Saturday, May 24, 2014

Dialog (2 of 3) - The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

The quality of dialog varies from writer to writer, from book to book and sometimes even within one book. There is ugly dialog, which lets you close the book, or bad dialog, over which you jump to get to the better part of the story. On the other side of the spectrum, there is good dialog that brings the story forward and awesome dialog which is witty and fun reading. Awesome dialog reveals more than what the words say.

Part two of my dialog series brings you away from ugly or bad dialog.

1. Said vs the 100 ways to say say 
Beg, remark, shout, remind, moan, narrate, bark, concede - last month I saw a Pinterest pin showing 234 synonyms for "said". Five people liked it and it was repined several times. Somebody even was excited to finally have this list so she wouldn't have to use say so often anymore. On the other side, every writing guidebook I picked up and every podcast I listened to suggests to stick with say. 

I say, reduce dialog tags to the bare minimum you need to and stick with say. With that, you already reduce the number of times you write "say".

"But not everything in dialog is said, sometimes it is whispered, sometimes yelled," I hear you say.

It is the same with "Show, don't tell"; if you have two people being careful not be caught while watching a scene at night, they whisper. You don't have to write "John whispered" as dialog tag. Even with something like "I hate you" - look at these two examples:

Christine came closer. "I hate you." I could sense her warm breath in his ear. 
"I hate you." Her eyes had this hard glare I knew from when her dog was run over by a car.

Using whisper, yell, moan is telling not showing. Having said that, there are moments to replace say with a more specific word or (all delicate writer souls, please skip that next 5 words) specify say with an adverb. But why that now? Simple reason: If you are in the middle of a dialog you might not want to interrupt the flow.

But don't get lazy. Use this sparsely.

2. E-mail dialog vs. real live dialog vs. writing dialog
Writing dialog is different than real dialog. In real dialog you talk much more, using filling words.

Real live:

"Hi John, how are you?"
"Same old, same old. You?"
"Have you seen the game on Sunday?"
"Great catch from Miller, but the defense was weak."
"Yeah. So how is the family?"
"My daughter is getting married next month. We are all busy with the preparation."

vs. in writing:

"Hi John, how are you? How is the family?"
"Great. My daughter is getting married next month. We are all busy with the preparation."

The recipe is to get to the point without loosing the mood the conversation.

And there is the very ugly e-mail dialog, where one side holds a monolog and than the other part answers in a monolog - just like an e-mail conversation. Please stay away from this.

3. Character voice in dialog
Dialog is a great chance to peel out a character's voice. Don't get me wrong, dialog is only one part of character's voice, more important are his basic appearance, his emotions, his reactions and ultimately his decisions.

The way somebody talks has a) integrated with he or she feels and reacts etc. as well as b) distinct from how others are talking and c) consistent throughout the story. However, character voice is a whole topic on its own and I already have one or two blog posts in mind about this.

Part three and the last post about dialog for the moment will be about some special topics and techniques, such as trialog (multiple people talking), the art of talking by not saying something and others.

Happy writing

Your writer in a foreign land

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Midweek teaser: Find All Errors in the Dialog

The next two Sundays I'll write about the 100 ways to say say, good dialog vs. bad dialog and dialog in real live vs writing dialog.
Find all errors in the following dialog as a little warm-up:

"Good morning." Said Walter.

"Good morning." Replied Henry a bit reserved.

"How are you, Henry? Long time not seen." 

"Quite well, but why haven't you called back last week, when I left you a message?" Asked Henry angrily. 

"I was very busy at work," Mumbled Walter.

"It was important," Snapped Henry. "I needed your help for an idea I had to come up with for the ceremony at church. They want me to lead the ticket sales for the raffle. We need to make 40 grand and this means we need to sell two thousand tickets. And I don't know how I can sell all these tickets. They were not very pleased about my ideas I presented them last meeting. By the way, why are you not on the committee this year and why have you not been in church all these weeks, Walter?"

