Tag Archive | dialogue

Dialogue and Subtext

lietomeI loved the show Lie to Me for its use of micro expressions–small facial ‘give aways’ that revealed the truth no matter how someone tried to stop it.  But what do these facial tics and bits of body language have to do with dialogue? Isn’t dialogue about putting down what someone is saying in your story?  Well yes–and no.

I’m doing a workshop on Dialogue for Outreach International Romance Writers starting this next Monday and I chose the title to be “Don’t Let ‘Em Say What You Mean.” The title applies to a common mistake that many beginning writers make–the dialogue is too “on the nose.” That phrase is used to describe dialogue that is clumsy–it’s too specific and not the way anyone really talks.

This kind of dialogue crops up when a writer has a character explain his or her actions, give too much information about his or her past (with no motivation for providing all those details), or explain the plot to another character so the reader will catch up. Now, all of this can be done in character and brilliantly–but for most of us, the goal is to weave subtext and have characters not really say what they mean.

You want your characters to lie–and tell white lies. You want them to exaggerate. You want them to duck questions and change topics. Above all, you want emotion to drive most of what a character says. And this brings us back to those micro expressions and bits of body language–because what a character does while he or she is talking is a tip to the reader that something more is going on.

Do you really believe the story the wife is telling while she also fidgets with her wine glass and licks her lips and keeps looking away? Do you really think the guy likes his brother’s pal–even if the guy says he does–if the guy’s smile looks more like a grimace and he’s giving narrowed-eyed stares at the brother’s pal? Do you really think the little boy did not take the candy when he swears he didn’t if he hides chocolate-stained hands behind his back? Yes, those are all lies, but they’re also giving sub-text–more is going on underneath the dialogue than just the words that are spoken.

Now sometimes you do want your characters to be blunt–and honest. But even then, a character needs good reasons to be that blunt. Maybe it’s a habit. Maybe they’re fed up with the other person and want to drive them away. Those motivations have to be made clear to the reader.

Above all, a story must interest and keep a reader’s attention–and to do that you need dialogue that sparks with tension and conflict. It doesn’t have to be world-shattering conflict, but you want more going on underneath your words as characters work to get what they want in each scene. You want characters who don’t say what they mean, who go the long way around to get to a point, who offer indirect statements, and who sometimes never answer any questions. Always look for better ways to get more of your characters’ emotions on the page and less of their explanations.

And for more dialogue tips you’ll just have to take the workshop.

Throwing the Reader into the Deep…

SeaThere’s a recent trend in the contest I’ve been judging, and not a good one. And I think the confusion comes from the idea that you want to open fast and with action. This can be a good thing…or very, very bad.

First, let’s look at some wrong ways to open a book with a fast pace.

Action that’s just action for the sake of the characters doing something does not help your readers. The opening needs to set reader expectations about the tone of the book—so just action ends up giving the reader a mistaken idea about the book. Much better to open with your main character in a scene where something key about the character is show—and even better to have the action relate to the main plot.

Characters piled into the first few pages is another way to confuse readers and make it hard to get into the story. This is like walking into a party where you don’t know anyone—you tend to want to walk out again. Start with main characters and ease the reader into introductions.

Setting skipped past is yet another way to leave readers wondering about the story. This one is easy to if you’re busy with just a fast-paced happenings—but the reader has to known where and when the scene (and the book) starts. What’s the time of day, is the weather cold or hot, and the world like? The reader needs a little time to settle into the scene and the book. Every book needs this, but this is vital with historical, paranormal romances, or any book with an other-world setting.

Danger is often put into the first page and that can work, but only if the reader cares about what’s going on. A better way to think of this is that conflict and tension do not have to be instantly dialed up to ten—an opening scene with something as simple as a child’s lost shoe can involve the reader in the story if you first take the time to establish characters the reader can care about.

Dialogue can lead to a good or bad opening—this one can be tricky. You might have a great line—but if it feels stuffed into the opening, it’s not going to work. I’ve seen scenes that were obviously twisted to try and fit some clever dialogue into the opening. Instead, the scene came out stiff and as if it didn’t belong with the rest of the book.

