Thursday, July 30, 2009

Voices in My Head

One of my favorite parts of writing is working on a character’s voice, figuring out how to make that first person narrator pitch perfect and real and unique. (You can check out my blog post on voice over at the Harperteen site). And going along with that, I also love creating the voices of the secondary characters through their dialogue.

I agree with what the other Novel Girls have written so far, about dialogue having to serve a purpose, advance the story, and show emotion, but truthfully, as I’m writing, I don’t think about any of that. What I do instead is listen to my characters’ voices. In my head. Yes, I actually hear them in there talking to me. Maybe this also makes me a little crazy, but this is the only way I know how to write dialogue, to actually hear the characters speaking to me as if they were acting out a scene in a movie.

As they talk to me, I learn things about them, what kind of people they are, through their choice of words, by the way they say things. I learn if they are overly formal or aloof or sweet or even prone to cursing. I really think that the way a character says something can tell you more about a character than almost any description you could provide. There’s nothing I hate worse than reading a book where I feel all the dialogue, all the voices sound the same. In real life, the way we say things, the way we sound and gesture and act as we speak is what gives us our voices. I think the same is true in fiction.

Along with listening for my characters, I also try to envision what they’re doing as they’re talking because I’ve realized that in real life, we usually are doing something. Very rarely do two people ever sit face to face perfectly still and just talk – there’s always some movement, some gesture, or some activity.

When I’m reading a book, I like to read dialogue that doesn’t feel like dialogue. I want to lose myself in the story and imagine two real people in front of me having a real conversation. And if can pull this off as a writer, then that makes the voices in my head throughout the process entirely worth it!

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Speak To Me

My editor calls my novel "dialogue heavy." I'm not surprised because it's my favorite part about writing. I enjoy dialogue the most. So much so that a screenplay attempt is in my future. Notice I say attempt, but nevertheless I consider it a very real goal of mine.

I don't necessarily have a formula or guide with which I follow when creating my "speaking scenes." I have better luck closing my eyes and imagining myself in the middle of the room - my head turning back and forth between the characters and absorbing every word they say. I try to think about which character would say what and let myself feel his or her mood. Simply put I use my own past experiences and conversations with people to determine just what my characters might say.

Dialogue is the time to let the personality of the character shine through. It can reflect an educational level, socioeconomic background or character flaw. It can tell the reader if a character is bossy or abrasive, ditsy or sweet.

Here's an example from my book, Whistlin' Dixie in a Nor'easter. My lead character, Leelee, has just received an unexpected phone call from a Vermont real estate agent whom her husband, Baker, has recently contacted about buying an inn in Vermont. It helps to know that Leelee (a born-and-bred southerner) is not at all happy over this notion and somewhat irritated at Baker for even suggesting it.



“Ed Baldwin calling from Vermont.”

And how does he already know my name? “Oh hi, how are you?” I looked over at Virginia, pointed to the phone and then over to the prospectus beside her.

“Fieeene,” he said, sooo Yankeeish. “Just fieeene. I wanted to make sure you had gotten the material I sent you and Baker on The Vermont Haus Inn.”

“Mmmhmm,” I answered. “Yes we did.” I glanced over at Virginia and rolled my eyes.

“Good. Well then, when will you be arriving in Vermont to tour the property? I’ll make your arrangements on this end.”

He caught me totally off guard. “I haven’t really thought that far ahead, Mr. Baldwin. We only received it a few hours ago.”

“Actually, the weekend of August 4th would work well for me. Do you guys have any prior commitments for that weekend?”

The nerve of this man. “I . . . I’m not really sure, but I can check my schedule and get back with you,” I said, with a tinge of irritation.

“I don’t mind holding. Take your time.”

I’m not believing this. “Alright,” I said, miffed. I put my hand over the phone and whispered to Virginia, “you’re not gonna believe this guy.” Then I hustled into the house, obeying this total stranger. My calendar was blank on that day but it was still two weeks away. I never planned that far in advance.

“Mr. Baldwin?” I said, while walking back outside.


“I don’t have anything on my calendar for that weekend right now. There’s a chance we may be able to make it up that weekend, I suppose.” I motioned to Virginia to share the phone with me so she could listen to this Northerner’s voice.

“Good, it’s settled then, I’ll call you back when I’ve secured your accommodations.”

Unbelievable. “But I haven’t confirmed it with my husband yet.”

“He seemed quite eager to see it when I spoke with him on the phone. It sounded to me as if he wanted nothing to stand in his way.”

“Oh . . . well, I wasn’t aware of that.” I didn’t know what else to say. He obviously wasn’t even picking up on the fact that I was peeved.

“I’ll check to see if the Vermont Haus Inn is available. It stays booked up months in advance, you know. I’ll let you know A-SAP. Talk to you soon, Leelee. Goodbye now.”

“Bye.” I hung up the phone, sat back in the swing and looked at Virginia. “Well, I’ve never!”

