Conversation versus Fictional Dialog


Conversation versus Fictional Dialog

Here’s how a real conversation goes:

“Hi, Jen,” I said.

“Hi, Frances,” she replied. “Can you believe the weather?”

“Unbelievable. They’re predicting more snow tomorrow.”

“And then the temperature is going up so there might be freezing rain.”

I shook her head. “I can’t wait for spring.”

“Me, too. Hey, did you see the news last night?”

“I know, would you believe the gall of the guy?”

Okay, I’ll stop it there. We’ve all had these conversations and there is nothing wrong with them as lubricant to social interaction. But as dialog, they are deadly and break the unwritten laws of fiction of which your reader is unaware but you ignore at your peril.

The problem with real life

Let’s assume the conversation above is intended as fictional dialog. What’s wrong with it?

  • First, it is just noise unless your story is about an impending tornado or the comeuppance of the guy with the gall (but if it is one or the other, one part of the conversation is unneeded). Readers get bored with extraneous stuff and quit reading.
  • Second, the dialog doesn’t have a purpose. By that I mean, it doesn’t move the story forward, either by showing something about the characters we need to know or by disclosing part of the plot.

How to make your dialog read like conversation

The answer is not to vow, “Right, I’m going to decide the purpose of this dialog before I start writing.” If you do, you’ll probably end up with quite a stilted scene. Let the dialog flow as it might in conversation (minus the extraneous bits), but get to the point quickly.

Another equally effective way is to write the initial draft of the dialog as feels right. When you have finished the story and are in edit mode, consider each piece of dialog to see whether it contributes to the story or character development. If it does, great. Doubt? Try to identify how it helps the story. If you can’t, this might be a candidate for the chopping block. 

Conversation revisited

Let’s redo the conversation above to make it useful dialog in a story. The first redo is if the story is about an impending tornado and the second about the galling guy.

Impending tornado

“My god, did you see the weather forecast?” Jen asked.

“I know, tornadoes! That’s crazy this far north,” I said. “And on top of all the snow and freezing temperatures.”

“This has got to be climate change,” she said.

Story might end up being about climate change; might not. But this version immediately introduces the main topic. No greetings, no small talk.

Galling guy

Jen tossed her bag on her desk. “Did you see McFarlane on the news last night?”

“Unbelievable,” I said. “The gall of the guy.”

“He’ll stoop to anything.”

“Of course, will anybody be able to prove that he’s lied?”

Same thing—use the dialog to move the story forward even if it is simply setting the scene for more complicated events later.

Conversation is actually quite different from dialog in that it doesn’t need to go somewhere whereas dialog does. Another example of where saying “But that’s how it really happened,” gets the response, “And what’s your point?”

Getting Pacing Right


Getting Pacing Right

You know how sometimes a novel moves so slowly that it irritates and seems to positively encourage you to put it down even if the story interests you? Or when events move so quickly that you’re saying to yourself, “Huh? Wasn’t he trapped in the underground cave?” Or, the best, when you move from revelation to revelation in the story in a satisfying way? That’s pacing.

It is subjective

Whether the pacing is right depends largely on the reader. If he revels in elaborate description, he won’t find things slowed down by it. If the reader prefers fast paced, he’ll skip over any moments of confusion or disconnection to get to the climax.

So this is annoying for the writer. There probably isn’t one right answer unless you already know your readership well as a popular mystery novelist might.

But there are some general rules which generally work.

Getting the pacing right

Mechanical ways

There are some standard ways to keep the pacing right

  • Description slows things down. Even beautifully crafted, heartfelt passages pause the action so we can admire the craft and heart.
  • Action speeds things up. When your characters are doing stuff, the pace of the novel picks up.
  • Slowing the pace of the action can build suspense. One of those counter-intuitive things but slowing the pace at the right moment can be more effective than barreling along.
  • Reflective/internal dialogue slows the pace. But may be necessary both for the story but also as a chance for the reader to recover from the previous fast-paced action.
  • Varying sentence length can break things up. It really can. Breaking up dialogue with bits of business (he tapped his fingers; she turned her head sharply) produces the same effect.

Soul-searching ways

You sometimes need to look deeper to ask yourself some hard questions.

  • Is the world you created more interesting to you than to the reader? [1] Writers can get very excited about the world they’re creating. They explore all the nooks and crannies of this creation, getting more and more enthusiastic about the possibilities. All to the good. And can certainly infuse your writing with that enjoyment. But by and large, this neat stuff is more important to inform your writing than the reader.

