Posts Tagged ‘action’


Dialogue in story is like the dressing on a salad – it may not be the crux of the thing, but for better or worse, it dominates the overall flavor.  So while good dialogue can move an otherwise mediocre story along relatively well, bad dialogue is capable of dragging a brilliant one down into the pits of utter Suckdom in just a few bad lines.

Arguably being one of the most important elements of a story, dialogue is also one of the most difficult things to deal with. It’s hard to know when a character should speak and what he or she should say. It gets even harder when a second character with an entirely different personality is required to respond to the first character. For some, dialogue is by far the most harrowing of all storytelling necessities and so the temptation is to avoid it altogether, giving the reader nothing to hold onto but ongoing exposition.

Exposition, in terms of fiction writing, is the method an author uses to convey information such as back story, setting, theme, plot and description, and while being obviously very handy, the general rule of exposition in fiction is this: a little goes a long way. The trouble with too much exposition is that it alienates and disengages the reader. We’ve all read it: page after page of information and details that supposedly need remembering (raise your hand if you gave one or more exhausted sigh of impatience while Oscar Wilde expounded upon the brilliant details of Dorian’s fine things for an entire chapter in The Picture of Dorian Gray). Often times, we skim over exposition to get to the “action” and find at the end of the story that we didn’t really miss anything by skipping over the exposition anyway.

Speaking of Oscar Wilde, It could be (and often is) argued that many of the literary geniuses of the past relied heavily on exposition and it didn’t seem to hinder their effectiveness. That is true, but our attention spans aren’t what they were 150 years ago so while many of the old-time writer’s of classics may have been able to get away with page after page of describing and expounding, we, generally speaking, can not.

Personally, I prefer writing exposition to dialogue and initially I had a hard time writing verbal exchanges between two or more characters. If I had my way, I’d spend the entire duration of a chapter just setting the scene… but I was taught to never go longer than a page, maybe a page and a half, without some kind of dialogue, and this was an intimidating concept.

The first thing I did once I decided to try to learn to write dialogue was to listen.  I keyed in to the dialogue between strangers in elevators, lovers in restaurants and parents chastising their children. I eavesdropped shamelessly and still do, and as a result, I’ve learned that nine-year old boys do not speak the same way as women in their fifties, people from small towns don’t speak the same way as people from cities and even in a group of several people of roughly the same age, class and creed, every person has his or her own distinct way of speaking. So listening to the people around me was a good place to start.

Another great way to learn to write effective dialogue is to read actively. I use the word actively to distinguish the difference between reading to be entertained and reading to learn. When reading actively, you are analyzing the author’s words; it’s not as much fun as reading for joy, but it’s the first step toward an endless reservoir of a virtually free education. For learning how to write effective dialogue, I pay close attention to how the author not only chooses his words, but when he chooses to insert them. I pay attention to how one character responds to another and take note of my own emotional response to it. Was it riveting? Saddening? Relieving? Terrifying? Then I ask myself why. I go back and re-read the lines that hooked me and try to determine what the author did to inspire such a strong response.

I chose dialogue as this blogs topic because it’s something I am currently struggling with. I’m writing a novel about a young man in a tiny little trailer-park town in BFE where the residents speak Hick, twanging their words with a psuedo-southern drawl and dropping their ING’s like a fire-hot Oxford English dictionary. Considering I grew up in such a town, I didn’t anticipate having any trouble with this. However, as I plug along in this story I am continually faced with issues. For example, although a person may actually say, “Sut’ton” instead of, “Something,” it looks really bad on paper. I can not expect readers to decipher the code. So now I am faced with the dilemma of “how much.” How much improper grammar is enough to maintain the characters’ integrity without eluding the reader? Again, this is another area where what was okay 100 years ago is now a big no-no (raise your hand if Emily Bronte totally lost you in Wuthering Heights whenever Joseph spoke up.) So, for the sake of striking what I hope is a good balance, I am limiting myself to some minor (but still readable) grammatical glitches such as the words, “gonna,” “ain’t,” and “ya’ll”. Also, for most of the characters, I am dropping the G on the majority of words ending in ING.

Another, and probably the most troublesome element of writing dialogue for me is keeping “voice.” Each character has his or her own voice… and one of the main pitfalls of writing fiction is losing that voice. Somehow my cool, stoic Casanova, upon waking to find his one-night stand getting dressed to leave, sits up and says something like, “I really had a good time last night. I hope you did too. When will we see each other again?” Upon re-reading, I realize how out-of-place this is. My stoic womanizer would not say anything of the sort. No, he would light a cigarette, squint through the smoke and say, “You goin’?”

