Distinctive Markings in Dialog (also known as Punctuation)

Can’t say why, but I’m feeling like Ms. Tutor these days.  <LOL>  Let’s continue dialog as it relates to punctuation.

There’s nothing wrong with bending or breaking rules now and again in fiction writing; in fact, it can be rather refreshing.  When it comes to dialog punctuation, though, it’s better to stick with the norm.  Sure, you’ll find a few authors that break from said norm—like James Joyce, Gertrude Stein, and Cormac McCarthy (“if you write properly, you shouldn’t have to punctuate”).  Generally speaking, though, we’re accustomed to certain dialog conventions and can find it jarring if they’re not typically utilized.

Given most of us don’t like to study grammar and the like, let’s stick to the basics as they relate to American writing rules (our friends across the Big Pond have different ones).

Two main/common rules to start:

  1. Keep punctuation inside the quotation marks when a character is speaking.
  2. Start new paragraphs for new speakers (this makes it easier to follow who’s saying what and when).

Now that we have that emblazoned on the ol’ memory banks, let’s move on to a few more.

Dialog begins with a capitalized word.

“Montague claims he won the bet fair and square,” Nancy declared.

The words a character speaks are inside the quotation (which is known as direct dialog).

“Poor Lidia’s gone mad!”

“Poor Lidia’s gone mad!” she exclaimed, dropping onto the sofa.  “Utterly mad!”

As above and below, use a comma between the dialog and tagline.

“I believe Randolph Upperbottom is the murderer,” Taria announced as the butler cleared the table.

Franklin said, “Nonsense.  The man was here the whole time.”

Leaping to his feet, Josh declared, “Yes, Inspector, I can prove it!”

Punctuation separates spoken words from other parts of the sentence.  Periods, commas, exclamation marks and question marks go inside quotation marks—if part of the dialog/discussion.

“You’ve indulged in too much wine,” Marcus said, affronted.  “How could you possibly believe he killed Rachel?”

“She did it!” Laura-Lee said, pointing a shaky finger at the anxious maid.

Here’s an example of when this is not the case:

Taria couldn’t believe her ears.  Did Marcus just say, “You’ve indulged in too much wine”?

Utilize commas when a tagline breaks up a sentence.

“To say that,” Eugenia declared, “is to be utterly rude.”

Use single quotes for quotations within dialog—for example, when someone’s speaking, but also quoting what someone else said.  Punctuation indicates the difference between what the character is saying and what he/she is quoting (repeating).

“Yes, I’m sure.  Marcus definitely said ‘You’ve indulged in too much wine’.”

“Marcus said, and I quote, ‘You’ve indulged in too much wine’.”

James asked, “Did Marcus really say, ‘You’ve indulged in too much wine’?”

What about dialog that’s interrupted by an action or thought?  Follow these steps:

  •  Insert quotation marks at the start of the dialog and an em dash ** at the end of the quotation.
  • Add the action or thought and then insert another em dash.
  • Use another quotation mark to continue with the dialog.
  • Employ a period (exclamation mark or question mark) when the dialog is finished.

Note: there are no spaces between dashes and quotation marks.

“He did it”—Detective Leonard slapped the table—“but we can’t prove it.”

What other basics should we cover?  Ah yes—interrupted dialog.

When a character is speaking and is interrupted (cut off), use an em dash before the closing quotation mark.  (Dialog can be interrupted anywhere, but give thought as to where best to place the disruption.)

Dashes are one thing, ellipses another.  What do we use … for?  Right!  To demonstrate a character’s words trailing off.

“I can’t believe he actually thought that . . .”

We shouldn’t forget names in dialog.  Use a comma before and/or after a name.

“Kyle was the one who shot you, David.”

“David, Kyle shot you.”

“Kyle shot you, David, and then he shot himself.”

What about super long dialog—for example, when a character is explaining something?  You’ll want to break it up into a couple of paragraphs so as not to lose the reader (or create eye strain).  If you do this, don’t use quotation marks at the end of the first paragraph.

“Pierre was so envious of his twin brother’s success, he eventually grew angry, even resentful,” Henry explained to the guests.  “Finally, emotions took control and all rational thought was lost.                                                                                           

“He spent months planning the perfect murder and then how he would take over his brother’s life.  Those millions would be his, of this he was determined.”

Yes, you can have dialog and narration in the same paragraph.  Simply add dialog if the narration (description, account) refers to one character or is the point of view (POV) of only one character.  Decide where best to place it: beginning, middle, or end.  If there are several characters, begin dialog with a new paragraph and a dialog tag.

“I just saw Janka stab th—”

A knife caught him in the throat and he toppled down the steep stairs.

“Marvin really cared for—”

“The hell he—”

“—you.  He did.  He told me so!”

**  An em dash is a punctuation mark, a symbol (—) that is used in writing to demonstrate a break in thought or sentence structure.  It’s used for emphasis, to define or explain, or to separate two clauses.                                                                                                                                                                                  **  An en dash is similar to an em dash, but is shorter (-).  It’s used a) to connect continuing or inclusive numbers, or b) to connect components of a compound adjective when either of the components is an open compound (whew!).  For example, Yonge-Dundas station or 2018-2028.

There you have the basics.  Hopefully, you’re not overly daunted.  It’s just a matter of practice makes perfect.  Truly.

For more intensive/descriptive punctuation rules, do some site hopping—you can never learn enough.

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FYI: I’ve been having formatting issues, so I’ll have to check with WordPress as to why . . . but yes, I am editing and proofing.  <LMAO>  It’s not me!

With a Yadda Yadda Here and a Yak Yak There

Are you up for dialog today(The spelling?  It’s a personal preference thingy.  <LOL>  You say poh-tay-toe, I say pow-tah-toe.)

How characters speak and interact verbally is as vital as any other fiction component (characters, scenes, actions and reactions, conflicts and tension).

