I like to lecture people. I do. I like to pretend that I’m wise and and that my opinion is something respected. So this is what I’m going to do: I’m going to write an article and post it. This is what you’re going to do: You’re going to sit there and read it, dammit. My advice has value!
Something that I find to be common among the Preachers of the Internet is that when giving writing advice, they give pretty much useless advice. Why? Because they give advice on how to be creative.
This doesn’t work.
The creative process is a highly individualized process. I am, in a nutshell, a creative pluralist. Do you usually have everything planned out before you write? Or is it something you’re going to do because you received advice like that? I mean, if you like to spend a whole lot of time plotting it before hand, and that makes it easier for you, great.
But if you have to FORCE yourself to plot, well… I would suggest you try writing by the seat of your pants. Take me, for instance. I do a little bit of a mix. I spent about a year and a half crafting the mythos for something that I write on occasion (Pillar of Heaven, for interested parties) before I had any idea of where I was going with it. I would come up with plots every now and then, but none of them held any weight. But when I came up with a basic premise for the plot- the beginning and the end- with a few twists, I pretty much stopped plotting. I got a basic idea of what I was going to do with a few characters, who they were and whatnot, but my background-work stopped there. Ever since, I’ve been writing as I go along, with a general direction kept in mind, going off on whatever tangents and creating entirely new characters because, dammit, I want to! (Of course, make sure that you have an idea of what purpose they’ll serve, too.)
Both approaches have their advantages and disadvantages. When you get everything set up before hand, it’s a game of dominoes, essentially, except that you have to make sure you keep writing. It tends to produce a neater, more cohesive narrative. Prematurely polished, you might say. Writer’s Block is more of a “I don’t want to write”/”I don’t know how to write this particular part” than a “I don’t know what the hell I’m doing”. Of course, it contains elements of “I don’t know what to write”/”I don’t know how to write this particular part” as well.
On the other hand, writing by the seat of your pants can produce a whole lot of dead ends. What you do is you go off on tangents and introduce new elements and characters and locales as you go along. Yes, that’ll make the writing process a sort of excitingly-spontaneous, “I don’t even know what’s happening next!” thing. And, on the other hand, it’ll make polishing a chore. There will be a LOT of fat you’ll have to trim, asides and tangents that didn’t work out. But quite a few people don’t like to work that way, meticulously working everything out in advance.
At the risk of sounding/being hypocritical, I think it’s best to TRY to retain an idea of where you’re going. If you lack direction, it’s probably going to show and your work will come out as a jumbled mess. So, if you can, understand what your work is, and try to figure out how it’s going to end, and then try to get there. The journey does not beat the destination, nor does the destination render the journey without meaning. Both are equally important.
Moral of the story? When writing, do your own thing. Do whatever you can to get the writing on paper. Because if you’ve succeeded in writing something and finishing it, you’re already better than most of us, so bully for you. No, you don’t have to do it the way sponsored by the author of this article. If I said you did, I’d be defeating my own argument (a somewhat counter-productive activity, in my esteemed opinion). If you DO do it the way I do it, don’t be an ass. Don’t say that your way is the one, true way because when it comes to bringing forth creation from the bubbling primordial soup of the mind, the only way is the way that works for the individual. And that goes for you too, Guy-Who-Can’t-Seize-The-Moment.
An alternative explanation for why I like to write this way is possibly because I’m just incredibly lazy. Knowing myself, this is not an unlikely theory. This blog article? Pulled out of my rather large butt.
I bid you pleasant mental images, reader.
In this series of articles, I’ll be giving my rather-respectable opinion on how (I believe) that characters should be presented in fiction- currently with a focus on prose- and how to make presentation work in the constraints imposed by the media.
To start, let’s talk about dialogue.
It’s something that I find to provide the most fuel for criticism and/or nausea in a work of fiction, professional or amateur.
First, I’m going to start off with a recommendation. If you want to learn what REALLY good dialogue in a novel/written form looks like, go to the library or bookstore and find yourself a copy of Chaim Potok’s The Chosen. I think it won an award or something. For some reason. Point is, this book will help me communicate several things absolutely necessary to what I’m trying to say as it taught me what strong dialogue is.
It’s also one of the few young adult novels that doesn’t make me want to commit suicide. But I digress.
