Tag Archives: dialogue

What does this character do for your story?


I’m just about ready to start revising the excruciatingly rough draft of Pride’s Children: NETHERWORLD, and my last task is one I thought I wasn’t going to have to do much work on.

Why? Because many of the characters in PURGATORY carry over to NETHERWORLD.

And really, since I am writing a trilogy – split for the convenience of size, not because the stories are separate – you’d think I already had my characters well in hand, and that I would just give them a quick review, add a few, drop a few, and be able to move on.

I’m dropping four characters, and picking up four characters.

It doesn’t seem like much, does it?

And they are minor characters; our main characters, Kary, Andrew, and Bianca will of course be there for the whole, but there are changes, and some of the characters (two of whom come back for Book 3) don’t belong in this volume.

That’s typical, and not at all unusual.

Relationships between characters are half the story

But my plotting software* gives roughly equal space to plot/theme – and characters.

We don’t see the world abstractly. We don’t sit on the front porch and muse about honor.

We compare friends, one of whom acts honorably and responsibly (most of the time), with the one who seems to have an excuse for anything that somehow puts the responsibility for her actions elsewhere.

And from how it hits us, and from what the results of their behavior is, we come to form our own opinion of whether standing up is better than slithering out from under. We understand an abstract concept by its concrete representation in a form our brains are designed to respond to.

Characters are chosen to represent extremes

There isn’t much point in wasting space in a story on two characters who are very similar in their outlooks on life, regardless of how common it is in real life to surround yourself with people you have a lot in common with.

Stories are created from CONFLICT. DRAMA. TENSION.

Stories have word limits. Yes, even long stories like Pride’s Children. If the writer spends too much time belaboring the obvious, the reader starts skipping. Elmore Leonard recommended leaving out the parts people skip.

In Albert Zukerman’s useful book, Writing the Blockbuster Novel, he has an example which stuck with me: Ken Follett, in an early draft, had included two policemen in The Man From St. Petersburg. Zuckerman recommended combining them – and making the single remaining character a much more important personage – to kick up the potential for conflict.

When every word matters, the pages turn more quickly, and the point the writer is trying to make sneaks into the reader’s mind more easily.

In real life, there’d be a whole police precinct full of cops, most of them of similar personality type – those are the people who enjoy police work. But for a story, one is MORE than enough. Unless it’s a police procedural, and the point is to push the in-house conflicts of a group of officers, under pressure to solve a crime, fighting over the best methods.

But in a story we have to be parsimonious in the extreme.

And this means not adding a character to a story unless he or she is there for a multitude of purposes.

Relationships are where the story’s points get made

So the interactions between the characters have to carry their weight.

Ever notice how good dialogue skips all the small talk? In life we spend lots of time inquiring about family and friends, work and leisure activities, before we settle down to something as unpleasant as having a friend on the police force look up a license plate number for us because we have a sneaking suspicion a neighbor is responsible for the new dent in our car door. In a book, the reader would go mad with boredom!

Rule #1 of writing: Don’t bore the reader!***

But the dialogue or physical interaction that remains then has to serve as many purposes as possible: information exchange, state of mind, difficulty in responding to a request that is faintly illegal, status of the friendship… plus class and education and income level of the two participants…

And to set these up, the writer should know why she picked these two particular characters, and what exactly the reader should take out of the exchange.

Setting the web of character interactions into place

1 – For continuing characters interacting with continuing characters, the story must change. We already heard what they had to say in Book 1.

2 – For new characters interacting with new characters, the story must explain why these new characters at all, and what has changed/what has remained the same in the story that the new characters reveal.

3 – For interactions between old and new characters, what is new to the story.

Not surprisingly, planning takes time and a fair amount of effort

I found myself extremely reluctant to go into the relationships when I realize how many of them there were. Then I had the above talk with myself.

So the past two weeks I’ve been thinking about characters, what gets space in the story and why, and what can be left out – because somebody has to do it.

