Showing posts with label plot. Show all posts
Showing posts with label plot. Show all posts

30 March 2020

Talking About Dialogue III: Dialogue and Plot


by Steve Liskow

Last time, we discussed how dialogue can deepen character, so today we'll look at how it can advance your plot.

Obviously, we need to understand the situation and what is at stake, and we learn that through exposition. An information dump or obvious explanation too early in your story kills pace and energy, and may drive your readers away. Playwright Jeffrey Sweet shows us there's a right way and a wrong way to convey information.

Hemingway's short story "Hills Like White Elephants" presents a man and a woman arguing over her having an operation. Since they know what the operation will be, they never explain it to us, but it's clear and drives the story. The opening scene of David Mamet's play Glengarry Glen Ross shows two men using jargon they never explain, but eventually the audience has enough context to understand that they're real estate agents. Both examples show Private Exposition, so-called because the characters don't share it. It gives information, but provides tension and doesn't slow the action. As long as your characters speak to each other and not to the reader, you're fine.

Public Exposition has the people explaining things so the reader knows them, too. This means at least one character in the scene has to be brought up to speed. It's typical in mysteries when someone has to explain the situation to the sleuth. Be sure someone in the conversation doesn't know what's going on or this can become heavy-handed and smothering.

"I was talking to John, who, as you know, is your brother."

Ibsen and Chekhov used to load their first scenes with servants discussing what their masters were up to, and it was like watching ice melt. Ira Levin even pokes fun at it in his play "Critic's Choice."

The test is simple: if both characters know what they're talking about, don't explain it to the audience. If at least one character is in the dark, add details, but sparingly.

Jodi Picoult talks directly to the reader in House Rules when Emma explains what it's like to live with a child who has Asperger's Syndrome. She puts it in the context of incidents that have happened, which gives it conflict and more life than a lecture.

If you're not sure about what you've written, read it aloud. If you hear yourself lapsing into a monotone, it needs more conflict or energy. And maybe less telling.

Plot points involve your characters doing things or discovering information that changes the situation. Dialogue can make that happen. The easiest way is to have one character tell someone else what's going on. This is good if you're trying to move your plot in a new direction. Jeff tells his wife: We're not going to Atlantic City this weekend after all. I just got laid off.

Dialogue can introduce new obstacles, which is a variation on the new information. showing how a character reacts or perceives that new problem deepens your characterization as it moves your plot along, so you get double action for the same low price. You can increase the tension if one character realizes that things aren't what they seem to be, too. Maybe Beth tells Martha that the company has decided to interview someone else for that supervisor slot that she expected to get.

Dialogue can create conflict either directly or indirectly and sometimes the indirect approach is better. One person resists, but is subtle about it.

James Scott Bell offers several ways to avoid dialogue that is so agreeable that it becomes dull.
The second person changes the subject, answers a question with a new question, counter-attacks, or interrupts. All those tactics can lead to a more open confrontation or even an explosion, but they don't have to. It's like watching Congress. Nothing gets resolved, so it increases the tension. If you use all these methods through the first two-thirds of your story, your tension will keep growing until it's time for your big release.

Dialogue can use emotions to manipulate people, too.

There are only two basic ways to make people do something: Force and Manipulation.

Force is the threat of physical, mental or emotional violence, and verbal violence can be very effective. If your parents or an older sib constantly belittled you, you know how much it hurts.

Manipulation plays on the emotions of the other character and may involve an attempt to instill an emotion, generally a negative one like Guilt, Fear, Jealousy, Anger, Lust, Envy, Greed...

You can show angers through pouting, accusing, name-calling, sarcasm or evasion to create tension, too. Action tags can help, too. They show instead of tell, and they can move a scene along without calling attention to themselves.

"What makes you think I'm jealous?" Melissa's fists tightened until her knuckles turned white.
"You are so beautiful..." Tom buried his face in Clytemnestra's raven curls.

Use "said" and not some showy synonym from a thesaurus. And remember that people cannot shrug, nod, snort, smile, wink or laugh a line of dialogue. I know, amazing, isn't it?

If you have only two people in a scene--which makes life easier--you may be able to write the dialogue by itself and leave out most of the tags, especially if the two speakers have different speech patterns, which we discussed last time. If you use a tag occasionally to help people keep track, it's enough. The Hemingway story I mentioned above does this.

