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Dialogue vs “talk”

 

A wannabe writer said to me the other day, when we were discussing dialogue, “You know, dialogue is just two or three characters talking. That’s all. There’s nothing to it. I don’t know why people make such a deal out of it.”

Well, after I picked my jaw off the floor and packed my teeth back into it, I tried to answer him. Here are a few of the things I said.

No. Dialogue =/= talking.

When I talk to my sons or my husband (or my dog), the words are frequently interrupted with nonsense sounds like argh, um, er, uhhhh (or eeeeeby, beeeeby, baby doggy — don’t judge me). You know what you don’t want a lot of in dialogue? Argh, um, er, uhhhh (and definitely no eeeeeeby, beeeeeby) — except for a particular effect.

You know what else you find a lot in talking that you don’t want in dialogue? Waffling, wandering, chit-chat, twaddling. Call it whatever you want. A book or even a short story filled with this — again, except in short bits for effect — won’t attract readers. Here’s the sort of thing I mean.

“Hi, George. What’s up?”

“Hey, Pete. What’s up with you?”

“Oh you know. The same old stuff. Wife’s down with the flu.”

“Man, I hate to hear that. Sue had the flu last month. She had a hard time getting over it.”

That is perfectly “real.” You can hear that conversation in any grocery store, hardware store, church parking lot, or bar in the country. What it’s not: dialogue.

Dialogue has to do more than one thing at the same time. It has to reveal character, show us something about the characters who are saying it. We don’t know anything at all about George and Pete except that they’ve both got wives (or significant others) who have had or are now suffering from the flu. The things they say don’t tell us anything else.

Dialogue also has to advance the plot in some way. Idle chit-chat doesn’t do that. Unless you’re writing a book dealing with a mutant flu that’s about to kill half the population, these women’s illnesses really matter only to them and their families.

And dialogue needs to pop. If the dialogue is flat — and what I wrote up there is deliberately as flat as I could make it — you’ll lose the reader. Dialogue needs to sound as if some human being said it — but a clever human being with a great vocabulary.

There are some good books out there to help you improve your dialogue-writing skills. I like James Scott Bell’s “How to Write Dazzling Dialogue.”  Robert McKee has also written several good books on dialogue.

Discrete =/= Discreet

old typewriter by menken at morgueFile.com

 

 

Dear Writers,

Mark Twain once said, “The difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter. ’Tis the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning.” He was entirely right.

Please, for the love of the language, learn the difference between discrete (distinct; separate) and discreet (unobtrusive; modest; prudent). Writing something like “He was a discrete person” makes someone who knows what discrete means very nervous. Yes, I really hope he was a separate person. Otherwise, you’re writing a particularly creepy form of science fiction/horror.

Ditto for disinterested and uninterested. These are two discrete (see what I did there?) words with entirely different meanings. If you are on trial, you want a disinterested (impartial) judge; you don’t want an uninterested (bored) one.

Furthermore, nonplussed doesn’t mean unfazed. It really doesn’t. It means the opposite of unfazed. It means bewildered. Oh, and unphased isn’t a word. Also phased (from phase, a distinct time period) doesn’t mean fazed (disturbed). So “I wasn’t phased by that” is wrong — unless you’re discussing time travel which went awry. You mean “I wasn’t fazed by that.”

End of today’s rant.

Building blocks, marinara sauce, and sentences

old typewriter by menken at morgueFile.comA couple of weeks ago, I was at a retreat with several other writers. The topic of indie writers, small presses, and general writing quality came up. If you’ve ever spent more than ten minutes in a room full of writers, you’re not surprised by that, I’m sure.

One thing I said was this: I’ve read books published by a well-known (in the horror community anyway) medium-sized press where the copy editing was so lacking that I found glaring errors on nearly every page. I’d rather self-publish and pay for my own editing than publish with a house that doesn’t provide a good editorial staff.

Immediately, a chorus of objections arose. “That’s not all there is to editing!” “The story is more important!”

I don’t actually disagree. I know, shocking! 🙂

Unfortunately, I didn’t have time to explain myself because unpleasant news about Hurricane Matthew’s looming party-crashing seized everyone’s attention, including mine.

So let me elaborate on what I meant.

If I go to a new Italian restaurant and find that the cooking staff cannot produce a substantial, rich marinara sauce, I don’t need to know much more. I don’t need to wonder if the tiramisu at that restaurant is substandard. I don’t need to taste-test the Pizza Rustica. I don’t need to sample the spinach ravioli either. Why? Because the basics aren’t there. The foundation is weak. I will look elsewhere for my lasagna fix.

If the building blocks of the story — the actual sentences the writer uses to build the plot, develop the characters, and weave the magic spell — are flawed, the structure of the story won’t be as strong as it could be. If the structure isn’t strong, things will fall apart sooner or later. Usually sooner.