I’m almost to the end of it, and it’s been fascinating.

And since I’ve been having the best time planning to use all this.

I almost missed it due to that reluctance (missed doing it as a unit, because I would have certainly had to do it in every scene) to dig into what seemed finished. It wasn’t.

I hope readers like the results.


*Thanks to ShareAsImage.com for the ability to create graphics

**Dramatica – which allows me to look at a tiny piece of the puzzle at a time (drat that brain fog) and have some hope that the whole will make sense when I’m done.

*** The only rule that matters, so far as I’m concerned.


Writing dialogue: a tool to give readers objective story ‘truth’

Dialogue has a special place in a reader’s mind

I learned a new technique today by accident.

I was going over FIF (Donald Maass, The Fire in Fiction), Chapter 3, Scenes that can’t be cut, when I realized I hadn’t paid enough attention to his section in this chapter on Dialogue.

So I was reading through it as preparation for writing when it occurred to me that, of all the tools a writer has to make a reader believe something, Dialogue is the only one which is not questioned by the reader. Continue reading

Rules for punctuating consistently: a writer’s unique style

Readers of fiction are flexible folk. You can guide them into your story in a number of ways, as long as YOU, once they’ve learned YOUR system, stick with it. This is part of the contract we make with readers: I may confuse you a bit at the beginning as I get all this started, but trust me, I am doing all these things deliberately, and I will get you well started, and I won’t change things arbitrarily after you’ve made the effort to go along for the story.

By system I mean that most writers start with standard punctuation and formatting. Then we make subtle (some of us) or not so subtle variations.

These are not WRONG if they’re stylistic CHOICES. For example, Cormac McCarthy gets away with not using quotation marks around dialogue. It drives me crazy to read, and I probably won’t read anything else he has written, but I read All The Pretty Horses: after a longer-than-usual start (I really do miss knowing which pieces are dialogue), I got used to his system, tucked it in the back of my mind, and survived the read. Wikipedia discusses ATPH and makes his system somewhat clearer. It helped a lot that I grew up in Mexico, and all my history from school comes from the Mexican history textbooks, so that I appreciated parts of the story most people wouldn’t have knowledge of, and that I wanted to find out what happened – because it was woven in with the history so well.

So, when Janice Hardy (http://blog.janicehardy.com/2013/04/how-to-format-remembered-dialog.html#more) asked the question: ‘What style (for remembered dialogue) is your favorite?’ I located chunks of my deathless prose to examine how I do it. (If you can’t wait for the answer, skip to the bottom. I talk too much.)

I ask a lot of my readers. The novel I’m working on is complex, has a lot of characters, and uses different kinds of internal monologue depending on the depth of the thoughts of the point of view (POV) character: general mental rambling, actual words, and even ‘remembered dialogue.’ (More on that in a bit.)

In some chapters there is a need to provide background reactions from an audience.

There are snippets of movies, and songs, and novels written by one of the main characters.

The outside world of entertainment, TV, and internet puts its two cents’ worth in, formatted as epigraphs (at the beginnings of chapters) or text insertions. The prologue is a longish quotation from a faux New Yorker article.

But don’t worry. I actually have a system for understanding what’s what, and I am CONSISTENT about it. In this post I use ALL CAPS not to shout at you, but to emphasize something. I know it’s non-standard for internet, but the form of emphasis with something like *word emphasized* or _phrase emphasized_ doesn’t do it for me. I try not to use caps too much.

And it’s all combined in a consistent way with POV. I’m writing it here not to show that I somehow feel qualified to ‘teach’ other writers anything, but because I have figured it out for myself, and haven’t seen anything quite as I do it.

