June 6, 2012

Character Voice Hooks

Last week, I attended a dialogue writing seminar given by bestselling author Aaron Allston.  I recommend attending his seminars if you have the opportunity.  Below are my notes from the seminar entitled "Talk to Me". 

It's widely accepted that dialogue attribution like "he said" or "she muttered" should be avoided in most (but not all) cases.  You can avoid these attributions by ensuring that your characters have distinctive speech patterns and ways of expressing themselves.  Aaron refers to these as "character voice hooks". 

A character's voice hook makes their dialogue distinctive enough that readers can figure out who is speaking without spelling it out for them.  When they can do this, they become more engaged with the story.  Voice hooks also help develop a character, by highlighting the person's age, social status, intelligence level, and other traits.

There are many types of voice hooks you might use, including (but not limited to):

  • A character might always start a conversation by saying the other person's name, as in:  "Beth!  I need you to understand this…"
  • The character might start every conversation with the same phrase. Aaron mentioned a friend of his who starts every conversation by saying "Hey there."  When you hear that phrase, you know who is talking.
  • The character might use aggressive questions, such as "Just what do you think you're doing?" or "Why are you doing it like that?"
  • The character might use phrases that suggest his or her age, such as "He's all, like, up in my grill…" (When you hear a phrase like that, you know it's probably not an 80-year-old woman speaking.)
  • The character's word choice might indicate a high social status, or an inflated self-image, as in "What you must understand, my young friend…"
  • The character may use references that suggest his or her age, such as "Back in the days when I worked with Humphrey Bogart…" (suggesting someone older) or "When I was on the set with Lindsay Lohan, she was so…" (suggesting a younger person)
  • The way the character's speech is punctuated can also be a hook.  For example, I know a real person who tends to pause between every three to five words he speaks.  A line of his dialogue might be written as "Well, you see… I had to stop… at the store… to pick up some milk… We were out." 
  • Aaron mentioned an example of a person whose natural speech pattern is to raise the pitch of their voice at the end of every sentence, as though they are asking a question (when they aren't).  Their dialogue might look like:  "I was talking to Joan?  She told me they're getting a divorce? Can you believe that?"
  • A character's word choice should be reflective of their educational background and experience.  It's unlikely that a housewife would refer to a criminal as a "perp," while that might be perfectly appropriate for a police officer. An engineer probably won't refer to a tool or device as a "doohickey" but his sister the fashion model might.

Voice hooks should be used carefully.  You want the reader to be able to distinguish between your characters, but you don't want the voice hooks to be so heavy-handed that they irritate or distract the reader from the story.  This will make them put down your book and never pick it up again.

If you are having trouble getting the right voice for a character, it may help to think of a famous actor/actress (or just someone you know) who reminds you of that character.  As you write dialogue for the character, imagine that person speaking the lines.  If they don't sound right coming from that person's mouth, rewrite the dialogue until they do.  Do your job well enough, and your readers may even imagine the character as that actor or actress.

May 21, 2012

Tension and Micro-Tension in Fiction

I've recently begun to understand what makes one work of fiction a "page turner" and another not.  Tension is almost as critical to a novel or short story as conflict.  Conflict gives the characters something important to do, and a reason to grow and change (or not).  Tension raises the reader's curiosity and encourages the reader to stick with the story. 

It's possible to create tension in a number of ways.  In passages that focus primarily on a character's thoughts, you can create tension by showing that the character has two conflicting or contrasting emotions about the same thing.  For example:

Jane removed the party supplies from the shopping cart and placed them on the checkout counter.  Everything was in place now.  Alex would have the best birthday party ever.  He had been looking forward to it for weeks. He was going to be so happy.  The thought brought a smile to her face. 

She began to shudder, and then quickly stopped herself. "Maybe it won't be bad this time.  If I can keep the focus on Alex, make him the center of attention, it will be OK." 

Chances are, you felt a little tension there.  You're probably wondering why Jane is apprehensive about her son's birthday party.  Shouldn't that be a happy occasion?  What happened "the last time" that caused such fear?  Were there party goers who got out of control?  Was Alex injured somehow, or did he injure other guests?  Or did something happen to Jane?  Were the other mothers at the party critical of her, her parenting, or her child?  You're likely to keep reading to get the answer to such questions. 

The tension created here probably won't carry through the entire story.  At some point, you'll have to show readers why Jane is worried.  Once you do, this tension will evaporate.  At that point, you'll need to build some new tension to replace it.  Perhaps little Alex catches a glimpse of fear on her face as the guests begin to arrive, and she struggles to hide it from him.  She knows that if he is worried about her, he won't enjoy himself – and she'll feel like the party failed if that happens.