Dialog should:

  • add tension/conflict/friction
  • advance the storyline/plot
  • give additional information/details
  • enhance characters.

Engaging readers from the get-go is imperative, so begin that magnum opus however you see fit—through action or chitchat.  Whichever you choose, ensure it’s compelling.  Action should enthrall just as dialog should captivate.

And how will it do that?  By not being wooden or flat, overly descriptive, useless, or repetitious.  Not sure what these entail?  Here are quick examples:

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Wooden/flat:

“Why are you looking so sad, Jason?” she asked.

“Because Susan’s going to Europe for the summer, Marlene,” he replied.

“But summer’ll pass quickly, Jason hon,” she said.

** We don’t use names every time we speak, nor should our characters.  Moreover, “said” used too frequently leads to flat writing (and tiresome reading).

Overly descriptive:

“Hey Tommy, why are you waiting here at this old bus stop for the bus?” Larry asked his tired-looking best friend of twenty years.

“Because the car broke down when I was out driving yesterday afternoon by the lake,” he explained with a rueful smile.

 

** Avoid a glut of details when using dialog and action.  Combine them so there’s balance.

Useless:

“Hey there, ” I said.

“Wow, you finally made it,” she said.  “I’ve been waiting forever.”

“Sorry I’m late,” I said with a grin.

**  Don’t have dialog just for the sake of it.  Provide value-add dialog.

Repetitious:

Harold and Monica watched as John and Seymour raced along the pond in an effort to catch the robbers.

“Look at those guys run after the robbers,” Harold exclaimed.

She frowned.  “I hope they don’t fall into the pond.”

**  Don’t repeat actions in the dialog or vice-versa.  It weighs the story down (and creates a “snooze” effect).

Let’s rewrite the repetitious example:

Gripping hands, Harold and Monica watched worriedly as John and Seymour raced along the pond in an attempt to catch the robbers.

**  “Gripping hands” suggests nervousness or tension, as does the adverb “worriedly” (which is an adverbial tag, as an FYI).  Harold and Monica don’t need to state anything; we know what they’re feeling.

Speaking of tags, keep an eye on those dialog tags—she said, Lawrence replied, Sheila asked.  You don’t want to overuse them, because this leans toward repetitive and dull.  That said, not using enough can be an issue too, because an absence of them may lose readers.  They’ll wonder who the <bleep> is speaking.  It’s fine to use a few adverbial tags—he said angrily, Maria explained dully, Hans pointed out anxiously—but revealing those reactions and moods through actions is even better.

Don’t spell out things for readers.  Conversations can convey what’s happening; so can actions.  Avoid overlapping and being overly descriptive re both.

Let’s return to our two friends:

Stunned, Harold and Monica stopped dead in their tracks—John and Seymour were in hot pursuit of the robbers.

Harold’s eyes widened in disbelief.  “Man, who knew those two could run!”

Monica gripped his hand anxiously.  “I hope they don’t fall into the pond.”

Dialog breathes life into a story by making scenes and characters come alive.  Besides being absorbing, it has to be believable.  Don’t get too “explainy”.  Avoid having characters natter about nothing and at length.  Make it sound real—fiction-world real.  It’s not quite the same as true everyday life; it has its own nuances.  (Read some bestselling authors to get a feel for use of engaging, successful dialog.)

When people talk, they don’t always complete sentences.  They use slang or particular expressions (um, jeez, like, helluva), drop g’s (goin’, leavin’, havin’), and some even swear (to excess).  Listen to friends and coworkers, and note the differences in how they converse.  We all have unique voices.  Make sure characters do, too.

Give thought as to the purpose behind verbal exchanges.  They should move the plot forward, create conflict or tension, or reveal something—such as relationships between speakers, accents or speech patterns, emotions and feelings, what is taking place (has taken place or will take place).

Feel free to use “beats” now and again, too—i.e. small amounts of action added to dialog.

“I’ve heard enough complaining.”  Fuming, Marta marched to the door and spun.  “Call me when you’re ready to play nice again!”

Read dialog aloud to hear how it sounds.  Is it natural?  Contrived?  Too much?  Too little?  When you’re editing dialog, do just that: edit.  Revise to tighten and improve.

Don’t worry if you’re stumbling here and there; like anything, writing and editing dialog will come.  With time and practice, you’ll become a pro.

One last thing: use correct punctuation for dialog.  If you’re not [yet] familiar or comfortable with it, go Googling—there’s lots to be found.  But if you’re not up for checking Google and rooting through countless sites, look for a quick post on Wednesday re Dialog Punctuation 101.

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Action Reaction

Trekking further along the editing tracks, let’s take that gander at reaction.

We know actions assist in character portrayals.  The things a character does reveals something about his/her nature.  For example, if Lester taps the table frequently, it shows he’s nervous or deep in thought or impatient; we’d need to provide more detail or actions to convey precisely what Lester is experiencing and/or thinking.  If Jenny slaps a wall, it’s possible she’s angry or has remembered something important.  Actions can (should) disclose elements of someone’s personality.

The same holds true of reactions.  How a character reacts or responds to an action or comment, event or situation, discloses something about his/her disposition.  Readers learn what makes a character tick, what sets him/her off.  If Chelsea screams at Josh after Josh knocks over a cup of coffee, it could suggest she angers quickly, she’s impatient, or she’s irrational.  Additional details, such as what transpired before or after, would provide more insight.

Characters’ reactions can affect emotions.  If Cecilia is upset with best friend Lidia because she didn’t show up at Cecilia’s 30th birthday party, we might feel for Cecilia—first, because Cecilia was counting on her best friend to attend this milestone celebration and second, because it saddened her.  We might even become angry with Lidia for being so uncaring.  How readers react depends on how various components—characters, dialogs, actions, reactions, and scenes—are shaped.

