Friday Exercise – Judgement

Write an exchange of dialogue between two (or more) characters, during which at least one character decides he/she has another “pegged” – as in, understands what kind of person they really are, what category they belong in, etc.  How do they treat the other person, and the conversation, afterward?  If you get on a roll with this part, go one step further and, still in dialogue, prove the character’s judgement about the other person wrong.  And then how does the conversation change?

Interview

Send a character to a job interview.  You can start prior to the interview itself, with the character mentally preparing for it, or start with the actual exchange.

There’s a lot to be revealed here – why the character is switching jobs, what kind of job they have now and how they feel about it, what they’re striving for that this new job might offer (or may fail to offer), how the character feels about his/her life, how he/she deals with stress and his/her level of self-confidence, what his/her skills and qualifications are….  And that’s just the interviewee.

Your interviewer has a goal here too – what kind of person is he/she looking for, and why?  What will he/she like or dislike about another person?  What is a point of contention or a reason to pass judgement?  How does he/she feel about hiring someone new – maybe this person has never conducted an interview before, or maybe this is the millionth time in his/her career.  Maybe the vacant position belonged to a friend – or an enemy.

There are a million angles to approach this from, whole back stories the folks in this scene could bring to the table, and plenty of opportunity for conflict (both internal and external) to grow a story from.

Butting Heads

So far, what I’ve picked up from my first NaNoWriMo is this:  the hardest parts of any writing session are (a) getting started in the first place and (b) starting a new scene.  Once I get rolling on a given scene, it’s easy – provided I don’t worry about researching anything and just put brackets with reminders to myself about where I need to fill in details later.  Dialogue, especially involving any kind of disagreement, comes very easily, and inner turmoil fills out my word count faster than I even realize as I’m writing it.

Whether this says something about me as a person (confrontational, are we?) or whether it’s related to the fact that there is inherent conflict in those types of passages, I’m not sure.  😉

Another short post that’s more observation than anything else, but until the end of November, it seems this is all my brain is capable of blogging about.

A Rant About Dialogue Tags

Currently, I’m going through The Life & Death (But Mostly the Death) of Erica Flynn, working on polishing up the (hopefully) final draft.  One of my missions is to tighten up the writing and trim the word count a bit–it stands at 105,000 words in its third draft.  To make it more concise, I’m cutting unnecessary or generic words and phrases wherever I find them.  In the first six chapters (it’s forty-something total) I’ve already cut a thousand words.  A thousand unnecessary or generic words?!?  How did I let that happen?!

Some of the generics that I over-used are “at the moment,” “just”, “kind of”, “sort of”, and “sometimes.”  Qualifiers.  Things that weaken the words around them.  Now, in some cases, I kept these words and phrases in the text.  The reason being, children, that Erica is a first person narrator, and consequently I have to keep the voice and style of the narration in keeping with her casual personality.  It’s conversational, so the narrative almost becomes dialogue.  I’m trying to keep enough of that in to maintain that tone without wasting the readers’ time or undermining the strength of what’s being conveyed.

The main culprit of word waste, however, is dialogue tags.  Dialogue tags!  Fie on ye!

He saids and she saids are killers of scenes.  They drag at the dialogue they’re attached to, weighing it down.  They’re repetitious and often distracting, especially if they come after every line.  Every writer who’s ever been critiqued knows to try to work around them wherever possible.  You put in actions and gestures instead.  Facial expressions.  Tone of voice.  Use word choice and such to make it obvious who is speaking which lines even without tags.

I’m not generally bad about putting tags in where I don’t need to, but damn, have I caught a lot of them in the first six chapters of my book!  O editor, edit thyself!  The worst thing is, I even put in all that other stuff – action, gesture, expression, etc – to clearly indicate the speaker and then put the dialogue tags in anyway!!!  So now I’m hacking them out again, and looking over it afterward, it reads so. much. better.

Learn, children, from my mistake.  Do not do everything right to avoid overuse of dialogue tagging and then tag the damn dialogue anyway.  You will save yourself hours of tedium by avoiding the fate that I have brought upon myself this day.

A Word About World Building

For writers of speculative fiction, world building is a vital part of the process of writing.  When your story is set in a fictional time and place, you have to know your world thoroughly and in detail if you want readers to suspend their disbelief in the fantastical events you’re going to put before them.  Inconsistency, sloppy or scant texturing, and stale genre stereotypes are the bane of science fiction and fantasy writing (and reading).

