Let’s Talk

Good dialog is critical to good writing, after all, drama is not always about action, sometimes it relies on communication, or more often, miscommunication. Further, unless your characters are communicating in a nearly context-less manner – such as emails or texting — there are often other aspects that provide subtle cues, which impart more meaning to a scene. Witness the following:

Sal looked around the freezer. Chunks of meat hung on large hooks from the ceiling.
“What are you doing here?” Sal asked.
“Oh, just doing my job,” Victor replied. With a smack, his hand struck a side of beef.
“You work here?”
Victor stared at his hand, now glistening crimson. “Sometimes.”

Beats and tags

The mechanics of dialog are relatively straightforward. Someone speaks, and someone else replies. But who is speaking? Attributions are needed in dialog to allow the reader to follow who is saying what. There are two basic methods for doing this, sometimes done in combination, namely beats and tags. A tag is a direct attribution in the manner of an identifier (e.g., a name) alone with some equivalent to said or ask. i.e., Tim said, “He’s going to kill you.” We know precisely that Tim is speaking. Fairly simple, but sometimes terribly overused.

Tim said, “He’s going to kill you.”
“But why?” Roger asked. “I’ve done nothing.”
“You had an affair with his sister,” Tim said.
“Jennette is his sister? I had no idea,” Roger said.
“Well, you do now. What are you going to do about it?” Tim asked.
“I can try to apologize,” Roger said.
“Good luck with that. He is usually armed,” Tim said.

As you can see, we clearly know who is speaking – but is all the attribution necessary? No, of course not. We have two characters talking to each other, back and forth, the attributions (beyond the initial identifiers) are annoyingly redundant, and can be eliminated.

Tim said, “He’s going to kill you.”
“But why?” Roger asked. “I’ve done nothing.”
“You had an affair with his sister.”
“Jennette is his sister? I had no idea,”
“Well, you do now. What are you going to do about it?”
“I can try to apologize.”
“Good luck with that. He’s usually armed.”

Eliminating attributions is not without caveats in the sense that if the conversation is interrupted, or one of the characters shuts up, and the other keeps talking, we may need to throw in an attribution to reorient the reader. See the following:

“Jennette is his sister? I had no idea.”
Tim rolled his eyes.
“I can try to apologize,” Roger offered.
“Good luck with that. He’s usually armed.”

Things get more complicated when more than two characters are talking, like a round-table type discussion. Still, it can be handled, by not letting the conversation hop around like a one-legged man at an ass-kicking contest.

Tim said, “He’s going to kill you.”
“But why?” Roger asked. “I’ve done nothing.”
Joe looked incredulous. “You had an affair with his sister.”
“Jennette was his sister? I had no idea,” Roger admitted.
“Well you know now. What are you going to do about it?” Joe asked.
“I can try to apologize.”
Tim scoffed. “Good luck with that. He’s usually armed.”

In this example, I had my three characters fill certain roles in the conversation. Tim became the summarizer, Joe, the interrogator, and Roger the accused. Further, I started with Tim and ended with Tim to book-end the conversation.

The Beat Goes On
A beat, on the other hand, is more of an implied attribution, such as a background character action or movement, that combined with a chunk of speech, indicates that the person is talking. For example, Tim stared with wide eyes at Roger. “He’s going to kill you.” The implication here is that Tim is speaking, though you can say it might also be Roger. This is where text placement plays a role. Consider the following:

Tim stared at Roger with wide eyes. “He’s going to kill you.”
Tim stared at Roger with wide eyes.
“He’s going to kill you.”

Is this Tim or Roger speaking? Hard to tell, and the reader might have to slow down and re-read to answer that question, which is not a good situation because you risk losing the reader’s attention and focus.

Adverbs in attributions
One of the marks of amateurish dialog is the use of adverbs with attributions. (i.e., Tim spoke loudly, Roger replied happily, Tim asked questioningly.) That is not to say that you can’t use adverbs to get your meaning across in an early draft, but they should be pinched out before you get to a critique review draft. Either delete them entirely, or alter your speech to imply the effect, or add a beat to infer what you intended.

