friends.”

She shook her head the same way Jim’s sister had in high school when she didn’t approve of someone he was hooking up with.

His sister. He needed to remember to treat Elisá like his sister.

“But your family must be different,” she said.

“I have great parents. I just don’t spend a lot of time with them, though I want that to change.”

“Anyone else you can be sure of?”

“Kyle — he’s my oldest brother. My sister Karen. I used to think I could count on my other brother Eddie, too.”

He rubbed the back of his neck, uncertain how the conversation had stalled on him. “What about you? Are you close to your family?”

The scene continues, then, with some of Elisá’s backstory.

How well do you think this segment succeeded, based on the tips outlined above? Can you see places in your story where you can deliver backstory through dialogue? Were these tips helpful in showing you ways to make that dialogue natural and organic?

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Filed under Backstory, Dialogue, Internal Monologue

The Ins And Outs Of Backstory, Part 2

As we established in part one of this short series, backstory should be used sparingly, sprinkled throughout the novel, but rarely included in the opening.

Super agent and writing instructor Donald Maass explains:

Backstory is the bane of virtually all manuscripts. Authors imagine that readers need, even want, a certain amount of filling in. I can see why they believe that. It starts with critique groups in which writers hear comments such as, “I love this character! You need to tell me more about her!” Yes, the author does. But not right away. As they say in the theater, make ’em wait. Later in the novel backstory can become a revelation; in the first chapter it always bogs things down. (The Fire in Fiction, p. 208 – emphasis added).

The rule of thumb is to give backstory only when the reader needs it.

But suspense author Brandilyn Collins adds an important element to the aspect of “need.” Not only do readers need answers, they need more questions:

We make the mistake of looking at backstory only as a way to answer reader questions. That’s part of its function. But we should also use backstory to raise reader questions. Often, a good sentence of backstory will raise more questions than it answers. (“A Bit on Backstory” by Brandilyn Collins, September 22, 2005)

Raising questions in the right way makes readers curious and keeps them turning pages to find out.

The next logical question follows: what exactly is the right way?

Collins again:

When backstory is necessary (and a certain amount of lines usually are), don’t stop the story to go into author narrative. Many times entire backstory paragraphs can be negated with one carefully written sentence, or even phrase. Find a way to weave the brief backstory into the current action, either through conversation or thought. (Ibid.)

Author and writing instructor Hallie Ephron elaborates on ways to incorporate backstory into fiction in a recent Writer’s Digest article “6 Ways To Layer In Backstory” (May/June 2011).

The first two approaches are unique to either a first person or an omniscient point of view. The last four are helpful regardless of the perspective.

Dialogue ranks high on the list, but Ephron gives this caution: “Never force words into characters’ mouths … Use dialogue to convey backstory only when it feels natural and works dramatically.”

Maass explains this idea of backstory “working dramatically.” In examining an example of backstory in a Robin Hobbs novel, he notes that the delivery of backstory does more than give facts about the past. Instead it reveals a conflicted character. He concludes by saying, “Hobbs uses the past to create present conflict. That is the secret of making backstory work” (The Fire in Fiction, p. 210 – emphasis added).

Another way of layering backstory into a novel is to introduce a document — a newspaper article, letter, will, journal, photograph, email, title to property, bill and so on. Such items can be handled in several ways. One possibility is to reproduce it verbatim. A second is to have a character summarize the contents.

In an earlier version of my first novel, I incorporated this document technique, though slightly altered. I’ve since taken the passage out because it came in the first chapter and clearly interrupted the story, but it will serve as an example, good and bad.

In the story, the main character was standing on a cliff overlooking the ocean, but the overhang under him breaks away and he tumbles toward the rocks. He’s able to stop himself and find a spot on a ledge, then this:

Easing his tense muscles, he settled against the cliff and glanced out toward the ocean where low, dense clouds bulldozed toward shore.

Ironic! If he died like this, people might suspect he had jumped. He shook his head. How would the headlines read? Something like, “Basketball star plunges to his death.” And the lead? “In a possible suicide, James David Thompson, former NBA star for the expansion Scorchers, fell to his death yesterday south of Crystal Cove State Park near Todd Point.”

Well, yes, the imagined document works to give readers information, but do they need to know this very minute what his full name is? Or even that he is a former NBA player or that he’s south of Crystal Cove? Not really.

In addition, because of the disruption and the distraction, readers may stop caring about the present action — the character perched on a cliff above rocks and an angry sea.

And where’s the tension in the backstory? Likely the article’s wrong implication would create tension for the character, but does that translate to tension for the reader? Not really, in part because the article may or may not be written, and because the reader doesn’t have a reason yet to care for this character’s reputation.

The example, then, works to show how a document, in this case, an imagined one, can be used to layer in backstory, but it also shows why backstory doesn’t belong in the beginning of the story.

There are a couple more techniques authors can use to add backstory appropriately, but we’ll save those for next time.

