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Character, Scenes, Dialogue
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chris
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Joined: 02 Mar 2004
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Location: People Republic of Northern California
Character, Scenes, Dialogue  Reply with quote  

Here's some tips that I posted on an earlier board when we were doing the story tag. I think they're relevant to the discussion of character.

Last night my girlfriend was reading a suspense novel by a guy
who is selling millions of books. She started visibly cringing,
then she put the book down and said, "This guy just sucks. I
can't believe the reviewers thought his dialogue was good." Then
she proceeded to read me some dialogue.

At every change of speaker, the writer used a new and unique
attributive (he saids, she saids). Things like:

"No," Bob ejaculated.
"Oh yes," restorted Sally.
"Maybe," James jumped in.
"Bite me," Bob riposted.
"Is that an invitation?" queried Sally.

Well, you get the idea. And no, I'm not exagerating much. So
here's your lesson for the day.

He said, she said, it said. In 90% of the cases you can use
"said" as your attributive verb. In cases where there are only
two speakers you can often get away without attributes because
the gods of grammar have given us that wonderful rule about a new
speaker on each line. Sure, occasionally someone will "shout" or
"whisper", or "hiss", but in most cases "said" will do the job.

Now lesson two. Modifying "said" with adverbs. Sure, sometimes
someone will say something in a manner that is out of character
for the words, then you'll have to modify how they said it, but
in most cases, if you've done your job with the dialogue, you
won't need to say how someone said it. For example

"I think I'm going to kill myself," Bob said forlornly. (or
sullenly, or sadly)

Well, Duh! Sort of goes without saying, doesn't it.

On the other hand,

"I think I'm going to kill myself," Bob said cheerfully. Well, in
that case, you would want the modifier, because you don't often
hear that phrase in a cheerful manner. (My personal idiosynchracy
is to add some sort of jesture: "I think I'm going to kill
myself," said Bob, grinning like a possum eating a used Pamper.)

Overall, you want to try to avoid adverbs (-ly words) altogether,
but in dialogue and attributives, really measure whether you need
to use them. Your first task in reading over anything you write
is to flush out the unneeded modifyers (both adverbs and
adjectives) and kill them like rabid dogs.


AND NOW, SCENES

Write in scenes, just like in play or a movie. Each scene should
accomplish something. (Making people laugh is also accomplishing
something, although you won't find that in any of the "how to
write" books) This will further break up your chapters.

Write in omnicient and limited third person point of view, and
change points of view between scenes if you need to by using a
double break. This is perfectly acceptable and is a great way to
establish character, since we'll see different scenes through
different people's eyes. It also allows you to cliff-hang one
character and go on to another. I've written all but one of my
books this way for a reason, and the reason is that it gives you
a lot of options and a lot of devices for creating suspense.

Do not have characters walk in
front of a mirror, a window, or a reflecting pond and notice how
they look. Just say how the fuck they look. Even experienced
writers do the "He surveyed himself in the mirror and thought,
not bad for an old broad," lines and I just want to bitch slap
them. If you don't know what I'm talking about, read some
suspense novels. Otherwise perfectly talented writers are afraid
to pick up the goddamn point of view and describe a character
without some tired-ass device. Don't paint yourself into that
corner. In my experience all anyone who looks in the mirror ever
thinks to themself is "wow, is my hair fucked up" or "boy, am I
fat". (Wow, that sort of turned into a rant. Sorry.Sore spot. Ran
into that last night in something I'm reading.)Also, unless it's
important, most all you need to know about someone is about how
old they are and maybe two other things. For instance, he was in
his forties, thin, and had a horn in the middle of his forehead.
You can just see the guy, can't you?

Use descriptive verbs. If someone sidles, scooches, slimes,
skulks, sneaks, slides, glides, dances, skips or bounces across a
room, you don't have to say how they did it. If they move or
walk, you may feel tempted to say how.

Best thing to do with a scene is use guerilla tactics. That is:
get in, get out, and nobody gets hurt. If you must describe,
describe in order of perception. You notice that a person in the
bar is wearing a chicken suit long before you notice that the bar
has leaded glass mirrors. Write it that way.

