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Posts Tagged ‘dialogue’

Sighing and Nodding

Posted by Dave on March 27, 2010

I hit the track for the first time in 2010 this past Tuesday.  The weather didn’t really allow it any other day (for which I sent a “Thank You” card to the local weatherman).  Ouch.  Between walking and jogging, I managed to make it three miles.  It wasn’t as bad as I was afraid it would be the next day, but I was still walking a little slower than usual.  This week looks like better weather, so I’ll be able to go more than once.  My running goal is five miles with no walking by the end of the summer.  My weight goal is 200 with a starting weight of 230.  We’ll see.

Our brief respite is almost over.  We had a couple of weeks after the kids’ basketball season ended, but now it’s time for baseball and softball to gear up.  Plus, my daughter is also going to be playing volleyball in a summer league at the same time, and she’s on the school track team as well.  I’ll have to really stay on my own case to keep the writing on pace.  I love to write, but one of my favorite things to do is watch my kids in their games or school functions (plays, singing, talent shows, etc…).  I’ll have to make it work somehow.  To paraphrase Tony Little, “I can DO it!”

Writing update:

Well, I’m almost halfway through the first edit of Jaben’s Rift.  I say first edit because I will definitely be going through it again.  This first time through is looking for basic stuff like words or phrases that aren’t needed, or are redundant.  I was surprised at how many unnecessary “he said,” or “to her,” there were, or simply phrases that restated something said previously, or that weren’t needed at all.  Just looking for things like that, I’ve been able to trim almost 4,000 words off the manuscript, and I’m not quite halfway through it.

Here’s a breakdown of a paragraph from my first draft, and how I changed it:

“The sun had already begun its climb into the clear morning sky as Jason and Reyga walked out the door to begin their journey.  Stepping out into the yard, the first thing Jason noticed was the multitude of various odors filling the air.  Noting the direction of the breeze, Jason looked upwind.  What he saw caused his steps to slow until he finally came to a complete stop in amazement.  He had seen plenty of backyard gardens before, some quite impressive, but this was surely the king of all gardens, if there were such a thing.”

At first glance, it doesn’t look all that bad, but there are some things that could definitely use a few tweaks.  So, here’s what I changed, and why.

  • “The sun had already begun its climb…”  This is a little wordy.  I changed it to, “The sun was climbing…”
  • “…to begin their journey.”  Not needed.  I’ve already established at the end of the previous chapter that they’re going to start their journey this morning, so this is redundant.
  • “Stepping out into the yard, the first…”  Not needed.  If he stepped outside, it’s a given that he’s stepping into the yard.
  • “…various odors…”  I dropped various.  If there’s a multitude of odors, they have to be varied or he wouldn’t notice that there’s a multitude.  They’d all smell the same.
  • “Noting the direction of the breeze…”  Again, not needed.  For him to know which way upwind was, it’s a given he’d have to figure out which way the breeze was blowing.
  • “What he saw caused his steps to slow until…”  Wordy and not really needed.  If his steps slow, we can infer that whatever it is he’s looking at is the reason.
  • “…in amazement.”  Same as the last phrase.  I ended up combining this sentence and the previous one instead.
  • “…some quite impressive…”  Not bad, but again, not really needed.

After the first edit, the new paragraph reads like this:

“The sun was climbing into the clear morning sky as Jason and Reyga walked out the door.  The first thing Jason noticed as he stepped outside was the multitude of odors filling the air.  He looked upwind, and then slowed until he finally came to a complete stop.  He had seen plenty of backyard gardens before, but this was surely the king of all gardens, if there were such a thing.”

See how much unnecessary stuff was in there the first time?  The new version, while perhaps still not perfect, is cleaner and more concise without really losing anything from the original.  It’s just that now, instead of assuming the readers need every little thing explained to them, they’re given credit for enough intelligence to figure out some things on their own.  Remember, never insult your reader’s intelligence.  Plus, the original paragraph was ninety-six words.  The revised version is seventy-one.  That’s a reduction of twenty-six percent.  Obviously, we can’t to do that with every paragraph, but if you’re a beginning writer like me, you might be surprised at what you can get rid of without hurting your story.  And if you’re not a writer, the next time you read a book (especially if it seems to be dragging), see if you can spot places where the author is using extra words and/or phrases that really don’t need to be there.  These can bog a story down if there are too many of them.