How do you go about creating a whole other world?

Well, here’s how I do it.  I start with whatever originally sparked the idea for the story, of course.  What does that spark point require, contextually, from the time and place, in order to work?  Does technology need to be advanced for this to work, or does technology need to be severely limited?  If it’s limited, what has held it back?  Go from there.  Keep asking questions.  Keep answering them.  If you don’t know yet, make note of it and chip away at other things in the meantime.  If I get stuck, I’ll write a list of “10 Things I Know About [This Place]”.

Sometimes the setting is the spark, for me.  If that’s the case, I draw it out with questions and answers, find conflicts that such a society would face, pick what interests me and what types of characters would be interesting – who’s on the fringes of a culture like this, who’s intimately involved in these conflicts, who wants to help and why, who wants to take advantage of the underdogs’ weakness, etc. – and fill the story out from there.

How do you get ideas for the setting itself?

For the trilogy I’ll be working on this November for NaNoWriMo, I originally started by modeling the setting off of a real-world time and place that interests me – Renaissance Italy.  That isn’t to say I’ve stuck to accurate historical details by any means (the last I knew, Renaissance Italy was never invaded by a clan of pseudo-Russian elves) but it does mean that if I’m having trouble fleshing out details about the setting, I can refer to photos, art, architecture, cookbooks, history books, Italian folk music and folk tales – anything that can be internalized about the actual place and time and either used or modified to work with my fictional setting.  It’s research, but it’s fun research.  How could any research that led me to taste-test brandy-spiked coffee be a bad thing??

Aside from choosing a real-world basis as my starting point, other settings have come to me through toying with ideas about different societal constructs, projections of “what if” questions, working out the history and the future of my own invented world and seeing what types of cultures came together or broke apart before and after the events of the trilogy.  Even dreams, sometimes.  One of my favorite of my uncompleted short stories is set on another continent in the same world as the trilogy – a very isolated continent full of crazy-dangerous wild animals – and the whole setting and story came to me as a dream.  The architecture, the characters, the clothing, the socio-economics and political setup…I dreamed all of it.  Thank you, subconscious.  Thank you!

Should you include everything that you know about your setting in the story itself?

No.  Absolutely no.  I have a binder with maps, timelines, and notes about my setting that’s almost two inches thick.  Nobody needs to know all that crap except me.  And someday, if I ever have a die-hard uber-nerd cult following for my trilogy, maybe them.  But normal readers do not need the full extent of what you, as the writer, know about your world.  You need to know, in order to maintain consistency and keep the illusion that this place is real and that there is all of that stuff to know.  And you can never tell what will end up being pertinent to the book until you’re in the thick of it.  So know your world intimately, including what would be written in dry history textbooks in their schools, but don’t dump the history book in the reader’s lap.  Use your knowledge of the setting to enrich the story, but do it through implication, hints, details that enliven the story and the characters, dialogue and interaction, etc.  Make the story and the setting inseparable.

Show & Tell

I’ve been thinking about the phrase “show, don’t tell” lately – the oft-given advice every writer hears at workshops, critique groups, on writers’ and editors’ blogs, and…pretty much everywhere, really.

It is good advice, on the whole.  It’s much more powerful to be shown a character’s emotional reaction than told, “He felt sad.”  Likewise, it’s better to have a tense dialogue interaction than simply the phrase, “The two sisters hadn’t been getting along lately,” or whatever.

On the other hand, on some level, writing is storytelling.  It isn’t a film, where the action and dialogue all have to speak for themselves and no description is necessary because the audience can see the setting, the lighting and music can set the tone, and the actors’ expressions and inflections feed subtlety into the dialogue (if they’re talented actors).

To write, you must tell.  The trick is to tell in such an engaging way that the audience believes you’re showing them.  It’s a double-edged sword, because you don’t want to drone on and on about the setting or the way the characters look, but you also want to paint enough detail to peak the readers’ imaginations into visualizing the scenes you write.  You have to walk a razor’s edge between conciseness and detail in order to immerse your reader in the story world.

One of the best ways to keep that balance is to choose your words carefully.  There are many variants of a writing exercise that goes something like this:  Write a scene from the point of view of a man grieving the loss of his son, without mentioning death, funerals, or the son.  Now write the same scene from the same man’s point of view, in which his son is nearby, well, and healthy, again without mentioning the son.  I’ve seen so many versions of this exercise, I have no idea of its origin, but it’s a great one to try the different variants of – it really gets you thinking about how to convey much with very little.

