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Posts Tagged Character
In part 1, I discussed how to get into the mental zone for writing dialogue. In part 2, I talked about the non-talking and action elements that also make a dialogue scene come alive. Which brings me to the natural conclusion of this trilogy of posts on dialogue – subtext.
What is subtext?
Put simply, subtext in dialogue is what’s between the lines.
I find it easiest to split it into two aspects – subtext for the characters and subtext for the author.
The former is the hidden agendas or feelings of the characters; these may be deliberate, unconscious or a mixture of the two. The latter is the author’s themes; the universe of the story influencing the language and tone.
Subtext and characters
Novel dialogue has to be more condensed and purposeful than real-life chattering. As writers, we need to pick the encounters that will show something significant about the characters, the way they interact, the way they view the story events.
Subtext is useful when we don’t want to show this significance plainly. Indeed, it might be jarring if a character says ‘I don’t think you love me any more’ or ‘I know you meant to kill Jane’. It’s more human if characters say things indirectly, or the reader can intuit that they are grasping at a thought – perhaps one they haven’t fully acknowledged.
Another use of subtext is to demonstrate that characters know each other well. They might make assumptions about what is said, answer what they think the other person meant, rather than the literal words. Perhaps they’re in a situation where plain speaking isn’t possible. This gives a layer of depth under the superficial conversation, like a kind of code.
So if the characters are having an argument about a washing machine, they might also be displaying what’s wrong with their relationship. Perhaps one of them is always leaving all the household tasks to the other, or is much fussier than the other. Maybe the characters are flirting but not wanting to admit it. If you explore what might be left unsaid, it’s a terrific way to build tension.
When subtext works well, we can feel these agendas vibrating – but it doesn’t look obtrusive.
Subtext and the author’s thematic intentions
Subtext can also be wider than just the characters’ little world. It can resonate with the whole conceptual problem your story is tackling. So in My Memories of a Future Life the narrator remarks that she feels as though she’s in a dream where she’s been thrown out into a hostile world with nothing to protect her. This states one of the themes of the story – the difficulty and pain of a major life-change. (It also arises naturally from the action.)
How to do it
Subtext has to look natural (unless you’re aiming for an artificial effect). You’re building it from a scene where characters need to talk to each other, so that’s where you start. Don’t do it the other way round or the reader will feel jarred out of the spell of the story. Figure out what the characters will say on the superficial level, then make it stand for more than that. As with all aspects of dialogue, you might need a few passes to really hone it. I find this kind of editing very creative and rewarding (but then, I do like editing…).
For character subtext, play with Freudian slips, misunderstandings, questions that one character might be avoiding, coded dialogue, tensions that can’t be expressed. Look for underlying harmony and agreement too; it’s not all negative or sinister.
For thematic subtext, pay attention to your authorly portrayal of the scene. Look for suggestive synonyms, imagery, a dark bird sitting on the skyline that makes an ominous shape, church bells that suggest a celebration. The characters probably won’t demonstrate they are aware of this kind of subtext – unless they’re a first-person narrator.
Does every conversation in a novel need subtext?
By no means. Although subtext is very satisfying, not every line – or scene – has to have a hidden meaning. Sometimes characters just chat.
There are more tips on character creation, character voice, subtext and dialogue in Nail Your Novel: Bring Characters to Life
Thanks for the iceberg pic NOAA’s National Ocean Service
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Last time I discussed ways to make dialogue scenes easier to write. But dialogue is more than just what characters say.
Dialogue is action
Dialogue is a kind of action scene. Although the conversation is the main focus, the characters are more than just mouths.
Make the characters respond to each other
There should be give and take. A good scene will give a sense that something in the story has changed; in a dialogue scene you can make the conversation cause this change. And if so, the characters should respond to each other – listen, be surprised, perhaps refuse to accept. They could change each other’s minds or become more entrenched in their wrongheaded mission. Maybe strengthen their supportive relationships; deepen rifts and conflicts.
