Monday, November 21, 2011

The whole truth, and nothing but the truth

It's Thanksgiving. Hard to believe! Christmas is only five weeks away! And I haven't even begun my shopping . . . except for the copies of Novel Tips on Rice I purchased for some special friends. Consider giving a copy of this fun and useful compilation of some of our favorite recipes to that hard-to-shop-for friend or colleague on your shopping list. The graphics are amazing, and the quality is excellent. But, trust me, you'll want one for yourself as well.

I proofread for a friend who is a court reporter. It's an interesting job most of the time. But since the court proceedings take place in a state I don't live in, and I wouldn't be in the courtroom in any case, I'm a completely objective reader. I have nothing but words to go on. No physical attributes, no endearing or exasperating expressions or behavior. No first impressions as far as looks, clothing, jewelry, hair style, nothing to pull them into favor or disfavor. The result is that at times I'm unsympathetic to a particular person when my friend the court reporter is inclined to be otherwise -- because all I have to go on are the words out of the mouth of the witness, attorney, judge, etc. Nothing but their words.

That got me thinking that a reader who picks up one of my novels -- or yours -- is in the exact position that I am as a proofreader of court transcripts. They know nothing about these people or their stories until they hear them speak. It's my job as a writer to make my characters come alive, and the best and most important way is through the words I put in their mouths. I can pile on the description and attributes, and to a certain extent that's important, but that won't make my characters or story resonate with the reader. So what will?

My daughter Deanne would tell you character affiliation begins with the name. If the name doesn't fit or otherwise isn't right, it jars her out of the story before she even gets into it. I completely agree. I spend a good deal of time selecting names for my characters when I begin writing a novel. I find that I can't get the momentum going if I don't have the names right. I may give a character a name at the start of my WIP, but it will pester me and interfere with the writing if the name is wrong. So I try to get it right from the start. And I always know when it's right. And when it's wrong. One major regret I have is that I allowed my agent and editor to talk me into changing the name of my protagonist in Every Good & Perfect Gift. The name I first gave her was the right name, and I wish I had stuck with it. But it is what it is.

Here's an example I ran into a couple of years ago of a name that just didn't work. A young female writer I knew, early 20s, very attractive, was writing a supernatural suspense novel, kind of a cross between Peretti and Dekker. I knew nothing about the story she was writing as she began to read from a chapter, but it drew me in immediately with its tone and action until I realized the protagonist, who I perceived was a young woman much like the author, was named Mabel. Mabel. For a 20-something, cutting-edge protagonist in a supernatural suspense novel.

Time. Out.

I talked to her about it on several occasions. I told her the name jarred me out of the story. I had visions of a woman my grandmother's age the moment I heard it, and I was confused. Wait, Mabel? Then who's the protag, because I thought . . . ? I said it was completely wrong for the character she had created, particularly given the genre, but for some reason she was married to the name. I told her about the prejudice of my daughter, who would put the book right back on the shelf and that would be that. To no avail.

A more important element that will cause our characters to resonate with readers is the depth with which we write them. Superficial doesn't cut it. Neither does white hat/black hat. By that I mean, good guys are not all good, all the time; and bad guys are not all bad, all the time. Characters and stories written with a white hat/black hat mentality fall into the category of melodrama. It's our job to plumb the depths of the characters we create, and present them to our readers as fully formed and three-dimensional as possible. They have foibles and failings and we have to let them show. We have to know them as well as we know ourselves. We must know what they'd say or do in any given situation, and why they'd say or do it. They can surprise us in many ways, but they must stay true to the nature we've given them.

And the most important element of all is dialogue. Words and how they're spoken mean everything. I can forgive less-than-stellar elements in the novels I read, but if the dialogue is forced, shallow, unnatural, uncharacteristic of the speaker, or doesn't measure up in any number of ways, that's usually what will cause me to give up on a novel. And believe me, it takes a lot for me to put down a book that I've begun.

Let's try an exercise. I'm going to write a scene using nothing but dialogue. No dialogue tags, no speaker attributes, no description, no setting, nothing but dialogue. Can I draw you into the scene? Can I cause you to be sympathetic to one party or the other, and the right party at that? Let's see.

"I said I don't want to go."
"That's what you said, but I know what you meant."
"No. That's what I meant. I don't want to go."
"I can change your mind, you know."
"I wouldn't count on it."
"He'll be there."
"I, I don't know who you mean."
"Really? Just how many guys do you know who'd subject themselves to that kind of torture, all in the hopes of seeing you, even from a distance? Besides me, of course."
"You're twisted, you know that?"
"Yeah, I'm twisted. Right around your finger."

