Ask the Authors: Action/DialogPosted: March 5, 2018 | |
When tackling dialog, we want it to sound as real as possible, but if you capture every “um” and “ah”, the conversation may put readers to sleep, or even worse, they may just set the book down and never get back to it, because the fact is that everyday conversation is pretty boring. In writing, every word, every phrase, every scene should serve a purpose to the story. There’s no room for what screenwriters call “Hello. How are you? I’m fine.” dialog. In real life, these are things that we talk about, but readers don’t need to be privy to those kinds of conversation. Dialog should serve a purpose such as revealing needed information or character traits, but it also should help to move the story forward, just as much as the action does. It also should read smooth and sound realistic, making your characters more realistic for your readers. The question is, how do we go about doing all of that. Let’s ask our panel members if they have any tips they’d like to share.
Tim Baker: I don’t find it difficult. I try to make my characters speak as if they were real people – the way you and I speak. If you have a guy sitting down at a bar the dialogue should be realistic…
“What can I get you?”
As opposed to…
“What would you like to drink?”
“I would like a bottle of Heineken, please.”
What are your secrets for writing dialog that doesn’t sound forced?
Tim Baker: By tags I assume you mean attributions. I use them but I use them as sparingly as possible, and I rarely embellish them. 90% of the time I’ll use “John said.” And nothing more. Sometimes I’ll throw in a “John replied.” To prevent overuse of the word said. Then on very rare occasion I’ll use “John replied sarcastically.”
I do this rarely because I feel if the reader hasn’t learned enough about John, and isn’t “in the scene” enough to figure out that John is being sarcastic – then I’m not doing my job.
Chris Barili: As few as possible. I much prefer to use actions in place of tags to keep the reader clear on who’s talking.
For example, I could say: “Your zipper is down,” Toni said, giggling and covering her mouth with one hand. “The cow is escaping the barn!”
But I think this is much better: Toni giggled and her hand flew to her mouth. “Your zipper is down, and the cow is escaping the barn!”
Here’s a clip from Hell’s Marshal, Book one of my Hell’s Butcher series. Frank Butcher–dead and in Hell–has been told by the three judges of the underworld that he is now their marshal, charged with bringing back souls that escape eternal damnation. And his first target is Jesse James. Frank is asking the judges how to get James’ soul back to Hell.
“All right, so exorcism is out. How else?”
“You must kill the body, then use talismans we give you to send the spirit to the underworld. If you fail to send it across, it will simply possess another body.”
Bill Hickok spoke alone. “He may use people from the world of the living to do his dirty work. They’ll be his puppets as long as he needs them. Harm as few as
possible to keep things quiet.”
Frank stood, fists at his sides, taking slow, deep breaths. He hated being backed into a corner, but they’d done it nonetheless. He locked eyes with Webber.
“Why me? Out of all the souls you got down here, why pick me?”
Webber never looked away, the corners of his mouth turning up and his eyes smoldering.
“We have a history, you and me.”
So, it was personal. Frank could understand that, at least.
“One condition. If I do this, you increase my time in the pit so it’s what I deserve.”
The judges conferred, hissing.
“Agreed,” they said as one.
Frank nodded. “If I’m gonna be Hell’s Marshal, shouldn’t I get a badge?”
Webber grinned and a bolt of lightning shot down from the ceiling, crashing into Frank’s chest. His body went rigid, and a searing agony blazed on his chest. Fire
arced through his body, making his muscles contract until he felt his bones straining not to snap. He tried to scream, but couldn’t open his mouth even an inch. The acrid stink of burning flesh filled his nostrils as the skin on his chest sizzled and cooked like bacon over a fire.
An instant later, the lightning disappeared and Frank collapsed to the floor. When he finally mustered the strength to lift his head, a marshal’s badge had been
burned in swollen, pink flesh where the lightning had touched him. In the center of the six-pointed star, a skull stared out, flames dancing in the hollows of its eyes. The words “Hell’s Marshal” circled it all. The judges faded from sight, snickering as they disappeared.
