Saturday, May 30, 2015

It’s All About the Dialog

A great story with weak characters is a big a fail, but so is wonderfully developed characters who spout weak dialog. Like all writing, good dialog requires both craft and conception. It’s the best way to draw readers into your story and get them involved with the characters.  The conversations between your fictional people should reveal character and promote the plot as well.  You don’t want to waste dialog on anything the character says that doesn’t promote these two goals.

One dialog mistake that will scare any publisher’s editors away from your work is using dialog to clumsily fill in your back story.  You must not have one of your characters tell another one things that person already knows. You hear it on CSI every week – one expert explaining things that another expert certainly knows. You can get away with this kind of thing on television, but not in your novels or short stories.  Readers know how unrealistic this is.   

Here’s another scary example of bad dialog that I made up.   I’m exemplifying here a writing technique that makes many editors groan.  It’s the result of writers trying to make their dialog more colorful:

“I won’t put up with it,” Eve shrieked.  “I’ll leave you if it happens again.”
“You can’t do that,” Adam moaned.  “You’re a part of me.”
“Not anymore,” Eve snapped. 
“But I love you,” Adam whined weakly.
“Then your time in paradise is over,” she chortled.

She chortled?  Silly, but do you see what’s happened here. In an effort to make the dialog more interesting, you can end up making it laughable.  There is nothing wrong with the simple word “said” in your dialog. You might fear that it’s boring, but actually it’s neutral.  It’s almost invisible.  And because it does not draw attention to itself, it keeps the reader’s focus on your characters’ words. 

If you want variety in your dialog, consider varying the format and adding some action or description.  Here are the exact same quoted words, with the surrounding words rewritten:

Eve’s words exploded at him. “I won’t put up with it!  I’ll leave you if it happens again.”
“you can’t do that,” Adam said.  Pain showed on his face.  “You’re a part of me.”
“Not anymore.”
“But I love you,” Adam said in a low, childlike voice.
“Then your time in paradise is over.”

There’s the same conversation, with only one “said” and no substitute verbs.  Of course those substitute verbs do carry meaning, and maybe it’s important to you that we know that eve was laughing at her man in that last line.  If that’s true then it’s okay to just say so.

“But I love you,” Adam said, trying to hold her eyes with his own.  He withdrew in horror when Eve laughed right in his face.
“Then your time in paradise is over.”

We’ll talk more about our made-up conversation next week, and discuss other dialog tips.

Sunday, May 24, 2015

It's all About the Characters III

To conclude my series on creating characters I want to offer some advice on how to think through the process. To get at the essence of character I suggest that as the writer, you must think like an actor.  You, however, get to play every part!  So remember these basics that an acting coach would tell yous:

#1 - what’s my motivation?  You need to know why every character does everything he or she does.  Love is a motivation.  Greed is a motivation. Guilt is a motivation.  Fear, envy, jealousy, ambition are all motivations. “To help move the plot along” is not a motivation.

#2 - no one is a villain!  In life, we are each the star of our little drama.  No one thinks they’re the bad guy.  Even Hitler had a very good reason for everything he did – in HIS mind.

#3 – There are no small parts, just small actors.  Make sure nobody in your story behaves as if he’s just a walk on.  Every move that character makes is vitally important – to him.

All that having been said, how do we then distinguish between the heroes and villains?  Well, that’s the job of point of view.  You will decide whose eyes the reader sees the world through.  That character is the person your reader will most identify with.  That character then becomes sympathetic for the reader.  He, or she, is now the hero, the protagonist.  And whoever opposes that person’s goals and objectives becomes de facto the villain.

Heroes and villains need to have one thing in common – strong character.  We admire people with character, and people with character are the ones who make things happen in our world. 

Let me be clear here that character as I’m defining it is not good or bad. Character as I’m using it here is the person’s dedication to making his actions match his beliefs. It takes a certain strength to do what you believe is the thing to do, whether you’re a hero or a villain.  

But how can we hate the villain and love the hero if they have so much in common?  That takes us back to point of view, and what i call the yin-yang of personality.  For example:

Heroes are determined – villains are obsessed
Good girls are observant – bad girls are nosey
Good guys keep you in the loop – bad guys gossip
Heroines are leaders – villainesses are manipulative
Good people are thrifty – bad people are cheap

The only real societal standard that separates your good folks from bad folk is a single motivation – if they work to help others, no matter what else we know about them, they’re heroes.  If they work only to help themselves, no matter what else we know about them, they’re villains.

There is a lot more to creating good characters but this should give you a start. If any of you have great ides, please post them in a comment to this blog.

Saturday, May 16, 2015

It's All About the Characters II

Last week I mentioned the importance of character names. Superficial as we are, we draw a lot of meaning out of names. And consider who your character is named after?  Who named him, mom or dad?  Does she have a name that indicates parental personality expectations?  Chastity?  Felicity?  And has your character grown into her name, or taken a stance in opposition to it, like fictional adventurer Modesty Blaise? 

Last names, of course, often indicate nationality with all the assumptions they bring.  If you have a fellow named Patrick O’Connor and he isn’t Irish, you’d better tell us quickly, because we’ve already slotted him.  And in fact if he isn’t, there’s a story there that will tell us a good deal about him. 

