Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Nuts & Bolts: Dialogue


One mistake new writers often make is devaluing dialogue. They think that the story is in the setting, the scene descriptions, etc., and dialogue is simply a placeholder, a means to an end. The opposite is much closer to the truth. Dialogue can include setting information, characterization, etc. Dialogue can move a story and make it real in ways no other element can really accomplish. Dialogue lets you show rather than tell. When characters speak and act/react, they become real to the reader. Dialogue builds tension and drama and furthers the plot. Dialogue reveals character through what’s said, or what isn’t said. And dialogue breaks up a story and helps it flow. A good rule of thumb is that dialogue needs to begin fairly quickly into a story, say by the bottom of the first page in a longer piece. So let’s explore it to see how it does all these wonderful things (and even makes toast!).

First off, what is it? Dialogue is a verbal exchange between characters. (A monologue occurs when one character speaks to her/himself or addresses the audience, which, in playwriting, is called an aside.) What is the purpose of dialogue? Here’s the kicker, because dialogue is a Jack of All Trades. The main purpose fledgling writers see for dialogue is delivering information, either about a character or a scene, basically to propel the plot forward in an explicative sense. Let’s examine that. I challenge you to find any random book or short story (preferably a good one). Pick a page and read the dialogue. How many lines of dialogue do you see that actually explicate the plot or setting or even character descriptions? Not many. (Probably more about character descriptions or setting and none or very few about plot.) Why is that? Well, because it’s boring and clunky to read. Imagine reading a horror story and seeing a character say, “Gosh, don’t go into that abandoned house, Maurice; I heard that it’s haunted by the ghost of a murder victim.” Even something as simple as sharing a character’s name in dialogue can be clunky. Think about how many times, in real life, we address people we know by their names. Not that often unless there’s some extenuating circumstance. The reader sees these kinds of information dumps as lazy and even insulting. The writer is saying that s/he doesn’t trust the reader enough to pick up on any subtler clues or just doesn’t know how to share this info in a smoother way.

So dialogue needs to give information to the reader without actually explicitly stating it. Dialogue should also perform several tasks simultaneously, and if it doesn’t, it needs to be cut or revised (because it’s clunky, boring, and taking up space). Probably the biggest thing dialogue does is characterize the speaker. This can be through speech patterns, accents, word choice, or all sorts of ways. It should share some information about plot, setting, character, etc. but not explicitly. Let us not forget the importance of mystery and allowing the reader to play the game of figuring things out for themselves. Think about it like this: imagine having a conversation with someone who restates obvious ideas and information. Soon, you will begin to think this person is mentally deficient. Another danger of poorly constructed dialogue is the “tennis match” effect. I like to think of this as dialogue that gets away from the writer. It goes back and forth between characters without actually accomplishing anything. Here’s an example:
“Hey, Jill,” Del said, smiling.
“Hey, Del,” Jill replied, smiling back. “How are you?”
“I’m good. How are you?” Del asked.
“I’m okay. I’m just a little worried that I’m an alien,” Jill said nervously.
“I don’t think you’re an alien. I just think you need to eat more fruit,” Del said, patting her on the head.

Much of this could be cut because it accomplishes so little and is clunky. Also, the dialogue is mostly unconnected to a scene; there aren’t a lot of physical descriptions to really round out the scene. Here’s a better version:

“Hey.” Jill looked up from her desk to see Del approach across the faded carpet. “So, um, how are you?” The concern in Del’s eyes was a comfort to Jill.
“I, um…” Jill looked around. No one else in the office seemed to be paying attention. “I think, you know.” She laughed and looked into Del’s eyes. “I’m a little worried that I’m an alien.”
Del laughed. “I don’t think you’re an alien.” She put her hand on the other woman’s shoulder and squeezed. “You just need to eat more fruit.”

Of course, on the flipside we have the monologue. This occurs when a character goes on and on, usually dumping info of some type. It’s unrealistic because if a person monologued like this for realz, we’d all turn and walk away from them.

One of the real keys, here, is the idea of economy. When writing dialogue, don’t start at the beginning. Start where something important is said. And end the same way.