“Send Jesse James back to us, Marshal Butcher,” echoed their voices. “Dead or dead.”
Notice there are only two traditional dialogue tags in all that, but action is sprinkled throughout, adding flavor and helping the reader follow the “palaver,” as Frank would call it.
Art Rosch: Dialog tags can be useful. I’ve heard advice from prominent writers to never go beyond “He said/She said”. But I like a little variation. “What did she want?” quavered Tina.” Something like that, the use of a descriptive word in a tag, sometimes changing an adjective into a verb…..that works for me. “Where did he go?” Alice asked haltingly. “What happened to Dizzy?”she screached.
Emotion motivates characters’ actions and may come through in dialog. But just as real people in real life, characters don’t always say what they mean, and they don’t always mean what they say. So, how do readers know that although your character says one thing, she means another? Maybe the character rolls her eyes, or averts her gaze, or perhaps she says it with a sarcastic tone. In screenwriting, you put these things into the stage directions and the actors carry them out. In fiction, this type of thing must be apparent on the page. Let’s see how our panel members tackle this one.
What methods do you use to clue readers into subtext?
DeAnna Knippling: When it’s “on the nose.” In real life, do you talk about what your id wants on a running basis? No! Then don’t blurt out your deepest desires on a running basis in the freaking dialogue!
Jordan Elizabeth: No pet peeve, but I can safely say that I love using dialogue to break up the tension in an intense scene.
Carol Riggs: Saying fluff greetings and lengthy good-byes, as well as repeating things to other characters that the reader already knows. Especially the latter is a smart place to “tell” or summarize so the readers can skip to the parts they don’t know yet. Another pet peeve is information and background dumping in dialogue. You can reveal things in conversation, but it’s not the place to explain your worldbuilding and character’s personal history. I try (with various levels of success) to avoid these things.
Tim Baker: My biggest pet peave when it comes to dialogue is the writer who treats dialogue like narrative. Your narrative should be grammatically correct, but speech is not like that. When we talk, we use all sorts of lexiconic (I think I just invented that word!) tricks to get our point across – including body language. As I said earlier, I try to make my character’s speech as real and natural as possible.
Cynthia Vespia: I’ve read some very popular writers that used “he said” or “she said” after every line of dialogue. It’s unnecessary in my opinion.
Art Rosch: My only pet peeves are triteness and dialog that fails to emerge from the character’s personality in an organic fashion. That will sound both forced and boring.
Action carries the story forward, keeping things moving, so to speak. Every scene is a combination of action and dialog, with maybe a little bit of exposition where necessary to offer setting and set the tone. It’s a tightrope we must walk, always struggling to find our balance between elements. Unneeded dialog can bore readers, while too much non-stop action too fast can wear readers out. Let’s see how our panel members handle action.
Art Rosch: Action scenes are the movements of bodies through a matrix of space and time. They may be people, ships, cars, horses, whatever…they have momentum and intensity. The movement is forceful, violent and partakes of the character’s attributes. If I have characters engage in a fight, they will fight differently because they have different moral and physical parameters. I’ve been a great fan of Samurai films and I’ve derived a lot of my sword action in “The Gods Of The Gift” from watching actor/martial artists like Toshiro Mifune. Japanese Kendo (sword work) has a severe grace. The ideal outcome of a duel between individuals is death by a single stroke. The victor defeats the vanquished by drawing his sword from its scabbard. In one fluid movement the sword is drawn the strike is made and the enemy’s blood gushes from his body as he falls to the ground. Zip!Sweesh! Done. Of course, this isn’t always ideal for film or fiction. It’s too quick. There needs to be stroke and counterstroke. Tactical gains and losses. In American action film, the car chase is almost obligatory. That’s film. Writing a car chase? Boring, unless the writer can draw the reader into the sensory details of the scene. Wind blows, shocks scream, cars bounce and careen. Then there’s gun fights. Why do the bad guys always miss? Why do they fire eight hundred rounds from their automatic weapons and never hit any of the good guys?