Which work(s) better?

♦  Ralph flipped back the blanket and rose, standing on unsteady feet as a sense of trepidation washed over him.  He grabbed his sweater and put it on, and rushed to the basement door.  He found the doorknob hard to turn, but when he heard the scream again he somehow managed to crank it and hurried down the shadowy stairs.

♦  Throwing aside the blanket, Ralph hopped onto unsteady feet.  It hadn’t been a dream, of this he was sure.  He’d heard that awful, terrified scream and it frightened him to the core.  Grabbing his sweater, he threw it on and prayed softly as he rushed to the basement door.  Could it be—there was a hidden room down there?  Was there a ghost, like some claimed?  Or was it something much more sinister?  Another scream sent an icy shiver up Ralph’s spine and his hands shook even more as he fumbled with the stiff doorknob.  Finally, the door swung open and he hastened anxiously down the shadowy stairs. 

Ensure that reactions and responses yank readers into the plot and hold them tight.  If characters are lifeless, or seem uncaring or unmotivated, chances are readers aren’t going to want to continue.

If there’s no reaction, the reader might assume the character doesn’t care or is oblivious to what’s occurred, and this may well be the case.  Give careful thought as to how you write and edit a “no response” scene or scenario.  If it suits what’s happening at that time, fine.  Maybe Jeremy doesn’t get riled upon seeing someone kick the neighbor’s cat—and that non-response provides readers with insight into someone who’s non-caring.  If a reaction or response doesn’t advance the action or plot, however, or provides the reader with a “huh?” or “duh?” moment, contemplate a rewrite.

A reaction can be physical (slap, bite, retreat, loss of consciousness).  Make sure it makes sense for the action/scene and characters.  Vary reactions.  We don’t always respond the same way, with the same intensity; the same actions may even prompt different reactions, given when they occur and/or who’s involved.  When editing, bear in mind how physical reactions add to conflict and tension.

A reaction can be verbal (reply, retort, slur, screech).  When you use dialog as reaction, how will it advance the storyline?  How will discussions and conversations rouse readers (such as make them sympathize with the protagonist or loathe the villain)?  Like physical reactions/responses, allow dialogs to add friction (c-o-n-f-l-i-c-t).  Something to think about: what your characters say is just as important as what they don’t.

Reactions could come in the way of thoughts and emotions, too.  What characters are thinking or feeling reveals what’s going on in their minds and hearts.  It provides insight into what they’re about, what they embrace, and what they believe holds true.

When editing, review how characters react to questions and comments, acts and actions.  Do those reactions and responses:

⇒  seem logical     ⇒  reveal character personality     ⇒  develop character     ⇒  vary in intensity     ⇒  enhance the storyline/plot?

How your story progresses via actions and reactions is vital.  Once you’ve engaged readers, the ultimate goal: buckle them in and take them for an exciting ride!  wedpic

 

Action Activation

Chugging down the editing tracks, let’s explore the exciting component of action.

We know plot and characters drive our stories.  Like rum in a Mai-Tai, they should have a knock-you-over factor.  Action is equally important and we’re not necessarily referring to staunch Detective Roberts slamming villainous Tim Smith on his as—uh—butt.

Action, as an FYI, can be dialog, an event or deed, a consequence or reaction.  Action at the onset—the prologue / first chapter—is a good thing because it reels in your readers.  And if it’s well written and maintained, it hooks them to the very end.

Reading the novels of successful authors is a splendid way to understand what great action makes.  You’ll discover that it can be composed of powerful and graphic detail just as it can be conveyed with minimal description.  Some actions scenes are long; others are short.  There are no rules per se, but there is a skill factor which, like anything, comes with practice and time.

Major action yanks your readers through plot twists.  An example: the trio from the Triple Threat Investigation Agency confronts a crazed, ranting killer in an isolated location—but is he the one they’ve been diligently searching for?  Think of slasher flicks as another example.  Every time a couple of unsuspecting teens round a corner in a dilapidated house, something major (fatally gruesome) happens and stunned, curious viewers are riveted.

Minor action is the commonplace things characters do daily, like you and me.  Example: Rey meets JJ at a local bar to review the latest case findings.  A simple scene like this might allow you to get a feel for Rey’s melodramatic nature, learn the two love Mai-Tais, and discover they’re cousins who’ve grown close in recent years.

To make your story work and be compelling you need to incorporate both.  And regardless whether major or minor, use action at the right time for the right purpose.

Genre will play a part; some stories will be slower than others and incorporate progressive development differently.  Whatever the genre, though, you’ll still need a clincher of an opening.  A dynamic beginning will grab your readers’ attention and hold it throughout.

The beginning of your tale should incorporate major and minor action, with the major being the “problem” or “incident” or “event” that pushes your main character on that path to resolution.  Think of it like a call-to-action button.  The minor (commonplace) transpires as a character is strolling (or racing, as the case may be) along that winding or precipitous path. actionblog4

To sustain attention, action has to keep the story surging, sometimes taking different or unexpected directions.  Remember the post about conflict and tension?  Make sure both are consequences of action.  Collectively, they serve like the holy trinity in Cajun cooking: essential flavoring.

One action may lead to one discussion, or several.  It may prompt a response, or many.  It will trigger a reaction, or two.  That action doesn’t necessarily have to be physical, either; it can be emotional, mental, or verbal.  Dialog can prove quite forceful.  Instead of having two characters punching and pushing, have them screaming and/or crying.  Maybe John yells “enough” and flings a laptop at the wall (testy technology annoys the guy big-time).  Lee, never a sucker for sentimentality, might actually cry at viewing something “cute”.

Like subplots and dialog, and that narrator’s voice, action must vary in intensity.  While things should connect, they don’t need a 1-2-3-4 approach.  Mix things up; have readers guessing.  Try 1-7-3-2.  But ensure all is logical.  Variety truly is the spice of life.