Another thing I noticed is that my characters tended to sigh and nod a lot.  Now, this isn’t all that different from what we do in real life (just think about how many times you nod in the course of a conversation), but if a writer puts every single nod into the text, it can get distracting.  Same thing goes with sighing, or taking a deep breath, or being silent for a moment, etc…  While we want our dialogue and associated actions to be believable, there is such a thing as too much detail.  (And, by cutting out all of the deep sighs, I’m conserving oxygen, hehe.)

Finally, there are the “he said,” “to him,” and other little tags that we put into our dialogue, a lot of which aren’t needed.  This is especially true if there are only two characters in the scene.  Here’s a quick and dirty example:

“Hi, Jenny,” Bill said as he walked up to her.
“Hi, Bill,” Jenny said.  “How’s it going?”
“Oh, it’s okay,” he said.  “How about you?”
“I’m good,” she said.
“So, how’s your mom doing?” he asked her.
“She’s doing great,” she told him.  “Thanks for asking.”

This could just as easily have been written:

“Hi, Jenny,” Bill said as he walked up to her.
“Hi, Bill.  How’s it going?”
“Oh, it’s okay.  How about you?”
“I’m good.”.
“So, how’s your mom doing?”
“She’s doing great.  Thanks for asking.”

Okay, so it’s not the greatest example, but do you see how, even when the tags are left off, you still know who’s talking?  Removing unneeded tags also speeds up the dialogue instead of bogging it down.  Read the second section, and then go back and read the first section again.  See the difference?  Now if this were to turn into a long discussion, you would want to add some sort of tag every so often, either dialogue tag or motion element, so that the reader doesn’t lose track of who’s speaking.  But for sections like this, a lot of those tags can be tossed out the window.

Enough for today. Have a good one!
Dave

Every day, every moment, is another step on the journey. Are your steps taking you in the direction you want to go?

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He Said, She Said (or was that he interjected, she exclaimed?)

Posted by Dave on March 7, 2010

Well, I mentioned that I was letting Jaben’s Rift sit for two or three weeks before editing it.  Several sources recommend this, not just for a first book, but for any manuscript.  The reason is so that when the author begins the revision process, he or she can see the book through relatively fresh eyes.  What no one seemed to mention was how difficult it would be to just let it lie in the virtual drawer without looking at it.

Although I’m working on another book, I find myself thinking about different passages in the first one, things I need to change, or portions I just want to go back and re-read to see if I still think they work.  The temptation to jump back in is hard to resist.  But, no, I must be strong.  Slowly, ever so slowly, the details are starting to fade.  Oh, I still remember all of the scenes, but at least I don’t remember every comma and italicized word.

Once it’s time to pull it back out and begin the revision and editing process, the first thing I plan to go over is my dialogue.  In particular, the use of the word “said” vs. other alternatives.  Getting ready for this has been a little confusing.  Basically, there are two main schools of thought on this issue:

School A says: 
Avoid overuse of the word “said.”  Vary the text up using other dialogue tags (murmured, cried, shouted, etc…).
There was a thread in one of the writing groups I belong to about this.  One guy said a fellow writer had sent him a list of over two hundred possible substitutions for “said.”  Talk about your variety!

On the other hand, School B says: 
Only use “said” if you must use a dialogue tag at all.  “Said” is an invisible word.  Using other descriptive dialogue tags will interrupt the flow and take the reader out of the story.
This viewpoint prefers the use of action to enhance the dialogue, resorting to “said” (and pretty much nothing but “said”) only when necessary.

So, which is right?  Which one will help me create the most amazing manuscript possible?  As Vinnie Barbarino once said, “I’m sooo confu-u-sed!”

So, hoping to bring a little clarity to the subject, I thought I’d check out some successful writers to see how they handled extended passages of dialogue.  Wanna know what I found?  (Are you sure?)  Okay, here goes.  I won’t mention the novels or authors, but my three examples are very well known in the realm of sci-fi and fantasy.  I’m not going to write down all of the dialogue, but I will show what the tags were for each piece (said, shouted, no tag, etc…).  Where there aren’t any tags, the author either used action to convey the emotion, or nothing at all.  So here we go…

Example #1:  Two books.  Nebula Award, Hugo Award, nominated for Locus Award

Said – Asked – No tag – No tag – No tag – No tag – No tag – No tag – Asked – No tag – Asked – No tag – No tag – Said – Said – No tag  – No tag   – No tag

