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Monday, June 17, 2013

Let's Talk about Dialogue

Picture Credit: http://customerrespect.com/blog/tag/dialogue/
Dialogue can make or break a story. It's not easy! It's funny that something as natural as speech is so hard to put to paper, but maybe it's partly because it's so natural.

Think back on your many conversations you had today. You could write any number of them word-for-word into a book. And guess what? It wouldn't go over well at all!

One reason your daily conversations don't work in a book is all the filler words that you use (words such as "you know", "um", "uh", "like", and all the rest). We all use them, and every language has them, but imagine how annoying it would be to read one or more filler words in every conversation. This is not to say that you can't ever write filler words into a character's conversation. But make sure you have a reason to do it. For example, if your character has a special reason that he or she is trying to stall for time, go ahead and add one. But if you're finding them appearing on the page frequently then you might want to consider removing most of them.

Another reason your normal conversations won't work in your book is that they're boring! This morning when I got into work I said the same thing I always say: "Hey, how are you doing?" After waiting for a positive response, I said something like: "Great. Did you have a good night?" This sort of every-day conversation works when I'm talking to the people that I interact with. But no one wants to read it. Dialogues in books must be to the point. Every sentence you write in dialogue has to have a purpose. If it takes the characters several paragraphs to get through pleasantries before they say anything of any substance, readers are going to mentally check out.

Think of your characters' motives during every dialogue you write. What are the participants trying to prove? What are they trying to convince each other of? That doesn't mean that your dialogue needs to be--or even should be--an argument. But if the characters are simply talking so they can express the fact that they agree with each other, then it's most likely boring and should be taken out. After reading Tayla's blog, see it here, I think she's a great example of spending time pouring over dialogue. It's not supposed to be real. It's supposed to be larger than life--but at the same time seem real.

A third reason that your average conversation isn't like a book's dialogue is that in life you don't have to worry about tags. A tag is the indication of who is speaking. A common mistake for new writers is the tendency to be afraid of overusing the word said. Instead, they mistakenly use a variety of tags to create something like the following conversation:

"Look at all the birds," Julie sighed.
"Yes," Frank nodded.
"It's a sure sign of spring," Harold smiled.
"I'm excited," Julie noted.

This is not a good idea. People expect to see said, and the word doesn't draw attention to itself. You don't want your tags to all draw attention to themselves or it takes away from your dialogue. Also, if you try to get original with your tags you will end up with verbs that don't work the way you are trying to make them work. Did Julie actually sigh out her sentence? And unless Harold is a ventriloquist, I'm pretty sure he didn't smile his sentence out. In most cases, the word said is best. Then, if you have a reason to put extra emphasis on one specific tag, you can use something else.

If there are only two people in a conversation, you don't have to add a tag to every sentence--your readers can follow along. But make sure you add them often enough that you don't lose anybody. And if you have three or more people speaking then you need a tag every line.

One legitimate way to break up a row of said's down a page is to give the characters movements. Such as this:

Julie stopped walking and stared up into the trees. "Look at all the birds."
"Yes," Frank said.
"It's a sure sign of spring," Harold said. He smiled while he watched the robins hopping along the branches.
"I'm excited." Julie paused a moment longer before she lowered her eyes to the trail and started walking again.

Okay, let's face the fact that the above dialogue is still not the most exciting dialogue in the world. But by throwing in a little bit of movement during the conversation, I gave each line its own tag without leaving a row of said's down the right side of the page.

A fourth way your daily conversation is different than a book's dialogue is the fact that only in a book do you have to worry about punctuation. One of these days I'll do a blog specifically on punctuation. Here I'm going to specifically address the exclamation point. An overused exclamation point loses all sincerity. Unless a character is actually yelling a phrase, a period will do just fine.

Monday, June 10, 2013

Adding an Element of Suspense

Picture Credit: http://www.onfiction.ca/2013/03/research-
First I have to apologize for not posting anything last week. I've been very busy with house hunting since I sold my house before I found one to buy. Nothing motivates you like wondering where you're going to live. The good news is, I'm now under contract to buy a new home. Now I'm packing and getting ready for the move that's just a few weeks away. Then my life will hopefully settle back into my normal routine.

You may be a Hitchcock fan, or you may not. But he has become known as an icon when it comes to suspense and horror.

I don't have any experience writing horror, so don't expect to see any tips from me on writing it. Suspense, on the other hand, is useful in every genre.

So what is suspense? The Encarta Dictionary defines it as:

  1. Uncertainty- the state or condition of being unsure or in doubt about something
  2. Enjoyable Tension- a feeling of tense excitement about how something such as a mystery novel or movie will end
  3. Anxiety- a state of anxiety or intense worry about something
What story doesn't need uncertainty, tension, or anxiety on behalf of the characters?

There are a few ways to build suspense in your novel:
  • If multiple viewpoints are used, give the reader a key piece of information that the main characters don't know. Think of Psycho's shower scene. The viewer watches Norman Bates enter the bathroom and come up to draw back the shower curtain. Meanwhile Marion Crane isn't doing much. Her shower under different circumstances wouldn't be anything memorable, but because of what the viewer knows, her mundane task is suspenseful.
  • If a single point of view is used, try giving readers little hints so that they begin suspecting danger before the main character does.
  • Race against time- if characters have a time constraint, tension will build as the time slowly slips away--especially if it seems impossible for them to make it. 
  • Try/Fain cycles- there won't be much suspense if the main character gets everything he or she wants on the first attempt. Add tension by having the character run up against obstacle after obstacle before you give him or her a hard-won victory.
  • Pacing- keep action going. That doesn't mean your book has to be one that is considered high action, but the character should be doing SOMETHING. If you have large blocks of nothing but conversation or thoughts, then consider chopping some of them out. Readers want to feel like the plot is always progressing.
  • Dilemmas- struggles over dilemmas (especially moral dilemmas) add suspense. It is easy for characters to chose between something they love and something they hate. But what about when neither option is what they want?
  • Make the worst fears come true- establish early in the story what a character fears or dreads, but try to do it in a way that doesn't advertise that you are foreshadowing. Then as the story progresses, one bad twist after another will slowly bring the reader to the awful realization that the worst is about to happen.
  • Make the danger real- if page after page you show that the main character's life is threatened, but every single time he or she gets out without a scratch, your readers aren't going to get too concerned the next time you threaten the character's life. Sorry to fans of The Hobbit (spoiler alert), but this point is one of the big things that ruined the movie for me. The threats against Bilbo and his friends kept increasing, but not a single one of them died. By the end of the movie I had a hard time drumming up any worry when they were surrounded yet again by the bad guys. Try seriously wounding or even killing one of your main characters--it will get readers' attention and your threats will suddenly be very real.
  • Do not use false alarms- okay, maybe once or twice is fine. But it gets old very fast when every time the characters are sure a burglar is in the house it turns out to be the pet.
  • If a 5-minute conversation would clear up the suspense, then it is not going to grip your readers. Think of some of the cheesy romance movies or books you have watched or read where the main characters are certain they'll never see eye to eye until they find out they never actually disagreed--they only misunderstood each other. Don't think I'm opposed to anyone who likes romance--far from--but every genre (including romance) should use a plot and suspense that is more complex.
  • Using the word "suddenly" doesn't make anything happen faster. If someone jumps out then just say it. Trying to use key words that will tell us something is unexpected or happens quickly is clogging up your suspense. If your main character is wandering around a meadow thinking about how happy life is, and a hand reaches out of the ground to grab her, you don't need to say that she didn't think the hand would be there. The hand will get your readers' attention better without the added explanation.
Well, that's all for tonight. Happy writing!