As an FYI, action doesn’t necessarily end upon the story’s climax.  It may (and should) continue—perhaps to clarify the reasons for all that has transpired or to provide foreshadowing of a sequel.

When editing action, make certain it:

  • is appropriate to the genre
  • complements the story
  • is necessary
  • is logical/relative
  • suits the characters (given their personalities and backgrounds)
  • doesn’t stagnate by being drawn out or over-detailed
  • continues to the end and doesn’t stop with the climax.

As you’re editing scenes, consider whether the action belongs.  Is it [truly] moving the scene/plot along?  Are your readers going to benefit from it (like learn more about a character or situation)?

Do the actions seem plausible?  If one of my P.I.s gets punched or beaten, she’d be sporting a bruise or two.  In real life, chances are if we’re involved in an altercation, we wouldn’t be looking like we’re walking the Oscar red carpet.  In fact, we may limp down it—with a groan or two.  Do due diligence, as appropriate.  What might someone look like after an accident or fight?  What would be the medical and physical repercussions?  If the main character is racing down a deserted road in the rain, might he/she veer off when wheels lock or slow down as anxiety takes control?  What will the outcome(s) of action(s) be?

Something you’ve undoubtedly heard countless times: show, don’t tell.  That holds true with action.  Don’t tell readers; show them.

Examples—which works better?

  • Fred sighed, obviously unhappy.
  • Fred sat in the chair and looked unhappy.
  • With a loud lengthy sigh, Fred closed his eyes and rubbed his temples.
  • Sighing softly, Fred tossed back the brandy in one loud gulp.  “Why’d Lisa walk out on me like that?”

Take action by breathing “life” into your story.

Next post, let’s take a quick gander at reaction.

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First, Second, Third – Which to Choose!?

This week’s editing post revolves around Point of View (POV), which relates to who’s telling the story.  It’s the narrative voice that pilots readers through the story—the one that allows us to get to know the characters, learn about locations and settings, connect with emotions and feelings . . . and be pulled into friction and conflict (as discussed in the previous post).

Select the POV: will it be first person, second person, or third person?  Here’s a quick sum-up of what each entails . . .

First person: readers follow your story through the narrator’s eyes.  He/she is usually a main character who uses “I”.

⇒  From behind a crumbling pillar, I watched him stroll determinedly into the dim derelict dive.

** A person is telling you his/her tale. **

Second person: readers, essentially, become a distinct character in your story.  They’re addressed as “you” (there’s no “I”).  Leaning toward intimate, this POV is untraditional, probing and exploratory, and is infrequently used in fiction.  It’s also difficult to utilize effectively.

⇒   As you round that corner, you’ll see amber lights lining the dilapidated lighthouse perched precariously on steep cliffs.  It’s an eerie sight, especially when you sight the bats that make their home there.  On one hand, you’re awed by the isolation; on the other, you’re overwhelmed by the vastness of the sky and sea.  Perhaps you even feel a need to soar like an eagle over the precipice, as troubled young John Smith did one chilly night in the summer of 2017.

** You’re being told how to do or react to something or someone.  **

 Third person: the storyteller (narrator) is someone outside of the story, who details characters and events/actions.

⇒   John was as odd as a three-dollar bill.  Kids in school had shied away from him, much like his siblings.  His thought processes weren’t quite “normal”, so his perpetually frazzled mother often claimed.

**  There are actually three types of third-person POV.  In Objective Third Person, external factors are described; there’s very little relayed about characters thoughts, feelings, and goals.  Limited Third Person gets into thoughts, feelings and goals of one character.  Omniscient Third Person has the storyteller revealing thoughts, feelings and goals of all the characters.  **

First Person POV is limited to one character.  A “view” of what’s transpiring solely from his/her perspective enables you to get close and personal.  Myself, I love getting into the main character’s head and discovering what makes him/her tick and how conflicts are eventually resolved.  The narrator should show and not tell.  Try not to spend an inordinate amount of time relaying what the main character is thinking and feeling; let us know what’s happening, too.

Third person POV, depending on which of the three you employ, can prove limiting.  If you’re using Objective Third Person or Limited Third Person, the narrator only provides a little insight into the thoughts and feelings and goals of a character or characters.  If you’re going for Omniscient Third Person, more awareness is created via various characters’ thoughts, beliefs and motivations.  With Third Person, you receive the intimacy of First Person, but you’re also preserving distance; you’re not stuck with one character’s thoughts or feelings, motivations or goals.

There are pros and cons for all (do that due diligence and find a list or two), but once you’ve selected a POV for your story, stick with it from the start.  You’re looking to create believability (and credibility as an author).  Don’t seesaw between two POVs, at least not too often, and if you’re going to do so, make certain it serves a viable purpose.  I’ve seen this done (by one of my favorite writers, in fact); I found it jarring and annoying.  Allow my beloved main character to tell the tale; don’t [try to] pull me into his best friend’s head, too.  pov7

Generally, POV just sort of picks itself when you start writing; something clicks.  Be aware: you’re never trapped by the one you’re using.  Try different ones as you work on a project.  Write an existing chapter with a new POV.  See how it feels and works.  If it’s not working, discard it.  If it is, explore it further.

When you’re editing, make sure you’re in the right Point of View.  If we’re in the main character’s POV, it’s fine to tell us what he/she is experiencing and thinking.  With the other characters, however, communicate what’s transpiring through the main character’s eyes: what is he/she seeing [those other characters doing, reacting, saying]?

POV should bear in mind who the narrator is, what his/her background and experiences are.  Don’t have the narrator using flowery or specialized vocabulary if he or she is a construction work, high-school dropout, or lifeguard.  We all speak with particular sentence structures, a certain level of education, accents or dialects, idioms and contractions.  Ensure narration is appropriate to the POV.