Backstory, if laid in too heavy, is also going to kill your opening. The thing to remember here is that if you’re going back in time to put in stuff that happened in the past, you are not moving the present story forward. This is where you have to find the balance between weaving in enough information to keep everything clear and understandable, but not so much that you give the reader huge chunks of the past. Keep it to a sentence here and there. Not paragraphs. (Unless, of course, they are utterly brilliant paragraphs—and do not lie to yourself and tell yourself they are brilliant when they are not.)

Those are the main ways to do it wrong. How do you put in an opening that grabs the reader?

We all know these openings when we read them. Go out and read them. Take them apart and see how others do this. Dick Francis, the mystery writer, is a master of the fast opening that sets up the world and gives you an immediate likeable, sympathetic character. Nora Roberts is another writer who always starts her stories at the right place. When you find writers who give you great openings, don’t just read the rest of the book. Stop, take the writing apart. Look at the descriptions, the balance of narrative to scene (telling to showing), look at the viewpoint control, the words used, the sentence structures, the metaphors. Then look at your own work. Are you applying the same techniques? (Techniques, not same word—your writing will come across as stale if you try and put in sentences and phrases already used by others.)

Most of all, keep in mind the question—are you leading your reader by the hand into a nice swimming hole. Or are you pushing them into the deep end without so much as a lifeline? No one likes to be shoved into something, least of all a reader. Introduce your characters to your readers. Set the stage. Make the world come to life with just enough of the right descriptions (the ones that matter most to the story and the characters). Readers everywhere will thank you.

Easy Stuff to Fix – Past Perfect and Dialogue Punctuation

It’s contest judging season again — seems to come along every year with baseball and summer and picnics. And I’m seeing some of the same mistakes I always see. Now some stuff is tough to fix — as in you have a plot that’s not plausible, or wooden characters, or an idea that’s just too tired and cliche. That’s throw out the baby and the bathwater time. But some of this is easy to fix, and folks, you do need to fix the basics. What I’m seeing….

Tense issues. As in past tense, present tense, and past perfect tense (there are others, but these are the three you really need to nail).

Past tense works for most fiction. This is where you write: “He went to the store.” (Went being the past tense verb.)

Present tense is needed for a synopsis (it’s more dynamic), and you can also use it in a story. This is action happening now, as in: “He goes to the store.” (The verb become goes, or is going for present tense.)

Past perfect is where folks seem to really trip up. If you’re in the past tense and you want to write about the past (further in the past that is), you have to switch to past perfect.  As in: “He went to the store, and since he had been given a shopping list by his mother, he knew what to buy.”  Notice the switch to “had been” instead of “was” — that’s past perfect.

(And if you’re still confused, go and buy a copy of Strunk & White’s Element’s of Style. It’s a thin book, easily read in an hour and even easier to keep by your keyboard to sort out this stuff.)

The other thing that crops up a lot is weird uses of commas — commas put in where they are not needed or left out in other spots. That’s not too bad, but you do have to get this right around dialogue.

You use a comma to separate words spoken by a character from any action when (and only when) that action influences what is being said.

So these are all correct:

“You’re wrong,” she said.

“I can’t win,” he told her.

She cleared her throat, and said, “I love you.”

The action here is called an “action tag” by some and notice how these all form one sentence, and therefore use a comma.

The period is used when the action is NOT influencing what is said–when that is a separate thought and therefore should be a separate sentence. As in:

“You’re wrong.” She slammed her hand down on the table.

“I can’t win.” He let out a breath and shook his head.

She cleared her throat.  “I love you.”

Notice a couple of things. First, if you have action, you generally don’t need to attribute the dialogue (as in he said, she said). The reader knows who is speaking because there is action around the dialogue. Second, he said and she said are valid ways to attribute dialogue. It’s the mark of a beginning writer to go crazy with the adverbs and have folks chuckle, laugh, cry out and otherwise try to talk while they are doing something else.

In other words, rewrite when you put down stuff like:

“You’re wrong,” she yelled at him loudly. (If she’s yelling, then loudly is redundant, and the yelled is not letting the dialogue be strong.)

“I can’t win,” he chuckled sadly. (Try chuckling a word and see if you can do it — I dare you.)

She cleared her throat and breathed sexily, “I love you.”   (When in doubt read something aloud — if you cringe or someone laughs, you know you’ve hit melodrama. )

If you feel as if you need to add an adverb to any dialogue before you do this try rewriting the dialogue — dialogue that needs a crutch needs to be stronger so that it stands on its own.

And that’s my rant for the week. Or at least until the next contest I judge.