Tangled Conversations

Have you ever had one of those conversations that starts at point A, aimed for point B, but instead of taking the direct route it meanders its way through C, D, X, J, and Y before finally finding its way back to the original topic?  Sometimes the conversation gets so convoluted that it won’t ever find its way back around!  Here’s an example:

A: “Do you want to go somewhere to get lunch?”
B: “That might be possible.  Let me see what I have going on this afternoon.”
A: “Oh, we have that staff meeting at two, right?  I can’t believe we’re reviewing the dress code again.”
B: “We have to!  Haven’t you seen what Lacy’s been wearing lately?”
A: “Seriously!  She did have some really cute shoes on the other day, though.”
B: “I forgot to tell you, I found this great website!  Really good deals on shoes, and some of them are super cute.”
A: “Oooh, show it to me!”
C: “Hey you two, should we go get some food?”

This is how conversations often work in real life, but dialog in books and movies is much more straightforward.  Dialog rarely exists simply for the sake of having people talk; it is there to convey information, be it knowledge, character relationships, or plot advancement.  Often we as authors are advised to include less dialog, to focus on the description and the action and the story.  It’s true that a scene with only dialog gets bogged down and boring, even hard to read, but in real life conversations are the lifeblood of most relationships.   We talk to our friends, chat and gossip and make plans.  It behooves us as authors to find a balance between descriptions and dialog, between conversations to convey information and conversations to develop relationships between characters.

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Flow

I just finished reviewing one of the new chapters that I added to Dragon last week.  There’s still a few more sections of new stuff to revise, but this chapter was the one I was most concerned about.

That’s because when I read it through the first time, after writing it, the flow was badly off.

The flow of a scene has a lot to do with a variety of things.  In this case, it was a combination of two things: winding conversation and reading pace.

The winding conversation, while contributing to the problem, was necessary for the scene.  The reality of the situation (two sisters discussing something that one is familiar with and the other is not) sets it up for a convoluted, meandering mess.  That’s how the conversation would go in real life, and anything more organized would feel faked.  While I tweaked it just a bit (to clarify a few things) I left this mostly as I wrote it.

The reading pace was another issue altogether.  You can follow a meandering conversation if you do it slowly enough, but readers have a tendency to read at the pace you set.  Most of the sentences were short, dialog was piled on top of itself, and there was very little to take in besides the words.  It made me confused, and I wrote it!

I fixed the problem by adding more non-dialog details to the chapter.  I had the sisters pause and consider their replies; I spent more time with the older sister, our point-of-view character, describing her emotional and mental reactions to the conversation.  I also made some of the sentences longer, since longer sentences tend to make you read a little slower.

The end result is much better.  I’ll go back and read it again, once I’ve had some time away from it, but I’m much happier with it now than I was before I started.

Cut to the Conversation

I have one odd reading habit that I developed in childhood which remains with me to this day.  My eye is automatically drawn to the dialogue.

With all of the discussions I’ve had recently about my auditory-learning preference, I’ve noticed it more.  Plus, unlike most of my reading lately, I’m actually in the midst of a novel rather than non-fiction.  (There is less dialogue in a non-fiction book, unsurprisingly.) I must know without realizing it that I miss things, because when I caught myself this afternoon it was on the return to find out what I skipped.  In pondering why I felt the need to read the conversation twice, it hit me: because I didn’t read all the other sentences the first time.  I cut right to the conversation.

No wonder the dialogue is the first thing that I write when working on a novel!

Steps to a Story: Revisions

I like to revise my stories as I go along.  With the first section of With Honor due to post on January 23rd, it’s time to go back and do a bit of editing.

When I proofread a section of a story, there are a few things that I look for.  The first is simply keeping an eye out for spelling a grammar errors, particularly my personal pet peeves.  I will rearrange sentences or re-word phrases to make the grammar work.

Another thing I look for is flow and continuity.  Is every sentence really important?  Is there necessary information that isn’t being conveyed in the right place or at the most opportune time?  This is important for me to keep an eye on, as I tend to forget that the reader doesn’t have the same background and knowledge of the places and people as me.

The trickiest one for me is finding places to add descriptions.  I’ve mentioned before that I am not very good at the visual descriptors.  This most likely comes from my own personal relationship with the world; I don’t notice visual clues as easily as auditory ones.  I remember voices at least as well (if not better than) faces.  When I imagine a scene in my head, I might notice the immediate background, the overall setting, or what the character looks like, but the actions and the dialog are more vivid to me.  Thus, when I return to a story to revise (and hopefully improve) it, I make it a point to add description when appropriate.