On a related note, consider dialog.  What words would your narrator use (or not use)?  Background, education and experience play a great part re terms and expressions, and phrases used when your narrator—and other characters—speak.

Give thought as to how the narrator, your storyteller, observes [and interprets] things.  What might he or she discern [that someone else would not]?  For example, upon first meeting someone, I tend not to notice the face as much as I see a feature (scar or tatt), piece of interesting jewelry, or item of clothing.  What about you?  We all notice things differently.

Think of POV as a camera, film or photo.  It views the world through a lens.  What is it showing?  And how is the storyteller perceiving and relating what’s viewable in said lens?

When you’re providing a narrator’s POV, make sure it belongs to him or her.  You may be scared of snakes and squeal upon sighting one; Lisa may not.  You might hate yogurt, but Frank can’t stop sucking back the dairy product.  Make sure POV describes accurately and appropriately what the narrator is undergoing.  It’s the narrator—the storyteller—who’s conveying the tale and not you.

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Fiction Friction & Constant Conflict

Back to editing basics.  Point of view, or POV, should probably have followed voice, because it relates to the eyes through which the story is told.  What the heck.  Let’s mix it up like a can of nuts.

Per Rey’s recent post, we’ll look at friction and conflict—what to consider, rework or rewrite (e-d-i-t), improve.

friction =  tension  / antagonism  / discord

 conflict =  struggle  /  clash  /  controversy

Friction and conflict are a must for fiction novels.  They bring your story alive; they create fire.  Tension should exist between characters.  If they’re all happy and smiley, huggy and kissie, the story [plot and subplots] lean toward flat and boring.  That’s not to say that everyone should be fighting and cursing all the time because that, too, can quickly grow wearisome.  There should constantly be enough of both throughout the story to make it compelling—to draw in readers and hold them through an emotional, exciting roller-coaster ride. friction2

Friction and conflict, as an FYI, don’t have to be between two or more persons; they can exist within an individual.  Maybe he/she has an inner demon or two to conquer.  The eventual conquest of conflict can draw two (or more) characters together—like a romance hero and heroine riding into a vivid sunset on a valiant stallion—or enable a self-doubting or struggling individual to develop and mature.

Dissention between two characters or more is referred to as external friction while that within a solitary character is internal.  There’s no reason why you can’t employ both.  A quick/simple example might be this: the heroine suffers from agoraphobia, but the hero is a renowned musician and must tour often.  Heroine loves hero, and vice versa.  How does she overcome overwhelming anxiety so she can accompany him on tours?  How does he deal with (react to) her repeated debilitating/fretful fear?

The Triple Threat Investigation Agency series incorporates conflicts between people: as the private eyes doggedly track a murderer or two, they butt heads with various people in the process.  For many genres of fiction, person-against-person is commonplace.  If however you’re writing sci-fi or fantasy or steampunk, or speculative fiction, conflict and friction can occur amid paranormal or technological entities.

Whether external or internal, friction brings a story to life; it offers insight into characters (what they think and feel, how they respond, what makes them tick).  If it’s weak or illogical, or humdrum, it’s not going to do much for the tale or reader.  When you’re editing, give thought to whether:

⇒  the main goal of your main character(s) is clear (what drives him/her)     ⇒  the “problem” (the plot/storyline) is well-defined and logical     ⇒  motivation, struggle(s), and attitude are evident and sound     ⇒  you’re throwing enough hurdles (obstacles) along the track to keep your hero/heroine leaping to the finish line     ⇒  you’re creating empathy (the hero/heroine should possess frailties, flaws and fears that the reader can relate to)     ⇒  doubt exists (i.e. do some scenarios have your reader wondering [worrying] if a grave situation will be resolved?)     ⇒  secondary characters prove hostile or portentous, thus adding to the conflict and friction     ⇒  friction and conflict are suitably drawn out (resolution shouldn’t come too quickly).

When you’re editing, carefully review every scene.  Does each one draw your protagonist closer to his/her goal—i.e. help solve the “problem”?  Consider it this way: action = reaction.  Something transpires—an event or emotion—that affects the main character.  He/she progresses, stumbles, changes . . . and reacts to the conflict in some way.  If the scene doesn’t contain conflict and/or friction—and neither has to always be of gargantuan proportions—there’s no advancement of the character or story.  As such, maybe it needs to be rewritten or even discarded.

In a mystery, as quick example, the P.I. may hit stumbling block after stumbling block in the quest to locate a killer.  Red herrings are strewn along the winding path.  Just when it’s certain the killer will be unveiled, another body drops.  Frustration looms.  Self-doubt—can I solve this crazy case?—increases.  A developing desire to give up may overwhelm.  Finally, a confrontation with the killer transpires into fisticuffs . . . and it’s not clear who’ll win.

Vary the intensity of friction and conflict.  View it like a NASCAR race:

⇒  is the car speeding along at a fantastic (winning) speed     ⇒  can it maneuver those rain-drenched turns     ⇒  will it manage to pull into the pit stop safely despite a low or blown tire     ⇒  will strong winds serve as an impairment     ⇒  what about that loose steering wheel . . . .

Incidents, events and emotions are your driving forces.  Ensure friction and conflict flow logically and effectively.  Think of them like keeping your ducks in a row. ducksinrow

Break Time (Sorta)

That 9-5 j-o-b has The Boss in training all week, so her time’s more limited than usual this work week.  But have no fear, Rey’s here!

She’s been posting about editing, but I’m gonna steer clear; sure, I could research a related topic, but to be honest, I’m not really into it like she is.  So what’s my post about?  Me, who else?  Okay, okay, the three of us—JJ, Linda, and me.