(But dialogue can relate conflict without it being an info dump. This is because conflict reflects some fairly broad-stroke emotions, and it’s easy to relate big emotions through dialogue without boring the reader. This is good, because without these kinds of emotions, dialogue can end up being pretty boring and seem unfocused. )

Dialogue should also flow. There are all sorts of tricks to help write believable dialogue and only a few of them border on misdemeanors. But the thing to realize about realistic dialogue is that it isn’t. We are boring and often annoying when we talk. Really. Think about it. We speak in incomplete sentences all the time. We make inside jokes and half-references that would confuse most readers. We pause and stumble, stutter and make all sorts of mistakes when we speak, and we communicate nonverbally much more than we realize. The key to writing good, believable dialogue isn’t so much about capturing real conversations as cleaning them up, giving them some structure and more pleasing cadences, while implying realism enough to fool the reader without annoying them. This is tricky, because this is only a little piece of what dialogue requires.

Let’s talk about identifiers. Most writers agree on this: the purpose of an identifier (s/he said) is to identify who is talking. That’s it. Identifiers shouldn’t add any more information to the mix. Identifiers, also, become practically invisible, in the way a period does. So that means don’t get fancy. Identifiers that stop the reader slow down dialogue, and the pacing and rhythm of dialogue is so important that this is a real no-no.

So when do we use dialogue? Getting characters moving and interacting, specifically talking, is pretty much the best way to give readers a feel for who the characters are. And dialogue tends to be interesting to read, especially if it’s well-done, not only because it tends to characterize and give info, but because dialogue can really help with pacing (it’s a nice respite from descriptions). Dialogue can share a lot of information, but something you might’ve realized with all this talk of subtlety is that it takes a while to get things across when you’re avoiding info dumps. Explication is quick, but playing out ideas in scene, especially dialogue, can take a while.

Some warnings: phonetic spellings can be a good characterization device but they can also annoy the hell out of people. Theoretically, if you craft your character’s diction well enough, the accent should be apparent without all that fancy spelling, or misspelling. Basically, less is more. This is true of accents or vocal tics. (My overly elaborate example: I had a playwriting class with a guy who wrote a 2-page phonetic monologue from the POV of a schizophrenic stutterer. The prof. made the guy read the thing aloud to us. It was torture, and by the end of it, we all understood several things completely. He had captured the tone and milieu of the character, sure, but it was also interminable.) Vocal tics like a stutter or an accent can do a lot of work, but if overdone, they can also come off as forced.

Having said this, characters should be differentiated through dialogue. A child speaks differently from an elderly person. A southerner speaks differently from a northerner. Again, if handled well, these differences, not only in cadence, but in word choice, can be extremely effective. (Also, watch out for clichés!)

-CL Bledsoe

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Nuts and Bolts: What We Talk About When We Talk About Setting

I grew up on a rice and catfish farm in eastern Arkansas, in the Mississippi River Delta, one of the poorest places in the country, in the 80s, when family farms were growing scarce as ivory billed woodpeckers. It was all rice fields and mosquitoes, flat land stretching further than you could squint. The state was ranked 50th in the country in education and first in crystal meth labs. My father and most of his friends were war veterans, hard men who drank and swore and spent much of their time playing practical jokes on each other. My childhood friends grew up to be drug dealers, criminals, or generally shiftless because of the scarcity of opportunities, except for a handful who left the state as soon as they graduated high school and never looked back. No matter how far I travel, geographically or socioeconomically, even though I now live and work at an east coast boarding school, I am still tethered to the milieu of the place of my birth and childhood. My wife, on the other hand, grew up in the suburbs of DC. Her father was a pipe organ builder from German stock with big hands that could seemingly crush a brick, but whose delicate disposition leaned more towards arpeggio runs and the tedium of building and repairing complex and ancient machinery. Whereas mine was a childhood of seclusion and ruralness, hers was one of exploration, namely of the international culture unique to DC city life. In a similar way, she was shaped by aspects of the locale of her childhood which will forever color any reaction she has to any situation. We both live in the same place, now, but our interpretations and reactions to even innocuous things are often wildly different because of our vastly different backgrounds.