It's easy to speed up the pace of the scene by limiting the length of sentences and speeches, too. Cut description, narration, and tags. Interruptions are good, too. Increasing the tension makes the pace feel faster, too. To slow down a scene, do the opposite. Add introspection and analyzing from the POV character and use longer sentences with more qualifiers.

Dialogue can give information through response or suggestion, too, instead of telling.
"Why do you want to talk to that jerk?" means "I don't like him."
"You actually live here?" suggests "It's a dump."

And finally, a line of dialogue can be a transition into a new scene.
"What are we doing here?" Jack stared at the seedy motel and reached for his gun.

I love dialogue because it offers you so many good choices.

19 June 2019

It's So Crazy It Might Just... Be Crazy


The author (R) with lampshade.
I have been a fan of The Blacklist through all of its long and somewhat checkered career.  Today I was watching an episode which attempted to explain some of the convoluted conspiracy which is supposedly at the heart of what has gone on for the past six years.

At one point a character said: "That is absurd."

And my reaction was: "Wow.  Nice piece of lampshade-hanging."

I discussed this concept in passing once before.  It refers to a method of coping with a particular authorial dilemma.

Let's say your story involves a plot twist or coincidence so outlandish you are afraid the readers will roll their eyes and throw the book across the room.  That happens.  If you can't change the plot, how can you change the reader's reaction to it?

Well, one method is to "hang a lampshade on it."  This means that, instead of trying to draw attention away from the problem, you actually have a character point it out.  This seems counter-intuitive, but it often works.  Maybe you are indicating to the readers that you know how smart they are.

As the wonderful web site TV Tropes points out, the ol' Bard of Avon could hang a lampshade as neatly as any pulp magazine hack:  Fabian: If this were play'd upon a stage now, I could condemn it as an improbable fiction. (Twelfth Night)

A related method is known as So Crazy It Just Might Work.  Do I have to explain what that means?  You've read it/seen it in a thousand action movies.  It is practically Captain James Kirk's middle name.*

But I would suggest you can divide SCIJMW into two types: Physics and People.  One is better than the other, I think.

Physics: "There's no way the ship's engines can pull us out of the Interplanetary Squid Forest, so let's go full speed ahead straight in! It's so crazy etc."

People: "They have hundreds of armed guards hunting for us everywhere. The one thing they'll never expect us to do is walk up to the prison and sign in as visitors.  It's so crazy etc."

Both are crazy (although not as crazy as an Interplanetary Squid Forest) but the second one seems more reasonable to me because it is based on reverse psychology.  And hey, that sometimes works in real life. Remember the event that was the basis for the movie Argo? Who would expect the CIA to sneak people out of the country by setting them up as a film crew?

SPOILERS AHEAD.

Another way of grappling with an improbable plot point is foreshadowing.   I think it was Lawrence Block who pointed out my favorite example of that technique.  In The Dead Zone Stephen King has a lightning rod salesman show up at a bar and try to convince the owner to buy, pointing out the building's location makes it a perfect target for boom.  The owner turns him down and the salesman drives off, his service to literature complete.  When lightning strikes the bar at the very moment the plot requires it the reader, instead of saying "How unlikely!", says "Ha!  The salesman was right!"

 Of course, foreshadowing can be used for different purposes.
In the brilliant TV series I, Claudius there is a scene where a seer witnesses what appears to be an omen.  He interprets it to mean  that young Claudius will grow up to be the rescuer of Rome.  Claudius's sister Livilla scornfully says that she hopes she will be dead before that happens.  Their mother says "Wicked girl!  Go to bed without your supper."  Guess when and how Livilla dies?

So if you are a writer how do you deal with an attacks of the Unlikelies?  And if you are a reader (and I know you all are) which types bother you the most?

* Yes, I know Captain Kirk's middle name is Tiberius.  Now go over there and sit down. 

23 March 2019

But Do You Have a Plot? Bad Girl whittles Popular Fiction Bootcamp down to 10 minutes…


(Bad Girl) 

Last month, I wrote about Endings, and reader expectations for each of the main genres.  The response was positive, and some people have asked that I bring more stuff from class onto these pages.  So here are some notes from the very beginning, class 1, hour 1.

People often ask what comes first: character or plot?

Do you start with a character?  Or do you start with a plot?
This is too simplistic.

Here’s what you need for a novel:
A main character
With a problem or goal
Obstacles to that goal, which are resolved by the end.