Post Wed Aug 04, 2004 3:44 pm   View user's profile Send private message Send e-mail Visit poster's website
Boota



Joined: 09 Apr 2004
Posts: 830
Location: Kokomo, Indiana
 Reply with quote  

Chris,

I did something in my book that I kind of thought was lazy at the time, but now I'm glad I did it. I was going to go back and fix it and decided that it didn't need fixing. I'm interested in what you think on this. I described many of my peripheral characters in relation to famous people and let the description go at that. "A more pissed off version of Ed Asner", as one example. "Tony Bennett's evil twin" as another. I tried to do it in as few lines as possible. I don't like reading long character descriptions if they aren't necessary. (Especially laundry lists of the clothes they are wearing.) I also wanted to just get to the point of the scene.

Do you think I half-assed it? Should I avoid this kind of thing in the future?
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Post Wed Aug 04, 2004 11:19 pm   View user's profile Send private message Visit poster's website
chris
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Posts: 3833
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Boota wrote:
Chris,

I did something in my book that I kind of thought was lazy at the time, but now I'm glad I did it. I was going to go back and fix it and decided that it didn't need fixing. I'm interested in what you think on this. I described many of my peripheral characters in relation to famous people and let the description go at that. "A more pissed off version of Ed Asner", as one example. "Tony Bennett's evil twin" as another. I tried to do it in as few lines as possible. I don't like reading long character descriptions if they aren't necessary. (Especially laundry lists of the clothes they are wearing.) I also wanted to just get to the point of the scene.

Do you think I half-assed it? Should I avoid this kind of thing in the future?


Works for me, especially if the personalities you picked would be natural to the point of view character. For instance, a seventeen-year-old would have a hard time telling who Ed Asner or Tony Benette was, but if your POV character is in her forties, it's a natural. I might use something like, a barrel chested guy with doormat back-hair -- a more pissed off version of Ed Asner. Then you've got your audience covered if they don't get the reference. From then on you could refer to the guy as "the Asner guy" and you're golden.

Sorry, was that supposed to be a yes or no question?

Post Thu Aug 05, 2004 2:11 am   View user's profile Send private message Send e-mail Visit poster's website
Q



Joined: 19 May 2004
Posts: 297
yep  Reply with quote  

Chris wrote: "
Do not have characters walk in
front of a mirror, a window, or a reflecting pond and notice how
they look. Just say how the fuck they look. Even experienced
writers do the "He surveyed himself in the mirror and thought,
not bad for an old broad," lines and I just want to bitch slap
them."


A little while back I got around to picking up Dan Brown's "Angels and Demons" and within the first few pages he had his hero stop in front of a mirror for a look-see and so could give me the mirror's POV. It always feels like a lack of trust, either in me or himself, or both.

It reminds me of reading or watching the works of many freshman playwrites that fall into the trap having dynamic events that shape (and in fact are) the story happen off stage, then using a character to describe the event on stage after the fact. This happens because it allows the playwrite to tell the audience what happened AND the effects it had AND how everyone should feel about it. All without the work of presenting the conflict well enough to justify what follows and keeps interpretation out of the hands of the audience and into a safer place, his or her own.

Put the story on stage. Leave the story of the story to the reviews.[/quote]
_________________
Angels, Devils, and Men:
The first forgets,
The third regrets,
and the second has all of the fun.

--Analytics of Five

Post Thu Aug 05, 2004 10:47 am   View user's profile Send private message Visit poster's website
Boota



Joined: 09 Apr 2004
Posts: 830
Location: Kokomo, Indiana
 Reply with quote  

chris wrote:

Works for me, especially if the personalities you picked would be natural to the point of view character. For instance, a seventeen-year-old would have a hard time telling who Ed Asner or Tony Benette was, but if your POV character is in her forties, it's a natural. I might use something like, a barrel chested guy with doormat back-hair -- a more pissed off version of Ed Asner. Then you've got your audience covered if they don't get the reference. From then on you could refer to the guy as "the Asner guy" and you're golden.