When I check out a book, usually via Amazon’s “look inside” feature, I can’t read more than a few pages. I can’t read enough to know if the story itself will pass muster. I can, however, notice the basics. If I see spelling errors, bad grammar, screwy punctuation, etc., I have a pretty good idea I won’t enjoy the journey very much, no matter how good the story idea might be.

That said, can a book be perfectly grammatical, excellently punctuated, and brilliantly spelled and still be lousy? Oh, heck yeah. I’ve run into a few of those, too.

On balance, however, I’ve seen way more badly spelled, badly punctuated, ungrammatical books — usually with stories I can’t get into because the basics aren’t sound —  than correctly spelled, well punctuated, grammatical books with incompetent stories.

In my opinion, the ultimate responsibility for correcting these errors rests with the publisher if there is one and with the writer only if the book is self-published. If a publishing house is involved, I hold them responsible for editing. Granted, some writers are as obsessed with words and grammar as I am. Some aren’t. If you write and aren’t good with grammar, hire a copy editor, especially if you plan to self-publish.

Who? Whom?

Today I want to talk about who/whom and how they’re used.

Two of the most frequently misused words are who and whom. I keep reading that whom is going the way of top hats and button-up shoes.  Maybe so, but for me it’s still a useful word, as long as it’s used correctly.

The easiest way to  know which one to use is to look at the sentence, keeping in mind that who = he/she/they and whom = him/her/them.

“Who is going to the dance tonight?” This can be reworded as “He is going to the dance tonight.” Or “Is she going to the dance tonight?” “Are they going to the dance tonight?” So who is the right word. You wouldn’t write, “Him/her/them is going to the dance tonight.” Nor would you write, “Is him/her/them going to the dance tonight?”

“To whom am I speaking?” Reworded, this would be “Am I speaking to him/her/them?” Or as a statement, “I am speaking to him/her/them.” Granted, this sentence is both formal and pedantic.

And that brings me to one good reason writers might want to know how to use whom — or how to “correctly” misuse it. If you’re writing an overly-educated, pompous, snooty character, you can reveal a lot by writing dialogue like this. “Wallace, my dear, I have not an inkling as to the identity of the miscreant whom you accuse of such blatant thievery.”

On the other hand, if you’re writing a character who wants people to think he’s highly educated, you can indicate the truth by writing a bit of dialogue like this one. “The people whom went to the dance that night were all cretinous fools.” Do it once and it looks as if you don’t know what you’re doing. Do it a few times — and only with that one character’s dialogue –and his pretension becomes obvious.

Finally, I suspect the knowledge of the correct usage of whom will be more relevant to those of us who write non-fiction or literary fiction. Most of the rest of us will rework our sentences to avoid the use of whom at all.

Just remember that who = he/she/they in a sentence; whom = him/her/them. You won’t go wrong if you do.

The passive voice: Is it always an error?

Today I was browsing books on Amazon, and I came across a likely-looking mystery. I’ve been reading a lot of mysteries lately, for reasons known only to my subconscious, I suppose. Anyway, I had never read anything by this particular author, so I clicked “Look Inside,” as I often do for books written by authors I know and always do for those written by authors I don’t.

The first sentence was a tortured attempt to avoid the use of the passive voice, in my opinion. I’ve changed the specifics, but the gist is as follows: Jack Smith had two forces in his life that drove him to excel.

Okay. I know, I know. Writing craft books, articles, and teachers have drummed into our head that we shouldn’t use the passive voice.  “Write active sentences!” Great. Sometimes, however, you might want a passive sentence. (The most important word in the preceding sentence is “Sometimes.”) Passive construction puts the emphasis on the object of the sentence, not the subject. “The accused man was found not guilty by the jury.” That sentence is passive. The emphasis is on the object (the accused man). The subject is soft-pedaled (the jury). You could even delete “by the jury” and still leave the meaning intact: The accused man was found not guilty.  What’s important in the sentence is that the accused man was found not guilty. What’s not important is that the jury did the finding. See? When you want to put the focus on the one being acted upon rather than the action or the person/persons doing the acting, you can use the passive voice to accomplish that.

So if the writer of the mystery I looked at wanted to focus on Jack Smith, she could have written, “Jack Smith was driven to excel  by two forces in his life.” Or she could have written, “Two forces drove Jack Smith to excel.” Which one is better? Tossup, in my opinion. It depends on where the focus is supposed to be. On Jack Smith? Or on the forces?

Now, having said that, let me add that most of the time, you will want your writing to be active, not passive.

The little dog darted into the yard and caught the ball.

The ball was caught by a little dog who darted into the yard.

In this case, the first sentence — while no masterpiece — is certainly livelier and easier to read than the second.

Use the passive voice when you need to. Be sure you really need to. And use it sparingly. old typewriter by menken at morgueFile.com

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