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Filed under Backstory, Dialogue

Subtext In Dialogue

One of the hallmarks of a good writer is a dialog rich in subtext.

So says R. Kayne in an article entitled “What Is Subtext?” at the WiseGeek. Certainly other writing professionals concur. Author K. M. Weiland says

We spend a lot of time polishing our dialogue and learning how to make it sound as lifelike and powerful as possible. But amidst all this polishing, we can’t afford to miss one of the most important dichotomies in fiction.

Sometimes the most important moments in dialogue are about what isn’t said. (“What Isn’t Said: Subtext in Dialogue”)

But what exactly is subtext in dialogue? It is the creation of underlying meaning behind the spoken words.

People in real life often say one thing when they mean another, or at best say only part of what they’re thinking or feeling. Characters in novels need to do the same if they are to have that nuanced feel of reality, that deeper meaning behind what they say.

Christian suspense author and conference writing instructor Brandilyn Collins explains the device clearly:

Do you know that lots of times when people talk, they don’t say what they mean? Their words are on one level, and the meaning lies underneath. The meaning may not have much at all to do with the spoken words. This is called subtexted dialogue (“Subtexting”)

While the use of subtexting is the mark of a good writer, its improper use can do the opposite. After all, we’re talking about communicating to readers what a character is thinking or feeling by not saying to the other characters in the scene the plain and simple facts. Such communication is subtle and therefore harder to convey without confusing the reader.

In no way does the author want readers to be unclear about what the character intends, or they may conclude that he misled them by having the character say one thing and do something else.

It’s also important to note that subtexting is not lying. The character may not wish to say what he’s thinking, but his motive is not to deceive the person he’s with. Rather, he has some emotional reason for withholding what he’s saying. He may think the person he’s talking to isn’t particularly interested, so he gives a partial answer hoping to generate a response. Or she may find the topic too painful because giving further information might cause her to break down.

    Example:

    “You’re early.” Sasha checked the clock above the fireplace. “Is everything OK?”

    “Todd said he could finish up alone.”

    “I thought this was your weekend to work together.”

    “I thought so too.”

In this scenario, the subtexted lines could possibly lead to more direct dialogue, but often the underlying meaning is never spelled out.

In addition, a character, just as a person in real life, may imply rather than state what he’s thinking because he’s with someone who knows him so well, she doesn’t need him to spell out every detail.

    Example: “You tired, babe?”

This simple line of dialogue could have a variety of meanings based on the context and the relationship between the characters. Let’s suppose this is a husband talking to his wife. He could be saying, The night is still young; let’s go out. Or he could be saying, You look a bit frazzled; did your meeting go badly? He could even be saying, How about having sex?

If he says the line with anger, in the middle of a fight, it could have implications regarding his intentions for their marriage.

The secret to using subtexting successfully, then, is to create a scene in which the character’s motives are clear and the underlying meaning of the lines of dialogue fits his thoughts and emotions better than the spoken words do.

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Characters Act

In my first critique group, one of our members, now a multi-published author, wrote some of the best dialogue I’ve read. Often I felt like a fly on the wall overhearing the conversation of her characters. But one of the first rejections she received came with this feedback: Your characters are nothing but talking heads.

What a wake-up call for all of us. Great internal monologue, scintillating dialogue, powerful motivation—all contribute to an engaging character, but in the end, characters must do something. They can’t just sit around conversing, even if what they say is intriguing. After all, readers need something to imagine.

Consequently, even in “quiet scenes” when the characters are primarily holding a conversation, they need to do something. A couple things are important to remember here. To be honest, I’ve learned most of these the hard way—by having them critiqued out of me.

1) Too much character action can be distracting. In other words, if the protagonist sits down, then delivers a line of dialogue, he probably shouldn’t stand up on his next line. Unless he has a reason.

2) Actions should be motivated. A character shouldn’t bite his nails if he doesn’t have a habit of biting his nails and isn’t nervous or bored or bothered by a hangnail. If he has no reason to bite his nails then he shouldn’t be doing it.

3) Actions should not be generic. Well, that’s too general. Sometimes a character has to laugh, look, stand, or turn. But not always. As often as possible, make actions unique.

4) Particular actions should reveal something about the character’s personality or background or temperament. Don’t waste actions. Put them to work. Yes, you want to give your readers something to imagine, but make it something worthwhile, not meaningless.

5) Actions should replace narrative rather than complementing it. Avoid explaining what the action is supposed to show.

    Example: In an angry fit, he stomped from the room, slamming the door on the way out.

The phrase “in an angry fit” isn’t necessary because the action clearly shows the anger.

The temptation to explain grows when the action is weak.

    Example: With joy in her heart, she followed him into the room.

To improve this action, the explanatory phrase should be omitted and the action strengthened.

    Example: She danced into the room behind him.

The old adage actions speak louder than words, is especially true in fiction. Sure, we writers need to learn how to write brilliant dialogue, but we must never forget that above all else, characters act.

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Filed under Action, Characters