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Month: September, 2014

Add Depth to Your Dialogue with Subtext (Not Volume)

I recently read a short story that was perfectly nice, but a bit boring. The structure and word choice were technically quite sound, but something was still missing. This story was about the communal mourning of the death of a family member. It bored me because the characters all said what they really meant, plain as day, which lacks the intrigue many readers seek in fiction and is also misrepresentative of the human experience. In short, people don’t talk like that. They rarely if ever say what they mean with clarity and honesty–hell, most people don’t even realize how they feel with enough clarity and honesty to speak it. Subtext is what you really use when you speak, and it relies on devices such as gesture, emphasis, strategic pauses, punctuation, cadence, and word choice. It really gets down into the sentence at a molecular level in order to express itself.

A line in this story would read something like, “I know how much you miss her.” As someone who has experienced loss comparable to that of the characters in this story, I can tell you that no one has ever said this to me. People are uncomfortable with raw, blatant emotion. The most I have really been offered is, “I’m sorry,” or “I have no idea what you’re going through.” Then there would be a tense few seconds, and I’d likely respond by thanking them for their compassion, or allowing that I knew they didn’t know how I felt, and then the subject would be changed. This is as true for people you hardly know as it is for family members. A more realistic line could be, “Do you think you’re going to… do anything… with her stuff?” It eludes to the grieving process, but it’s focused on something else as the technical point. It also shows the aversion toward confronting this reality through its use of the pause/ellipses surrounding the phrase “do anything.”

In addition, it’s less interesting because plain speech is often cliché. “I miss you,” has been said so many times, in cards, in letters, on the phone, it’s almost a throw-away statement. Let me take you to the scene of a boy and a girl on the phone, separated by the entire country and college, going on three weeks now. She asks him how it is “there.” What does he say? Yes, “I miss you” is obvious, and a lot of people would really say that. But what means the same thing and is more complex and just as honest? “Cold.” Great answer. One word, so there’s a sense of finality, even fatalism, and the word “cold.” He’s cold. If she were there, he’d be warm. That’s subtext. Or “It’s been raining all day.” More interesting, just as honest, means the same thing: I’m miserable without you.

Now let’s take a look at how the scene itself can participate in the subtext. In this instance, through sound and gesture, but it could be anything that suits the moment. An appropriate song drifting by from a passing car with lowered windows.

A husband walks into the bedroom where his wife is sitting, chatting with a man on-line. The man has a profile picture in which he is wearing some kind of funny hat, or shirt, tie, et cetera, and the husband flippantly comments, “What kind of hat/shirt/tie is that?” Oddly, though, the wife becomes defensive. We don’t want to say “become defensive,” though; we want to show the way she pulls her feet down from off the computer desk, where they had previously been resting, and then, if you really want to make the scene stressful, the keyboard falls off her lap with an abrasive clatter. While she’s fumbling for the keyboard, her hair is falling into her face (which shows her evasiveness) and she responds, “How am I supposed to know what kind of hat/shirt/tie he’s got? I’ve never met the guy. I mean, that’s a ridiculous question. Do you know everything about everybody in the world?” Weird, right? Very suspicious, without saying what she really means: “Leave me alone!”

I shouldn’t have to tell you that the wife is snapping at the husband. You should hear it in the way the words are confrontational, the phrases defensive (How am I supposed to…, Do you know everything…) and the surrounding activity somewhat cacophonous. The falling keyboard, the changing of her body’s position, the interrupted Skype session. For this reason, you don’t need to pepper your dialogue with too many squeaks, gasps, grumbles, mutters, purrs, pipes, or groans. It’s distracting to the eye, and the sentence should move in such a way that we sense tone automatically. As many teachers say, SAY is the invisible word, and it doesn’t hamper your reader, who will whizz through the dialogue as if they are eavesdropping on a real conversation. SAYS is mostly important as a tag, so we know who is speaking, unless it’s a two-person back-and-forth and your reader will pick up on the pattern, so it can be dropped for the sake of speed and economy (two of my favorite things as both a reader and a writer).

