Tag Archives: Fiction Coach

Three Keys to Dialog: Part 1

18 Oct

How do we write good dialog and avoid bad? It’s more than just hearing voices in our heads or channeling our characters onto paper. There is a bit of science behind the voodoo.

Maybe science is too strong a word, but there are principles, keys, that help us unlock good dialog. Understand these keys and good dialog is no longer something that shows up only when the muse does, or worse, happens by accident. It becomes something you can create at will.

Key One: Dialog is Action

Whenever you bring together two or more characters who want different things, you ignite the heat of conflict.  And how do these sparring characters interact?  Often by talking to each other–dialog.

Dialog is a verbal exchange, a give and take between characters.  

It is action.  This action, this conflict-generating verbal exchange we call dialog, is a wonderful catalyst for fiction.  In fact, the interplay of conflict and action drives fiction.  It works like this: conflict makes the characters act. Their actions reveal who they are better than any description (and that gets the reader involved enough to keep reading).  Their actions also lead to new conflicts and even more actions in response, all of which accrue (with a bit of focus) into a plot.  It’s like an engine.  An action-conflict-action plot-driving machine.

The best test for whether dialog works is whether it contains action.

Something happens–a decision is made, a problem is exposed or solved, some change occurs in the story.

When writing dialog, ask yourself whether the dialog takes the reader deeper into the story.  Has the story changed as a result of the dialog or does the dialog reveal a change?  No change equals no action.

If nothing happens, if there is no dramatic (e.g., plot-moving) action, the dialog isn’t doing its job.  It’s broken.

Dialog Problems:  Telling (a.k.a. Exposition) and Redundancy

If the dialog and the narrative parts of a scene say the same thing, one of them is unnecessary:

Gerald couldn’t tell if he had enough money for both pieces of candy. When he tried to count the coins, he became flustered.  “I’m confused,” he said.  “I don’t know how much money this is.”

This is painful and redundant because the narrative part tells (instead of shows) that Gerald is flustered and then the dialog part repeats the mistake. This is an exceedingly poor fragment of dialog–not only is it redundant and expository, nothing happens.

Gerald looked from the rock candy to the pixie sticks to the three pennies and a nickel in his palm. “Will this buy two pieces?” he asked, holding up the coins for the shopkeeper’s inspection.

Gerald rises to the challenge—there is action in his decision to ask the shopkeeper. It sets up the shopkeeper to respond in any number of ways.

If Gerald held up the coins and said something else, the reader would have a different impression of the boy and the situation:

“Give me a pixie stick and a rock candy,” he said, thrusting the change at the shopkeeper.

We could also expect a different response from the shopkeeper.  Here, the dialog is as much a part of the action as the narrative, and it complements it rather than repeats it.  It illustrates Gerald’s character and moves the story along.

Exposition. If a character talks for more than a couple or three lines, he is probably not engaging in a dialog. He is either giving a speech (monologue) or dumping information (exposition) on the reader. Dialog is action; neither speech-making nor exposition is action.  And they will both slow your story to a grinding halt.

When you review dialog you have written, you should see things happening, problems being addressed or created.  If nothing happens, backtrack to where the action stopped. Chances are you have some telling (exposition) in your dialog where showing would be more appropriate.

It can be as subtle as the first Gerald example or as egregious as page after page of an expert detailing the inner workings of a secret society. You may be in love with these details, but they aren’t action, even when they are dressed up with quotation marks.  This is true for technical and historical information, setting and character description, backstory, or any other exposition you may be tempted to dump into the story. Keep the story moving.  Try to keep exposition to a minimum and incorporate it as naturally as possible. Reveal details through story events, not as chunks of exposition masquerading as dialog.

A couple quick tips: 

Characters should not tell each other what they already know or what one character conveniently “forgot.” This is a flimsy device to bring the reader up to speed. Believe me, readers see right through it. Beyond that, it will probably have your characters resorting to forced and false dialog that doesn’t reveal their true characters, that dumps exposition on the reader, and doesn’t contain action. You are a better writer than that; you can find a more interesting and legitimate way of incorporating what your reader needs to know into the story.

Avoid wasted words such as well, like, you know, and um. Dialog isn’t exact speech, it’s an approximation designed to convey the sense of a conversation. There is a lot filler in a typical conversation, but you don’t want filler in your story. You want 100% pure story in your story.

Stay tuned…

In the next post we will explore how dialog reveals characters on many different levels at once.

