Friday, August 17, 2012

Writer's Rules Revisited #4

I'm heading out to Star Wars Celebration and Dragon*Con next week and wanted to get another installment of these posts elaborating on my "50 rules and tips for writers" out before I left.

This series is all about fleshing out each individual rule and offering myself (as well as other writers) some food for thought on the process of writing.

You can read Part 1 here.
You can read Part 2 here. 
You can read Part 3 here.

These next three all generally have to do with dialogue.

Dialogue is very crucial in prose and screenwriting. And giving characters unique voices is a challenge for any writer, even the best of them. These next three rules in the series are, more than anything, here to make you think differently about dialogue and how it looks on the page and what you can do to make it better.

Sometimes, considering a different perspective is all you need to put you on the right path.

15) Monologues are for the theatre. Break up long stretches of dialogue with actions, reactions, sense of place, other senses, etc.

This rule might seem as though it fits mainly with screenwriting, but it's something that one needs to be conscious of in whatever medium you're writing in. There is nothing more obnoxious to a reader than seeing a character talking for a full page or more without a break or a pause.

In screenwriting, remember that it is primarily a visual medium. You need to tell the story with cinema as often as possible, and tell it with dialogue as little as possible. The average rule of thumb for a screenplay is that one page of text will translate into one minute on film. If you're writing a blue-print, how does it help the cinematographer know where to point the camera if there's a monologue with nothing to break it up? A full, uninterrupted minute is an eternity on film.

What is the speaker doing during that full minute of speech? Could you break into the dialogue to say that they prepare themselves a drink as they speak? Could they be twitching somehow? Might they need to draw in a breath?

What is everyone else witnessing this monologue doing? Checking their watch? Slugging a shot of scotch? Anything?

In screenwriting, it's very easy to break these long chunks of talking up with small reactions. In prose, it's even easier. You can pause and write an internal monologue of the character, showing us how they feel about what they're saying. You can give us clues to let us know if they really believe the nonsense they're spouting. If you're going to have something important enough to take up that much time and space, you better pack as much extra meaning and emotion into it as you can.

With prose, you need to rely more on sensory description, you could cut into the monologue and let us know if the characters voice is getting raspy, with words coming out dry, as if across the sandpaper of their throat. Or if they're struggling to maintain their volume or emotion. Or if they're holding tears back.

As I've said before, screenwriting and prose writing are very different beasts, and the tools you'd use to break up the same problem are very, very different.

But knowing that both tools exist are good for you. And being watchful of these long monologues will help make your writing more visual or vivid.

16) Be as conscious of how the page looks as you are of what it says. If a page looks easy to read with little text, readers are more likely to read it.

Going along with the last rule, you need to make your pages look enticing.

In the realm of screenwriting, a page that looks difficult to read will often get skipped or skimmed by a reader. If it looks inviting, they'll carry on.

In prose, it's much the same thing. How many of you have skimmed through thick page-long paragraphs of description in a novel in favor of something with lots of white space and dialogue? Be honest. Pretty much all of us have. It's human nature to seek out the path of least resistance and you, as a writer, want to offer as little to resist as possible in your aesthetic.

One page long paragraph seems easier to read if it is broken up into four smaller, more easily digestible chunks.

Taking that a step further, having shorter chapters makes it more likely that you'll drive your reader to read more in a sitting, or come back to the book for more because they know they can sneak in a quick read and have a natural stopping point.

It's true that so much of pacing is in the story and how it's, told, but a major component of it as well is how you engage the reader with the physical look of your pages.

Again, it's another one of those things that you need to pay attention to. It might not change your writing style, but being aware of it is better than being oblivious.

17) People talk in contractions and broken sentences. Virtually no one speaks perfect English. (See Twain's dialogue.)

This is one of my pet peeves in reading dialogue. Unless you're Data the Android, you're speaking in contractions, incomplete sentences, and colloquialisms. You can make a stodgy, stiff sounding character set apart from the rest on purpose, but short of that, you need to be using contractions and broken sentences to breathe life into characters.

Characters have different ways of saying things and they're all unique. The way a character contracts certain words over others, or has certain phrases they use help set them apart.

If there's one place you can get away with breaking all the rules of proper writing, it's in dialogue. You can cram in all the "ain't"s, "I dunno"s, "shoulda"s, and "I'd've"s you want. And there's still room for more.

The other thing to be conscious of and careful with is dialect. No one could handle dialect quite like Mark Twain. The man had an ear for any and ever sort of dialect he ever heard and had the uncanny ability to create phonetic versions of those dialects in a way that made sense to just about everybody. Sure, his dialogue is riddled with apostrophes, but it works.

I would heartily recommend studying all of his dialogue. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and The Tragedy of Pudd'nhead Wilson, both free for the Kindle.

When it's easy for your readers to identify your character by the patter of his or her speech alone, you've travelled a great distance in your characterization. 

Be sure to check out Part 1Part 2, and Part 3.

If you want to check out the whole list, you can find it here. And while you're thinking about it, feel free to order a signed book from me, or check out my collection of work that's available digitally.
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