In an interview with Tamler Sommers (collected in A Very Bad Wizard) the philosopher Galen Strawsen argues that freewill, as we popularly consider it, is an illusion. The crux of his quite convincing argument is that even though we are usually free to choose whichever direction or option we’d prefer in a given situation, the choice we will make is based on qualities, characteristics, preconceptions, experiences, etc. which have all been borne of a certain set of circumstances (where we come from, when we grew up, how we were raised, etc.). This set of circumstances, which is quite complex, mind you, determines how we will react/choose in any given situation. And even though we’ve left one situation behind, our reactions and preconceptions are still colored by our experiences, even in new situations.

To put it simply, we are the sum of our experiences. When it comes to writing characters, they are, likewise, the sum of their experiences (since they do represent human beings) and these experiences are tied in to location. Therefore, in fiction, setting isn’t just a location, though it is also a location. Or rather, location is complex because a lot of details come with the location. Though it may seem like I’ve moved beyond “setting” I would argue that all of these details I’ve referenced (and probably more) are all necessary to create a strong setting. Geographical location, historical period, cultural aspects, and socioeconomic details are all important elements of setting, and there are more details we could include. Family history could be linked to setting if it’s linked to a place. (This can get pretty complicated.)

So this seems like an awful lot of trouble, and you might be saying; why should I bother? Well, a strong setting helps establish the mood (an upbeat setting can frame an upbeat story or a downbeat story that’s at odds with the setting, adding a bit of tension) and gives context to the story, since setting influences the characters so much. Setting can also tell the readers a lot about who the characters are. A really strong setting can act as a character itself, which adds another level to the story. Since setting has so much influence on characters’ motivations, a strong setting helps characterize and also adds believability to the story. This adds to the reader’s enjoyment of the story because the lushness helps them get inside the story.

Creating a strong setting involves using specific details, details which give the illusion of familiarity. As we discussed with characterization, setting can be related by stating it directly (i.e. “He lived in the wilds of northern Montana.”) or by sharing details indirectly, more like hinting at things (tell me what a moose smells like up close). As with characterization, direct setting can be necessary sometimes, but indirect setting tends to be much more effective.

So let’s go back to that idea of the specific details that give the illusion of familiarity. How does a writer get these details to add them to a story? Research? (I googled moose and Montana before I typed that bit above because I didn’t even know if moose lived in Montana.) Sometimes, but one of the mistakes some writers make is over researching setting and throwing in all these details which make the setting believable but also overpower the actual story (Michael Chabon’s Cavalier and Clay comes to mind. Chabon describes advertisements in magazines of the time with very specific details that are totally irrelevant, for example). Also, these can be tedious to read. So research can be good, sure, but you’ll find that most writers research more to give themselves a feel for a particular setting rather than to find a lot of details to incorporate into a story. It’s all about finding the few choice details that map out a setting without becoming tedious. (That’s good because it’s easier to fake.) I like to think of it as something like sketching. When sketching a human face, for example, an artist doesn’t try to capture each and every detail; rather, s/he might only add a few strategically placed details to give the illusion of having captured every detail. The eye fills in the rest once it’s been convinced of the illusion of the face by those few details. This is an important idea because a writer can research for months and not ever find those choice details which create the illusion of familiarity. Another analogy would be to consider the establishing shot in film. When a director wants to show that this particular scene is in Paris, how does he do it? He shows a shot of the Eiffel Tower. Everyone knows the Eiffel Tower is in Paris. Done. Print. Move on. This is a bit clichéd, but the idea is sound. In writing, that choice detail is very effective and also sometimes very difficult.