Hopefully you can get a pretty good idea of both of their personalities from this small bit of dialogue. Ed is pushy and Leelee is well, shall we just say too nice or shall we go ahead and admit it? Leelee is a pushover - at least when we first meet her she is. Since Whistlin' Dixie in a Nor'easter is told in first-person-narrative, the whole world is seen through her eyes. While the reader has the luxury of seeing Leelee's thoughts and observations through her own voice, I had to depend on dialogue to reveal the personalities of my other characters.

When writing dialogue, I'm at a distinct advantage. Since I'm a natural-born-talker myself, speaking and conversing are what I do best. Have a great week everyone!


P.S. Please forgive my absence last week. My other job, the one that pays all my bills, required an absorbent amount of hours from me. We're moving to another building plus we had a large concert that I was completely in charge of. All went well, but it was exhausting!

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

My, Um, Er, Ah, Post on Dialogue

Once again, this week's topic is very appropriate for me. I'm in the midst of editing my second book, NOT READY FOR MOM JEANS, and still have about 150 pages of edits to complete before, um, Friday. Eeek! Can you tell I was the kid cramming the night before finals?

Anyway, one of the areas that I'm focusing on in my edits is the dialogue. See, when I write, it's almost as though I'm transcribing a conversation. I don't focus too much on the "she said angrily" and stuff like that. I just write out the lines of conversation and then go back later and add in little tags and additional info.

I've found, though, that it's somewhat challenging to throw in the details after the fact. Like people drumming their fingers, sighing, things like that. Not to mention, I feel like my characters are always nodding their heads and smiling at each other. It feels so organic when written, but difficult to edit with a fine-toothed comb.

Not to mention, while dialogue should definitely sound real, it's kind of an edited version of actual conversations. When real people speak, there's lots of "um"s and pauses and "like"s throw in there. And trust me, nobody wants to read dialogue like that. So, it's a cleaner, more succinct transcript.

And, as Tracy referenced, your conversations should have an actual purpose--convey some new information, show an emotion, allow your main character to distill a plot point. It should never just be, "Oh, these two people are talking." Just as though every scene should have a reason for being in your book and advance the plot, so should every conversation--even if it's just to show where a character's feelings currently lie.

Of course, all of this is easier said than done--much like most of writing. Sigh. Time for me to run and start hacking away!

Monday, July 27, 2009

He said...She said...

Oh man, do I love writing dialogue. It's easily one of my favorite portions of writing a book...especially when I can instill some quirk, some humor, to whatever conversation is going on. Actually, not just humor, but any emotion. Give me some angst, fear, sadness, anger, whatever...and I'm along for the ride. Happily.

The thing is, writing dialogue can be tricky. Dialogue is not the same thing as calling your best friend up on the phone and having a "let's catch up" chat. In the context of a book (or a play, or a script, etc.) dialogue is necessary to push the story forward. Therefore, every word said needs to be relevant in some form or fashion. Otherwise, the reader will become bored.

Mostly, I don't need to spend a lot of time thinking about dialogue, because I tend to know going into the scene what information I want to get across. I also tend to know what information I only want to allude to, and possibly even more important (at least for me), I know what emotions I need to show.

That's not to say I always get dialogue right the first time up to bat, because that rarely happens. What does happen, though, is I can see what's wrong, what's right, what I need to emphasize some more, and what needs to go. Generally speaking, it takes me three or four runs through a scene before I'm content enough with the dialogue to move on.

Again, most of what I do is pure instinct: what *feels* right and what *feels* wrong. I trust my instincts, so trying to define exactly how I write dialogue is a fairly difficult task for me. That being said, I gave my process (if you can call it that) a lot of thought over the last few days, trying to find some nugget of information to pass along. Hopefully something that would make sense, and even better, actually be of help.

What I came up with might not work for you, and certainly might not work in every sentence your characters might say, but I think it's a great place to start. Dialogue should do one of three things (or all):

1. Ask a question that is pertinent to the unfolding story. Now, I don't necessarily mean an actual question from one character to another, though that certainly works as well. What I mean is that at the end of the dialogue, the reader will have a question in their mind that wasn't there before. This could have something to do with the plot, with a character (or characters), with any facet of your story that is important.

2. Answer a question that was already asked. Maybe several chapters ago you broached a question that has been in the reader's mind, and now, that question is answered.

3. Lay the groundwork for a future question or answering thereof. Okay, I know that's a confusing sentence, but hopefully my meaning comes across loud and clear. Perhaps the dialogue in a particular scene doesn't specifically answer or ask a new question, but it lays the groundwork for a question to be answered...or to be asked...later on.

Also, not mentioned in the above three, but highly important on my list, is emotion. I always want my reader to know what emotions are pushing my protagonist's buttons, so they can easily slip into her (or his) shoes. That's not to say that reader needs to understand EVERY character's emotions the second that character feels them, because the reader doesn't. But (again, in my opinion), if I'm in someone's head, then I need to know what they're feeling. I might not know all of their motivation(s) yet, and that's okay, but if they're angry/sad/confused whathaveyou, then yes...I feel that is pertinent information to get across.

Hopefully the above gives a little clue to how I handle dialogue, even if most of the time, I don't really know myself. I trust my instincts to lead the way.

Hope everyone has a terrific Monday! Until next week...