Thursday, August 25, 2011

I'm not listening

Conversations take place on a daily basis, whether they are the traditional face to face, or the more recent social media venues. In these conversations you have the one who is speaking, and the one who is not. Notice I did not refer to the non-speaking person as the listener. Listening is a skill that few have put into practice.

Take a controversial subject, such as immigration, politics, religion, whether or not elves have pointy ears, or the origin of dilithium crystals. At each point in the conversation you will have the one arguing their point, and one formulating their counterpoint. At some point, the not-listener will hang on something that is said, forget the words that fell before and never hear the words that follow. The priority becomes formulation of an argument against that one thing that was said. Never mind the fact that the words following or preceding may agree with that very argument being formulated.

The not-listener walks away thinking the speaker is an idiot, the speaker walks away knowing that their words fell on deaf ears. Understanding, of course, that both parties in the conversation will play the two roles. So, I suppose, arguments inevitably result in the production of two idiots.

Tension. It is one of the elements that will drive a story. It keeps the audience involved. There are several tools available to the writer to bring tension into play; the interaction of two characters in an argument is one of these tools.
The next time you are witness to a discussion over politics, etc. take a moment to listen. Listen to the words being said. Pick up on the elements that were ignored. Watch the speaker’s body language. Pay attention to the inflictions used to enforce a point. Watch the not-listener. Do the eyes glaze over, or wander? Do they even put up the front of listening? Finally, write it all down. Construct a scene.

Is this a tool that can be put into play? Is it a thread that can be used for the weave of your tale?

Friday, August 19, 2011

Guidelines Part 3

A line in the sand has been drawn by writers, publishers, editors, agents, and readers. You are instructed to follow that line. Sometimes it is necessary to step off the line to pursue a better path, not easier, just better. And, of course, those lines that have been drawn don't always follow the same paths.

I have had the opportunity to watch a friend enjoy The Lord of the Rings in written form for the first time. He's made several comments about the writing style, which brought to mind a few things Tolkien did that are well off those lines in the sand. Considering those lines were different in the 1950's, it really brings to light to ever-changing world of our language.

He screamed. She screamed. It screamed. They screamed.

"Oh my gosh! If one more person screams, I'm going to!"

It has been a few days since I read that classic series, but apparently, the father of modern fantasy was quite fond of that speaker attribute. It is a practice that breaks two of the guidelines that I follow:
1 - Try not to repeat phrases, words, etc. multiple times.
The reason is clear, just from my friends reaction to the screaming fellowship.
2 - Construct the exposition and dialog in a manner that, in most cases, speaker attributes can be dropped altogether.
That is so easy to say.

One of those dreaded catch-words in the writing industry "voice". That word annoys me almost as much as "muse", unfortunately it applies to this discussion. If your characters have distinctive voices, such as dialog mechanics unique to him or her (or even it), then the reader will have an automatic sense of who is speaking. At that point the speaker attribute becomes moot.

I know; easy to say, hard to accomplish. I suppose this would force some of us to step away from our tablets, keyboards, or typewriters, and actually (gulp) engage real, living, humans in conversation. Pay attention to how people speak. Some will use "proper Kings English", other's litter their speech with and's, but's, well's, like's, and slang, and then there are those that are walking Webster's and Thesaurus's. How can you use these real world examples and infuse them into the voice's of your characters?

Read your dialog without the attributes. Can you tell who is speaking? Can you tweak the dialog so that you can?

He screamed. Wow, you want the reader to understand that Jorge screamed, don't you need that attribute? Maybe. Maybe not. Remember what I have said about guidelines. This can be more difficult than giving your character a voice, but in a lot of cases it can be done, but keep in mind that sometimes it just can't be avoided. If your antagonist is standing on a dingy in a gale wind with quarter sized raindrops pelting his yellow raincoat, the reader expects them to speak at an elevated level. The "he screamed" then becomes a "duh" moment for the reader.

Does the exposition that leads to the dialog lead the reader to expect the character to scream? Can this be done? Should this be done?

Sometimes she needs to scream. The key for the writer is to recognize when the scream is already inferred. Speaker attributes can either hinder, or help the rhythm of the story. Read your dialog aloud. Listen to yourself and you should recognize when that attribute has gotten in the way.

He said.