I once tried a challenge to write a story using only dialog, but without subtext of facial expressions and body language, it was difficult to follow what was happening, and without actions, the characters never did anything but talk. It was really pretty boring. Action and dialog are both used to move the story forward. They are the bread and butter of the writing, because without them, the story goes nowhere.
Would you like to share a brief excerpt from one of your best dialog scenes?
“What did you smell that day in the apartment, Ms. Murphy? Before the deceased arrived?”
“Mr. Demars had not yet brought sealed paint containers into your apartment. Why do you say that you smelled paint?”
The woman had closed her eyes.
“It was on the dropcloths. He had left them in a stack in the living room.”
“Did you touch anything that he had brought with him?”
“No, I was fussing around with a few last things. I didn’t want him to get paint on everything.”
“Were you afraid that he would do so?”
“What has this got to do with the murder?”
“Just answer the question.”
Janet Garber: From Dream Job:
At last, after a choked-down lunch and a brief afternoon walk, Melie had an administrator to deal with.
“You know what, Deedee, just send her home.” Melie dabbed at her face with a tissue, wondering why the heat was turned up so high.
“I can do that?”
“Yes, she’s violating the dress code. You’re the Surgery Department Administrator. You told her to wear a lab coat.”
Will this day never end?
“Yeah, she’s a floozy with those cheeky little breasts of hers always peeking out of her necklines and those miniskirts . . .”
I have to concentrate, Melie told herself, noting that DeeDee had no figure of her own to speak of.
“Dee, wait—is it true you told the rest of the staff she had been on welfare?”
“Oh, everybody knows that,” Deedee said calmly, sitting back in her chair, holding out one hand, admiring her new manicure.
“They do now. And about her mother’s affair with the caseworker?”
Dee’s head snapped around. “What about it?”
“Wasn’t that told to you in confidence?”
“Look, Melie, I take these girls in off the street and give them careers in healthcare. If they’re smart and they listen to me. But they’re a bunch of tramps.”
“Dee—oh, never mind. Maybe next time you should look to hire someone a bit more mature?”
“Older? Nah! I like ’em young so I can mold them right.”
Tim Baker: Here is a scene from my novel Blood in the Water – It’s the first scene that came to mind, and I think it is a good example of how I use dialogue…
“Some clown with a metal detector found our body?”
Steve Salem shot a sideways look at his partner, who was shaking her head in disgusted disappointment while sucking the final drops of a pineapple-banana smoothie from a tall Styrofoam cup. She flipped the cup into the rear cargo area of the Jeep and returned Steve’s stare.
“What? Don’t look at me like that.”
“Like what?” Steve asked.
Val flitted her hand at him. “Like…that. Like you’re not thinking the same thing. In case you haven’t noticed, clients haven’t exactly been beating down the door. How have you survived this long?”
Val reached up and twisted the rear-view mirror toward herself and checked her long blonde curls, ignoring Steve’s glare. When she finished, Steve adjusted the mirror and returned his focus to the road. After a moment of silence, he shook his head.
“First of all, it wasn’t our body. His name was Patrick Donahue. We were hired to find him. Hopefully, alive.”
“Right,” Val interrupted. “And now some wannabe gold-digger, looking for the Treasure of the Sierra Madre, found him and we probably won’t get paid.”
Steve sighed. “Okay, second of all, the Treasure of the Sierra Madre was a fictional treasure located in Mexico, about as far away from Flagler Beach and the Atlantic Ocean as you can get. And finally, you’re looking at it wrong.”
“Wrong? I’m looking at it wrong?” She crossed her arms and raised her eyebrows toward him. “Please enlighten me.”
“Joyce Donahue hired us to find her missing husband and gave us a two-thousand-dollar retainer.”
Val turned her brown doe-eyes onto him without a reaction. “A non-refundable retainer,” Steve said.
“You’re kidding. Right?”
“I don’t kid about money.”
“You can’t keep her money. We didn’t find her husband.”
“Now you want to refund her money? A minute ago you were complaining about not getting paid. Make up your mind.”
“I haven’t changed my mind. I still want to get paid…”
She held up a hand to interrupt him. “…but I want to earn my pay.”
