Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Let's Talk Dialogue

Dialogue is a great tool for a writer. It lets you communicate what a character’s thinking—or at least, what the character wants others to know she’s thinking—in her own voice, and it contributes to character development by allowing you to show how characters interact with one another. Dialogue makes it possible to allow your character to speak directly, rather than having to filter the speech through a narrator. Sometimes it’s nice to be able to have your character explicitly state: “I like ice cream!” rather than having the narrator describe that “Sarah likes ice cream.”

Good dialogue is also fun for the reader, because the verbal interaction of characters helps the reader get engrossed in the story. People in real life talk (I’m fairly certain verbal communication in some form or other is one of the human race’s great pastimes), so it makes sense that dialogue can be a great way to pull your reader into the story. For this reason, a lot of authors use dialogue as a way to reveal exposition or setting.

For instance, rather than telling us that Johnny is wearing a red shirt that looks like it came from the 80s, one could simply have another character (let’s take Sarah from before) say: “Ugh, Johnny, where’d you get that ridiculous shirt? That red is so out of style and, um, in case you haven’t noticed, so are the 80s.” (Note: this does not necessarily reflect my opinion of the 80s.) Now, Johnny’s red shirt isn’t terribly important—actually it may be, depending on where this story’s going—but you see how the reader learns what it looks like through the dialogue? This is often a more interesting and, importantly, a more subtle way to convey factual information.

However, there is a fine line between using dialogue to subtly reveal facts about the plot or setting and simply piling tons of exposition into a piece of dialogue. Say Johnny and Sarah are mechanics; if I have to read line after line of them explaining some mechanical process that’s apparently crucial to the plot, it just won’t feel right. Dialogue like this is stiff and wooden, and frankly, unnecessary. If they’re both mechanics, why are they explaining this stuff to each other? Even if one of them were not a mechanic, it's still awkward. Obviously the writer is trying to explain the relevant elements of mechanics to the reader, but if the explanation is going to be a long one, dialogue is not really the best way to do this. Instead you can leave this kind of thing to the narrator, because at the end of the day, characters should sound like themselves, not as if they’re mouthpieces for the narrator. (Of course, this can get complicated when the narrator is a character as well.)

An information dump can work in narration, but in general, if the information is extremely technical and/or does not sound natural to the character or the situation, you want to keep that out of your dialogue. The reader wants to hear the characters talk, so give them something worth listening to. Best of luck!


Friday, October 22, 2010

Creating the Fantastical

As an intern, I spend the majority of my time reading through manuscripts. And, admittedly, a lot of them tend to blend together. That’s why I get so excited when I come across a fantasy romance manuscript. Getting lost in another world for 50 pages? Yes, please. But, as fun as fantasy can be, it has the tendency to go awry.

One thing that seems to pose a problem for fantasy writers is defining their setting. Some writers seem to assume that the reader already knows the ins and outs of the fantasy world they’ve created. Don’t assume that! Writers need to define the setting and situation to help the reader better understand what’s happening. You don’t want your reader to feel lost or confused after just a few pages. If it seems like the characters all know something the reader doesn’t, they’ll feel disconnected and they won’t want to keep reading.

Fantasy is supposed to be fun, so don’t make your reader work to understand it. There really aren’t limits to what you can do in a fantasy world, but there needs to be something to allow the reader to relate to the characters. There has to be some grounding in reality. If the reader can’t identify with any of the characters or situations, they won’t be interested in the story. Don’t isolate your reader!

Of course, I can’t broach the topic of fantasy romance without covering Twilight. I can hear your groans now, so I’ll be brief—avoid the Twilight effect. Many of the manuscripts I read tend to fall into this category, where wolf packs and vampire covens abound. Yes, Meyer’s series is a smashing success, but that doesn’t mean that every fantasy romance must include someone named Edward.

The most important thing when writing fantasy is to have fun with it! Reading fantasy is an escape from reality. Be creative and let your reader in. I’m looking forward to reading what you have for us!

--Beverly, GWU ‘11

Friday, October 15, 2010

The Devil in the Details: What to Leave Out and What to Keep In

I have a tendency to get incredibly concerned with life’s little details – you know, the ones that don’t matter in the slightest, like squeezing toothpaste from the end of the tube instead of from the middle. In doing so, I often miss seeing what my family likes to call “the forest through the trees,” or the big picture. Is squeezing from the middle of the toothpaste tube really more important than brushing one’s teeth? No, not really.

Being so caught up in detail is occasionally a problem for me, but it has been a big help to me here at Elaine’s where small details could make or break a partial for us interns. Over the past few weeks I have noticed that lots of writers add plenty of details and minutiae to the descriptions stories. Don’t get me wrong- this is a good thing- but it’s also something one should be wary of.

For example, many of the partials I read here contain passages similar to this one:

As Alice stepped into the foyer, he heard the click of her Prada stilettos echoing across the marble floor. Bertram tried not to pay her any attention, but her crisp white oxford shirt (with the top three buttons undone) and gray silk skirt caught his glasses-framed eye, and he turned his head towards her. She was a vision, with her seemingly endless legs moving closer and closer towards him.

For the record, the above passage is not something I read in a partial. But what’s wrong with it? If I were to read something like this (and trust me, I have), I would get annoyed at the level of unnecessary detail used to describe Alice. For example, it doesn’t make a difference to me whether the white oxford shirt Alice is wearing was ironed earlier today or a month ago. It’s not particularly important to the romantic A-couple plot, and definitely not something that needs to be in the partial. Her clicking stiletto heels are important because they signal her arrival to Bertram, but unless the story is about Bertram’s magical ability to pick out shoe brands by the sounds of their heels on marble floors, we don’t need to know that they are Prada.

As a general rule I am more interested in seeing how the characters react to seemingly insignificant details than we are in knowing the details themselves. Let’s say, for example, that a partial involving a banker spent at least half a page describing the rising mortgage rates at his bank (also not something I have actually read about). The mortgage rates themselves are not interesting to read about – what is interesting is whether the banker starts jumping up and down or smoking at the ears after seeing them. Likewise, the three buttons undone on Alice’s shirt are more interesting if they clearly do (or do not) affect Bertram in some way.

It’s a fine line to walk. If there isn’t enough detail it will bother us, but it will also bother us if there’s too much detail. But this problem is not unsolvable – there are ways to practice adding just enough detail. One way I learned involved verbally describing to a partner how to draw an object. You know what the object of choice is, but your partner does not. Your task is to describe to them exactly how to draw the object without naming the object itself. Sound’s easy, I know, but it’s actually a lot more difficult than it sounds. This exercise is something I learned in a writing class at Georgetown University, and it has been a tremendous help to me. I hope it’s a help to you too!

Until next time,