“He’s going to kill you,” Tim said emphatically.
“But why?” Roger said questioningly. “I’ve done nothing wrong.”
“You had an affair with his sister,” Tim said accusingly.

First off, saying something emphatically is an intonation, like raising your voice, jabbing a finger, or something like that. Hence:
“He’s going to kill you,” Tim said in a raised voice.

Second, doing anything questioningly is either asking or acting like you don’t understand.
Tim tilted his head and pursed his lips. “But why? I’ve done nothing wrong.”

Third, sometimes just choose a better verb or attribution.
“You had an affair with his sister,” Tim accused.

Attribution variation
Be careful with attributions, though. “Said” is the accepted standard. Some replacements of said make sense, like the word “accuse” mentioned earlier. You can also grouse, mumble, whisper, and shout. But you can’t chortle or laugh and speak at the same time. They are separate actions.
Tim chortled. “Good luck with that. He’s usually armed.”
If you really want some other options, consider these:
Still, “said” is the default, and overuse of substitutes is akin to the overuse of a thesaurus, which sends the message that you are not to be taken seriously.

Beats Vs Attributions
The trend nowadays is not to use tags but rather beats. That said, beats have the problem in shifting attention away from the ongoing conversation, and has the potential to put “noise” in the mind of the reader as they are trying to follow the conversation. A suggestion would be to limit the use of beats, particularly if they don’t aid the discussion.

Roger rubbed his arm and glanced toward the window. “But why? I’ve done nothing.”
Tim scratched his nose and adjusted his collar. “You had an affair with his sister.”

Argh! Give these guys some cortisone, ADD medication, or get rid of the beats entirely. Rule of thumb, if it doesn’t contribute to the scene, it has to go.

However, the judicious use of beats has the ability to add emotion and weight to a scene, that would require narrative elaboration.

Roger lifted his cup of tea, it wobbled slightly in his grip. “Jennette is his sister? I had no idea.”
Tim narrowed his eyes. “Well, you do now. What are you going to do about it?”
Roger blinked. “I could apologize.”
Tim smirked. “Good luck with that. He’s usually armed.”

The beats impart some personality into the scene, beyond what is being said. They can also completely change the interpretation of the scene:

Roger smirked. “Jennette is his sister? I had no idea.”
Tim stared with wide eyes. “Well, you do now. What are you going to do about it?”
Roger settled back in his chair and glanced at his watch. “I could apologize.”
Tim grimaced and leaned in. “Good luck with that. He’s usually armed.”

In the first instance, Roger is nervous, in the second, cool as a cucumber. So what is going to happen when Roger apologizes? Will he wet himself, or shove the pissed off brother out the window? Maybe they’ll talk first, but whatever they do — they won’t be chortling their dialog.

I hope this discussion has helped. Creating good dialog is such a complicated chore that I’ve only scratched the surface. Here are some links that might help continue the thread.




Writing Goals for 2013

Alas, I am so late with this it should come with a minus sign after the 2013.  No excuses though, I simply did not make my writing a priority, and let reality leave tire tracks over my soul.  Kibitzing aside, here are my goals for this year.

  • Write 1000 words a day, every day.  (Already behind on this, but I will start tomorrow, no kidding, seriously … )
  • Submit manuscript for Grail of Culloden to an agent in the form of a query letter by the end of January February.
  • Submit a proposal for Toilet Tales to an agent and the formal inquiry letter by the end of January February.
  • Revise the Nanowrimo manuscript of The Dragon Heartstone by the end of March April.
  • Submit manuscript Dragon Heartstone to an agent in the form of a query letter by the end of May.
  • Create a new blog post every two weeks.
  • In addition to submitting manuscripts to agents in the form of query letters, also send manuscripts out as unsolicited manuscripts to a select number of publishers that will accept simultaneous submissions.

Ultimately I want to try and elicit some sort of response, whether it be praise, or more likely a  gag-reflex, snide comment, or unrestrained laughter from an agent/publisher by the end of the year.

