And yes, for advanced writers much of this is obvious. But I’ll explore the nuances as much as this short article will allow me.
- Structuring a plot must be correctly managed before your story will engage your readers. And what are you managing? You are revealing and arranging selective information within a timeline. Knowing just how much, and when, establishes the skill of the writer.
- Setting up believable characters is just as important. Without your people ringing true, there will not be an investment in your story.
- Finally description comes into play, which is the art of combining story, characters and settings so they distract and then dazzle the mind.
These three elements must be mastered in order to capture and hold attention. Your words should become invisible, leaving only your ideas to float off the page.
And that’s really hard to do.
So for this post, let’s break down the art of story telling even further and dissect the craft of constructing dialogue.
Beginning writers have a tendency to underestimate the significance of defining a character through speech, or the lack of it.
Have you ever read a story where all the people sounded the same?
Have you been bored by dialogue being used to convey only story points, instead of the way a character thinks and “sees” the world?
Speech patterns are like Koi fish. The shape of the animals are all the same, like the use of a common language, but each fish has a unique skin of many colors and designs, like different people rearranging sentence structure and choosing alternate words to describe similar events. Some people hardly speak at all. They express their thoughts with body language. A twitch can say a lot.
Silence…so important and yet generally ignored by novice authors. What a character does NOT say is just as important as what IS said. And the TIME it takes to start a conversation or respond is also a tool of revelation.
I’m talking about BEATS within a scene and spoken words. How many of you give your characters time to THINK about what they need to say? Are they always ready with a response? Back-forth, back-forth, back-forth. Is that natural?
Sometimes it is. But is that interesting? Wouldn’t you rather build hills and valleys into your scenes, as in the expansion and compression of time – or perceived time?
Suppose you’re writing a scene in REAL time, meaning the seconds it takes to read the scene is the same time it takes your characters to express the action.
When you’re describing a moment of introspection, you must add words to expand real time for the reader, slowing it down for your characters as well. Movies use a similar technique when multiple angles are cut together to express a single event, as in showing an accident or explosion covered by five camera locations.
To show instead of telling, describe expressive action throughout the conversation; like scratching a jaw, white-knuckling a steering wheel, yawning, or the darting of eyes to the clock on the wall. Body language tells a story. Don’t make it a contrived place holder.
Now a comment: Living a real life of texting instead of face to face conversation is not great training for a describer of human expression.
To write about people, you must interact with them, watch, listen and think about what you observed; especially shared FEELINGS beyond the physical gestures and vocal inflections. Communicating is deep and provocative when it’s intimate.
Texting is not communicating. Texting is sending directions.
Back to technique.
When writing a scene for the first time, just getting our thoughts out is enough. Dialogue, quickly thrown down for structure is adequate for outlining scenes.
The second pass adds the colors. This is where you mold words into rhythm patterns that match your characters. This is the time to rough up the speech and tinker with bad grammar and dropped pronouns.
(1) I have a third pass, and it’s about the beats of the sentences. I’m not a poet but I am aware of the rhythm of the syllables. Maybe, because I’m a drummer, I think of sentences as musical phrases. And these phrases have to flow and end on the right beat, even if it means substituting words of various syllables to get the cadence to flow.)
As an example of a third revision, the paragraph above was written unedited, straight from my head.
The following paragraph was rewritten taking rhythm into consideration, as well as more details.
(2) My third pass sharpens the beats in a sentence. I’m no poet but I AM a drummer. So I’m aware that syllables create rhythm and that sentences can sound like musical phrases. These phrases should ebb and flow like a song, ending correctly on the right beat. To create those patterns I substitute words: two syllables for three, three for one, arriving at a definable cadence.
Can you feel the musical difference between paragraph (1) and paragraph (2)?
Dialogue examples – a first draft, then a polish:
“Does he think were all stupid?” Beth says with a bite in her voice. “Doesn’t he know we already know all this stuff?”
The older man stays in his menu. The din of college chatter and tinny pop tunes envelope them both. “I don’t think Irv thinks we’re dumb at all,” he says looking up, “but sometimes obvious things are overlooked and he’s writing articles more as reminders than to-do lists.”
“Well, I got bored reading his post. I didn’t learn anything new. And I don’t have time to waste for junk content!”
“You didn’t get what I said,” Dan retorts. “Irving is simply reminding us to use our real life’s experience as a guide for writing complexity. If we don’t observe complexity, we won’t be able to write it.”
“What are you doing?”
“Texting Dana,” she says. “Her birthday’s tomorrow.”
The above example illustrates dialogue and two characters having the same talking style and time flow. Now let’s layer the scene, allowing for beats and added backstory.
“I’m NOT in the third grade,” Beth drawls, rolling her eyes. “What’s he thinking?”
She waits for an answer. But her friend, a man fifteen years older and looking very lawyerly, stays hidden behind his raised open menu.
“Oh…so now we’re playing, Ignore-the-Bitch.”
“I’m not ignoring you,” he says flatly. “I’m trying to order. And this place is so damn loud you’re screaming at me.”
Beth leans over the table, flattens Dan’s menu and whispers, “Irving Podolsky bores me.”
“Then don’t read his stuff.”
“You insist I do.”
His gaze drops to the pastas on the cardboard now lying on his plate. “You want to be a writer, Podolsky writes about writing.”
“He writes about life, not about characters in other romance novels.”
“You’re calling me a hack?”
Dan flips to the wine list. “No. Just insolated.”
“I wouldn’t be if you’d say more than eight words in my direction!”
His eyes raise to hers. “Then take that damn phone off the table. You’ve texted three times since we got here.”
Seconds pass in a stare-off. Beth’s face hardens. “Oh… So that’s it.”
“If Dana’s so important, this should have been HER date.”
Dan’s eyes stay locked onto hers, waiting for…an apology. It isn’t coming, at least not now. Up goes his menu.
“You ARE jealous!”
More silence behind his wall. This date is not going well.