Steve finished his smoothie and sent the cup to the rear to join Val’s. “Allow me to explain. We were hired ten days ago. We began an investigation, using man-hours and resources. The fact that we didn’t solve the case doesn’t change those things. That’s what a retainer is for. To cover our operating expenses.”
Val shook her head. “No. That’s bullshit. You make us sound like lawyers.”
Cynthia Vespia: Here is scene from my novel Karma: Silke Butters Superhero Series Book 1
“This is insane, you know that?” she said, inadvertently pacing the floor. “Just a few days ago, I was living a normal life and now I’m being chased by supercharged mercenaries and blasting energy bolts out of my hands.”
Joe shifted up in his bed. She could tell every part of him ached to get out of it. Joe was never the type to slow down and rest. Now she knew why… he was enhanced, he didn’t need to rest.
“I’m sorry, Silke,” he said. “I tried to keep all of this from you. That’s why I didn’t want you wrapped up in the affairs of the Enforcer Factory. But you’re fooling yourself if you think the life you were living was normal.”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean from the outset, there was something special about you,” he told her. “And I’m not just talking about your abilities, I’m talking about your drive. There was no way Silke Butters would wind up in some average nine-to-five job pushing paper in some cubicle. You had big dreams and you went to New York and accomplished them. That’s not normal what you do, it’s extraordinary.”
Art Rosch: I like this example of dialog between a therapist and Sarah Kantro, who is in a mental hospital and in desperate panic and depression.
Excerpt from CONFESSSIONS OF AN HONEST MAN
Sarah sits rigidly in the anteroom outside Serena Steinberg’s office. Ellsworth’s voice attempts to soothe her with meaningless but necessary reassurances.
“It’ll be okay, honey, don’t worry, you’ll be all right.”
Sarah’s body is hunched forward like a bow, as if a string is running from her forehead to her knees. Breath comes through her nose in quick little snorts. She is aware of Ellsworth’s sounds, grateful for them at a subliminal level.
Finally, the inner office door opens. Sarah is not looking up, but hears her name being called.
“Yes,” she raises her eyes. At first glance, Serena Steinberg’s appearance conjures two words, two arrogant, presumptive and annihilating words: Fat Woman.
She must weigh at least two hundred, two twenty, Sarah thinks, as her eyes do the lightning-fast evaluation of a food-compulsive woman meeting another woman. It gives her an immediate internal sense of leverage, of comfort. The therapist isn’t huge, she isn’t waddling and jiggling. Rather, she is rounded and soft. She has a young pretty face with a bit of neck wattle and a pair of breasts that make her look like an ancient mother-goddess dug up from an archeological site.
Then Sarah meets the therapist’s eyes and does not see what she expects to see in a Fat Woman. She does not see shame, discomfort, apology, and victimization. She sees an easy and compassionate smile. She sees security.
“Come on in,” Serena Steinberg says, extending a hand towards her office.
As if a magnet is pulling her, Sarah goes toward the door. She looks back to Ellsworth and mouths the word “thanks”.
There is no desk in the office. There is a couch, to the right of the door. Flanking a large window that looks out over the park are two well-upholstered grandma chairs. The therapist gestures to one of them and takes her place in the other, gazing at Sarah with obvious concern.
“I can see you’re having a really hard time. Can you tell me about it?”
As if the bow string that keeps her body in correct equilibrium has just snapped, Sarah hunches forward and puts her face to her knees and begins weeping convulsively.
“I can’t tell where I end and my mother begins,” she howls between sobs. “Or where my mother ends and I begin, or whose thoughts I’m thinking, if they’re my own or if I’m just hearing an endless tape recording of things I heard in my childhood.”
She wraps her hands around her chest as if she is cold, and coughs hoarsely.
“All right, all right,” Serena Steinberg encourages. Sarah looks up into the face of the therapist. She sees an emotion that startles her. She sees sadness. She sees genuine compassion, a compassion made not of pity or superiority but of true equality. Serena Steinberg has wrestled with her own devils and has found a way to make peace.