Okay, that one looks like it’s solidly in School B.  Moving on…

Example #2:  Series has seven novels.  Hugo Award (this author is a giant in sci-fi)

Snapped – No tag – Said quietly – Squeaked – Raced on – Said doggedly – Said curtly – No tag – No tag – No tag – Said – No tag – No tag – Mumbled hopelessly – Said coldly – No tag – Said slowly and suspiciously – No tag – No tag

Okay, wait a second.  A few other tags slipping in here.  Squeaked?  Mumbled?  And adverbs?  The dreaded –ly modifiers?  (But that’s a topic for another day.).  Okay, okay, let’s try one more.

Example #3:  Well over a dozen novels and novellas in the series.  One Hugo Award, One Nebula Award, and four additional nominations for the Hugo Award. 

This should be a good example, right?  Let’s see…

Suggested – Rejoined – Countered – Said – No tag – Remarked casually – Replied dryly – Said – No tag – Said – No tag – No tag – Answered sharply – No tag – Demanded – No tag – No tag – Reminded – Assented – Said – Snorted derisively – No tag – No tag

Okay.  Wait.  What?  Where was I?  Oh yes, now I remember.  I’m sooo confu-u-sed!

So, not only does it look like we have divisions between successful authors, but even the people who hand out the awards go both ways.  What’s a writer to do?

Bottom line, you have to do whatever gets the emotion across the most effectively, yet maintains the flow of the story so that your reader doesn’t remember they’re actually reading a book.  Let’s try an example…

“That’s not what I mean, and you know it,” he said angrily. 
Okay, he’s angry.  We know that because of the clunky use of the word “angrily.”  But it doesn’t have a lot of impact, does it?  And that whole “he said angrily” part kind of interrupts the flow.

We could try a different tag.  Shorten it up a bit.

“That’s not what I mean, and you know it,” he snarled.   
Better.  Dropping the adverb improves the flow,  but the reader has to hesitate for an instant to define the word “snarled” in his or her head. Using tags like this also indicates the emotion. For example, if I had said,
“That’s not what I mean and you know it,” he giggled.
It’s a completely different feel. But again, there is the minute instant in the reader’s mind where they have to make that connection.
A lot of readers won’t notice it. Some will, and if done too often, will get distracted and maybe even stop reading the story.

How about an exclamation mark instead?

“That’s not what I mean, and you know it!”
Well, the emotion still comes through because of the exclamation mark, but we’re not quite sure what the emotion is unless we showed earlier that he’s angry.  One thing to point out here.  Be careful with exclamation marks.  Too many and you will “wear out” your reader.  On this point I agree with what others have said, less is more when using exclamation marks.  Using them only sparingly is much more effective than using them everywhere.

Another possibility is using action to get your point across.

He slammed his fist on the tabletop and glared at her.  “That’s not what I mean, and you know it.” 
Here, even without the exclamation mark and dialogue tag, we get a clear sense that he is angry because we can “see” that he’s upset. You’ll sometimes hear people say “show, don’t tell.” That’s what we did here. The action we put into the scene shows the character’s emotion instead of using something like “angrily” to tell the reader how the character feels. 
Using action to get your emotion across also allows the reader to experience more.  In their mind, they hear the fist slamming down, they see the intense glare from the man.  Maybe they imagine the table jumping just a bit from the impact. But whichever action you use (slamming the fist, throwing something against the wall), it gives the story a little more depth.
So, here’s what I’ve decided. I’ll go through, trying to use tags as little as possible, using action or nothing at all when I can. I will not, however, restrict myself to the word “said.” If another tag seems to be to be the best way to get my point across, I’ll use it. Whatever is the least distracting, but still gets the emotion across.
(Of course, if I have someone ready to publish it if I make a few changes, I’ll certainly give it some serious thought.)

Update:
Well, I’m almost to 12,800 words now. I fell off the pace a little through the week. Fortunately, I was able to make up lost ground over the weekend.

I still need to do better. I could give all kinds of excuses as to why I didn’t hit my mark each day, but they would be just that…excuses. I’m learning that, while I enjoy writing, to actually be a writer is going to involve self discipline. Deadlines, quotas, and all that rot, don’t you know.  But then again, almost any job is going to involve deadlines and production quotas. Might as well try to make it in one that I would actually enjoy what I do. Right?

Have a good one,
Dave

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