THE ABSOLUTELY NECESSARY (AMENDABLE IF NECESSARY)
First, strong characterization. Know your characters. You should know them intimately. Or at least try to. But at the very least, make sure that you get a FEEL for your character and it should just go forward from there. Isolate what traits that a character holds that apply to the way they communicate. Take, for instance, an example from The Chosen. In the first part of the novel, the main character and a boxer are sharing the same room in a hospital, and I found their conversations to be extraordinarily enjoyable. The writing communicated the boxer’s strong accent not through vague association/description (“…”, he said with a Bostonian accent) but through phonetics- modifying the words and the flow of the words to make it sound like someone talking with an accent in your head, and it worked wonderfully. Furthermore, whenever he gets in a conversation, he usually finds some way to redirect it towards the way his manager screwed him over in the past. This helps communicate his inability to move forward because of his fixation on a past event that he thinks ruined his life. What did we learn here: Verbals tics, accents, figures of speech, speech patterns that reflect the character, and you need to understand that there is more than one response to even the simplest questions. Know which response that your character will give.
Second, if you’ve seen how I like to do dialogue, I enjoy presenting dialogue in a way that’s conducive to its flow. When two people are talking, I do my best to minimize prose and only indicate who’s talking when it’s absolutely necessary and to prevent confusion. That dialogue flows really well, and it’s not wooden. It looks and sounds like an exchange between two persons. Why? Because I do my best to focus on the words themselves, what’s being spoken. Prose and dialogue can work against each other, which is why dialogue tends to work best in visual, active media, such as television, movies, and video games, where both setting/visuals and dialogue are communicated to the audience simultaneously, taking advantage of both a person’s capacity for hearing and for viewing (should they possess those faculties- it is unfortunate that there are people who may only possess one or neither of these). This is the advantage of audio/visual mediums, in which visualization is mostly prefabricated by the author (considerably more-so than in writing). That being said, written creative works have their own advantages that audio/visual media lacks (and vice versa), but unnecessary, may be covered in a later article, and ultimately tangential- which brings us to my next point.
To prevent a conversation from feeling wooden, make it organic, dynamic, flexible. There’s no “set-topic” to the conversation. Conversations are constantly naturally derailed by two or more personalities in dialogue with one another. Remember this: characters are dynamic. They are not simply talking heads disseminating information and bad one-liners unfit for the prose. A natural conversation is a mix of forced command/informative exchanges and stimulus-response. In other words, a conversation may start with a goal in mind, but responding to one comment or statement may bring to mind in a character an association that will bring them to a tangent. See, going off topic- when it happens, where it happens, how it happens, and in what direction it starts going- not only helps you show who the characters are, but it also reveals the dynamic between them. A great character dynamic, be it chemistry between a character and their romantic interest or the charged exchanges between protagonist and antagonist, involves each character bouncing off one another in a conversation. Bouncing off one another, going on these tangents, these are what make conversations fluid. It’s what differentiates a real conversation from two monologues with talking points spliced together into a dialogue.
That said, keep in mind that there ARE structured, wooden conversations. Terse, unimaginative, to the point. Words practically stolen from Matty (Heyo!). But recognize that if your work’s dialogue is filled with those kinds of conversation, your audience isn’t going to be amused. At all. Only use these wooden conversations when necessary.
Now I’m going to go ahead and contradict my second point. This point is probably personal preference. (Alliteration, let’s go!) But I like movies. I like a dramatic presentation- a stylistic panache. Something I’ve found that is extraordinarily helpful in regards to making the presentation of a character compelling and draw you in is how their words are juxtaposed with actions. Not “This is how he/she talks, this is how he/she acts.” More like what they do while they’re talking. It makes what you’re writing more… Cinematic? Example:
“What’s it mean? You get used to things?”
“Pretty much, yeah.”
The man retrieved a cigarette from a pack in his jacket pocket, placing it between his lips as he fumbled with a lighter.
“Like killing?” He asked, the odd question punctuated by the snapping of his lighter and the ignition of the cigarette. “Like smoking?” He mumbled to himself bitterly in a quiet tone, rolling his eyes.
“I beg your pardon?”
Now, for the same example reduced to a non-example:
“What’s it mean? You get used to things?”
“Pretty much, yeah.”
“Like killing?” He asked. “Like smoking?” He mumbled quietly to himself.
“I beg your pardon?”
I’m personally of the opinion that the first excerpt is considerably more interesting to read. Not only do the actions described give you insight about the character, but they also give what you’re reading an interestingly-visual component. You can essentially create a sort of feeling usually found in a visual medium and transplant it into the written. However, it must be used conservatively, I think- this point has to be balanced with Point #2. A mix of pure dialogue and pure action. When you successfully combine both, you’ve got really compelling writing. Usually.
That’s it for now. On my next article in this series I’ll be going into detail on how to construct or use slang and euphemisms to give your characters cultural identification, make them something the audience can relate to and lifelike, and to flesh out a mythos as a whole.
Until The Next Blue Moon,