Update re “Forever Poi”.  The Boss is still at it.  Work/life have been getting in the way, but she’s determined it will be ready sooner than later.  Besides, she wholeheartedly believes nothing good comes from rushing.  So true, so true.  To be honest, though, the three of us would love it if we could move on to our next big case; there’s rumor of one coming soon.  Fingers crossed!

I know she wants to extend a wholehearted, heartfelt thanks to all her followers, so on behalf of the Boss: thank you!!!

Starting with me, I’ve got a three-week engagement at a community theater as Betty Rizzo in Grease.  For those not in the know, yes, I do sing.  Don’t get many opportunities anymore, except at b-day parties, but it’s all good.

 

JJ’s got an invitation from “Sometimes Boyfriend”, a cocky undercover agent who’s too way too dishy for his own good, to visit him in Miami.  Personally, I think she should ditch the dude, but she thinks she’s suffering from “bad-boy syndrome” and just can’t seem to rid herself of the symptoms.  Been there.  Poor kid.

Linda’s still doing wine and food blog reviews.  Loves it.  She’s made friends with a couple of women in the building where the agency’s located.  They’ve started going out for lunch every Thursday.  I’m glad she has new people in her life; I’m just hoping she doesn’t forget who her BFF is.

There you have it folks.  The Boss’ll be back on the weekend with more editing advice.  Given the last one was about plot and subplots, I think she’s looking to post about conflict and friction (because, as I understand it, the plot contains, or should contain, a lot of both).

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The Essence of a Story: Plots (and Subplots)

Today’s post is about editing plot and subplots (or side plots).  Kind of obvious from the title, huh?  <LOL>

A plot is the main story: it’s what your book is about.  It doesn’t normally stand alone; subplots may weave through it like the crossed threads of cloth.  Subplots can be synchronic or divergent—maybe a subplot ties in with the main story, maybe it doesn’t.

Here’s a possible plot-subplot breakdown for The Triple Threat Investigation Agency mystery series:

⇒   plot:  the major [murder] case the TTIA trio solves (which takes readers from beginning to end)  ♦  subplot:  JJ’s relationship with her “sometimes boyfriend”  ♦  subplot:  a minor case that’s quickly cracked (while the major one is being solved)  ♦  subplot:  Linda’s new relationship  ♦  subplot:  Rey’s acting adventures.

Let’s do another, random one:

⇒   plot:  seven people have to survive after being marooned on a deserted island (no, one of them is not named Gilligan) ♦  subplot:  one person requires daily medication, but has none on hand  ♦  subplot:  a couple is having an affair, and a spouse is part of the marooned group  ♦  subplot:  another person is on the FBI’s Top Ten Wanted List  ♦  subplot:  an active volcano is rumbling.

You determine how many you want subplots to include.  Up until now, I haven’t felt a need to provide a multitude of them in any of the ebooks as they’ve never seemed overly crucial.  As JJ often says, however: never say never.  It’s possible that at some time I may want to include related adventures to disclose more of the trio’s personal lives, goals and ambitions.

I’m guessing (hoping) you’ve started writing your magnum opus with a plot outline in place or, at the very least, a sketch (winging it may work for posts and emails/texts, and possibly short stories, but I’m not sure it’s that effective for books).  If you have subplots in mind, note them.  If not, allow them to develop as your characters do; allow these folks to drive “mini escapades”.

In terms of that plot outline, important elements include (but are by no means limited to):

⇒  story start (where and when, and the action that sets everything in motion)   ⇒   story end (where and when, and how everything culminates)   ⇒   reason(s) and purpose(s) for your main characters to endure/undertake all that they do   ⇒   challenge (the drive behind your main character)—also known as conflict   ⇒   trials and tests, and incidents (that draw your readers in)—also known as hooks   ⇒   goals and motivations, emotions and reactions   ⇒   settings/locations   ⇒   functions of secondary characters   ⇒   logic and believability of characters, events and actions (pretty much everything).

Fix areas that don’t mesh.  If something is weak, strengthen it.  Story structure has to be sound, plausible.  Action, description and dialog should flow like champagne at New Year’s Eve.

The storyline has to keep readers interested, so yank them in from the get-go!  Motivate them to keep reading by impelling your characters to take action and respond (to situations and people).  Constantly challenge and push them.  Ultimately, your plot should serve like a chariot that transports your readers—and characters—into different settings and situations.  Some might even prove prickly or unpleasant.

Refer to that outline now and again to ensure you’re on track.  Keep notes re new plot/subplot ideas that have sprung to mind.  Once the first draft is completed, determine if you’ve followed the course . . . and if you haven’t, maybe that’s not a bad thing (maybe your characters navigated you along a different route).  You decide.

We can go into all the components that a great book make, but let’s stick to plots (storylines, scenarios) for today.  Take into account the following:

♦   Is your plot logical?  Has it progressed as planned?  Does something need to be added or removed?  Have you tied up loose ends?  Is there enough tension/excitement throughout?  Are those plot twists plausible? WPplottwist

♦   Does each scene—a plot piece, as it were—serve a [viable] purpose?  Does each one steer that story forward?  Are there any that prove confusing or dull/uneventful?

♦   Does every conflict have a resolution by the time we reach “The End”?  Do events and actions flow soundly?  Do characters react logically/convincingly to those events and actions?

♦   This may prove painful, but if you have a scene or subplot that does nothing to advance the plot, chop it!  In fact, remove everything that does nothing to progress the plot.

When you’re doing a final or next-to-final edit, evaluate the plot as a reader, not the writer—i.e. use a critical (objective) eye.

The Right/Write Voice . . . or . . . Talk to Me Lucky Number 3

The last two posts touched upon voice, but given it’s a crucial component, maybe we should take it into a third.  A few points will be repeated, but . . .  Repetition is the mother of learning, the father of action, which makes it the architect of accomplishment.  (Thank you Zig Ziglar.)