You can build tension into almost any part of your story.  In a conversation, one character may be happy about something that another character finds depressing or infuriating.  In a description of setting, you might be painting the image of an ideal tropical beach, while depicting the character's reaction to the scene as one of disgust or fear.  The key is to raise questions in the mind of the reader that generate a desire to reader further, to find out why things aren't matching up to their expectations.  As they keep reading, they keep turning pages, and you keep them immersed in the story.

May 2, 2012

Review: Story Engineering by Larry Brooks

Over the last few years, I've read several writing books.  Many of them contained advice that boiled down to "Read this passage from a famous book.  Now do something like that."  As well-intentioned as those authors may have been, their advice wasn't very useful.  It's like teaching someone to drive by showing them the cockpit video from a NASCAR race and telling them to "do what that person's doing".  Larry Brooks' Story Engineering is NOT one of those books.

The book starts off a bit preachy, repeatedly explaining that if you don't do what Brooks recommends, your chances of being published (or just writing a good novel) will be greatly reduced.  This point is made repeatedly throughout the book.  That could be off-putting for some readers, but I recommend skimming those parts when you encounter them.  The rest of the material you find in the book will more than balance things out.

At a very high level, Brooks recommends a four-part story format.  While this sounds dangerously like a formula, it's really not. It's just a basic structure to help you organize the story you're trying to tell.  In order to fit this into a blog post, I'm intentionally over-simplifying the structure, and describing it as a standard "hero/villain" story where two people are in conflict over something.  Just be aware that this is explained far better, and in far more detail, in the book.
  1. The Setup – Introduces the hero and shows us what his life is like before the villain enters the picture.  We learn what the hero has at stake, what his inner demons are, and his point of view.  It ends with the hero becoming aware of the opposition and realizing that action should be taken.
  2. The Response – The hero now has a purpose or a "quest" to undertake.  He responds to this, perhaps by making a decision (or wrestling with indecision).  He's hiding, strategizing, planning, observing, recruiting help, and getting ready to take action.  It ends with the hero ready to take action, and go on the offensive.
  3. The Attack – The hero starts trying to set things right.  But things aren't static on the villain's side.  The hero learns that the opposition is stronger than he thought.  He suffers a defeat or two.  It ends with a revelation or a proverbial new door opening, empowering the hero with the weapon or knowledge needed to finally win.
  4. The Resolution – The hero summons the strength and resources to finally reach his goal.  The villain is vanquished, and all the loose ends are tied up.
Brooks explains how to adapt this four-part structure to almost any story you want to tell.  He also provides examples of how other authors, without knowing it, are using this basic structure in their books.

Earlier, I posted an article on creating three-dimensional characters.  It was derived from what I learned in Story Engineering.

The bottom line?  I learned more from this book about story planning, story structure, characterization, and foreshadowing than I have from any other writing book I've read.  It's helped me to re-evaluate the three novels I've written to date, and understand why I was so disappointed with each of them.  I even have ideas for making them (and novel #4) better.  I definitely recommend this book.

April 15, 2012

Creating a Three-Dimensional Character

I've been reading Larry Brooks' excellent Story Engineering book, which is packed with good advice once you get past the rather repetitive first couple of sections.

The part that's really hit home with me is his advice for creating a three-dimensional character. He describes the three dimensions as:

  • Outer affectations: Things people can see about the character from outside. For example, although he is a very well-respected and highly-paid brain surgeon, he drives a beat-up old 1970's sedan. The reader wonders why a guy who ought to have tons of cash drives an old junker. This may make the guy interesting but doesn't tell us much about him.

  • Inner reasoning: Why does the character make some of the choices he does? Perhaps he drives the old sedan because he promised his late father he'd take care of his pride and joy. He can't part with the car because doing so would make him feel like he's abandoning that promise. This tells us a little about the guy, and may help us empathize with him.

  • Behavior when the chips are down: We know the guy's old car is important to him, and we know why. But when he's in a situation where he has to destroy or abandon the car, or suffer something far worse, what will he do? Will he honor the promise at the risk of great personal injury or humiliation? Will he realize that life is more valuable than possessions? This tells us the guy's REAL character.

A truly three-dimensional character should show us all of these layers. They'll help readers identify and sympathize with them.

February 11, 2012

Creating a Fiction-Writing Swipe File

When doing any kind of a task, having an example to follow can help us do a better job than simply "winging it" ourselves.  Advertising copywriters use something called a "swipe file" to help them come up with ways to improve their advertising copy.  The point of the swipe file is not to steal or plagiarize the work of other copywriters, but to give the writer food for thought and examples of how other copywriters have handled similar situations.  The swipe file idea can help fiction writers, too.