If you find your dialogue maintains a certain rigid, staged quality, eavesdrop–especially on arguments, secrets, jokes, interrogations, the intimate stuff–and observe the mechanisms. The way people pretend to not hear questions to which they’d prefer not to respond. The words they use as substitutes so they can discuss personal matters in public. And of course, true diction. Diction is vital in suspension of disbelief, because if someone sounds fake, we wake up from the dream. We notice the stage setting. We remember that we are reading. Diction saves us from that, and I don’t mean that everyone needs their own regional dialect (at all!) but rather that everyone needs a distinct and realistic style of speaking. As I said before, gestures, pauses, emphasis, word choice, all these things make dialogue real.

Pause for a moment and ask yourself, would someone really say this? How would they say it? There is a world of difference between “Well!” and “Well…”

One particular issue I notice in beginner dialogue is volume. Let’s take a look at an argument. Beginners often make the mistake that a blaring altercation is interesting, but in fact, it is taxing and amateur. Lovers in a quarrel, screaming vague obscenities and trite threats at one another, is just as annoying to read as it is to hear outside your window at 3 in the morning. However, a muted conversation in which one character is covertly attempting to go somewhere without the other character–that’s intriguing. It’s the quiet conversations that make the reader lean in closer. How could a character with disguised motives still get their way? Without blatantly saying, “I want to go to the beach on Saturday, alone.” Well, that’d be weird, wouldn’t it? Wanting to go to the beach, alone, for no reason? Certainly, the other character would ask why. So we don’t make it “the beach.” We make it “the gym.” A lie, most interesting!

“I don’t know, Bryan, I think I’m just going to go to the gym on Saturday.”
(I DON’T KNOW. A great way to let the audience know, this character DOES know, and doesn’t want to say it straight. “I don’t know” and “I guess,” these things crop up frequently in real conversation, with easily discernible tone. Can you hear it?)
“Oh, ok. I haven’t been to the gym in a while anyway. Maybe we could do that hot yoga Patrice keeps talking about.”
(The tone is clearly amiable–“oh, ok,” and agreeable. “Maybe we could…” Notice, too, the detail: hot yoga, Patrice. Detail serves to deepen the illusion in which our readers are mired, making this world ever more real.)
“You want to come? Are you sure? I don’t know how long I’ll be there. And it’s Saturday. Don’t you have that thing with Tom on Saturday?”
“No, that got moved to Wednesday. And yeah, I need to get to the gym. It’s fine. I can always come in my own car and leave when I’m ready.”
“I don’t know, Bryan. I kind of wanted… I guess I kind of wanted to have Saturday–to be–to do Saturday alone.”
(Almost says “be alone,” but adjusts mid-sentence to “do Saturday alone.” Lots of “I guess,” and “kind of.”)
“Oh… Any particular reason?”
“I don’t know. I guess I just wanted to be alone.”
“Yeah, but why?”
“I don’t know!”
Lapse into silence. Playing with things around them–a spoon in the soup bowl, pencils at the library, whatever. This brings me to my next point: what happens when “arguments” or things like arguments reach their boiling point. There is usually a spike in volume (“I don’t know!”) followed by a break between the participants, and a return to lower volume. This conversation could continue, “Maybe I won’t go to the gym after all,” in a soft tone. Because that line is ambiguous, the tag should probably expound on the sound. You have to use your best judgment with the intuition of your audience and tagging.

Of course, this conversation could take off in a lot of ways. It could end there, awkward, unresolved, or it has the potential to become a full-blown fight. But full-blown fights (circling back around to the issue of volume) are typically not enduring. A full-blown fight, if you’ve ever been lucky enough to witness a real one, tends to explode within the space of several sentences, and then the contenders fly apart to their separate corners, or someone leaves. Most people don’t have the stamina it takes to just fight someone on and on, even if only verbally. As always, we want our fictional relationships to mimic the human condition. So, when volume does spike, it should spike quickly and then be cut off. It’s just not realistic to keep volume too high too long, and it’s not pleasant to read, either.

This also goes for violence, gore, sex, and vulgarity. A murder has the potential to be of screaming volume. However, it can also be subtle, silent, and I hope you agree that it is much more pleasant to read–and much scarier to think about–that way.

Adverbs or Bad Verbs?

This was a difficult concept for me to grasp, because there are a lot of adverbs I like and it doesn’t seem as if writing a sentence I enjoy could be wrong. And it’s not wrong, per se; it’s just flabby. The older I get, the more I defer to clean, tight prose. It moves fast–or flies, or zooms, or soars, or jaunts–and is more articulate.