Some people will say the only way to really discover these details is to have firsthand experience with a particular setting. Those people don’t really understand the whole “writing” thing (as in “making stuff up”). It takes a trained eye to recognize these details. And it is difficult. But the right few details really do mean the difference between a rich, evocative setting and just a description of where a story takes place. Think about how you might describe your house, for example. Is it one story tall? Ranch style? An apartment? How many windows on the front? What’s the square footage? Now think about how many stories you’ve read that include any of this information in a description of a house. I’m betting none or almost none, or these details are given incidentally but quickly forgotten. The real description is the cobweb in the corner on the peeling paint of the porch or the oak tree in the front yard—not so much what kind of tree it as, but the fact that a pigeon nested in it ten years ago but was chased from the nest by crows and your daughter tried to rescue the eggs, leaving them under a lamp in her room, but none of them hatched. The reader doesn’t know the dimensions of the house but knows it was a home, now. (And the reader doesn’t really care about the dimensions, to be honest.)

*Something else you might notice is that these descriptions I just gave do multiple jobs. They relate specific pertinent details (an oak tree, peeling paint) but they also share an emotional inventory of the place and hint at certain behaviors of the characters. It’s a good rule of thumb that any element in a story should serve multiple purposes. A bit of dialogue should not only relate some piece of information but also characterize the speaker and maybe give some setting info as well (an accent can tell us we’re in a certain region of the country or world, for example). The same is true for setting. Each detail in a story should serve at least two functions, preferably three or more. This is true of characterization, dialogue, and any other element. If it doesn’t, if it’s only serving one purpose, it probably can be cut or needs to be tweaked to make it carry its fair share.

-CL Bledsoe

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Nuts and Bolts: Characterization, Direct vs. Indirect

Characterization, Direct vs. Indirect

In much the same way that the basic building block of life is the cell, or of matter the subatomic particle, the basic element of story is character. We all know what a character is, but the question is how to represent one in storytelling. There are two basic types of characterization: Direct and Indirect. I’ll get to Indirect a bit later, but let’s start with Direct. Direct characterization occurs when the author directly tells the reader information about a character. Pretty straightforward. Sometimes, direct characterization is used because of space constraints or pacing or the like, but keep in mind that direct characterization, when overused, can become tedious to read. So limit its use except where strictly necessary, and be sure to make it as salient and interesting as possible. The closest popular mode of direct characterization that comes to mind, for me, is the voice over in film, especially in noir film (based, of course, on noir detective novels like those of Raymond Chandler). In these novels, the narrator often addresses the reader, and therefore describes characters directly. But the narrator also reveals quite a bit about himself through his word choice and through the details he chooses to share, so that the direct characterization of other, often minor, characters also acts as an indirect characterization of the narrator, and other major characters are characterized more fully in other ways.

What I’m getting at, here, is the major flaw of direct characterization, which is that it can be boring because it dumbs-down the story. The reader reads not in order to take in a writer’s brilliant word choice, like a dictionary-sponge, but rather to solve the puzzle of the story. This “puzzle” might be as straightforward as whodunit? Or it might be more subtle, like Will this character make the “right” decision? Will John Stay With Marsha? etc. But within this puzzle there are many, smaller puzzles, or perhaps pieces, like Who is this character (Who is John? Who is Marsha)? which help add to the reader’s understanding of the character’s actions. (That was a mouthful!) The reader must understand who the characters really are, why they behave the way they do (not just how they will behave, but WHY) and then, the reader can get to that big question of the story, which is how will this particular character behave in this particular situation, and is it surprising? But understand: this is all a kind of game for the reader. It’s fun to figure these things out, to accrue bits of characterization and piece them all together into an idea or image of a character, and then watch that character reach the breaking point (the decision-making point) AND STILL BE SURPRISED at the character’s decision! (I bet you didn’t realize you were working so hard when you read something!) So you don’t want to rob the reader of actually enjoying your writing!