PLOT is essential for all novels.  It’s not as easy as just sitting down and just starting to write 80,000 words.  Ask yourself:
What does your main character want?  Why can’t he get it?

Your character wants something.  It could be safety, money, love, revenge…

There are obstacles in the way of her getting what she wants.  THAT PROVIDES CONFLICT.

So…you need a character, with a problem or goal, and obstacles to reaching that goal.  Believable obstacles that matter.  Even in a literary novel.

There must be RISK.  Your character must stand to lose a lot, if they don’t overcome those obstacles.  In crime books, it’s usually their life.

So…you may think you have a nice story of a man and woman meeting and falling in love, and deciding to make a commitment.  Awfully nice for the man and woman, but dead boring for the reader.  Even in a romance, there must be obstacles to the man and woman getting together.  If you don’t have obstacles, you don’t have conflict, you don’t have a plot, and you don’t have a novel.

Put another way:
When X happens, Y must do Z, otherwise ABCD will happen.
That’s what you need for a novel.

GIVE YOUR CHARACTER GOALS

1. Readers must know what each character’s goals are so they can keep score.

2. Goals must be clearly defined, and they must be evident from the beginning.

3. There must be opposition, which creates the possibility of losing.
   >>this conflict makes up your plot<<
4. Will the character achieve his goal?  Readers will keep turning pages to find out.

If you don’t provide goals, readers will get bored. 
They won’t know the significance of the ‘actions’ the hero takes.

To Conclude:
Until we know what your character wants, we don’t know what the story is about.
Until we know what’s at stake, we don’t care.

Melodie Campbell writes fast-moving crime fiction that leans toward zany.  If you like capers like the Pink Panther and Oceans 11, check out her many series at www.melodiecampbell.com

Lastest up:








22 December 2018

Why I could never be a Modern Fiction Novel Heroine
(back to humour for Bad Girl. Tis the season for frivolity, after all)



Let’s call her Tiffany.  Nah, too twee.  How about Jen.  Meet our fiction heroine, Jen.  She’s a modern girl. Has her own condo. Drives a car. Lives in the city. Has a meaningful job.  All in all, a typical    
modern heroine of a fiction novel.

Sounds reasonable, but I couldn’t be her.  I’m all for ‘suspension of disbelief’ in fantasy, but my world requires more human elements.  To wit:

THINGS THAT BUG ME ABOUT MODERN FICTIONAL HEROINES

1.  They look great all the time.
By this I mean: she gets up in the morning, perfect coiffed.  (Not quaffed. Except maybe in my loopy Goddaughter books.)  She dons clothes for her work day.  Maybe goes for a jog.  And spends absolutely no time in front of the mirror swabbing on makeup or doing her hair.  Did you ever notice fiction novel heroines look great in the morning without doing anything?  They may have a shit-load of angst about their personal lives, but apparently, they have Barbie doll hair.

As of immediately, name of heroine is changed to Barbie.

2.  They never eat.
Oh, they got out to dinner a lot.  You may even hear them order food.  But when it comes, do they ever eat it?  No! Barbie is far too busy arguing with her dinner companion, and then getting upset.

So many books, so many meals where our intrepid plucky heroine says, “oh my, I’m so upset, I couldn’t eat a thing.”

What is it with these feeble women who can’t eat?  Who the hell are they?  What do they exist on? 
When I’m upset, I eat, dammit.  Gotta fuel up for the famine that’s going to come sometime in the next 400 years.

If I hear another TSTL (too stupid to live) heroine say she’s too upset to eat, I’m going to shove the virtual dinner in her vapid virtual face and watch her choke to death.  Oh.  But then someone would have to rescue her.

EAT THE DAMN MEAL.

3.  They never go to the bathroom.
Twenty-four hours a day, we’re with this dame.  Does she ever go to the loo?  I mean, for other than a quick swipe of lipstick and a gabfest with friends?

Do none of these women have periods?
Do they not have to offload some by-products?  EVER?

Oh right.  Barbie is always too upset to eat a thing.  Therefore, nothing to offload. What was I thinking?


4.  They run into the haunted house.

“Oh, a haunted house!” says our plucky heroine. (Note use of the word ‘plucky’ to demonstrate she’s not a chicken <sic>)  “I’ll just pop in there and see what the fuss is all about, shall I?”
WHOMP
(Plucky heroines taste good with ketchup, in my parodies.)

Listen up, modern day heroines! Do NOT be so stupid as to walk into an abandoned place where you know someone was murdered, or even stupider, confront the murderer, all by your little selves! 