Similarly, nicknames tell us a lot about your character, but we need to know if he took the nick himself or if someone stuck him with it.  If you introduce me to Tiny I expect a giant. If her pals call her brain, she might be the one who always has a plan, or she might be an idiot.  Either way, the fact that she accepted that nickname tells us about her confidence level and self-image.
It’s best to show character thru actions, and not just in thrillers. Explore the character’s hobbies, unusual talents and pet peeves.  Readers love to read about people who like the movies they like, read the books they read, or love the same foods they love.  We all have little quirks, bad habits and odd compulsions.  If your character always salts his food, twists a lock of her hair when she’s nervous or checks his e-mail six times a day, people will both relate to that and remember that. 

Consider post war detective Nero Wolfe spoke little and kept his feelings to himself. He wasn’t even the point of view character. Yet he seemed like an old friend to some readers for two reasons.  His author, Rex Stout, meticulously detailed his loving care of the orchids he cultivated, and he showed you, in great detail, Wolfe’s gourmet eating habits AND love of a good beer.
Wolfe exemplifies the concept that good characters must have both common traits and some unusual ones. Remember this: ordinary things (like wanting a beer with lunch) make a character believable. Unique traits (like cultivating orchids in Manhattan) make a character memorable.

Next week I’ll share how good acting advice can help writers.

Monday, May 11, 2015

It's All About the Characters

Today I continue my exploration of the elements of fiction by looking at the imaginary people we create. Plots are important, setting is valuable, and it’s nice to have something to say, but fiction is ultimately about the characters.

What makes for good characters? Well, first and foremost, every character has a personality all his or her own.  The final indication of how good a character you’ve created is simply, how fully the reader feels he knows that personality, and how strongly the reader reacts to the character emotionally.  Speaking generally, good characters have four important markers.

1. They are people we recognize.  You know if it’s a good character when you say, “Hey, I know a guy just like that.  You might not be personally acquainted with any 19th century business owners, but we all know an Ebineezer Scrooge, don’t we? Is he a stereotype?  Yes… now. Are stereotypes bad?  Only if that’s as far as you take the character.

2. They are people with whom we can identify. They do the things you or I might do if we were ever in their extraordinary circumstances. If you were that smart wouldn’t you solve mysteries like Sherlock Holmes? Or have Sam Spade’s smart mouth and personal convictions?

3. They are people we can predict.  That comes from creating consistent characters.  And that comes from thinking your people through.  How do you get to know your characters that well?  One good exercise is to write your character into a number of different situations, just to see what he or she will do.  If you’ve developed them well, they may surprise you.  But then you’ll know how they’ll behave in your book or story.

4. And they are people who surprise us.  That may at first seem contradictory, but people surprise us in life all the time.  One reason is that none of us lives in a vacuum.  Our relationships and our environment shape us. My detective, Hannibal Jones, is of mixed heritage. I’ve added depth to the character by showing my readers how differently he behaves and speaks among his friends than he does in the mostly white business world of Washington. His behavior may surprise you in some circumstances, yet it’s completely consistent. As long as you can explain your character’s motivations, it’s okay for them to occasionally surprise your readers.  Consider: if the story had been told in a different order, Scrooge’s actions on Christmas day could have been as surprising to the reader as they were to the other characters.

Authors should know everything about their characters.  In fact, they should know far more than they tell the reader. You should know their history, their motives, their loves and hates, what they’re proud of and what they’re ashamed of.  That’s how they get to be consistent.

Next week I’ll talk about the importance of character names and appearances. 

Sunday, May 3, 2015

It's All About The Plot III

I ended my previous blog on my approach to plotting with a mention of the secondary plot. When I write there’s always something else going on to distract our hero. Our hero has to save the world from nuclear destruction, while at the same time keeping his wife from running off or keeping his kid from using drugs or studying for that test so he can finish his degree. This is the human drama that goes on in the shadow of the larger mission. This makes it easier for the reader to relate to our hero because whatever it is, the secondary plot is something they’ve had to deal with too. It helps to complicate our hero’s life while making him a bit more human.

With all the major plot objectives in place I begin to flesh out the outline by creating a number of events I call beats. Beats, because like music and comedy, novels have a rhythm to them. Our hero faces a barrier, climbs it, rests, faces another barrier, breaks thru, rests, etc. This is how you control the pace. Moments of high tension alternate with moments of taking a breath.

Each beat is a scene, like in a play or movie, with a definite when and where the event takes place. They are the challenges our hero must face to attain his goal. They must appear in a logical progression, each leading logically to the next. They must each offer a real challenge to our hero, and they must get harder as he goes. Each time he is less sure, or at least the reader is less sure that he will succeed. 

Remember, the central conflict runs through your whole story, but it can’t be in every beat. Still, there should be conflict in every scene. So in addition to the central conflict, it’s good to have a chronic conflict. This underlying conflict can provide the opportunity for beats that don’t grow from the central conflict, offering a rest from the big picture. Chronic or underlying conflicts don’t necessarily have to be resolved at the end of the story.

You’ll also want to add internal conflicts. These scenes can really help characterization. Other beats can grow from transient conflicts. Even in scenes that require boring background exposition, transient conflicts keep the scenes from being boring.

So that’s it. I plan the order of the actual events that will take place during my hero’s journey toward success. It doesn’t need to be as obvious as The Odyssey, but that is the basic pattern. When I have enough beats to take up about 80,000 words, I’ve got a plot and it’s time to start writing. I start with a good strong hook that gets readers’ attention and tells them what kind of book it is. At the end I wrap-up of all the loose ends.

It’s as simple (and maddeningly difficult) as that.