Some writers try to make the characters express everything in speech. For a radio play, that’s probably a necessary evil, but for a novel it’s not ideal.
It can also undermine the power of a character’s response. For instance, if a character has been upset, writers often try to put this in words – an understandable urge as they’ve got used to writing lines.
So I’ll see a lot of dialogue that goes: ‘how could you say that, I’m your best friend, I feel very hurt’ as they flail to convey the enormity. But not everyone is articulate and voluble when upset. Characters might react with a moment of silent shock, a gasp, an unguarded facial expression. Or they might stand up and put on their coat.
If you’re struggling to think of the right words in such a scene, consider whether you’re forcing the character to articulate when they would not.
Less drastically, you can build in other actions and reactions. I often see scenes where characters are sitting dummy-still while they’re talking. But most people get quite busy when they’re involved in a conversation. They might betray nervousness by kicking the table leg, or fiddle with their cuffs while they think. Even if the characters are on the phone – and therefore most of the communication is verbal – they are doing a lot more than simply speaking. They’ll be grimacing, smiling, biting their nails, straining to hear through a bad connection.
Once you start adding the non-verbal responses, you usually find you can refine the lines that are said out loud. If a character points across the loch at a monster, they might not need to say ‘look at that monster over there’ (thank you, Dave and Jamie, for the demonstration in the picture). If you edit the gestures so that they work with the spoken words, you make the point better. And you keep all the reader’s sensory channels open.
Don’t forget the setting
In the pressure to get the dialogue flowing, the writer sometimes forgets the environment. Then suddenly the character will stir their coffee. (Hooray for lattes, BTW: with just one prop you can slurp foam, add sugar and twiddle spoons.) But the environment is there all the time. If we don’t have continual low-key reminders, there can be a jolt when it returns to the scene. I often see long exchanges of chit-chat, then a sudden reference to the mahogany desk the character was sitting at – but the environment of the scene had long since disappeared from the prose.
A really vivid scene will keep the setting in the reader’s awareness. And that’s not just visuals, but sounds too – readers need all their senses fed.
A word of caution, though; it’s very easy to overdo. Details like this can get intrusive and irritating, so it’s better to use the setting to create natural pauses as the characters are talking, or when they need a beat to think. And don’t write ‘she thought’, try: ‘a police siren wailed in the street outside’, which will create the pause in the reader’s mind. It’s even better if you can make the environmental action echo an emotional point of the scene – for instance, a customer at the till who is arguing about his change.
These are ways to make a dialogue scene more fully rounded. And of course, there’s a whole other level under the words: the subtext. We’ll look at that next time.
For now, though, give me your thoughts: do you have to do separate passes to add these elements to dialogue scenes?
There are more tips on character creation, character voice and dialogue in Nail Your Novel: Bring Characters to Life
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This weekend I guested on John Rakestraw’s Google writing hangout. He sent me a bunch of questions about dialogue, and I wrote so much in preparation that I got an epic post. Then when we got nattering on air with his co-conspirators, we delved off into other questions anyway. So I thought I’d run a dialogue special in the next few weeks. If you’d like to watch the hangout the link is at the end of this post.
(That pic is not Mr Rakestraw and friends, BTW. Tis Husband Dave at the BBC, pretending to read the news with his writing partner Jamie Thomson.)
Meanwhile, here’s today’s topic -
How do we get the characters talking?
Some manuscripts I see have no dialogue, or very little. There will be plenty of description, back story and even action, but the writer won’t have allowed the characters to step out of the narration and express themselves and interact with others. If there are conversations, they will mostly be reported instead of shown ‘live’ -
‘he told her that the best thing he’d ever done was to buy that log cabin in the woods – especially now they needed somewhere to hide until the stalker stopped watching the house’
Of course, sometimes there are good reasons to report a conversation. It’s by no means forbidden. But if all or most conversations are reported it can feel like the characters are being shepherded by the book and never acting independently – and so they don’t seem as real.