Let it be known: when I am pretty sure I know who the killer is, I do NOT confront him all on my own in an isolated location.  Instead, I pretty much run like hell in the opposite direction.  ‘Cause experience has taught me (apparently, I do this a lot) that if someone has killed once, they won’t hesitate to bop my bean.  Even Barbie with half a brain can figure out it ain’t a smart move. 

Modern day heroines, rise up! Rebel against these tired tropes!  Fight back against the lazy mucks who make you appear as dumb as dough.

GO ON STRIKE AGAINST YOUR AUTHORS!  Or alternatively, strike your authors.
I’ll leave now.

Author disclosure:  Just so you know, Gina Gallo of The Goddaughter series loves her food.  You’ll see her eat it.  She sneaks off to the bathroom (offstage, so don’t freak.)  She looks like shit in the morning. Just like me.  Even Rowena of my fantasy books goes to the outhouse and enjoys her meals.  (Not at the same time.)

HAPPY HOLIDAYS EVERYONE!

26 May 2018

Top Ten Peeves of Writing Teachers


Recently, a jovial colleague asked me if I was a good teacher or an evil one.

I'm definitely on the kind side of the equation.  The last thing I want to be is a Dream Killer.  But even the kindest, most dedicated writing teachers can get frustrated.  So when a colleague suggested I rant on these pages, I gracefully accepted.  (With the sort of grace that might be associated with a herd of stampeding mastodons.)

So here are my top ten peeves as a writing teacher:

THE OBVIOUS

1.  "I don't need no stinkin' genre" - aka Students who turn their noses up at the genres.

In addition to basic and advanced writing skills, I teach the genres in my Crafting a Novel course.  Meaning, we deconstruct each of the main genres of fiction (mystery, thriller, romance, sci-fi, fantasy, western, literary...) to see what publishers expect.  This is particularly important when it comes to endings.  Mickey Spillane said those famous words:  "Your first page sells this book.  Your last page sells the next."

Most publishers categorize the books they accept into genres.  Most readers stick to a few genres they like best for their reading pleasure.  So it stands to reason that if you can slot your work into an already active genre, you have a better chance of getting published and read.

Many students refuse to classify their work.  They feel it is 'selling out' to do so.  (Yes, I've heard this frequently.)  They don't want to conform or be associated with a genre that has a formula.  (One day, I hope to discover that formula.  I'll be rich.)

So I often start out with half a class that claims to be writing literary fiction,  even though not a single student can name a contemporary literary book they've actually read.  *pass the scotch*

2.  The memoir disguised as fiction.

These students have no interest in writing fiction. They really only want to write one book ever, and that is the story of their life.  (Ironically, many of these students are only twenty years old...sigh.)  But they know that memoirs of unknown people don't sell well, so they're going to write it as a novel.  Because then it will be a bestseller.

Here's what I tell them:  What happens to you in real life - no matter how dramatic and emotional it is for you - usually doesn't make a good novel.  Novels are stories.  Stories have endings, and readers expect satisfactory endings.  Real life rarely gives you those endings, and so you will have to make something up.

If you want to write your life story, go for it.  Take a memoir writing class.

3.  "My editor will fix this" - Students who think grammar and punctuation are not important.

Someone else will fix that.  They even expect me - the teacher - to copy edit their work.  Or at least to ignore all seventeen errors on the first page when I am marking.  *hits head against desk*

I should really put this under the 'baffling' category.  If you are an artist or craftsman, you need to learn the tools of your trade.  Writers deal in words;  our most important tools are grammar, punctuation and diction.  How could you expect to become a writer without mastering the tools of our trade?

4.  The Hunger Games clone.

I can't tell you how many times students in my classes have come determined to rewrite The Hunger Games with different character names on a different planet.  Yes, I'm picking on Hunger Games, because it seems to be an endemic obsession with my younger students.

What I'm really talking about here is  the sheer number of people who want to be writers but really can't come up with a new way to say things.  Yes, you can write a new spin on an old plot.  But it has to be something we haven't seen before.

There are just some plots we are absolutely sick of seeing.  For me, it's the 'harvesting organs' plot.  Almost every class I've taught has someone in it who is writing a story about killing people to sell their organs.  It's been done, I tell them.  I can't think of a new angle that hasn't been done and done well.  Enough, already.  Write something else.  Please, leave the poor organs where they are.