A Month of Writing Dangerously

WritingOn this, the last day of November, I still have a few more words to plug into my Nano novel, but yet, since I have already reached the almighty goal of 50K words, I can declare myself to be a winner of 2012’s NanoWriMo competition.  This is a goal that I honestly did not think I could make, as the task of pushing out 1667 words a day seemed to be more than I was capable of, still, I did it.

I came into this contest at the last-minute, with less than enthusiastic thoughts that I could take up the challenge.  In fact, eight days in, I was already 5K behind, and seriously considering dropping the whole effort.  But if there is one quality (so to speak) that I have, it is that I can be incredibly stubborn when backed into a corner.  This has all sorts of implications, but I will stick to the topic of Nano.  In that arena, I decided to man up, or shut up (i.e., Enter the no whine zone).  So, I put my carcass in a chair, slapped on the iPod, and pushed myself to do at least 2K a day.  I also locked my inner critic in a box, and threw the key away, and though he did shake and yell a bit, I was able to ignore him.  Soon 10K became 20K, and when I hit 30K around mid-month, it suddenly dawned on me that I might be able to do this.

Now, since this was my first real Nano experience, I didn’t know what I should be doing.  I guess some people just dive in and start typing, but I need a bit more of an idea than that to get started.  Thankfully, I had a bunch of ideas that came out of writing my first manuscript, which I intended as the first book of a series, so I decided to write book two as my Nano-novel.  And with some bullet-ed ideas and a general idea of where I wanted to go, but almost none of the detail, I began.  I would have to say that my approach worked, at least for me, such that I had a general direction from which to go, and I followed it. The characters did their own thing, and I wove that into the story, but the general direction and flow did not deviate.  I skipped a few scenes, and dropped ones in midstream if they bored me, but often I went back and filled the missing elements.

But though I have already hit 50K, I have yet to finish the story, which may take a few more days.  Nevertheless, starting with nothing other than a few general ideas and having nearly an entire story written in a month with a major holiday, this effort seems like an accomplishment to me.  This process also appears to validate what I’ve been reading in Stephen King’s On Writing memoir.  His advice is to put out a definitive amount of words a day, and shut out the world, or at least that part of the world that interferes with the creative (writing) process.  That of course, is easier said than done, when jobs and families get involved, but those who succeed rely on perseverance rather than excuses and there is simply no way to get to the finish line unless you go all in.

I will admit, that some days, or at least at some point during the day, pulling the words out is akin to yanking out your own fingernails.  But even if it is drivel, type it anyway.  The point is to advance the story, not to write Shakespeare.  Hell, people smear feces on canvas and call it art, your writing can’t be that awful — or if it is, at least it can’t smell that bad (I hope).  So put on your blinders and plunge on.  Rereading your prose is dangerous, but if you jump around between scenes, it is almost necessary, yet resist the urge to edit.  That will come later once you finish the story, and want to polish it up.  The goal is to generate draft zero (not the first draft),  the one that only you will see.  It may be as pretty as a box of rocks, but what the hell, it is your rocks, so of course they are pretty.

Anyway, in the title of this post I appropriated the term “writing dangerously” and applied it to the entire month.  Typically, “writing dangerously” is used to describe marathon writing sessions on specific days.  For me, writing is always dangerous as I am that type of person who, like the dogs in the Pixar movie Up are instantly distracted when something appears on the horizon.  It doesn’t help that we live in a time and in an environment that is constantly in information overload.  Drowning out those distractions and pushing your thoughts into a notebook or document is more challenging today than it ever was.  How many times have you taken your eyes off your novel, to read an email, check Facebook, answer the phone or the door, pull the cat out of the toilet, cook dinner, clean the house, help with homework, etc.?  And all the while, that story churns away in the mind, with characters talking to each other, plotting for or against each other until it just wants to spill out, and we have to force ourselves to take that jumble of ideas, like strips of paper mache and layer it upon the framework of our story.

Oh what a challenge it is, but so exhilarating to realize that this beast of perseverance is a creature of our genesis, full of life and potential.  So now I go off to finish my story, and like Dr. Frankenstein, I will lift my hands to the heavens and shout “IT LIVES, IT LIVES!”

Hopefully though, it won’t leap off the table and strangle me.

Happy NanoWriMo everybody!