Note: I also use as few dialogue tags (she said, George whispered) as I can get away with. I’m far more likely to use the real estate to give you a short action, as in:

The producer darted to the door. “Phew! Now you won’t have to rush.” Quick peek at her watch, head shake. “Cutting it awfully close. I gotta run.” Hesitation. “Is there anything you need? Dana insisted—”

Without further ado, here are the rules I’ve cobbled together to write by, my stylistic choices:

1. Dialogue: If it has double quotes around it, it is being said RIGHT NOW in front of you, the reader, in an active scene. Period. Sort of like you watching TV.

“You okay, babe? You haven’t said a word.”

2. Marking a word or phrase: If it has single quotes around it, and is a word or short phrase, the quotation marks carry the standard meaning: this word or phrase is slightly off, not quite right, ironic, or other not-literal meaning.

I thought his ‘ride’ – a camel – was more of a disaster waiting to happen than a mode of transportation.

3. Internal Monologue: If it’s in italics, NOT within double quotation marks, the words are tight internal monologue, i.e., the pov character is thinking that exact set of words, right now. If it isn’t in italics, NOT within double quotation marks, but is clearly something in the pov’s thoughts, it is more general internal monologue – the character is thinking that, but without quite those exact words.

A ghost house. Everything I’ve worked for is a dream.

4. Italics: I only use this form of emphasis by choice* for several distinct, but clearly obvious from context, occasions:

4a) Close internal monologue (see 3, above)

4b) Audience reaction when the characters are talking in front of a studio audience (because the are not participants in the conversation the way the host of the show and her guest are – but they are present:

From the far side of the stage where his band lounged, George squawked the bass.
Laughter and applause.
“Any plans to take one home?”

4c) Standard emphasis of a single word or short phrase within dialogue:

“Living in a castle, using a privy in winter…?”

4d) Ditto in pov’s thoughts (if the sentence were all italics, I’d make the emphasized word NOT italics for the same kind of contrast):

Stage fright? Prayer? What did she have to hide?

4e) To mark the name of a show, book, or movie:

“Now, tell us about your band, the Deadly Nightshades.”
Night Talk (TV talk show)
Roland, Dodgson (movie titles)
Prairie Fires (book title)

The answer to formatting remembered dialogue:

With my rules explained, I can now answer Janice Hardy’s question – because I format remembered dialogue DIFFERENTLY from all her examples. For remembered dialogue (essentially dialogue remembered in its exact wording WITHIN a pov’s thoughts), I use SINGLE QUOTES:

Bianca glanced at the frame on the nightstand with its ridiculous school-photo background of autumn leaves. ‘Bird in hand, princess,’ Daddy said. Thank God the house was hers, and an untouchable trust kept it that way forever. “We’ve had this discussion, Michael. I’d lose half my fans.”

My reasons? That using the single quotes makes it clear that it is not ACTUAL dialogue (see 1 above). Note that it ALSO gets italics because she thinks the EXACT words. Clear as mud?

These are all stylistic choices, and different writers, editors, and publishers  make them differently, even in traditionally published books of fiction in the US. They are not WRONG – the only wrong is when a single book or a single author forgets to keep punctuation consistent – readers DO get confused. They may not know exactly WHY, but they will notice, and they don’t like it.

Thanks to Janice for this interesting blog topic. Except for Example 2, all of the examples come from the text of the scenes I have posted on the Pride’s Children tab of this blog.

This nitpicking is too technical for most people, and I hope I guide readers of my fiction into understanding these ‘rules’ (especially multiple italics use) in such a way that it is transparent to them by a few scenes into the story. I apologize to non-US readers – I can only handle one system without going completely nuts. I have read tons of British stuff, and it is all punctuated differently – and when I read their stuff, I read by their rules.

*Wordpress – and the free 2012 theme – allows me very limited control over how things appear on this blog. So I have to use the Block Quote feature to set off the epigraphs at the beginnings of chapters, and snippets of movies embedded within the scenes (meant to give the impression you are seeing a bit of the movie). When I self-publish, the ebook will allow much more formatting control, and, of course, the print book will look exactly as I want it to look, because otherwise it doesn’t go out. A very real benefit to the opinionated author with complicated control issues.