Dialogue makes characters real
Dialogue scenes let characters come to life. We see them acting, responding to other humans, experiencing events. For the reader, it’s like the difference between reading a report and being an eyewitness. They feel a personal, vivid connection with the moment.
And it’s a rich connection. Dialogue scenes allow you to demonstrate human complexity – what the people feel about each other, what their innate responses are according to their personality. (This can often create trouble for the writer, as I’ll discuss in a moment.)
What about first-person narration?
First-person narratives might need less dialogue because we already feel the character. Every piece of description, back story or other prose will be seen through the filter of that person’s psyche. So will their encounters with other people. But it will seem odd if there are no scenes where other characters are allowed to breathe, act, emote and be real.
Readers often look for dialogue before they decide to buy
Some readers flick through a book and are put off if there isn’t a good proportion of dialogue. Dialogue is easier to read than screeds of prose. But that’s not just because the paragraphs are more spaced – it’s because good dialogue is vivid.
So why do writers find it hard?
Some don’t of course. And if you’ve been reading this with a halo of confidence, could I ask if you find non-dialogue prose difficult?
This difference is usually where the problem lies.
Writing dialogue requires a specific frame of mind. When you’re in the flow of setup, action, back story or description, it’s tricky to switch to dialogue. In every other kind of narration, you control the camera, the voice of all the in-between stuff. For dialogue you have to let other minds in. That’s quite a gear-change. Especially if you have to inhabit several people, with different agendas and personalities.
Sometimes you realise, as you put yourself in their shoes, that they don’t see things the way you do. The lines you want to give them feel false. Or they run away with the story because of their responses. You have to let them find their own way, and maybe adapt what you wanted them to do. You realise a plot event is impossible because the characters won’t do it and you can’t work around it. This sense of frustration rarely happens with other types of scenes.
How to get your dialogue scenes running smoothly
Write dialogue scenes on different days from narration. Give your brain time to adjust.
Don’t put too many characters in the scene. In novels, it’s hard to manage more than three people who are all talking and responding. In fact, three’s a crowd because someone usually has to take a back seat. I’ve often seen writers try to emulate the opening scene of Reservoir Dogs where seven characters are sitting around a table. In the movie it works, but in prose it usually becomes an unmanageable mess.
Be prepared to rework a dialogue scene over and over. I’ve often had to spend several days on a dialogue scene, trying to get it truthful and authentic (not to mention interesting). Some characters can be particularly stubborn; Gene Winter in My Memories of a Future Life was exciting to use because he was unknowable and unpredictable – but this made him a devil to handle. He sounded wrong until I found something he’d agree to do. This struggle, of course, made me write better scenes.
This is the great challenge and reward of dialogue. Because you’re taking a step into the characters’ psyches, you find out what they’re really made of.
Next post: dialogue is more than talking. Watch the full discussion with John Rakestraw here.
Thanks to Budd Margolis for the pics of Dave and Jamie
There are more tips on character creation, character voice and dialogue in Nail Your Novel: Bring Characters to Life
Do you have trouble writing dialogue scenes? How do you approach them?
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The rock star had a seizure in his hotel room. He recalled little of it; just a long fight to breathe. As he came to, the other band members were telling the paramedics he’d be fine for the night’s gig, a doctor would take care of him. He didn’t want to let them down, of course, but he felt like death.
His girlfriend had witnessed the unremembered time: 10 minutes of jerking, clawing and choking, pleading for help; the brutal rescue where paramedics only just got him back. She saw the other band members playing down the dangers, arguing with the medics. She wanted to tell them how bad he was before any of them arrived, and how long it went on for; except he was so fragile that might trip another attack. And none of them would listen.
Who is in the worse situation? The rock star or the girlfriend?
If it was real life the answer is a no-brainer. But in story terms, it’s worse to be the girlfriend. So she’s the character we’re more interested in, the more natural focus for our curiosity. But many novice writers would make the rock star the central character.