An important rule when it comes to multiple characters: they should not sound the same.  If they do, your story will likely end up flatter than a flapjack; subsequently, you’ll lose your readers’ interest.

Given upbringing, lifestyle, career, and likes/dislikes—among other things—every person has a particular way of speaking.  Cadence/pattern differ, too.  A psychologist isn’t likely to speak with the same intonation as a construction worker; a child won’t articulate like an adult.  Bear in mind diversities.

Certain characters, like the folks we work with and meet in life, have funny streaks and can make us laugh at length.  Nothing wrong with having one in your book, if the story/plot can carry a comic.  The same holds true of a whiner, collaborator, grumpy old fart, shower singer—you get the idea.  Think: uniqueness, individuality.  Variety truly is the spice of life . . . and stories

Don’t drag on conversations or comments at length.  Readers shouldn’t embark on a snoozzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzze-fest.  Sure, some characters may be overly expressive or descriptive (in real life, lots of people truly love to talk).  If it’s part of the character’s make-up, have at it, but ensure it’s meaningful and appropriate to the story/plot.

And while we’re talking “story”, remember to always give thought to emotions, feelings, and reactions.  If there’s been a murder, characters will react differently.  A few may be appalled, others frightened, and the odd one inquisitive (like a sleuthing protagonist).  Ensure voice and dialog reveal this.

Here’s an example—a discussion between several characters—from my first e-book, The Connecticut Corpse Caper.

“The workout equaled five espressos,” I said cheerfully, stirring milk into a mug with a character resembling Count Chocula on it and taking a surreptitious glance around to see if any eyes were peering merrily around a corner or through a window.

“Gawd, you’re actually eating,” Rey groused, semi-staggering into the room. She was dressed in black jeans, black Roslynn UGGs (same as mine), and a cashmere fern-green turtleneck that would have offset her eyes quite nicely if they hadn’t been bloodshot.

“The frittatas are delicious.” Prunella beckoned my cousin to the chair beside her.

“Ugh. I’ll just have some java.” She plunked herself down and gazed from one face to another, as if attempting to recollect who each one belonged to and why they were here at the table. She gulped back Linda’s coffee, sighed deeply, and nearly smiled. “Any more news on our weird lawyer?”

“Our weird dead lawyer.”  Linda eyed her empty cup with a frown.

“There hasn’t been any word,” Jensen responded, spreading something resembling mushroom paté on a thick slice of white bread.  I’d half expected him to request Marmite.

Rey’s brow puckered and she watched Beatrice carry in a bone china coffeepot. “Are we still expected to stay, considering?”

“Yes Miss Fonne-Werde. ‘Regardless of what may occur’, so our mistress stipulated.” The maid offered a near smile. What an interesting if not unnerving voice she had: a hint of an Ingrid Bergman accent coupled with a Humphrey Bogart timber. The maid refilled more cups and did her lumbering thing across the room, leaving a whisper of rosewater behind.

They all possess idiosyncratic tones, slang/lingo, and expressions.  Rey, for example, has an extremely casual way of speaking (and isn’t opposed to swearing whenever the mood strikes); she’s also no stranger to “gonna”, “whadya”, “wanna”.  The maid is more formal or professional, given her role.  You’ll find that narrator Jill (JJ) speaks like an announcer (she’s a meteorologist); she tends to relay events with a newscaster approach.

Several editors say don’t state the obvious.  For example, his eyes gazed at her.  Eyes do that, so why tell us?  Speaking of eyes, Geena’s eyes flew across the room.  Ouch!  That’d hurt.  John whispered softly.  Whispering is speaking softly.  Lidia clasped the doorknob with her hand.  How do we normally clasp a doorknob—with our teeth?  This will be another post, but when you’re writing—using voice—watch unnecessary [useless and evident] explanations or narrative.

Many editors also say the word “said” is unnecessary.  Here’s an example from a book I purchased for a flight home from Hawaii—Murder She Wrote, Aloha Betrayed by Jessica Fletcher and Donald Bain.  I was once a big Murder She Wrote fan but, in terms of this novel, I never got past page 100 because it was so flat (b-o-r-i-n-g).  Here’s how you never want to write:

“Good evening,” I said as he reached me.

“Hi,” he said, flashing me a boyish grin.  “Enjoying yourself?”

“Very much.  It’s a beautiful night for a sail.”

As he started to walk away, I said, “Excuse me, but are you Carson Nihipali?”

He turned and gave me a strange look.  “Yeah,” he said, drawing the word out.

“I apologize if I’ve mispronounced your name,” I said, “But I’m still trying to get the hang of the Hawaiian language.”

A lot of “said” there.  Whew.  How might we make this sluggish scene a teeny bit more interesting?

“Good evening.”  I offered a cheery smile as he stepped alongside.

“Hi.”  The lanky, handsome man flashed a boyish grin.  “Enjoying yourself?”

“Very much.  It’s a beautiful night for a sail.”

With a wave, he started to saunter off.

“Excuse me!  Are you Carson Nihipali?” I quickly called after.

He turned with an inscrutable expression and drawled, “Ye-eah.”

“I apologize if I’ve mispronounced your name.  I’m still trying to get the hang of the Hawaiian language.”

As writers—narrators—we have the task [challenge] of successfully communicating our characters distinct voices, actions and emotions.  Using “said” a dozen times on one page probably won’t help achieve that.  blwed2

A weak voice:

⇒  wanders   /   uses useless words/phrases   /  is unemotional/flat/stagnant.

A strong voice:

⇒  is clear/logical/concise   /   uses dynamic [evocative] words and phrases   /   portrays a picture   /   is emotional.

Keep it fresh; keep it interesting.  (You’ll do just fine.)