I can do that, too, Sarah thinks.
Taking an immense risk, she voices her thoughts.
“I don’t want to offend you, but you’re a pretty big woman.”
The therapist laughs, throwing her head back. It is a good laugh, it peals with a crystalline tone, ding ding ding, as if three different sized fine goblets have been struck with a fingernail.
“My secret weapon,” she says, eyes gleaming. “The world is full of different shapes and sizes and tastes, and being ‘big’, as you put it, is something I was born with. Are you suggesting that I can’t help you because I’m fat?”
Sarah puts up her hands. “No no no no, just the opposite. I think you may be able to help me because you are, uh, excuse me, ‘fat’.”
“Well,” the therapist says with satisfaction, “we’ve got the word ‘fat’ out in the open already, don’t we? See what I mean about my secret weapon?”
“Fat,” Sarah reiterates. “Fat fat fat. Fat fat.” She smiles, for the first time in weeks. “Fat fat fat.”
Serena joins the recitation and both women are saying “Fat fat fat, fat fat fat,”
and it acquires a rhythm, like they are a doo-wop band singing nonsense syllables. “Fat fat fat, fat fat fat.”
The women begin to giggle, and then to laugh until they are holding their sides.
The word “Fat” has been utterly drained of its destructive power.
Sarah feels a lot better than she has five minutes ago.
Find Me. Read Me. Heal Me at artrosch.com
Margareth Stewart: Excerpt from Open/Pierre´s journey after war by Margareth Stewart available at web-e-books.com
He started walking around. People, always wary of strangers, didn’t approach him. He kept looking, trying to find something which could spark his attention. The sun was striking hot and, even with his hat on, he could barely see through the glare. Women carried umbrellas, with some balancing all sorts of things upon their heads, many with babies tied to their backs, too. He was so out of tune. Then he saw a wooden house with a blue sign above the door – Book Shop. “Book shop?” He stopped at the entrance. An Open sign hung on the door. He entered.
An old man stood up from a wooden carved counter and spoke in beautiful, polite English.
“Good morning, how can I help you, Sir?”
It took longer than expected for Pierre to say anything. He didn’t know what to say, if he was looking for a book or a job. The room was piled up with books.
“I´m looking for a job. I am at your service, for any payment.”
The man studied him. “Hum.”
“I´ve worked before.”
“I´m good with books.”
“What makes you think so?”
Pierre didn’t know how to answer that. The question wasn’t expected. Another, smarter person to cross his way. His only option was to be truthful.
“I´m looking for a job until the train returns to service. I´m on a journey to India.”
He thought about saying that he was fluent in more than five languages, or that he was a good organizer and could apply one of his many skills to sorting out the books there, or he could simply state that he had no other means to surviving. But he thought it better not to complicate things even more.
“Because I like books.”
He shrugged, unable to think now of anything more to say.
“Have you sold any books before? That´s quite a different thing.”
“A hard job, I know, but I’m reliable, and honest.”
“Have you ever sold books like this? Second-hand books?” He swept his arm, his hand open, across the book-laden table.
Pierre looked around piles and pile of books on the floor, shelves, a table and desk. What is this guy doing there? Who does he sell books to in the middle of nowhere? He knew if he asked such questions, the job would never come to him.
“Well, I´ve done a lot of things, from working on farms, to restaurants and tents, why should I not be able for this?” Each word needed to be carefully chosen. It felt like a chess game.
“Good point. Experience is a positive attribute. But books are not easy to sell. People are unwilling to pay for them, thinking they can get stories for free.”
I want to thank all of the panel members who shared their work here. These are some great examples of both dialog and action, and how they work together to move readers through the scene and progress the story forward. I can’t wait until next Monday, when we’ll talk about setting. I do hope you’ll all join us.
If you have a question you’ve always wanted answered, but it’s not covered in the post on that topic, or if our panel’s answers have stirred new questions within you, pose your query in the comments. Make note if it is directed toward a specific author. Questions will be directed to the general panel unless otherwise specified. Then, in the final post for the series, I will present your questions and the responses I recieved from panel members.
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