Why is the girlfriend more fascinating to readers?
She has the heavier burden. She knows that if she could muster enough guts, wits and nous, she could stand up to the band and save her lover. Her conscience is telling her so. But she is outnumbered, has no clout, and even the boyfriend will listen to them rather than her. She is trapped and isolated with her problem. And even if he gets through this show, what about the next and the next? She is burdened with guilt and responsibility. He is burdened only with biology.
When writers want to make us concerned for a character they often try to enlist our sympathy with a trauma or a timebomb. But the reader knows the writer can use a timebomb as the whim takes them; either the rock star dies or doesn’t. Choices and decisions, though, exploit what stories do best; they pit characters against each other, against their own failings, fears and weaknesses. In the above scenario, although the reader might be concerned for the rock star as a fellow human being, they’ll really feel for the girlfriend.
Great stories make us walk in a character’s emotions. A terrific way to do that is to give characters difficult choices. Can she stand up to these people? Does she have the courage to do the right thing? What would it kick off? Will she muster the ability to convince people? We can follow this struggle. If she does the wrong thing, she carries it like a wound herself, but one that was made by the story and her own actions.
Thanks for the dilemma pic Unkreative.
In other news, I just got the ‘Top website for Self-Publishers’ award from the Alliance of Independent Authors. This badge is, according to their email, a benchmark to signify ‘excellence, integrity, creativity and helpfulness in the indie self-publishing world’. If anyone reading this helped it along – thank you. And if you liked this post, there is plenty more advice on getting the reader on your MC’s side in the Nail Your Novel characters book.
Okay, back to the subject. Let’s talk about stories where the writers get us rooting for the characters by the dilemmas they face. Indeed, have you done this in one of your stories?
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Why is all good fiction driven by characters? How can we widen our repertoire so our fictional people aren’t carbon copies of ourselves? What kind of research can give us greater understanding of situations we have no experience of? Should we bother to create our villains with as much empathy and insight as we lavish on our protagonists? If our MC’s enemy is utterly evil, how can we possibly crawl inside their minds – and why would we?
In the yellow corner is Joanna Penn. In the pinkish corner is me, answering her questions. We’re at her blog The Creative Penn, and you can read a text summary, download a 50-minute audio podcast or watch us grin and and wave our hands while we discuss how to write convincing and compelling fictional people. Do come over.
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204 pages. Yes, much bigger than the first Nail Your Novel. Fully indexed. Pages to dog-ear, scribble on, receive coffee stains and the sweat of your genius brow. Contains discussions of all the books it’s leaning on in the photos, and many more besides.
Back with a proper post tomorrow!
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When to trust the reader’s intuition – and when to spell out what a character feels: post at KM Weiland’s Wordplay
Readers don’t have to be told everything. Sometimes they will intuit how a character feels about a plot development or another character. Or they know what’s unsaid. Or they understand that the quiet character who rarely says anything is vibrating with mysterious depths.
Good storytellers are masters of the reader’s curiosity and emotions. They know what they can plant between the lines and how to make readers fill the blanks. So how do they do this? And how might it go wrong?
Today KM Weiland has invited me to her fabulous blog Wordplay, where I’m discussing this tricky – and exciting – balance. Do come over.
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It’s live! New Nail Your Novel book shows you how to create characters who keep readers hooked and make you want to tell stories
Three guesses what it’s about … but here’s the formal blurb…
How do you create characters who keep readers hooked? How do you write the opposite sex? Teenagers? Believable relationships? Historical characters? Enigmatic characters? Plausible antagonists and chilling villains? How do you understand a character whose life is totally unlike your own?
How do you write characters for dystopias? How do you make dialogue sing? When can you let the reader intuit what the characters are feeling and when should you spell it out?
