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Writing believable dialogue

Thanks to Quo from PGL whose interest in this blog reminded me that I have not written a decent post on writing in quite some time. Quo, this one is for you. The idea for this blog post came to me when I was editing one of my novels and I re-read chapter 5 of Self-Editing for Fiction Writers by Renni Browne and Dave King. Just when I think I’ve nailed down my dialog I discover just how much of a hack I am.

Someone once told me that I write like I speak and I went to great lengths to correct this, though now I believe the smegger that told me this knew jack about writing! Writing like you speak may sometimes be bad for narrative but can be quite effective for dialogue. My biggest obstacles to writing effective dialogue are remembering to turn off the English teacher inside my head and ignoring the spell checker in Writer. The following examples I’m going to use to illustrate my points are from a novel I am working on. I’m nervous sharing my own work but I need to start facing that fear.

Unless your story takes place in a country club and everyone talks like they have a rod up their ass, formality is your enemy. One way to make dialog less formal is to use contractions.

“Do you think they killed Indians here?” The tall, lanky, pale boy asked.
“I don’t know,” the other boy said from atop the monkey bars.

After my last editing session became:

“Ya think they killed Indians here?” The tall, lanky, pale boy asked.
“Don’t know,” the other boy said from atop the monkey bars.

I contemplated changing “don’t know” to “dunno” but the character speaking has a British upbringing (not a British accent but brought up by a polite speaking English mother) and I don’t think the Americanized slang is appropriate for him in this instance. A few short sentences later I break from this wisdom.

   “Don’t know,” the other boy said from atop the monkey bars. He was thinking about the fireflies, wishing they were fairies. He cocked his head to one side and tried to imagine Indians charging up the hill but after a year of playing Dungeons and Dragons everything just turned into fairies, orcs and goblins.

“Maybe,” he added with a shrug and jumped down onto his friend. “Watch it Roland!” Marley laughed as they tumbled into the nearby sandbox.

“Your people were fucked up.” Roland said earnestly as he grabbed a hand full of sand and lobbed it at Marley.

“Whaddya mean my people?” Marley Wright’s silvery-blue eyes flashed back, a little insulted. He bent over and brushed the sand out of his greasy black hair with rapid strokes of his hands.

“The pilgrims. They came over on boats and killed the Indians.” Roland’s back straightened and a truculent grin stretched across his chiseled jaw as he stared down upon his shorter friend. “Your people tricked them, like Sister Nancy said in history class,” he finished with condescending smite.

Marley squinted through the oppressive sun’s glare that silhouetted his lanky friend’s less than intimidating stance. With his blond curly hair and light skin Roland Augustine was one shiny breastplate and a pear shaped helmet from looking like his conquistador forefathers. But that was another month’s history lessons. How quick they forget, Marley thought, or perhaps it was just selective memory.

Marley says “whaddya”. Not too proper, eh? But young Marley is annoyed at the insinuation and the New Yorker in him is coming out. It makes this exchange a little more tense. I think it fits. I could be wrong. Oh God, there’s that lack of confidence thing again!

I fragmented solid sentences whenever I could and found myself omitting a lot of small words from my dialogue during this editing session. “You’re an asshole” became the more direct insult of just plain “asshole.” “Is that why you’re crying?” was changed to “that why you crying?” “I don’t like seeing people cry” became “don’t like seeing people crying.” There were a lot of “I(s)” and “I’m(s)” in my dialogue that didn’t need to be there. Tiny words that are often overlooked unless you are looking specifically for them.

Contractions simply will not work for another character in the novel, Zero.

“Piper, my dear boy, this delay is disappointing.” Zero leaned back in his leather high chair with the phone resting comfortably in the crook of his neck, his tone inflected an air of confidence that subtly noted his pedigree. “And, I might add, that a little more warning would be prudent. This is the third day that I have had poor Michael waiting in the park for your man.”

I could probably take out that sentence about his tone inflecting an air of confidence but I’m kind of attached to it. Sometimes I think that editing out these small writing “flairs” changes a story into just plain words.  What do you think?

I also need to be careful when I write narrative. Take the following first draft for example;

He had slapped the bitch in public which generally speaking was not a wise thing to do. Even less wise was to do it when you were carrying five grand worth of drugs in your bitches backpack.

In this first draft I’m using my somewhat sarcastic “all-knowing” narrative voice but I really should be in the characters voice as this narrative is an extension of the characters thoughts. The character here being a Puerto Rican New Yorker drug dealer reflecting on the recent actions of one of his soldiers. So I changed it to this:

He had slapped the bitch in public while the bitch was carrying five grand worth of drugs in her backpack.