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Whose Line is it Anyway? Narrators and Viewpoint Characters

10 Sep

Have you read the post Good Fiction Comes From the Minds of Your Characters?  Today we delve a little deeper into Points of View (POVs), throw around some technical jargon, uncover some popular POVs of the past and find out what is current.

Point of View is a powerful storytelling tool that lets you adjust the tone of your story and fine tune your reader’s experience. By adjusting the POV, you can give your story a detached news-report aura or an intense roller-coaster feel.

However, like any powerful tool, you need to know how to use it correctly.  So before we go any farther I’m going to let you in on a secret.

The key to using POV well is to keep in mind that the narrator of the story is not the author.

The Narrator is the Storyteller

This is easiest to see in a 1st person story where the narrator is the “I” character.  You tell the story from this character’s perspective whether he is the main character, a minor character, or a witness to the events of the story.  This comes naturally to many fiction writers.  We slip easily into the skin of our characters.  It’s almost scary.  But no matter how easy it is to assume the identity of our characters as we write, you wouldn’t argue that we actually are those characters. At least I hope you wouldn’t.  Unless you write memoirs.

Third person gets a little more tricky.  You may argue that it’s really you telling the story–the fictional narrator doesn’t exit.  Maybe, but you will write better if you think of the narrator as a fictional persona or “voice” you adopt to tell the story.  It’s important to separate the narrator from you, the author, because the “voice” of the narrator can be honed to reflect the thoughts and speech of the story’s characters.  It can even take on its own personality to lend an air of authenticity to a story.

Viewpoint Characters and Narrative Distance

If your story is told in 1st person, the narrator, the “I” character, is the viewpoint character.  Your reader experiences the story from this character’s POV.  Here the narrative distance (how close the narrator is to the character) is close and relatively fixed.

We see the story only through the lens of the viewpoint character’s capability to tell the story and his proximity to the events.  But don’t despair–if you choose the right viewpoint character/narrator, these limitations can work for you.  They add texture to your story and filter out information that you don’t want your reader to know.

Third Person Zoom

When we use a 3rd person POV, things gets a bit more complicated again. Third person stories can be told from inside a character’s mind or from a distance. Think of a zoom lens on a camera. If you zoom out to a wide-angle view, you can see a lot, but not in detail–this is good for a panoramic landscape shot. Zooming in gives you a detailed view but a narrower range of vision.  There is a continuum of 3rd person viewpoints, from tightly-focused which we call Limited to all-seeing which is often called Omniscient.

Within a 3rd person story, you can zoom in and out to vary the narrative distance. We sometimes see a similar effect used at the beginning of a movie. The opening credits begin with a sweeping panorama over mountains or a city. Then the camera gradually zooms in on a particular character in action.  Because you can vary the narrative distance, 3rd person POV is versatile like the zoom lens on your camera.

Four Useful Viewpoints

If you read much about narrative distance and POV, you will undoubtedly come across many terms for various levels of narrative distance. We will make it simple by adding just four viewpoints to your kit.  That’s all you need to effectively use the zoom lens of 3rd person.  Just to be clear–these are all variations on the 3rd person POV.

1.  Omniscient

The narrative equivalent of the wide-angle view has several names. Omniscient, All-Knowing, or God’s Eye POV are common terms because from this viewpoint you can see everything going on in the story even things no character can see. This kind of all-knowing narrator sounds like a traditional storyteller at a campfire or the narrator of children’s fables. This POV isn’t used often in modern fiction but was almost universal in stories before the novel was invented.

2.  Detached or Objective, “Just the Facts, Ma’am”

This is sometimes called the Fly on the Wall POV. The easiest way to write from a detached viewpoint is to imagine you are a fly on the wall. A literate fly. There is no viewpoint character. The narrator-fly can only report what it sees and hears and is never in the mind of any character. The result can be emotionally detached.

If you want your reader to identify with your characters, this is not the way to go, but it can be powerful when you want to convey the impression of an objective reporter or create an eerie detachment. John le Carré’s The Little Drummer Girl starts off with a long narrative in this style. It was a risky way to start a novel–you can decide whether it worked.

3.  Observer

We mentioned a witness-to-events narrator in 1st person and we can use a similar viewpoint character in third person. This is when a minor character sees and reports the action. It differs from the detached viewpoint in that a minor character is the viewpoint character.