In my opinion, dialogue is the lubricant of the story. It can be used to more effectively define relationships between characters, it is a more powerful way to introduce necessary information than exposition is, and if it’s witty and fresh, it keeps the story from going stale. I am learning to just let my characters talk. I’m realizing that letting go and allowing my characters to speak will not result in them stealing the show and taking the story anywhere I don’t want it to go. Characters are extensions of ourselves and therefore, they share our vision. Worst case scenario, a character gets too talkative. In revisions, it will be easier to delete some of his or her lines than it will be to try to add them in later. Also by not censoring my characters, I’ve learned some important elements of the story that turned out to be useful – so I try to let them talk. I use dialogue as often as it’s acceptable to do so because I’ve learned that when it comes to fictional dialogue, silence is far from golden.

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     Life is incredibly short.  The saddest part about this is that we spend so much of what little time we have wondering how to spend it, and once we do figure out how we want to spend it, we are met with resistance, negativity and that two-letter word we all hate most of all: No. After so much of this, we just want to throw our hands in the air and go back to our places in line, accepting the grind as our lots in life and carrying on, moment to moment, day after day, playing it safe and making sure not to rock the boat of monotony.   This might work for a while, but eventually, those notions of something greater, something more meaningful, will catch up to us, tackle us, and pin us to the ground, demanding we heed our own instincts that we’re capable of more.  When we’ve reach that point in life where we’ve put fear in its place and thickened our skins enough to take the punches, there are a few things we can do to counter-balance the effects of the coming obstacles and impediments in order to keep our spirits and our passions in check.  At the forefront of that list, in my opinion, is to have a support network. 

     Whether you’re a writer, a college graduate, a stay-at-home mom, or a poodle groomer, you don’t have time to divulge in anyone else’s version of reality, unless it supports your own success unequivocally.  The fact is, no one but you knows those core truths about you that, if listened to and acted upon, will carry you to your root allocation in life.  We’ve all been out of our elements.  We’ve all taken jobs that simply paid the bills, we’ve all catered to the fear of failure and we’ve all fallen into the designs of someone else’s masterpiece.  It isn’t a good place to be.  We struggle, we fight, we get by… and we don’t even know what for; and all the while we try to ignore the fact that we simply don’t have time for that; that sadly, life comes… and then it goes.

     I’ve reached a point in my own life where, if someone dared to tell me I couldn’t do a thing, I would smile, nod and walk as far away from them as my feet would take me.  My own mother wouldn’t be afforded the luxury of discouraging me, so one can imagine how I might feel about even the gentlest of promptings from a stranger, a friend of a friend, or a stagnant and embittered second cousin through marriage.  If I let these people affect me, I will be discouraged and impotent,  and, as far as I’m concerned, if I let these people make my decisions, I have no right to occupy my own body. 

     So I surround myself with people who have dreams of their own and who believe in mine.  I don’t view this as a simple choice so much as a strategy move essential for survival.  Whatever paths we choose to execute in life, we will be met with enough interference, restraint and discouragement.  It’s just not lucrative to allow it into your immediate personal space.  Your social life should be reserved for those who foster your goals, stimulate your drive and help cultivate your personal empowerment.  In his book, The Master Key to Riches, Napoleon Hill refers to this as the “Mastermind Alliance.”  While I am not typically a fan of self-help or motivational literature, I think he was definitely on the right track with that one, and I recommend the book to anyone.

     If you’re walking, talking and breathing, you have passion.  Even if you have to look for it a little, it’s there.  And passion without purpose and precision is just white noise.  Part of who and what you surround yourself with is part of that precision, so I’ve come to believe in the value of choosing wisely my immediate environment.  I’m standing in a foreign place in my life right now.  Not just in my writing but in everything else as well.  I am at a precipice, looking over the edge at everything I know, just daring the wind to blow a little and knock me off my feet.  But everything I feared is twice removed.  There are a million reasons I can’t succeed and yet all I can think about is the one reason I can: because I want it that damned bad.  Now, more than ever, I’m glad I have nothing around me except the highest caliber of believers, and I’m grateful that, as depressing as it is, I realize how little time there is.

     There isn’t time to listen to anyone else tell you what you should do.  All you need to know is that fish belong in water, painters belong on canvas and writers belong on paper.  It’s just a matter of finding out who you are… your station in life will follow.  Time is precious.  So, if you’re going to stop and smell the roses, first be sure you’re not standing in someone else’s garden.