I’ve mined 20 years’ worth of writing and critiquing experience to create this book. It contains all the pitfalls and sticky points for writers, laid out as a set of discussions that are easy to dip into. And it wouldn’t be a Nail Your Novel book without a good dose of games, exercises and questionnaires to help you populate a novel from scratch.
Whether you write a straightforward story-based genre or literary fiction, Bring Characters to Life will show you how to create people who enthrall readers – and make you want to tell stories.
If you like more heft in your hand, the 200+-page paperback is in progress, and will proceed as fast as an index can be built and proofs can fly the Atlantic.
Ebook price GBP £3.56 USD $5.50 (rough conversion estimate)
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1) Get the characters talking This may sound obvious, but it’s an effort to break out of ordinary narration and hop into the characters’ heads. If we’re writing first person, we have to stop sharing the consciousness of their narrator to let the other people come alive. Writing down what each character says, in their own voices, will probably be quite enough to concentrate on in one pass.
2) Visuals Dialogue needs to be more than just a soundscape. Characters act while they speak. They shrug, pull faces, refill the kettle or polish a sword. The scene has to exist visually in the reader’s mind. While you’re writing, it’s easy to get tunnelled down one sense – usually aural – and forget that there are others.
3) Change As every scene must move the story on, we hope that each dialogue scene will contain something that matters to the characters. They can’t just natter for nothing. Even if they’re establishing their characteristics, it’s better if the scene does something else too. That could be a plot change or a shift in their relationship – perhaps the scene bonds them more tightly or creates rifts.
4) Reactions When your characters are talking, are they also reacting? If your other scenes show their internal dialogue, does this continue while they’re talking, or has this evaporated because you were concentrating on making them vocalise?
5) Subtext The scene might have more heft than a simple exchange of information. It might be a battle to get the upper hand. One character might be telling the other that he loves her, or to stop trying to find out what happened to the missing neighbour. The scene might have a layer that only one group of readers will understand: for instance, if the novel might be read by both adults and children, it may contain meanings that will only make sense to older readers.
6) Language Depending on your genre, the language might add a poetic dimension, reinforce your themes, reflect the characters’ different backgrounds and outlooks. Pathetic fallacy or your descriptions may add colour, feeding the texture and atmosphere of the novel.
7) Declutter Dialogue scenes are meant to run swiftly in the reader’s mind. Although we need context, action and description, we don’t need to add every breath and eyeblink. It may not matter that the character pours a glass of water while he lets out a sigh. You may have been too obvious with your allusions; the reader may be able to fill more blanks than you think. Let the scene sit for a few days, then go back with a fresh perspective and take out the clutter.
Do you have any steps to add? (Apart from a complete phase of changing your mind – which for me happens to me ad infinitum when I’m letting the characters talk to each other.) Share in the comments!
If you found this post useful, there’s an entire section on dialogue in Nail Your Novel: Bring Characters To Life. Weightless editions are ready right now, twinkling on the servers of Amazon.com, Amazon.co.uk, Smashwords and Kobo.
GIVEAWAY Andrew Blackman is offering a signed copy of his novel A Virtual Love on The Undercover Soundtrack. For a chance to win, leave a comment on the post or share it on Twitter, Facebook, G+ or anywhere else (and don’t forget to leave a note saying where you shared it).
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Another Soundtracker returns this week, a new book under his belt. Andrew Blackman had set himself a steep challenge with his second novel. His story of love in the internet age had seven narrators, each needing their own voice and style. Early feedback from his agent said they weren’t distinct enough, and for a while, Andrew despaired of finding a solution. Then, as he always did in times of trouble, he turned to music. Which saved the day. He’s on the Red Blog with the Undercover Soundtrack to his second novel, A Virtual Love.
GIVEAWAY Andrew is offering a signed copy of A Virtual Love. For a chance to win, leave a comment on the post or share it on Twitter, Facebook, G+ or anywhere else (and don’t forget to leave a note saying where you shared it).
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- Could The Undercover Soundtrack help you reach readers? Post at the Alliance of Independent Authors November 30, 2013
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