Archive | November 2014

Dialogue is not only a vehicle for adding life to your characters, but also for revealing who they really are.

Anyone ever eavesdrop on a conversation going on nearby?  Perhaps a group on the beach one spot over from you; a family with three small kids strategizing over where they will add the next tower to their sand castle  when suddenly the mother scolds little Johnny as he throws sand at his unsuspecting sister.  Her husband quietly lifts himself out of the sand and cradles his crying daughter, wiping sand from her face before turning to Johnny to explain the rules of the beach.  He tells a story from his own childhood to bring the point home and you’re swept away with the children, listening, seeing, feeling, as they ask questions while the father answers.  Their dialogue paints a picture as clear as if the scene he spoke of were happening right in front of you. Or in the hair salon when Ron tells the client in his chair, next to you,  about his nasty divorce and how his ex-wife robs him blind every week, catching his son in the middle.  The client asks questions and makes comments which prompts more explanation.  Or in line at the grocery store when the elderly couple in front of you talks to one another about the daughter they haven’t seen in two years who is arriving at the airport the next morning with her husband and five month old son.  You can feel their joy as the woman asks her husband if he emptied his tools and extra clothes from the guest room so that they will feel comfortable enough to want to stay longer.  “You put in those dimmer bulbs like I asked you to, right Ralph?” she nudges him.  He smiles “Yes, Eve.  Everything is ready.  Stop worrying.  Everyone will be fine.”  He slides his arm around her neck as their food glides across the conveyer belt.  He kisses her cheek just before the cashier registers their last item.  You watch and you listen and a piece of you wonders what caused the family to separate.  You hope it all works out for them.

In dialogue, we feel what the character feels.  We see what he sees.  Basically, we glimpse who he is and a piece of his world  by the words he chooses and the way he says them.  The questions that are asked, the answers given or not given, the pauses of silence, the hesitations, the reluctance to answer, the insecurity or pain in the way he speaks.  Dialogue is a powerful tool for a writer and a window into a person’s character for an observer (or a regular person).  Often, a narration or description will not convey the emotion or the meaning as clearly as listening to the characters talk.

I  was never good at noticing REAL dialogue.  Too busy with my own life and the noise in my own mind to step outside myself to eavesdrop on others.  However, as a writer I have learned to take the time outside my head to observe the world around me  and one very important way to do that is to listen in on the conversations hovering about, regardless of where I am.  I may use them one day in a story or I may gain a new perspective about something I didn’t know before.  Either way, I am better off.

In Elizabeth Sims’ article in Writers Digest January 2015, tilted “How to craft Flawless Dialogue”, she tells us:

Dialogue is not only a vehicle for adding life to your characters, but also for revealing who they really are.  Let your characters’ words betray their opinions.

Regretfully, people do not always say what they mean and mean what they say, but if you listen carefully when they are not aware that you’re listening, you will get a feel for the truth.  When their guard is down, their dialogue will always betray them.

Ms. Sims sums up her article with the following advice for writers:

.  Break up mega- paragraphs, whether narrative or dialogue.  That is, let neither your narrator nor your characters get long-winded.

.  Opt for dialogue over narration when possible.  If it  needs to be said, can dialogue do it?

.  Be as sparing with dialogue as with description.

.  If you feel your characters are flat, ask yourself if they’re talking enough.

.  Trust your beta readers.  If your reliable writing group, agent or editor says there’s too much dialogue or not enough, consider tinkering.

Whether you are a writer trying to convey a scene or a regular person (my term for people who do not write but still want to hear advice on how to live joyful, happy lives), listen in on the dialogue of life around you.  Get outside your own head and be present in the  heads and lives of others.  By learning the benefits of dialogue, the way people tell their own stories through everyday conversation, your writing ( and your life) will sparkle instead of withering away like a deflated balloon that has lost air, falling flat.

The plot should be large enough to have the power to transform the character.

The driving force of fiction, the engine of the story, is conflict.  Whether the conflict evolves through an action -oriented plot such as kidnapping or murder or a basic human reflection such as forgiveness or coming of age, it must compel the reader to  identify with the protagonist and subsequently experience the same transformation.

“This process of discovery,” as David B. Coe explains in Jack Smith’s  November 2014 article “Stop to Start” of THE WRITER,  “occurs incrementally over the writing of the whole novel, and it’s like putting together a jigsaw puzzle.  The more pieces that are in place, the easier it is to fit in the next one, until at the end it all comes together very quickly.”

We read for entertainment and to learn and be enlightened , and to feel.  The conflict is the magic that weaves all of that together through the plot.   If there is no character transformation, and she is not affected by what is happening in the story, the purpose of the story falls short.  While it may entertain, it will likely not teach, enlighten or engage the reader’s emotion.

Ellen Sussman asks the question “If the character isn’t substantially affected by what’s happened in a novel, then why tell the story?”. “The story, or plot,” she says “should be big enough and important enough to have the power to transform the main character.”

This transformation must not come easily.  It should be accomplished only after the protagonist fought her battles, overcame obstacles, experienced hardship or defeat or whatever struggles we threw at her in the construction of our plot  From the opening pages when we first drew in our readers, through the power of our story in the chapters between, to the final pages, we empowered the protagonist, enabling her to transform.   And in the end, isn’t that what the audience wants from the writer?  A plot that carries a struggle the reader connects with, giving the reader the power to feel.

When we write, our goal is to entertain, to teach, to enlighten or engage our reader’s emotion.    By constructing a plot large and important enough to have the power to transform our character, we accomplish that goal.

Writing a novel is like driving a car at night…

E.L. Doctorow once said that “writing a novel is like driving a car at night.  You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.”  You do not have to see every inch of where you are going in advance, you don’t have to see your final destination or everything you will pass along the way in order to get there.  You only have to see the few feet in front of you. One “step” at a time.

Not only is this wonderful advice to writers but it also applies to many aspects of our lives, such as setting and pursuing goals, whether long term or short term.  Whether it is a small project we want to take on like re-organizing a closet or a larger one such as renovating an entire home.  Planning a wedding, preparing for a baby’s birth and what it takes to make room in your already crowded life for another person, or going through a divorce… just take it one day at a time and you will reach your destination just as sure as you would reach it if you worried about each phase ahead of time.

In writing, sometimes it is difficult to envision the entire project, a novel in my case, from start to finish without becoming frustrated and discouraged at times.  Most times.  Its like exercise in a way- no gain if no pain.  But a bit more enjoyable at least!  Writing is fun, at least for those of us who have been called to this wonderful passion.  But like anything else, it takes hard work and persistence.   There are times when we sit down at our computer with no idea where to start, or pick up from the day before, or where to end.  As talented authors of Books on How To Write– like Stephen King, Anne Lamott, James Scott Bell, Orson Scott Card, Gloria Kempton and others have said time after time: “Just write.  Never give up.”  That is the key.

And… isn’t that the best advice for anything?  No matter how large our goals or dreams seem, no matter how difficult or unrealistic (some of my own kids tell me to give up- that I can never expect to actually be published like a “real writer”) never ever stop.  Never give up, never quit and never stop believing in yourself.  After all, the  journey is half the fun! So keep on driving that car toward your destination.  Just remember to keep your headlights bright and preserver through the night and you will eventually arrive safe and sound!