THE BAFFLING

5.  The Preachers:  Students who really want to teach other people lessons.

And that's all they want to do.  Akin to the memoir, these students come to class with a cause, often an environmental one.  They want to write a novel that teaches the rest of us the importance of reuse and recycle.  Or the evils of eating meat.

Recently, I had a woman join my fiction class for the express purpose of teaching people how to manage their finances better.  She thought if she wrote novels about people going down the tubes financially, and they being bailed out by lessons from a friendly banker (like herself) it would get her message across.

All noble.  But the problem is:  people read fiction to be entertained.  They don't want to be lectured.  If your entire goal is to teach people a lesson, probably you should take a nonfiction course.  Maybe a PR one.  Or here's a novel <sic> idea: become a teacher.

6.  Literary Snowflakes - Students who ignore publisher guidelines.

"A typical publisher guideline for novels is 70,000-80,000 words?  Well my book is 150,000, and I don't need to worry about that because they will love it.  Too bad if it doesn't fit their print run and genre guidelines.  They'll make an exception for me."

I don't want to make this a generational thing. Okay, hell yes - maybe I should come clean.  I come from a generation that was booted out of the house at 18 and told to make a living.  'Special' wasn't a concept back when we used slide rules instead of calculators.

Thing is, these students don't believe me.  They simply don't believe that they can't write exactly what they want and not get published.  And I'm breaking their hearts when I tell them this:  Publishers buy what readers want to read.  Not what writers want to write.

7.  Students who set out to deliberately break the rules in order to become famous.

There are many ways to tell a story.  We have some rules on viewpoint, and we discuss what they are, the reasons for them, and why you don't want to break them.  The we discuss why you might WANT to break them.  Apparently this isn't enough.  *sobs into sleeve*

I have some students who set out to break every rule they can think of because they want to be different.  "To hell with the readers.  I'll head-hop if I want.  And if Gone Girl has two first person viewpoints, my book is going to have seventeen!  No one will have seen anything like it before.  They will think I'm brilliant."

Never mind that the prose is unreadable.  Or that we don't have a clear protagonist, and thus don't know whom to root for.  e.e.cummings did it.  Why can't they?

8.  Students who come to class every week but don't write anything.

They love the class.  Never miss a week.  But struggle to complete one chapter by the end of term.  Not only that, this isn't the first fiction writing class they've taken. They specialize in writers' workshops and retreats.

It seems baffling, but some people like to hobby as aspiring writers.  They learn all about writing but never actually write.  Of course, we veterans can get that part.  Writing is work - hard work.  Writing is done alone in a room.  In contrast, learning about writing can be fun.  Especially when done in a social environment with other people.

THE 'I COULDN'T MAKE THIS UP'

9.  Other writing teachers who take our classes to steal material for their own classes and workshops. *removes gun from stocking*

Not kidding.  I actually had an adult student come clean about this.  By class seven, he hadn't done any of the assignments and admitted he was collecting material to use for the high school creative writing class he taught.  I'm still not sure how I feel about that.

10.  Students who don't read.

This is the one that gets me the most.  Last term I did a survey.  I asked each student to write the number of books they had read last year on a small piece of paper and hand it in.  I begged them to be honest.  They didn't have to write their names on the paper, so I would never know who had written what total.  Here's the tally of number of books read:

Highest number by one person:  26

Lowest number by one person:  0-1

Average:  7

Yup, I'm still shaking my head over that low.  He couldn't remember if he'd actually read a book or not.  (How can you not KNOW?)

And these people want to be writers.  *collective groan*

To be clear here:  I read 101 novels last year.  I read for one hour every night before bed and have done so for years.  That's seven hours a week, assuming I don't sneak other time to read.  Two books a week.  And that doesn't include the hours I spend reading student manuscripts over three terms.


If reading isn't your hobby, how can you possibly think you can write?  Why would you want to??


FINAL THOUGHTS

Here's what I've learned:  Students take writing courses for all sorts of reasons.  Some take it for college credit course.  Some take it for interest, as they might take photography or cooking classes.  Some need an escape from dreary jobs, and a writing class can provide that escape, if only temporarily.  But many actually do hope to become authors like I am.  When I connect with one of them, and can help them on their way, it is magic.

There is no greater high.

Melodie Campbell writes capers in between marking assignments.  Or maybe to avoid marking.
The B-Team is her latest.  You can get it at all the usual suspects.

on AMAZON