Posts Tagged ‘active reading’


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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     A few years back, I attended a writing workshop where I met some of the most unusual and memorable people I ever have. It was there that I first heard one of the most preposterous and, I soon found out, common, writing faux pas’ that exists. When the workshop facilitator asked us what we liked to read, the gentleman next to me spoke up and stated he did not read anything. The room turned its head in unison to blink at this guy. “Why… don’t you read?” asked the facilitator.  The man next to me proudly explained that first, he did not have time to read, and second, he avoided reading anything because he was afraid of unconsciously plagiarizing whatever authors he was reading. There was a long stretch of silence before the facilitator ushered the topic into new territory.

     Reading is the first reason I ever had to write at all. I have never met a credible author who wasn’t also an avid reader. I was surprised by a writer who didn’t read, and apparently I was not alone. It made me wonder what kind of writer I would be if I didn’t first have a profound love for reading.

     One of the first books I ever remember loving was Howliday Inn by James Howe. I was intrigued by the humanization of Chester the cat and Harold the dog. Chester and Harold has this very Holmes/Watson kind of relationship which showed me very early on the importance of character contrast. I submerged myself in the Bunnicula series for the next couple of years and from there, I remember reading And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie. This style of writing kindled my intrigue with murder, mystery, suspicion and suspense. It showed me how characters are used to move the story forward. Also, Agatha Christie wasted no words, so from her I learned the importance of getting to the point. By the time I was in fifth grade, I was reading mostly adult fiction. Granted, I was only ten and there were many things I didn’t understand about the things I was reading, but I believe beyond doubt that these books are what shaped me into the kind of writer I am today… warts and all.

   

     In Stephen King’s book, On Writing, he talks about reading actively. What this means is that first, you must read, and second, you must be conscious of what you’re looking at. Pay attention to what the author is doing and what emotional response his words are invoking within you, the reader. I began practicing active reading immediately and have since trained myself to read this way almost solely. It has its pros and cons. On one hand, it will absolutely hone your own writing. On the other hand, it makes reading less enjoyable because you are often too focused on the technique to experience the story. Over all, it’s worth it though. In reading actively, I have learned many things that can not be taught otherwise.

     I suppose it’s possible to be a great writer who doesn’t read anyone else’s work, but personally, I can’t imagine it. I think it’s important to learn from the greats. Not just the classic, historically cemented, old-time writers, but the contemporary writers who are experiencing the success you are striving for. Yes, writing is absolutely an art… but it’s also a business, and that business doesn’t have much compassion for writing that relies too heavily on an authors need for self-expression. And there’s a lot of self-expression out there.

      To be great, I believe, you must first learn what great is. From there, you must determine specifically what makes them great and how that greatness was translated onto the page. Then, you must try to find your own greatness. You must know your strengths and weaknesses and find creative ways to capitalize on both. You must be willing to sacrifice snippets of your own brilliance for the overall quality of your story. You must be willing and able to take criticism, insult, and ignorance. You must be willing to place your ego on the chopping block and allow complete strangers to take turns bashing it to bits. But above all… you must continue learning and getting better, and I can think of no other way to do this than by learning everything you can from those who’ve traveled the path before you.