To be honest I’m still up in the air about this one. The first one sounds better to me, it has more character. It’s just not the character of the character thinking it. The edited version sounds too bland to me but feels more appropriate. What do you think?

I also don’t resort to using cheap dialog tricks like trick spellings and lexical gimmicks to convey a character’s background. I choose to do this with word choice, cadence (like in Zero’s dialog), and grammar as Self-Editing suggests.

“Chinga a tu madre. That stupid shit can’t do anything right.” Piper cussed, not sure whom he was really referring to, Roland or C-Wreck? Both, he decided, and vented a deep and prolonged sigh.

Chinga a tu madre. If you can’t tell he’s Puerto Rican after reading that you’ve never been to New York!

Notes from chapter 5, See How It Sounds of Self-Editing for Fiction Writers by Renni Browne and Dave King:

  • The simplest way to make your dialogue less formal is to use more contractions, more sentence fragments, and more run-on sentences.
  • Don’t let your characters speak more fully formed thoughts than they normally would.
  • Good dialogue isn’t an exact transcription of the way people talk but is more an artifact, a literary device that mimics real speech.
  • Read your dialogue aloud or have someone read it to you to see how it sounds.

Wanting to write ruins my read…

I don’t think I’ve honestly sat back and just enjoyed a book or short story ever since I made a conscious decision to want to be a published writer. I scrutinize and study every sentence, every paragraph, every comma, period, colon and parenthesis. When I stumble onto prose that astonishes me I rush to write it down in my notebook. I’m fully aware of plot and any possible developments that may or may not occur, so much so that I often accurately predict the outcome before I’ve read it.

There’s this gamer doing Black Ops videos on his thought process while he’s playing the game. See 2 guys. 1 left. Other right. Right guy can’t see me yet. Left guy is priority. Etcetera. That sort of thing. It’s kind of like what’s happening in my head when I read, except the thoughts in my head are not that short and precise but long and, quite possibly, over-analyzing.

I’m reading Eric Swett’s 100-Day Challenge (you should too), I get to Day 033 and this sentence:

““Would you like me to send in some refreshment?”  Her smile was pleasant with just a hint of arrogance.  She reveled in her immunity.”

And I’m like, whoa! She reveled in her immunity. How freaking powerful is that sentence? I mean, OK the word reveled by itself is a really strong word but look at how much character expose Eric jams into 3 short sentences. Look at how the previous 2 sentences lead up to the punch of the third.

A few days ago I was reading Sonia G MedeirosChange is in the Air and that whoa thing happens to me just 6 short sentences in:

“Dr. Marius pats Grandma. “You can’t rush biology.”
“His brothers changed younger than this. His little sister!”
Bet they heard that in the waiting room.”

Bet they heard that in the waiting room. Once again, one short simple sentence that says so much about the character uttering it. Then I spend the rest of the read marveling at how short and quick the structure is. How it reminds me of Howl. Then she slap shots a plot twist at me in the end. I go whoa, again.

Then there is this paragraph from Brent Weeks’ Night Angel trilogy:

“It was a place to inspire fear. Carved from black fireglass, a platform dominated the room. Nine chairs sat on the platform. A tenth chair sat above them like a throne. There was only a bare floor facing the chairs. Those the nine interviewed would stand.”

It was a place to inspire fear. Those the nine interviewed would stand. Take out those two sentences and you have nothing more than quick blase description of a room. A bland grouping of words that might not be missed if they where omitted and changed. But with those two sentences you have an ebb and flow of information, like a gentle wave that flows across the ocean and crashes down unexpectedly on your sand castle.

I especially love it when an author describes something so simply and yet so precisely the image pops into my head with ease as Dean Koontz does in his novel The Darkest Evening of the Year:

“In the salt-pale moonlight, an older middle-class neighborhood of one-story ranch houses seemed to effloresce out of the darkness.”

I’ve always felt my ability to describe surroundings in a way that does not feel stiff and contrived is a weak area of my writing. Take out the phrase seemed to effloresce out of the darkness and all you have left is a rather stiff description of some rural neighborhood. A few pages later Koontz turns up his talent for description and places his attention on a violent alchohoic:

“Carl Brockman turned his gaze on Brian. In those eyes shone not the mindless aggression of a man made stupid by drink , but instead the malevolent glee of a chained brute who had been liberated by it.”

…but instead the malevolent glee of a chained brute who had been liberated by it. How much more do we know about Carl Brockman because of this simple and elegant sentence? And here’s the kicker, Koontz doesn’t tell us this information he shows us.