4.  Limited

The limited 3rd person narrator is the counterpart to a 1st person narrator. The narrator takes on the persona of the viewpoint character even though he relays the story in 3rd person. If you want the reader to feel close to your character, you go deep into the mind and reveal the character’s experience and thoughts. At this level, the reader is only one step removed from being in immersed in a 1st person narrative.

Effectively, we have taken the camera lens and zoomed it in on a single character. We are so close that we are inside his mind where we are privy to his thoughts.

It’s called Limited so there is a catch–we are limited to that character’s viewpoint. The limitation is that we do not enter into the minds of other characters at the same time. There is no jumping from head to head. Es ist verboten! You must also be careful not to disclose any information that the viewpoint character would not know.  It can be hard, because stuff you the author know sometimes slips in.  Be vigilant.  Also writing in a close style will help.  (This is what we worked on in the post: Good Fiction Comes From the Minds of Your Characters.)

Most modern stories are written from this POV, usually alternating between two or more viewpoint characters, chapter by chapter.

Which POV to Use?

That is like asking a painter which brush you should use.  It’s a matter of choosing the right tool, be it brush or lens or POV, for the job at hand.  And that is why we study POV or any other element of fiction writing.  To know what tools we have in the box and to be able to pull out the right one when we need it.

That said, in the next workout we will go into more detail about choosing POVs and switching between them.

Until then, here are a couple exercises to strengthen your awareness of POV.

Practice

1. Assume you want to tell a story of a drug addict in denial.  Of the four types of 3rd person narrators described above, which would you use to accomplish the task?  Would a 1st person narrator work better that the 3rd person POV you chose?

2. Take several of your favorite novels off the shelves.  Choose books published within the last 50 years.  What are their genres?  Are they written in 1st or 3rd person limited or some other POV?

3. Read through a scene or two and notice whether the author sticks to a single POV throughout the scene.  We will work on changing viewpoints in the next post.

If you would like examples of how different POVs sound, there are excellent examples in Chapter Seven of Ursula Le Guin’s Steering the Craft.  I highly recommend the entire book.

Good Fiction Comes From the Minds of Your Characters

6 Sep

Time to Shape up Your Fiction

How to Get Readers to Identify with Your Characters

What makes fiction come alive?

The short answer is identification.  If the reader sees herself in your character or situation and says, “Hey that could be me,” we have identification.  That shower scene in Psycho? It’s powerful not only because it’s graphic but because we all take showers.  We identify with that experience.

Point of View

A lot of techniques help readers identify with your character.  One of the most powerful is telling the story from the character’s perspective.  When we are in a character’s head, we are in that character’s Point of View (POV).  Your story can be written in either 1st person (I did that, I saw this) or 3rd person (he saw this, he did that) and still use the same viewpoint character.

Showing a Character’s Experience

What is important is how closely we represent that character’s experience.  When we tell a character’s inner thoughts and sensations, we are in a close POV.

Jim’s heart pounded as he ran.  That is Jim’s experience.  We can feel it too because we know the sensation.

If we write Jim exerted himself as he ran, we’ve completely lost the experience.  We are telling the reader what happened instead of letting her share it.

A Simple Trap

A trap we often fall into is adding a layer between reader and character.  For example if we write, Jim felt his heart pound as he ran, we have stepped back slightly from Jim’s heart pounded as he ran.  Now we see Jim feeling his heart pound.  There is a self-conscious layer between Jim’s experience and the reader’s.  That additional layer is the author telling the reader that Jim felt.

Don’t think that if you write in 1st person you are immune.  Consider the difference between I felt my heart pound as I ran and my heart pounded as I ran.

Omit Thought Words

Words that point out what the character is thinking like knew, thought, realized or wondered also separate the reader from the experience. Which do you think is stronger?

I knew there was no hope

or

There was no hope.

If you aren’t sure, try reading the two sentences aloud.  You may feel more comfortable with the first one because it sounds more polite, but the second is more direct.  When we are trying convey the experience, direct is what we want.

Show Emotions, Don’t Name Them

Words that name an emotion are shortcuts that rob the reader of experience.  It’s one thing to say Jane was sad, another much more effective thing to show her in that state.

To do that we have to be in Jane’s experience and know how she would feel and respond to the situation at hand.  It’s worth the extra effort because when you show your character responding at that level of detail, the reader identifies.

Practice

Now you should have a pretty good handle on what’s expected.  Look over the last scene you wrote and find where you can make the point of view closer.  Make the changes.  Then read the scene again to see how tightening up the POV strengthens your writing.

When you’re finished, you can hit shower.