Long passages describing how fascinating the world is are probably interesting only to you. What hooks a reader is the action the characters take within that context. And the constraints and opportunities that arise because of the unique setting. The magic layer in your world may only start five thousand feet above the surface. The protagonist must figure out how to reach that layer in order to access the magic that will further his goal, whatever it is.

  • Are you rushing to the end? This is a particular problem if you’ve already decided how the novel will conclude. There is a tendency to write the scenes leading in a straight line to the climax. Which leaves the reader rather breathless and in addition, ignores the byways, asides, and subplots which not only give a fuller story but also slows things down enough for the reader to enjoy the unfolding of the tale at a more satisfying pace.

In summary, this is a Goldilocks thing. Not too fast. Not too slow. And varied pacing. Too much of the same pace—no matter how exciting—will begin to feel tedious to the reader.

[1] Lukeman, Noah The First Five Pages Simon & Schuster New York 2000

Interior Dialogue—The Bad


Interior Dialogue—The Bad

As covered in the previous post, the use of interior dialogue is a useful device in a writer’s toolbox. But it can be a double-edged weapon to wield. Let’s discuss its downsides.

Tell dressed up in sheep’s clothing

Let’s assume you are coming to a critical point in your plot which you express as:

Aidan thought, “I’ve got to do something. I’m too impatient to let this just happen. Just because Peggy told me yesterday that we were through doesn’t mean I have to buy it.”

You want to establish Aidan’s impatience and his breakup with Peggy as key points in your story. But actually, you haven’t. Or at least not well. Using interior dialogue this way is a kind of a cheat TELL. This is the most common misuse of interior dialogue.

When an event/characteristic is important to your plot, you’ve got to slow down and give it the space it deserves. You need to show the impatience. Aidan jumps up, paces the room, and/or writes an ill-advised text to Peggy.  You need to let the reader be a fly on the wall when Peggy and Adrian have their final blow-up. What she said, then what he said, she said, he said, etc.

There are some pragmatic reasons for expanding on important plot points. First, if you don’t, the reader is unlikely to remember this almost off –the-cuff treatment and may be confused about the protagonist’s motivation farther into the narrative. Secondly, even if she remembers, she won’t be convinced emotionally of its veracity because she hasn’t seen it for herself, so to speak.

However, it is possible that this is not an important plot point (although sort of hard to see how it wouldn’t be). If it isn’t, you might be able to get away with it. But it’s still TELL in quotes.

In action/high tension sequences

What if you are writing a high tension scene? You want your reader on the edge of her chair. Would this work?

Brad’s head jerked up. Something was happening in the cabin. A whiff of smoke was coming out of the chimney. Oak probably, although it might be pine. Brad started to creep forward.

Well, it’s not a chargeable offense but Brad is presumably keyed up and as tense as you hope your reader is. In this situation, I think that this bit of internal dialogue is not only unnecessary but distracting. In an emergency situation, do you notice how pretty the accident victim’s dress is? Or remark on the fluffy blue clouds as you are tumbling down the mountain to your death? These are not good places for internal dialogue.

If the type of wood is significant to the plot (although I am blanking as to how), you can have Brad think about it after the high tension situation is concluded.

Excess use

Yes, Hamlet can spend the whole play agonizing about his choices and let’s face it, we buy it. He thinks his way through and delays action in pretty much the whole play but it works. But because of the particular genius of Shakespeare. There is another set of rules for the rest of us.

And the rule is: Shit or get off the pot.

Audiences, particularly modern ones, just don’t have a lot of tolerance for vacillating protagonists. A certain amount of interior dialogue is okay as the character is deciding what to do but sooner rather than later, he must act. If he continues his indecision too long he’ll likely be seen as weak, dithering, and even morally bankrupt.

So, by all means use interior dialogue (only one POV, please) but be aware of when and how to use it.

Interior Dialogue


Interior Dialogue

In the last post, I discussed the reasons for sticking with one Point of View (POV) to allow the reader to get to know your main character. One of the prime ways is through interior dialogue. Just so we’re talking the same language, an example is: “I can’t do this,” Cecelia thought. “I’ll be humiliated.

How it’s useful

Most writers make great use of the main character’s thoughts to move the novel forward. Here are some ways you can use it to create the effects you want.

Make the character more likeable/despicable

The protagonist’s actions can be quite appalling or even just questionable but you keep the sympathy of the reader through his thoughts. “I have to do it. I can’t let him down.”  Or “No, no! It wasn’t supposed to happen this way!”

Similarly, you can show the character being nicey-nicey all the while having contemptuous thoughts. “Yes, I’ll donate to your charity, you windbag.” Or “Why doesn’t somebody tell her she looks a drowned cat?”