As for “telling” – well, you’ve got to tell something, or you won’t write anything down.  Even if you use examples and body language to illustrate unnamed emotions or relationships, you have to tell the reader what that body language is, or what happened in that example event.  At some point, you’ve got to tell your audience something!

And frankly, there are some things that should be skimmed over.  You can’t be afraid to telescope when you need to, or you’ll end up writing down every damn step your character takes, like the scientist’s assistant from the Beatles movie, A Hard Day’s Night, who announces, “I am moving my right leg, I am moving my left leg.  Now I am putting this down,” while everyone is standing there watching him, like they can’t see what he’s doing!  You don’t want to do that in your book, and certainly not in your short story.  If the details of an event aren’t relevant, but the fact that it happened is, then skip the details and just show me the results, the outcome, the ensuing dialogue between characters who were there, etc.  Tell me about that instead, and by telling the reader those things, you will show the reader the relevance of mentioning the event.

Basically, it’s another of those fine lines that writers get to try and walk so often.  Like many things in life, show & tell in fiction is just one more thing you have to learn to balance.

Ode to Internal Conflict

In real life, people have internal conflict all the time.  Sometimes it’s more apparent than others.  Sometimes it’s over a triviality, and other times it’s about something life-changing and complex.  But it’s there, and it affects our words, actions, moods, relationships, and worldviews.

If you want your characters and their problems to come alive for readers, you’ve got to give the people in your story some internal conflicts.  Of course, it’s most important to show in your main character(s), but secondary and “bit” characters can come through richer and stronger for a little dose of internal conflict, too.

How you go about showing that conflict will depend on a few factors:

  1. If you’re writing in first person, your readers get direct insight into the main character’s thoughts and feelings, even if he/she is an unreliable narrator.  Your other characters will be viewed through the lens of your narrator’s opinions and observations, but you, the writer, should know the real deal about your secondary characters – not just what your main character knows, thinks, and feels about them.  That includes knowing what makes them tick and what internal conflicts may be affecting them in any given scene.
  2. Third person can be done in a few different ways, but generally there’s some balance between omniscient narration and a sort of journalistic telling of the facts (just what is said and observed, with no direct insight into the characters’ minds or emotions).  If you go more for omniscient narration, you can reveal characters’ thoughts directly, and show inner conflicts that way.  If you stick with “just the facts, ma’am,” you’ll need to make sure to use facial expressions, hesitations, nervous habits, body language, tone of voice, etc. to communicate your characters’ thoughts and feelings, including their inner conflicts.
  3. If you have a character who just isn’t introspective, who doesn’t (or can’t) face his/her own flaws or mistakes, or who dislikes communicating his/her inner workings (even in his/her own thoughts), again, you’ll have to bring out internal conflict through responses to external factors:  other characters’ actions, dialogue, events, etc.

Now, about different kinds of inner conflicts.  There are inherent, long-term issues, such as the desire for freedom and independence battling with the desire for belonging and love (which could apply to a character’s family background or love life or both).  That kind of deep-rooted conflict is almost a character trait, and can be the foundation for the entire plot or can simply be a factor in your character’s behavior and attitude.  You can resolve it as a subplot, give your character new insight into the problem as the main story goes on, have your character come to terms with it by the end, or leave it hanging over his/her head.

There are also smaller, more specific inner conflicts (do the right thing, or the easy / profitable / fun thing?)  That kind of internal conflict is the spice of fiction, in my opinion.  When an author weaves together the events of the book and the conflicts and tough decisions of their characters, everything pulls together until you can’t separate THOSE characters from THAT plot.  It had to be [Character A] faced with [Event 1], because only he would’ve reacted by doing [this], which caused [Event 2], which set up [Character B] with [that] decision, and…so on and so forth.

So there are lots of reasons to give characters internal conflicts of various importance and scale.  It gives them depth, keeps them from being too predictable or stereotypical, lends tension to the story (because people don’t always make the right choices, or even know what the right choice is), plays characters off one another, and is an excellent catalyst for both main plot and subplot.

Even if you’re never going to mention a particular character’s hang-ups in the story, you should know what they are.  Your characters, dialogue, and story will all be the better for it.