So, as you proofread, keep an eye out for adverbs. You may be surprised by how many you actually use. When you spot one, try to conjure another, more complex verb which would encompass the adverb.

Try it out and see how it feels for yourself. Perhaps your hero doesn’t laugh mirthlessly. Perhaps he chuckle-groans. Maybe your villain does not just slowly follow a path. Perhaps she stalks. Or trails? Crouches and slithers? Have fun with it. You may end up creating some new sentences–or verbs–altogether.

First-Time Fictioneers: The Temporal Cue

I want to quickly cover a beginner mistake I see commonly, prior to the creation of an enduring character or plot. Plot and character fill entire worlds on their own, but there are certain skills very easy to instill which are even more essential than character and plot, like how hydrogen and oxygen are essential to the world, too. Without these elements, the latter cannot yet exist.

This easy-to-remedy essential is called temporal cuing. This is letting your reader know–constantly–where your character is in time and space.  It’s important to do this in your very first paragraph, if not sentence. Open any fiction book you own and try to find one that doesn’t give a strong sense of time and place in which to locate the character. Otherwise, the reader is floating in an ambiguous soup of internal monologue. Even acts as mundane as sitting up, standing, and walking into another room should be summarized, albeit quickly. This continues to be important in dialogue. Our characters shouldn’t be just strings of quotes, as readers eventually lose their sense of physicality in the scene and it becomes unreal: the kiss of death to any fiction. Even the arguments (especially the arguments) should be a thrust and parry of blotted lipsticks, of lighters refusing to flair, and of course, of shrugging, blinking, and pausing.

Even periods of stewing and break-down (especially periods of stewing and breakdown!) need to be tagged with markers like “lounged after dinner,” “strode across the river,” “glared into the traffic,” even “just sat and stared until the alarm clock shrilled.” My first novel maintained a huge mistake until its latter stages, and that was a page or two of solid abstraction (oxymoron unintended) to summarize. Your reader doesn’t want to be told what the book is about, whether at the beginning or end, no matter how eloquent your grasp of language. Lyricism cannot replace tight prose that supports an intriguing concept. Cleverly told stories are never as good as good stories, regardless of how cleverly told. This is an epiphany I only had this year. I’d struggle over whether or not to cut a pointless but poetic sentence. Functionless? Cut it. People remember stories more often than they remember sentences.

Love, Sex, and the Concrete

I can’t impress upon you enough the importance of the concrete.  I’ve heard some writers say “Tell, don’t show,” but I maintain that they are trying to be edgy, accrue some curiosity, and sell more books. It is still show, don’t tell, with the exception of the occasional puddle of exposition or backstory, which would probably be just as good if revealed in the concrete, but is acceptable in the abstract.

When we’re talking about a character in the concrete, it manifests most heavily in gesture and diction, and on a larger scale, in what they do throughout the course of the story. I don’t buy much into what the character is wearing or their overall appearance. But, as in real life, when you fall in love with someone, it is the result of certain charming attributes. The way they lounge on things that are not meant to be lounged on, like other people. Punctuating an otherwise awkward sentence with a wink. Empathy, wit, depth–the things we love in people–exist in the most minute of word and deed. Diction gives us a very fleshy sense of character, for something that is entirely fleshless. J.K. Rowling crafted about fifty fleshy characters in her Harry Potter universe, largely the result of a couple characteristics (such as Snape’s constant curtain of oily, dark hair) and individual diction.  Hermione, Dobby, and Hagrid spring immediately to mind. Imagine how much would have been robbed from us if Dobby did not always address Harry as “Harry Potter,” or “the noble Harry Potter,” or if Hagrid had not been allowed to pronounce “to” as “ter”! It lends such flesh, such ring, to the sentence. Word choice and cadence give us a strong notion of what someone is like.

Then there’s what they say. What they say, how they say it, and why they say it. It’s hard to tell which one is most instrumental in romance, the topic of this evening’s post. In short, they are all important. If you described my face without noting the eyes, you’d be remiss, though they do not outweigh the lips. It’s all part of the same sum, and it’s all connected. If there is a discrepancy between what they say and what they think or the situation they’re in, this lends you some intrigue and unpredictability.

I had been writing a relationship into one novel, and was disappointed with how flat it felt.  I realized that I had been summing up a lot of the feelings, as if I were informing the reader of the relationship, rather than allowing them to experience it.  You never want to tell your reader (who is your vicarious main character) how they feel.  You want to illustrate the story as clearly as possible, and allow them to feel what they will.