Sometimes I think I could just pack up and shelve this dream of mine for good just so I could sit back, relax and truly enjoy a tale again.

Another Writing Template For OO Writer

I stumbled on this Book Writing Template for OpenOffice by Stephen Winters the other day and thought I’d share it here. It’s based on the functionality of yWriter5 software by Spacejock Software. A free program I have dabbled with.

I goofed around with the template a bit. It’s well thought out, but still a work in progress. It is usable though, and if you’re looking for something new to help organize your ideas you might want to give it a try.

We Are Not Alone: Heroes of Self-Publishing

Here’s something to inspire you all…

Heroes Of Self-Publishing: Authors Go It Alone @ Huffington Post.

I also encourage you to read the article Presto Book-O (Why I Went Ahead and Self-Published) by Steve Almond.

I was cool with Harvard Bookstore selling it. But other than that, Minute, Honey is available only at readings. My reasoning is pretty simple: I want the book to be an artifact that commemorates a particular human gathering, not a commodity. ~ Steve Almond

An Old Dog & The New Rules of Writing

I recently fell out from under the spell of Black Ops when I had an epiphany about it treating me like a lab rat. Yes, I was playing too much lately when I should have been writing. Alas, my creative juices, confidence and motivation were just not there for me over the past few months. All was not in vain though, Black Ops did get me to restart this blog. Black Ops did get me writing again.

I updated to the latest version of OpenOffice and I found a couple of interesting novel and story writing templates for OO Writer which I will blog about in more detail another time. I modified the templates to suit my needs using Internet resources to brush up on the latest publishing requirements only to discover that things have changed quite a bit over the last several years. Human sacrifice! Dogs and cats living together! Mass hysteria!

Courier used to be font du jour. Double spacing after a period the norm. You underlined words in your manuscript that are meant to be in italics in final print… There are more but you get the picture.

The whole double space thing after a period is a pain in the ass for me to get used to. See? Even now I had to go back and remove that extra space from these last two sentences. With technology advancing so fast, faster than our humanity, change is to be expected these days. The most important change for the aspiring writer? We no longer have to dream about being accepted by a publishing house who would trustingly spend enough money advertising us to the appropriate niche and then, hopefully, be accepted by said niche. Anis Shivani said it best in his Huffington Post article, New Rules For Writers: Ignore Publicity, Shun Crowds, Refuse Recognition And More.

Why take part in the game at all? Who has ever come out of it alive, able to set up tent and build followers on the other side? Why not accept the reality that writers aren’t forged in social harmony and peer input and obedient fellowship, but in a region where madmen and insomniacs find no comfort? ~ Anis Shivani

A region where madmen and insomniacs find no comfort. Reading his article filled me with renewed hope. It speaks to the rebellious nature deep inside of me. Fuck the gatekeepers, Mr. Shivani says. Fuck the gatekeepers. It was liberating to read. The writing industry, like all other industries, has suffered from the maladies of stagnation, insiders only, and status-quo for ages now. I’m amazed that J.K Rowling was discovered at all while Stephanie Meyers “discovery” does not surprise me one bit. For decades the people manning the entertainment gates of success have been telling the public what they should be reading and watching, never caring about their customers enough to ask them what they want (can you tell I’m still quite miffed over the cancellation of Firefly?) Thanks to the Internet and this little nudge from Mr. Shivani I am encouraged to go directly to the source. I no longer dream of that Random House acceptance letter but of the day when people post here to tell me that they have read my book on Kindle or iTunes and enjoyed it. I will take that praise and I will look away from it. I will wallow in my self-doubt and fear of failing at my chosen art form but I will continue to write. I will continue to write. Not for you. Not for me. Not for fame. Not for fortune. I will continue to write for the story.

But I digress. So what does all this mean to you and I during the actual writing process?

Well for one you’re gonna have to spend the next few days going through all the crap you’ve written so far and remove all those pesky extra spaces and replace all the underlined words with actual italics. Who knows? You may find something long forgotten that’s worth rehashing. From now on when you write you have to remember that the end result will most likely not be printed, so many of the old writing conventions do not matter anymore. Unless you have a dear friend willing to partake the drudgery of editing with you, you will be the only one fishing through your manuscript for errors. I’ll be keeping the Courier type and the double spaces in between lines as this just makes editing far more easier on the eyes. When the time comes to get the manuscript ready for digital publishing, after the traditional editing process for plot, grammar and spelling, I will make a copy and then edit for digital aesthetics. And hopefully I will learn things along this journey and share them with the people kind enough to spend a little of their time reading my ramblings here.

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