Posts Tagged ‘dialogue’


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Nine months ago, something happened that I’d been working very long and hard for: Beautiful Monster got published. It was picked up by Damnation Books, a wonderful publisher in California that I absolutely adore. There was much to be excited about as Monster went through the process of publication, and I didn’t want to waste any time. I immediately started planning my future as a writer. I began revising The White Room, a manuscript I wrote before Beautiful Monster which needed some work before being an acceptable candidate for publication. On top of this, I began an equally exciting top-secret side project—that I can’t really get into at this point—that I’m totally stoked about. Things were going swimmingly—my days and nights absorbed in the fictional worlds of my own creation—until, about three months ago, something else happened: I hit a brick wall. And it wasn’t writer’s block.

This brick wall was far scarier than writer’s block because at least there are things you can do to lubricate a stubborn story. What I faced was something I never expected to: doubt… and not the doubt that I could be a writer—that’s a given—but the doubt that I wanted to be a writer.

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So, I stopped writing—which given my life circumstances at the time—wasn’t all that hard. I was in the middle of moving—again—and I’d met some fascinating writers from the old-school who made me feel like one of them. It was easy to coast for a while, but in truth, I wasn’t coasting at all. I was thinking. I was wondering how, after so many years of dreaming of this, of working toward this, I could possibly feel this way once those dreams were finally coming true. But that’s where I was at, and it wasn’t very fun.

After a while, the people around me started asking questions. They wanted to know why I wasn’t writing. I never told them the truth. I didn’t want to be influenced in any way because I knew this was something I needed to figure out for myself. I was working, just not in any way that was visible. In those months, I produced nothing that would help my career in any way, but I did strip down the layers of who I am, and I did figure a few things out.

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I figured out that the glitter is gone, the shine has dulled, and reality has cast its shadow over the dream. I have a different understanding of what it means to be a writer now—it’s not a better understanding—just a different understanding. I figured out that writing is—in truth—a lot of time spent sitting in front of a computer. It’s picking up the thousands of little pieces of a scattered story and spending hours, days, weeks, and months trying to fit them together in the most cohesive, relatable—and salable—way. It’s sacrificing a lot of time with friends and family. It’s being asked outright in public settings how much money you make. It’s work. It’s a daily decision to sit down and create something that may or may not ever even see the light of day. It’s the choice to devote a lot of time and effort to an entirely unknown outcome. It’s a risk.

I realized that the glamour of being a writer—if there ever was any—doesn’t shine quite as brightly as the world would like to believe. I’ve met my heroes, and they’ve now become my friends—people I talk to on the phone, exchange emails with, and discuss the most tedious details of my life with. This doesn’t make them unglamorous, this simply makes them real. It makes all of this real—and that’s not a bad thing—it’s just a different thing.

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In the beginning, when this was still a dream, I made some conscious choices. I would steer clear of any unattainable expectations. I would not put anyone on a pedestal or hold my heroes to superhuman standards… and in truth, I’m neither disenchanted by the path nor in any way disappointed in anyone I’ve met. But the dream, as it manifests into reality, is grating and unsettling… it feels a little like walking off a ledge. It made me decide I needed to take stock. I needed to step back and look at writing from a realistic perspective. I needed to then ask myself if this was ultimately going to make me very happy. So, that’s what I did… and the past couple weeks have finally brought things into enough focus that I can proceed in what I’m confident is the right direction.

Ultimately, nothing has changed for me except my approach to it. The dream is still intact. Somehow, I still want this, but now I know that only the love of this—and nothing else—is strong enough to withstand the demands and lack of certainty that writing requires. There isn’t enough ego to uphold this—there isn’t enough money to justify it—and there isn’t enough comfort to sustain it. But at the core of who I am, this is what I do—what I’ve always done—and it gets me closer to happiness than anything ever has before. And perhaps the greatest persuasion has been the incredible and unbearable gnawing, gnashing need to write even when I’ve given myself permission to break from it for a while. If nothing else, this has slowly convinced me that my writing days are far from being over. I’ve made some great self-discoveries these past months, but that hasn’t stopped the stories from tumbling in, the characters from blathering on, or the fingers from seeking the keys.

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I now have what I believe is a deeper, more accurate understanding of being a writer. It’s not pretty anymore, but it’s mine, and it’s real. I’ve learned that even when I’m “not” writing, I’m still writing, and so—at the risk of sounding melodramatic—how can I possibly not write? I can’t, but I do have a choice in how I proceed. I can either gather up the scattered pieces of story, glue them all together, and try to make something out of this that matters… or I can return to the days when jotted-down descriptions, disjointed dialogue, and fragmented portions of plot and poetry haunted me from hundreds of loose scraps of paper that invaded and overran any space within ten feet of me.

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For me, that choice is clear. After giving my soul a thorough strip-search, I’m realizing there isn’t really anything else I can do and be happy. The dream may be over now… the real world may have settled in… but there are still stories to be told.

And I’ll do my best to tell them.

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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.