Sorry, was that supposed to be a yes or no question?



I guess technically it was a yes or no question, but you gave me a "No and here's why" answer. Much better. Thanks. Smile

One thing I ran into, but only once, was someone who didn't know who Ed Asner was. I said, "You know, Lou Grant? From the Mary Tyler Moore Show?" Then I was asked, "Mary Tyler who?" I told them to just look him up on the Internet. Using something like your added description would have taken care of that for me. I'll have to keep that in mind in the future.
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"We went together like Kennedys and head wounds."--Lenny Kapowski

Post Thu Aug 05, 2004 4:43 pm   View user's profile Send private message Visit poster's website
Lauren



Joined: 07 Mar 2004
Posts: 1582
Location: Massachusetts
 Reply with quote  

Quote:
From Chris: At every change of speaker, the writer used a new and unique attributive (he saids, she saids)


You've hit one of my biggest pet peeves. The weird thing is, I remember being taught in elementary school that this was a good thing, and even then thinking, "But no one does that." Maybe my teacher was just trying to show us that there are other words out there beyond "said" and got the message terribly wrong. But I remember a writing exercise where we couldn't repeat the use of any attributive. I'd chalk it up to just one inexperienced, non-writing teacher, but it was taught again by different people, several times. Considering how often I see it in amateur fiction (and sadly also in widely popular books), I have to wonder just how widespread that is in school systems and why no one ever came back to speak at a teacher's conference and said "Cut that shit out."

Hell, I still have copies of things from my writing partner in my senior year (high school) creative writing class, and she was guilty of it. Never listened to my suggestions to go back to he said/she said, either. Rrrr.

Amen on the mirror-description as well. I know I don't have an inner narrator commenting on my shiny hair when I look in the mirror. Just on my hated nose (or, on one memorable occasion, that you knew I'd had tequila the night before because holy fuck were my eyes bloodshot).

I don't have any real pattern or good advice for descriptions, m'self. The main character of my book doesn't get any real physical description until page 9, and that's only that he has dark hair (and at the moment, I don't think I've described him much further than that. Hmmm). But in the preceding pages, you have a really good idea of what he's after, what drives him. However, one of the other central characters gets a pretty detailed description, probably because it's told from Clay's POV (the dark-haired one) and he's noticing her. Eh, I think it works, but at this point it's totally subject to change.
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Post Thu Aug 05, 2004 6:18 pm   View user's profile Send private message Send e-mail Visit poster's website AIM Address ICQ Number
chris
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Joined: 02 Mar 2004
Posts: 3833
Location: People Republic of Northern California
 Reply with quote  

Lauren wrote:
Quote:
From Chris: At every change of speaker, the writer used a new and unique attributive (he saids, she saids)

You've hit one of my biggest pet peeves. The weird thing is, I remember being taught in elementary school that this was a good thing, and even then thinking, "But no one does that." Maybe my teacher was just trying to show us that there are other words out there beyond "said" and got the message terribly wrong. But I remember a writing exercise where we couldn't repeat the use of any attributive. I'd chalk it up to just one inexperienced, non-writing teacher, but it was taught again by different people, several times..



This is pretty common. They also perpetuate legalese and academic speak, when the goal is not communication, but elitism. What good is your PH.D. if everyone can understand the stuff that you write about? You're more than likely under-paid and over-educated and the only way to assure any status is to remain separate from the masses in your "sacred" knowledge. (Why do you think that the Catholic mass was done in Latin for 1200 years after the fall of the Roman Empire? In all the countries of the world? Because that way you had to have the clergy in order to get the Word. No priest, no God, it's that simple. Job security. They assured their status that way. This is not to say that the specialized vocabularies of specific disciplines should not be used, but there are a lot of really bad writers out there who find shelter in formal academic writing, and the parlance of legalese is the same thing. What I'm saying is not that you won't find it out there, or even that you weren't taught it, but that it's not effective. It's not the best way to do the job. So, the stuff you learned in third grade and even in comp 101 in college, will not necessarily serve you when you are writing fiction. In my senior year of high school, my teacher told me that I didn't have what it took to make it through her advanced placement composition course. She was right. I am also the only professional writer to ever come out of that high school. Ever.