"That is none of your business!" Yelled Walter at Henry.

"The priest was looking for you." Quoted Henry. "And sure this is his business. Anyway, what does Wilma say to this. Your wife was always so firm about church, she wouldn't want to miss one Sunday." Added Henry

"She ... is ... not that well." Stuttered Walter

"What is wrong, Walter?" Inquired Henry.

Happy revising
Your writer in a foreign land

Sunday, May 18, 2014

Dialog (1 of 3) - The Basics

Know thyself.

As a writer - as well as anybody else -  you have to know your strength and weaknesses. I'm good in describing. I can paint a picture on the page by using words. Unfortunately describing is not en vogue right now, but let's talk about this in another blog. Hopefully the fashion will change again on this. One of my weaker points is dialog. It just doesn't flow out of my fingertips as description. All the details that make dialogue good dialog, I had to learn them by hard. However, I think I'm not alone with this - so here are my experiences and techniques I use to get around it. 

Before I start, let me answer to the purpose question: Why dialog?
As a storyteller I am used to narrate. In that situation I would rather talk about indirect speech than dialogue. Don't get me wrong; this is horrible writing and probably the reason, why this is so hard for me. I follow the maxim, "show" the key plot points of a story and "tell" the connectors between them. Dialog is an important piece of the "Show"-part. Dialog is communication and communication is life. If you have two or more people in a scene you will have communication between them. Showing this as dialogue is a chance to say more than just the words you use. 

Example? Here you go:

John couldn't stand the endless discussions about having a baby anymore. He got angry and left the room when she started to talk about it.


"Don't walk away from me. Don't ignore me." Anna shouted after him.
John stuck his head back through the door.
"I walk away when you bring up a discussion we had held a million times before. I don't want a child and that's it."

The first part of this blog post is about the basics: Punctuation, dialog tags and blocking
Punctuation separates the dialog from the rest of the story, dialog tags help us to identify who is talking and blocking gives us the surroundings, as dialog usually doesn't happen in a white room.

1. Punctuation 
Ok, I agree. Most of you had this in school and it is kind of a must for a writer. I learned this too, in German - and punctuation is different there, so I had to learn the differences.

Quotation marks
Spoken part of dialog is in "..." and follows the same rules as a normal sentence (e.g. Capital letter at the beginning point/exclamation mark/question mark at the end - except for the dialog tag comma).

"He has gone."
"Do you love him?"

Dialog tags
Dialog tags are separated by commas from the dialog. 
"He has gone," Anna said
Susan said, "Do you love him?"
However: "He has gone." Anna sighs when she finally admits it to Susan.

Line breaks
New line for each new spoken part as well as for the blocking in between.

Dany didn't notice that Anna stood behind him.
"She is really sexy today. I wonder where old messy Anna is"
"You can be such an idiot." 
The words hit him like a slap on the back of his head.

Internal dialog
The format of internal dialog depends on the POV.

  • First person: No special formatting necessary (everything happens in the main character's head anyway)
  • Regular third person: Use italics
  • Omniscient POV: Use italics and a tag as you have to define, whose internal dialog it is

Special cases

  • Use "..." for swallowed parts of the dialog
  • Use "-" if somebody is interrupted

2. Inflation of the dialog tags
Dialog tags are bad. They are almost as bad as repeating the name in the dialog over and over again, but not as bad. Both bad writing habits serve one purpose: Tell the reader who spoke. But why are they bad? They interrupt the flow of the dialog and make it feel artificial to the reader. 

"I wouldn't go in there,"said John.
"Why not?" asked Steve.
"Because Anna is still furious," replied John.
"I haven't done anything," said Steve.


"I wouldn't go in there, Steve."
"Why not, John?"
"Because Anna is still furious, Steve."

Sorry, I have to stop here with bad examples - I'm getting goosebumps. 