(Next post, let’s look at plots and subplots.)  maybe

 

Talk to Me, Too/2

The intention of providing short posts—snippets of advice—has gone [as an acquaintance often says] kablooey.  <LOL>  It seems when it comes to editing, there’s much to share.  As such, I’m thinking to be true to the goal, maybe I’ll simply provide more posts on certain topics—like voice.  Hmm.  Let’s just go with the flow, and see where the current takes us.

The last post touched upon the narrator’s voice.  What about yours—the writer’s voice?

It’s often said we should write as we speak, but that’s not always doable or practical, given the scenario.  Sometimes the situation, or the narrator and character(s) have particular personalities and speech or vocal quirks that require a shift in written speech and expression.  This is good.  You don’t want a flat voice throughout your book; you want it to sound real.  Just listen to those around you: no one speaks the same.  We all have our own [noticeable] cadence, expressions and phrases.

If you follow certain authors regularly, you’ve likely noticed that they often use the same specific words and phrases, idioms, sentence structure and lexicon, and rhythm.  I have a certain diction/delivery style and so do—or will—you.

Here’s an example from Chapter One of Tricky Twenty-Two by Janet Evanovich:

Ginny Scoot was standing on a third-floor ledge, threatening to jump, and it was more or less my fault. My name is Stephanie Plum and I work as a bounty hunter for my bail bondsman cousin Vinnie.

Ginny had failed to show for a court appearance and it was my job to find her and return her to the authorities. If I don’t succeed my cousin is out his bond money, and I don’t get paid. On the other hand, there’s Ginny, who would prefer not to go back to jail.

My colleague Lula and I were on the sidewalk, looking up at Ginny, along with a bunch of other people who were taking video with their smartphones.

If you’ve ever read Janet’s [funny and enjoyable] Stephanie Plum books, you’ll recognize her distinct style.  Bounty-hunter Stephanie is relatively laid-back and tells it like it is.  She doesn’t have a university education, which shows in her voice and attitude/outlook.  The job leans toward dangerous, given most of the folks she has to find are unwilling to be put back in the pokey.  That sense of danger is communicated when she imparts her (and Lula’s) antics and you perceive her emotions/feelings: resolve, trepidation, uncertainty, annoyance, worry.

How about before and after examples from another writer (yours truly)?

Before“She wouldn’t say what it was?”  Sach’s voice was sounding slurred.  Small wonder; he was about to down what had to be his fourth shot.  That, with the four beers he’d recently tossed back, should hit him much like the soccer-ball that caught him on the forehead early last November.

What have we learned about Sach?  He likes to bend his elbow from the sounds of things.  Because he was hit with a soccer ball, we could assume he enjoys sports, or at least soccer, but whether as a spectator or player is unknown (at least in this example).

After“No shi-it?  She wouldn’t sa-ay what it was, huh?”  Sach’s baritone voice sounded slurred.  Small wonder; he was about to down his fourth shot after having tossed back four beers.  Those would fell him like that soccer-ball that smashed into his forehead at Busch Stadium last fall.

Now what have we learned?  Again, he likes to bend his elbow from the sounds of things.  He has a baritone voice and he’s not opposed to using vulgar slang.  Watching soccer is a favored pastime.  Anything else?  Yes—he likely hails from Missouri, given that’s where Busch Stadium is located.

Diction (the selection and use of words in writing/speech) can paint an extensive, colorful picture. 

What makes up your writer’s voice?  Your outlook, tone/feeling, and personality.  Outlook: what you believe and stand for.  Tone/feeling: how you speak, the sort of feeling and emotion [attitude] you convey.  Personality: who you are, your personal likes and dislikes, and behavior. voicesat3

These come naturally, given who you are, but they can be developed or polished to produce a specific or new writer’s voice.

It’s tempting to talk about using multiple voices in a given project, but for this post at least, let’s stick to your voice on the whole.  Here’s an example of my writer’s voice 20-some years ago from an old manuscript, “Sardines & Cheese”.  My voice has remained rather similar (though nowadays I steer clear of attempting to sound cleverer than I am).

Allow me to officially introduce myself.  Kentucky Justice Smith, at your service, as my dear deceased brother Shane would have added.

The name Kentucky came about not because I was born in the state, as I’m inclined to tell people, but because I was born on the day of the great derby, a day my departed father had placed (and lost) a big bet.  Ian James Smith had been a copper on the Montréal force, a hard-edged one, but a fairly efficacious one when he wasn’t being questioned for questionable tactics or behavior.  He’d also been a gambler, as you may have surmised, and a drinker, one who ironically succumbed to primary liver cancer.

Me, I’m a private investigator and a part-time bartender.  I was an aspiring mystery writer, “was” because I’ve been in writer’s block mode for about nine months now, but then to be fair to myself, things like homicides, world-wide travels, and a bit of bedlam have consumed many cycles of the moon’s phase.  More on all that later.

The intention was to have my narrator, Kentucky, sound easy-going yet “clever” and witty.  Reviewing it now, I’m not sure that that was accomplished.  There’s a hint of patronization perhaps.

The intention re my writer’s voice was . . . LOL . . . the same.  To sound easy-going yet clever and witty.  It’s not patronizing, but possibly endeavoring to be something it’s not, such as cunning or maybe even glib.

Learning and developing are par for the course in anything we attempt and do.  As writers and bloggers we grow and mature . . . we improve with time, like a good wine.  Writing regularly will assist with that, so will reading.  And don’t just “read”, but notice (scrutinize) how the author has presented his/her voice through narrator, character(s), and/or actions.

And when you’re writing, review the voice(s) in your work for uniformity.  Are outlook, tone/feeling, and personality consistent?  Is there too much repetition for naught?  Does it read naturally—like a smoothly asphalted street, and not a gravel-lined rural road?  If it doesn’t, don’t fret.  It will come, like anything, when you apply yourself.

. . . On that note, although irrelevant, here’s a little sing-along to start the day off on a happy-talk note.