But the writer doesn’t have to do ALL this work, which would be tremendous. Characters are based on people, and, as the saying goes, people are the same the world over. As writers, we can rely that our readers will recognize our characters as being similar enough to people they’ve met that they’ll “go with us” and fill in the gaps we leave. (The danger, here, is relying on clichéd or overly familiar characters, or “types.” Many writers and critics will argue that a “type” is okay in a minor character because the writer needs that character to be recognizable but can’t devote a lot of space to them. I’m on a fence about this. Of course, a great writer can take a minor character and make them really stand out, and a good writer can take a clichéd or familiar character and make them seem “new” by perhaps taking some clichéd quality and pushing it to absurdity, as Twain does with Pap, the abusive drunk, in Huck Finn (which I assume you’ve all read); Pap is such a bad man, that he revels in his badness and becomes genuinely funny because of it. Take, for example, his advice: “Take a chicken when you get a chance, because if you don't want him yourself you can easy find somebody that does, and a good deed ain't ever forgot. ” This is hilarious, of course, because of the idea of Pap not only waxing philosophical with life advice, but having a friend with whom he would share anything. But this is a discussion I’ll have to sideline for the moment. Everyone will agree that a major character cannot be a clichéd or familiar type if you want the story to be enjoyable.)

So how do we create memorable and enjoyable characters? Mostly by using indirect characterization. Indirect characterization involves the description of characters accomplished subtly, either through their actions and reactions, and the reactions of others to them. The way a character reacts to something another character says, the things a character chooses to share with the reader, even; there are all sorts of little methods of indirect characterization. When it’s done well, we, the reader, end up with a clear understanding of who the character is (what the character wants) without ever really being told this. Think of the aforementioned Huck Finn. Twain spends little time directly describing Huck, but we have a very clear idea of Huck’s desires, his age, where he’s from, his socioeconomic status, his profound intelligence, etc. Similarly, consider Holden Caulfield in The Catcher in the Rye, who is in the midst of a mental breakdown but who is actually working towards something profoundly important about life, but most of what we’re told is how he just doesn’t want to grow up. Now, it’s easier to accomplish these kinds of memorable characters when first-person narration is used because the reader becomes intimately familiar with the character’s voice, but it’s also quite doable with third person or even second person narration. So let’s examine what it is about these characters that captivates us so we can see how best to use indirect characterization:
-A strong voice. As I’ve mentioned, through the character’s dialogue we, the reader, can determine all sorts of info about the character. His/her word choice might reveal an accent or regional indicators as well as age indicators, socioeconomic indicators, time period, etc. The things s/he chooses to say can tell us a lot about personality, as well, as will the way s/he says things. Flaws as well as positive qualities can be shared in this way quite effectively.
-A clear sense of their desires. Again, this shouldn’t be dumped on the reader. It should grow organically from complications in the plot. The character needs some clearly established goal which is difficult to accomplish. The harder the character tries to accomplish this goal, the more we understand how important it is. Also, the character’s reactions to these hardships helps the reader understand who the character really is, and refines our understanding of the character. To return to Huck Finn, we know that Huck wants to escape society because his dad is an abusive drunk, the widow is kind of mean and limits his personal freedom, etc. (Of course, Huck is on a journey of self-discovery and moral growth, and instead of hitting the reader over the head with this, Twain couches it in simple terms of friendship: Huck has to decide whether he wants to do right by his friend or follow society’s laws, but Twain never deigns to preach to us, the reader, about this. He lets Huck work it all out.)
-Physical attributes. Writers often rely on direct characterization in order to share physical attributes (and even a character’s name) but this can be done indirectly. Frankly, it’s difficult to do this directly without it coming off as a little heavy and forced. Other characters can accomplish this by commenting on appearance.

In order to create memorable, enjoyable characters (and let me clarify that a truly vile, evil character can be pretty enjoyable, again, think of Pap from Huck Finn, who is frankly hilarious, though most of us would probably vote to have him locked up for life or put to death if we could.) we have to understand these elements of our characters. We have to know the background info so that we can use it to shape our characters’ dialogue and reactions. Research can help with this, though to be honest our lives are research. Most writers will base characters on themselves, since that’s a lot easier to do, but eventually you want to break out of this. Of course, literature is full of badly-drawn characters. Think of Hemmingway or Updike when they attempt female characters, for example. Obviously there are no hard and fast rules, but I think it’s important to “listen” to your characters. Don’t force your values on a character if it doesn’t work for that particular situation. Remember: the easiest way to ensure that the reader has fun with your story is if you have fun with it.

-CL Bledsoe