The right way to do this, is using dialog tags only sparingly. Trust in your reader, that they know who is talking by what they say and how they say it. Only the owner of the bar would state that wanted to have small stage for a Jazz band, but he didn't get the permission. Only the guest orders the check (not the waiter). If it not clear, rather use blocking to determine who is talking. In my current novel I have a situation, where one character is mentally in a bad situation and the other one tries to improve his mood - so I let him talk about non important things in a kind of a monolog. For about a whole page I use no dialog tag, because it is clear that only on character is talking.

And last but not least, only use the name in the dialog if it is a special situation. My mother, for example, would only call be by my full name if I had done something wrong. I also observed, that couples would use the full name of their spouse, when they are angry. Other than these examples; don't do it.

3. Blocking
The most important part of dialog is probably blocking. Dialog doesn't happen in an empty room and people usually don't stand still while talking. There is always movement and blocking servers to tell the reader this movement. Imagine a story, where the villain tries to stab the hero with a kitchen knife.  We need to tell the reader, that they are in a kitchen and at some point in the dialog, we might want the villain to walk over to the kitchen counter. 

Blocking can also be used to have time passed. For example, you can add a sentence like:
In the mean time they reached the end of Central Park and John realized he had never been in Harlem before.

Obviously, they were talking for hours, even if the actual dialog you show is only 10 lines.
As usual, there are exception to the rule. Sometimes you might want to have dialog in an empty room. By doing that, the dialog itself gets a whole other weight. Hence, the dialog must be a key piece of the story and the words must be selected even more carefully.

Next blog, I'll talk about the 100 ways to say say, good dialog vs. bad dialog and dialog in real live vs writing dialog.

Happy writing

Your writer in a foreign land

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Midweek teaser: You Are Not Special

Inspiring commencement speech from Wellesley High School. 

This is not only true for high-school graduates, but also very much for new writers. I don't want to know how many new writers emerge every across the country, trying to get their stories on paper and into the bookstores. The message is the same as in the video: You are not special, but you might create something special.

You are what you create. Write the story to have it written, not to sell it. Sales will come, if you do it right.

Sunday, May 11, 2014

Writing Advise: Read a Lot

Among all writing advise there is one, which I find the most compelling one: Write a lot, read a lot. I'm trying hard to write a lot, keeping up with my daily writing goal and most of the days I'm succeeding. Well, reading is a whole different animal. Still, I do what I can.

Here's my bookshelf:

Books I have (and want) to read because they are part of the culture. Books kids read in high school and I missed just because they were not on our reading list. I have to catch-up on these books:

  • The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger (tick)
  • The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway (tick)
  • The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald (tick) 
  • This Side of Paradise by F Scott Fitzgerald 
  • To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
  • Of Mice and Man by John Steinbeck
  • Great Expectations by Charles Dickens
  • Frankenstein by Marry Shelly
  • War of Wolds by H.G. Wells
  • Fahrenheit  451 by Ray Bradbury
  • Brave New World by Aldous Huxley
  • Sanctuary by William Faulkner
  • Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov
  • Etc.

Some books I actually read in German, but to get the original language I probably want and need to read them again:

  • The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy (all five books of the trilogy)
  • The Innocent Abroad and Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain
  • The Time Machine by H. G. Wells
  • One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez - I read the original and I would really love to see how they translated the Spanish
  • The Lord of the Rings by J.R. R. Tolkien
  • Breakfast at Tiffany's by Truman Capote
  • Snow Falling in Cedars by David Guterson
  • Uncle Tom's Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe
  • The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton
  • Gone with the Wind by Maragret Mitchell
  • Etc.

Of course, I also want to keep up with emerging good stuff:

  • A Short Stay in Hell by Steven L. Peck (tick) - this was a writing tip from writing excuses and I love it!  
  • Amped by Daniel Wilson (tick)
  • Odds Against Tomorrow by Nathaniel Rich (tick)
  • Time Keeper and The Five People you meet in Heaven by Mitch Albom (tick, tick)
  • Myth Man by Alex Mueck
  • Shambling Guide to NYC and Ghost Train to New Orleans by Mur Lafferty
  • Empire State by Adam Christopher
  • Etc.