Of course, you can’t have this conflict between thoughts and actions go on forever. Sooner or later, you need to show a critical action by your POV character which is true to his thoughts. Another way to resolve this is to show the protagonist acting in a way which confirms that he is lying to himself. Either option allows the reader to come to her own conclusion on her feelings about the character.

Explain motivation

In old stage melodramas, this is the part where the villain twirls his moustache and announces to the audience what he is planning to do and why. You have a much easier way. The villain can think it. Arthuro’s eyes drew down to slits. “Not yet,” he thought. “Not now. It needs to hurt more.”

Having said that, and once again, you need to show the villain acting on his motivation to make the story credible.

Bind the reader to the main character

If your reader knows your hero’s inner most thoughts, it can increase her affection for or interest in the protagonist. As in real life, understanding a person’s vulnerabilities and secrets, exposing the soul beneath the façade, creates and sustains an emotional bond.

I want to give you an example of this but I’ve concluded that I can’t do it in a paragraph. Getting to the soul of the character needs the context of his life and events which affect it to be credible. In fact, a novel.

So access to the protagonist’s thoughts can be an important and useful tool

Do I have to use interior dialogue?

You don’t have to, of course but things can go one of two ways if you don’t.

A tour de force

Cormac McCarthy’s All the Pretty Horses is brilliant. He writes about cowboys—not ones for lots of mental angst, you would think—but he never enters the mind of the main character. And yet, he communicates what the protagonist thinks and feels through his actions. Amazing achievement.  Similarly with Muriel Spark’s The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, we know Brodie through her girls and their parents but never from Brodie herself.

A total bust

But avoiding interior dialogue can also result in a novel which feels superficial. Without it, the reader may feel she doesn’t get to know the hero. The novel can also feel as if it is floating at the surface of the truth it is trying to get at.

So, you don’t have to use it but prepare to have a dazzling way to achieve what interior dialogue does.

But there are some real downsides to this technique. Next post.

Explanation in Quotes


Explanation in Quotes

I have already talked about the problems caused by extensive blocks of explanation or exposition. Although a reader needs to know stuff for the plot or memoir to proceed, blocks of explanation can also slow down the action and often is more tell than show.

Some writers believe that they are getting around this problem by having one or more of the characters convey what they want to get across. Here is an example.

The doctor said, “I need to refer you to an ophthalmologist. Not an optometrist. An ophthalmologist is a physician specializing in injuries and diseases affecting the eye. He can do surgery, too. Not that you will necessarily need that but I want to check your field of vision. They have a test where you click on a clicker when you see a bright light. It determines that you have good peripheral vision. It only takes a few minutes.

“Now, I don’t want you to worry. It’s probably nothing but better safe than sorry.”

Actually, explanation in quotes often goes on for much longer but I’m trying to save your time and eyes.

What’s wrong with explanation in quotes (EIQ)?

EIQ differs from our old friend As-You-Know, Bob. If you remember, As-You-Know dialog communicates information to the reader by reminding a character (Bob, in this case) of it even though Bob already knows. But EIQ is communicating information which is news to the speaker’s audience. So, in that way, it could be seen as a step up or a lesser sin. And the problem is not so much an individual incident of EIQ but a multitude of them in a novel or memoir.

Multiple EIQs slow forward action. It is as if we are all poised to start the race and have to stop to listen to a lecture on sportsmanship. Even if we need to know the information, it delays action that the reader/runner was anticipating.

How to do explanation so it doesn’t slow things down

Cut it down to the pertinent facts.

First, you need to decide if this piece of information is critical to your story (e.g. protagonist is going blind) or incidental (e.g. she has hit her eye so she later misses a clue which she would have seen out of the corner of her eye).

If it isn’t critical, you can probably get away with something like:

The doctor said, “I want to refer you to a specialist in eyes. To check your field of vision. Now, I don’t want you to worry. It’s probably nothing but better safe than sorry.”

Break up the explanation

If the information is critical, then give it the prominence it deserves and make it part of the story.

The doctor said, “I’d like to refer you to an ophthalmologist.”

I sat up straighter. “What’s that?”

“Eye specialist. I’d like him to check your peripheral vision.”

“My vision? What’s wrong with it?”

“It’s probably nothing but better safe than sorry.”

“But then why the referral?”

You get across the main information while also communicating your protagonist’s concern/tension. A bonus.

Finding a way to dramatize critical information makes it more likely your reader will take it in and contribute to the forward action rather than slowing it down.