Most writers are also avid readers.  As you read a book and encounter interesting bits of dialogue, description, or clever wording, take a moment to copy those words to your swipe file.  Over time, this file will grow to provide dozens or hundreds of example of clever and interesting things that other writers have written.

When you are doing your own writing, you may reach a point where you're having trouble figuring out how to describe something, or how to handle a tricky plot point.  Pull out your swipe file and have a look at what you've written in it.  You might find a line or piece of dialogue from a book you read five  years ago that sparks your imagination.  The idea isn't to steal those exact words from the other author, but rather to use them to quickly inspire you to write something of your own.  It is a more effective tool than trying to pull the book off your shelf and flip through it to find that bit you're looking for.

As your swipe file grows, you might start organizing it in ways that make sense to you based on the examples you've gathered.  Perhaps you'll have a collection of well-done bits of dialogue, or well-described fight scenes, or scenery descriptions that especially "popped" off the page for you.  When you're stuck, or just don't like the way you've written something, these examples can help you figure out how to write or rewrite what's bothering you.

Give the swipe file concept a try.  You may find it helpful.

January 9, 2012

He Said, She Said...

Recently, I read a bestselling novel by a very well-known novelist. This novelist will remain nameless, but you cannot go into a bookstore without finding one of his novels staring you in the face.

There are lots of good ways to handle dialogue attribution in a story.  You rarely need to use the phrase "he said" or "she said" in your fiction.  Let's imagine that I've written a scene in which two people, a husband and wife, are arguing.  Part of that scene appears below:
Jane jabbed a finger at Tom's chest.  "I don't like that stupid flannel shirt."

"What's wrong with it?"  He looked down at it, his palms facing out toward her, next to his hips.

"Please, Tom.  Those plaid flannel shirts are practically a cliché.  Do you actually think you look good in that?"

"You think you look good in that jogging suit?"

"No, but at least I don't go outside in it."

"Thank goodness for that."

If  you look at the above passage, you'll notice that I never once needed to use the phrase "he said" or "she said" (or any variant of it).  In spite of that, I doubt you had any trouble realizing that it was Jane commenting about not going outside in her jogging suit, or Tom asking what was wrong with his shirt.

This brings us to that bestseller I mentioned earlier.  In his novel, the above conversation might have read this way:
"I don't like that stupid flannel shirt you're wearing," Jane said.

"What's wrong with it?" Tom said.

"Please, Tom."  Jane said, "Those plaid flannel shirts are practically a cliché.  Do you actually think you look good in that?"

"You think you look good in that jogging suit?" Tom said, as he rolled his eyes.

"No, but at least I don't go outside in it," she said.

"Thank goodness for that," Tom said.

After reading a few chapters, all those "he said" and "she said" attributions were grating on me.  I wondered just how often the author was using them.  Since it was an eBook, I copied the text of one chapter into a word processing program.  I had the program identify the unique words used in the chapter and count them.  When it finished, I found that ten percent of the words in the chapter were "said".  That seemed a bit extreme to me.  I wondered how his editor let that go.

The problem with all that dialogue attribution is that it took me out of the story.  Instead of envisioning the conversation in my mind, I found myself very clearly aware that I was reading the transcript of a conversation, not hearing that conversation in my mind.

There are other ways to convey who is speaking in a scene without resorting to "he said/she said" or any of its variants, like "he explained" or "she sighed".  These include:

  • References in the dialogue:  In my example, Jane mentions Tom's name.  There are only two people in the scene, and it's unlikely Tom is calling himself by name, so we infer that it's Jane speaking that line.

  • Action statements near the dialogue:  We see on the first line that Jane points at Tom just before commenting on his flannel shirt.  We know Jane is speaking without having to say it.

  • The speaker's word choice:  Each person speaks a little differently than another.  Maybe one of your characters adds "I've just gotta tell ya" or "let me tell you" before sharing information she feels strongly about.  Perhaps another character never uses contractions, or always addresses everyone as "Mister" or "Misses".  These unique speech patterns will not only make your characters seem more real, but will help you avoid having to tell the reader who is speaking in a scene.

There is one time where using "he said" or "she said" can be of value to you.  Specifically, that's where you want to insert a pause into the middle of what the character is saying.  For instance:
"The killer," Detective Jones said, "is none other than Jeeves, the butler."

In the above example, the dialogue attribution adds a suspenseful pause into the middle of the detective's announcement.  If that is your intention in using the tag, it's perfectly acceptable (as long as you don't overdo it).