Additionally, further advise from fellow writers who already made it is part of the reading list:

  • On writing by Stephen King
  • Beginnings, Middles and Ends by Nancy Kress
  • Crafting Unforgettable Characters by K.M. Weiland
  • 500 Ways to Tell a Better Story by Chuck Wending
  • Etc.

And last but not least, there is the long, long reading list and so little time:

  • Robot Dreams and Foundation Series by Isaac Asimov
  • Anything from Philipp K. Dick
  • The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafón
  • Catch 22 by Joseph Heller
  • Plot Against America by Philipp Roth
  • A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess
  • Slaughter House Five by Kurt Vonnegut
  • Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas by Hunter S. Thompson
  • Perfurme by Patrick Süskind
  • Neuromancer by William Gibson
  • Trainspotting by Irvine Welsh
  • Cider House Rules by John Irving
  • Lord of the Flies by William Golding
  • Kiss the Girls by James Patterson
  • Starship Troopers by Robert A. Henlein
  • Enders Game by Orson Scott Card
  • The House of Spirits by Isabelle Allende
  • and many, many more

Happy reading

Your writer in a foreign land

Sunday, May 4, 2014

Villains: The Everyday Villain

We all love villains. Haven't we all waited for the moment when Anakin Skywalker turns into Darth Vader. Isn't it always the villain who adds the color to a Bond movie (I guess some of my friends would shout "no, it's the girls"). Why is Breaking Bad such a success?

It is not that we actually love villains more than heroes and at the end of the story we are usually glad when the hero wins. One aspect that attract us, is the glimpse into the abyss of the human nature and thus the fear what could be us. We also see the freedom that lies in breaking the rules. We would love to have the same freedom. Not necessarily to be a rogue or evil, but to live and act without consequences. 

A lot has been written about villains: How to create them, what they need to be convincing and ultimately what do we need to give the reader in order to have him bite on a villain. Below I've collected some of the best blog examples I came across so far:

The Every Day Villain

My villains had ranged from company boss (type of reckless, power seeking manager) to distant and cruel parents. In my current novel, I write about two brothers of which one turns against the other. He thinks his brother is wrong in a fundamental family matter. For him it is more than true, that he is the hero of his own story. 

This brings me to a kind of villain, which not obvious when you start writing - the every day villain and his specifics:

  • The every day villain is somebody who has a goal that gets in the hero's way. This might be something so simple as the father of a girl who does not want his daughter to date the hero. Or a person in a life threatening situation that has the strong another way to get out of it is better. 
  • You could be a villain, or better I'm sure you are or have been the villain in somebody else's story. Remember when you last wanted something and somebody else wanted the same thing. Add a deeper story to this somebody else, a reason why he needs it to be happy, and there is your story.
  • The everyday villain is not necessarily bad or evil, although you might want to add a little spite to spice up the story. At least he needs determination and a position that allows him to enforce his plans to make his actions credible to the reader.
  • When you create an everyday villain, you need to give more detail on why he opposes to the hero's needs and wishes in order to make him authentic. Otherwise, how to maintain the tension over the whole story arc, if we don't let the reader believe in the firmness of his intentions. 
    The moment by when we reveal these details is on us. We can give it early so the reader knows that at the end there can be only one (i.E. there will be no compromise) increasing the tension on how it will blow up. We can give it at the end and only foreshadow them in order to keep the open ending. 
  • An example? Here you go: Prof. Robert Crawford in Finding Forrester. A simple teacher, that appears to be malignant and bitter from the first moment the protagonist Jamal learns to know him. Later, his friend tells Jamal the reason why - Crawford had written a book that nobody wanted to publish. Because of this, he turned away from writing and became a literature professor. In the moment we know this background, it becomes clear that this story will not have an easy outcome. This little piece of information is necessary to boost the conflict in the story.
What villains are you currently working on?

Your writer in a foreign land