I plan to continue writing “Steps to a Story” posts about With Honor, since it won’t be finished when it starts to post.  I do hope that you’ll take the opportunity to enjoy the story on Serial Central as well!

Steps to a Story: Great Lines

Yesterday I posted about being an auditory learner and hearing conversations between characters in my head.  Sometimes all it takes for me to get into writing a scene is a great line.

Tonight I had a couple of writing-inducing comments from characters come to me while I was ‘writing’ in the shower.  One was a declaration from Matthew to Charlotte that caused me to have to write a bit out of order.  (More on that in a later post!)  The other was from a character that is so minor he doesn’t even get a name.  He is simply one of the villagers Matthew is approaching for supplies for the army company.  I needed to get Matthew out to Charlotte’s family’s farm, and I decided fresh eggs was a great way.  That lead to this comment, which popped into my head out of nowhere.  Here it is, straight from the story:

“Go see old man White on the edge of town.  His wife Sarah’s got a fondness for chickens; always trying to find someone to take eggs of his hands.”

His wife’s got a fondness for chickens.  I don’t know where it came from, but I love it.  🙂

Stymied

I looked up the title word for today’s blog on Wiktionary, and the definition is definitely how I feel.  Puzzled and stuck. 

I have been working on the second installment of my story for Serial Central (the first is done and will be posted Sunday).  I know the scene: it is a conversation between two characters, as seen and heard by a third character.  I know the end result of the conversation, although I am not going to share it with you.  (I’m trying to avoid spoilers here.  You’re welcome.)  It is the conversation itself that has me stymied.

My brain simply refuses to work on it.  When I set out to play out the dialog in one of my usual places (the car, the shower, trying to fall asleep) my mind veers off in a multitude of other directions.  I have reached the first time in writing fiction that I am going to have to force the issue.  I am hoping that by sitting down and compelling my brain focus on the scene, it will prime the pump and words will flow.  If not, I’ll simply have to sit there and make it happen.

As long as the end result doesn’t feel forced, I will be content.  You’ll have to tell me how I did when it posts.  🙂

Playing with Words

There are many ways to say the same thing, and this is true in books as well as life.  For a fun exercise, I decided to play with a typical piece of everyday dialog.  This is between a man and a woman, and the results are amusing.

Here is the basic dialog:

       “Hello.”

       “Hi, how are you doing?”

       “Good, and you?”

       “Fine, thanks for asking.”

First variation: minimize the dialog.  Here is the same conversation in one sentence:

     Tom and Mary shared a casual greeting as their paths crossed in the front lobby.

Second variation: add physical descriptors.  Keeping the context casual, here it is with more info.

     “Hello,” Tom said as he smiled slightly.

     Mary nodded in return as she replied, “Hi, how are you doing?”

     The two drew near to each other as their paths crossed.  Answering quickly, Tom said, “Good, and you?”

     As they continued on their separate ways, Mary’s casual response of “Fine, thanks for asking” was lost in the crowd.

Third variation: add context.  This time, the action and inflection change.

     “Hello,” Tom said silkily as he stepped into the space behind Mary’s shoulder.

     Turning her face toward his, Mary reached for his hand.  “Hi,” she replied warmly.  “How are you doing?”

     “Good,” he whispered into her ear.  She grinned as he asked, voice full of innuendo, “And you?”

      “Fine,” she said with a smile as she turned her whole body into his embrace.  “Thanks for asking.”

Fourth variation: change inflection.  Here we have a very different inflection, and different context.

     “Hello?” he said, scorn filling his voice.

     Mary stood in the door.  “Hi,” she replied, anger lacing the word.  “How are you doing?”

     Tom glared at her and threw his response in her face with a smirk.  “Good.  And you?”

    “Fine, thanks for asking,” she answered, sarcasm dripping from every word.

Final variation: vary the words.  This conversation says the same thing, but not in the same words.

    “Greetings,” Tom said lightly to the woman at the table as he sat.

     “Howdy,” she replied with a smile, continuing to eat her lunch.  “How’s life?”

     “Not too shabby.  How about yourself?” was the response, as Tom opened a bag of chips.

    Mary grinned at her friend.  “Hanging in there, thanks!”   

Thanks for reading, that was fun!