Now it's your turn. Write a brief scene using nothing but dialogue.


Patti Hill said...

"How many times have I told you?"
"I don't keep a diary."
"Guess. What would it hurt?"
"I don't like your games."
"Just give me a number. How many times have I told you?"
"We've been married for 32 years. I'm not good at math. You'll have to--"
"I've told you every day."
"Every day?"

Henrietta Frankensee said...

"Never! I'll see your feathers burned first!"
"How d'you I have feathers?"
"Got a mouthful when I bit that wing thing 'o yours."
"You shed-skins fight dirty."
"Aow! That's my hip! You don't fight nice either!"

Nicole said...

(Love that, Sharon.)

Cynthia Ruchti said...

"So, what's the story?"
"No story. I was minding my own business--"
"Huh. Never heard that one before."
"Could you redirect that light a little? I have a--"
"Right. Let me just write that down. So you were minding your own business when a pickpocket--"
"Excuse me. He didn't take something out of my pocket. He put something in it."
"Yes. That."
"A flea farm."
"It's a dog. Teacup poodle."
"And you chased the man and tackled him because--"
"I didn't tackle him. I tapped him on the arm."
"That would explain the bruises."
"I didn't know he was on coumadin."
"So, can I keep him?"
"The guy on coumadin?"
"No. The dog. I mean, is it legal for me to keep a dog that"

Bonnie Grove said...

I wrote this awhile ago as a creative writing exercise (great minds think alike, Sharon:) ).

“Look what I found.”

“No. Impossible—where did you find it?”

“At the bottom of the box, wrapped in burlap.”

“Put it away.”

“I like it. It looks just like--”

“Stop. I don’t want to do this again this year.”

“I’m putting it on the tree with the rest of the ornaments. What did you say?”


“You have to admit it’s uncanny, how much it looks like Aunt Louisa.”

“I do not.”

“The perfect shade of blonde.”

“She was a lot more than hairy, you know. She was a person. She could whistle in tune, she liked the ferris wheel at the carnival, she loved dogs.”

“Look, it’s actually the fur trim on the doll’s coat and hat, but it looks like Aunt Louisa’s beard.”

“She spoke French.”

“You’re oversensitive. She was a woman with a beard. She could have walked across Niagara Falls on a tight rope, and she’d only be remembered as the hairiest woman on the planet.”

“Put it away.”

“Why didn’t she just shave it off? I’ve always wondered. All those family photos and there’s Aunt Louisa holding a napkin in front of her face.”

“She was old fashioned.”

“Or newspaper.”

“She felt that was the way God made her.”

“Remember the Fourth of July photo?”

“She said it was her cross to bear.”

“She found some stray cat walking by moments before Daddy was going to take the picture.”

“She was more than that beard. She was a whole person. With feelings.”

“She held that cat up so all you can see in the photo is her eyes peeking over the curve of it’s orange back.”

“She relied on our kindness.”

“I’m putting it on the tree.”

“We all have things we’re ashamed of. Things we wish were different.”

“Maybe. But not growing on our chins for all the world to see.”

Anonymous said...

What great dialogue scenes. Well done, everyone. I hope we get others to respond. This is very enlightening. Bonnie . . . very enlightening ; )

Susie Finkbeiner said...

"You're really leaving? Just like that?"
"Well, what about...everything?"
"What about it?"
"Doesn't it matter to you?"
"Not really."
"You're serious, aren't you?"
"Sure am."
"I think you'll be sorry that you forgot the important things."
"I have no idea what you're talking about."
"Um...your toothpaste, deodorant, bar of soap."
"Doesn't hygiene mean anything to you?"
"Guess not."
"How about enough clean underwear? You can't very well make it through a week of camp without that."

Henrietta Frankensee said...

"Make it stop! Make it stop!"
"And now you've got that poor child going to camp."
"As if Aunt Louisa's mustache wasn't enough."
"She must have looked forward to Movember."
"And that sweet puppy. What's gonna happen to that sweet puppy, I mean, animal rights activists might try to take it away and reunite it with its original breed."
"What, oh tell me, what did the one say to the other everyday for 32 years? This post has given the conversations in my head new strength, new authority....It's an addiction...."