Love lies in character, and character lies in the little words and deeds of every single scene.  These patches will eventually form the quilt of the larger story, and that’s when a reader really wishes the character was real, because they’ve fallen desperately in love with them.

Here are some other tricks for illustrating a certain character’s desirability without telling your audience that they are desirable:

    • Other characters comment on their appeal.
    • They are not constantly available, physically or emotionally, but cause the reader to yearn for them.
    • Leave the audience wanting more. Almost-not-quite love is the staple of enduring drama. If they’re leaning in for a kiss, have someone open a door and walk in.
    • Put obstacles between your romantic characters, preferably very solid ones. The Scarlet Letter was such a good book not because of its inspection of morality and individuality in society and religion, but because Hester Prynne and Reverend Dimmesdale were in love, but could never be together, for what was, back then, damn good reason.

I do mention sex in the header of this post, so let me brush on that for a moment. Sex–or physical intimacy, whether it reaches the point of sex or not–is difficult to digest as a casual reader, much like violence, gore, and gratuitous, out-of-character profanity. There is a certain audience given these topics, but like in real life, most people prefer it kept behind closed doors or “fade-to-black,” and have a tendency to shutter the windows themselves if it gets too vulgar for them. After all, your readers are your voyeurs, and they want to see a little, but they don’t want to get the whole show and feel uncomfortable. At the same time, many stories are about adults and adults have sex. This is how an entire sexual episode, or violent episode, can be covered in a story without making the audience uncomfortable reading. This is also something you can do when you want to give your reader the sense of time passing without actually writing the details of a month.

Plant a few concrete details which sum up the general feeling you’d like to impart, without being too graphic. Most readers don’t want to know the specifics of sex and violence, but rather, like a scene in a movie, to catch the glimpses that paraphrase it. It also helps to evoke lyricism, euphemism, and wit at such junctures. People like those things and will let more slide if it sounds pretty.

But remember to keep it concrete!

Always Run Into Explosions (And Let One Character Know It’s Coming)

…unless there is something more interesting somewhere else. We always want what is most interesting, while still credible in the context of the plot/character.

Basically, and this is something I see frequently, beginners are shy about introducing their characters to conflict, as if this is a living person they are trying to protect. Know that you control this world and can always invent devices that will save your characters, provided you backtrack and plant the information in the narrative, so it doesn’t seem to have manifested from thin air. This is constantly used in all forms of storytelling, and is not cheating.

You want to think about your reader, who is your vicarious main character, and maintaining their interest. The more your character runs from certain conflicts, the less your character actually does, and the more boring the story becomes. Resolving or prolonging conflicts is more difficult than disengaging from them, but since conflict is the pivot on which all fiction rests, it is a tool you’d do better to sharpen than ignore.

Dramatic irony is also a useful tool which some forget is at their disposal, involving conflict. What does your character know, compared to what other characters know, and what the audience as a whole knows? This can be very fun. For example, the current setting is a crowded dance club with balcony seating for dining. X has been fraternizing in a rather intimate sense down on the dance floor, and with a character she doesn’t realize is an enemy (Y). In fact, Y would like to murder X, if he had the chance. Ah, murder. Where would fiction be without you? Another character (Z) sits in the balcony. Has he been watching X? And so theoretically would have seen this exchange with Y? Or did he only just barely miss the exchange, his eyes losing X in the crowd just as she embraces her new dance partner? Either way, moments later, the couple return to the balcony table, pretending that they have been nowhere and doing nothing in particular.

How interesting could the story be if Z had seen? After all, isn’t this why we have balconies? To literally eavesdrop?

It would only be better if there were some plot-related reason to keep Z unaware of the intimate relationship developing between X and Y. Or perhaps Z is fully capable of ending the tryst, which would ruin the suspense, and so he can’t have seen yet. He can’t have seen until the last minute, when it’s the climax, when it’s almost too late. You’re the writer, so you hopefully know the lay of your plot and what would be best in the long run.

It’s always fun for the audience to know a lot more than each individual character does separately. This is a huge trope with situational comedy and with drama. It is deceptively simple to employ, because in life, we all know different things and don’t know others, and art imitates life. Therefore, if each character is granted life-like agency, they will naturally accrue dramatic irony together.