Comments? Do you do something different from what Janice or I do? And why?

For better dialogue in fiction: write a play

When you can’t depend on interior monologue to get your point across, you lose a huge advantage. As a writer of fiction, you can either be blatant (He felt like death.) or subtle (He remembered med school: learning all the ramifications of the vagus nerve, enervating myriads of gastric components and pathways, useless for pinpointing the source of trouble in his gut, useful only to prove something, somewhere, thought it was wrong. But he’d never expected to feel so many of them. Simultaneously.) when using interior monologue, deep or distant.

But you get to choose.

As a playwright, you work with action and dialogue. Period. And have collaborators – actors and directors – who may aid you or may fight you, but whom you don’t control.

Tradition in the theater preserves the playwright’s absolute control over the dialogue, the WORDS. Many actors and directors will routinely cross out stage directions and the author’s parenthetical instructions on HOW to say a line or move about on stage, but they will not change a WORD of the dialogue.

Even in an adaptation of the play ‘Mary Stuart’ in high school, in SPANISH (I was Queen Elizabeth I, the actual lead – whee!), our director limited himself to crossing out large amounts of dialogue (the play was too long for us), and making the tiniest transitions where absolutely necessary. He would not change the translator’s version of the WORDS.

This is an absolute gift for novelists.

I urge every novelist to go out and write a play*.

Buy yourself $100 worth of playwriting books (buy – so you can write in them). Swallow them whole. Pick a visual story. Write the darned thing (maybe I’ll get back to the how in a later post).

And learn to live within the constraints of the form: you tell your story in the DIALOGUE you give your characters.

Oh, all right. You also have setting, and choosing WHICH of your characters are on stage at a given time, and stage/dialogue parenthetical directions.

But DIALOGUE is your main weapon.

And your written dialogue in your fiction gets much better.

You shouldn’t do ‘talking heads’ or ‘As you know, Bob’ dialogue, any more than you should do it in a novel – doing so demonstrates a distinct lack of technical skills.

It’s “I’m going to paint the Mona Lisa with BOTH hands tied behind my back, using only this paintbrush clenched in my teeth.” Because that’s what it feels like when you start.

But it CAN be done. It’s been done since the beginning of time. It can be done WITHOUT a narrator to gum up the works. And it can be done so the audience feels like eavesdroppers, watching something real happening right in front of them, right now.

Heady stuff. Ask full-time playwrights. Ask actors and directors.

Dialogue in plays is elliptical (not the shape – the punctuation mark), at cross purposes, full of innuendo and half-said things. And lies. Lots of lies. But it must tell the story or you are merely doing pantomime. It has to add up. The WORDS matter.

And that is precisely its value for writing the dialogue – and telling the story – in fiction: it has to add up.

Doing it with time constraints – on stage – leads to the most economical method of telling a story, the fewest words. Doing it on stage, intended for a live audience which gets BORED and restless within seconds if the pieces of story it is receiving do not add up immediately, is like boot camp for dialogue.

The audience can neither skip ahead nor go back to review something unclear. And it won’t like being bored. So you learn to leave nothing out, and put nothing extraneous in.

Audiences want stories to make sense, pronto, and continuously. So you learn to feed them the story in bite-size pieces, story beats, so they can put the whole thing together in their heads and follow.

It is an awesome discipline to acquire – and the results, in terms of the ability to do good dialogue in fiction, are equally awesome, so much so that stripping a scene I’m editing down to ONLY the dialogue, and walking through it as if I expected it to be performed on stage, is now one of the basic steps in my process, and a step that often shows exactly where the flaws are.


* CAUTION: Even though they share similarities, movie scripts and plays are ENTIRELY different beasts. I don’t recommend (unless scriptwriting is your form and dream) writing a movie script unless you are a masochist: EVERYTHING is up for grabs in a movie, and even the actors have no compunction about slaughtering your words.