EVER!

People are not teaching K-12 because they are great writers. This is not to say that some k-12 teachers are not great writers, but the odds are against it. You can't teach kids in K-12 to be professional writers -- it would be like having a general ed course to prepare them to deal with their professional sports endorsements. In fact, it's probably better odds that you have someone in your high-school in the NFL or NBA, than making his or her living as a novelist.

It's like dat.

That was just a areally long-winded way of agreeing with you, Lauren.

Post Thu Aug 05, 2004 9:15 pm   View user's profile Send private message Send e-mail Visit poster's website
john palmer
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he said; said he  Reply with quote  

I've been rethinking the word order with attributives, and can't get anywhere with it. I usually write, "Blah blah blah," said Dave, whereas I see a lot more Dave said in other writers. Is this because I read too many British books when I was young?

I do not however indulge in any "said he's".

I will, however write "Dave said quietly" -- aside from the question of adverbs. Somehow, ending with "said" feels too heavy on a word that is semi-invisible in a a way.

Any thoughts?



John Palmer

Post Thu Aug 05, 2004 9:16 pm   
Cassie



Joined: 20 Jul 2004
Posts: 3
Location: Denver, CO
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While I believe a character description is an important part of any novel/story/drawn out telling of the old days, one thing that really pisses me off is when authors turn their characters into romance super heroes. In Dan Brown's Da Vinci Code, he has the main character describe his own rugged good looks, with a strong jaw and dimpled chin, piercing blue eyes, and a voice that is "honey for the ears", it is when he referred to himself as 'Harrison Ford in Harris Tweed' that I promptly threw up into my hat. Not only is he a virtual Adonis, but he speaks every language, knows all there is to know about history and time, and is quite the cook. This makes him nearly impossible to identify or sympathize with. Compared to the genius main character Ignatius O'Reilly in The Confederacy of Dunces or Chris, your own Theo Crowe, it's a completely deluded view of a human being, who, instead of just saying, "wow, this is fucked up" says "This isn't a problem, we need only to translate several dead languages and build some large scale models of Paris, give me five minutes".
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Post Sat Aug 07, 2004 8:17 am   View user's profile Send private message
Hillary



Joined: 13 Apr 2004
Posts: 1767
With a post like that Cassie . . .  Reply with quote  

How can I not give you a warm welcome to the boards?

It's a girl after my own heart. *sniffles*

Post Sat Aug 07, 2004 8:49 am   View user's profile Send private message Visit poster's website
chris
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Posts: 3833
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Cassie wrote:
While I believe a character description is an important part of any novel/story/drawn out telling of the old days, one thing that really pisses me off is when authors turn their characters into romance super heroes. In Dan Brown's Da Vinci Code, he has the main character describe his own rugged good looks, with a strong jaw and dimpled chin, piercing blue eyes, and a voice that is "honey for the ears", it is when he referred to himself as 'Harrison Ford in Harris Tweed' that I promptly threw up into my hat. Not only is he a virtual Adonis, but he speaks every language, knows all there is to know about history and time, and is quite the cook. This makes him nearly impossible to identify or sympathize with. Compared to the genius main character Ignatius O'Reilly in The Confederacy of Dunces or Chris, your own Theo Crowe, it's a completely deluded view of a human being, who, instead of just saying, "wow, this is fucked up" says "This isn't a problem, we need only to translate several dead languages and build some large scale models of Paris, give me five minutes".



Look, I'm loathe to critisize Mr. Brown, and I'm happy for his success, but The Da Vinci Code serves you best by what it's not, not what it is. The success of the book, in my mind, is based on the whole Mary Magdeline thing, the Holy Grail. The pacing is good, but the characterizations are, uh, a tad weak. The behavior of the characters is inconsistent with the descriptions we've been given, and the only one that I found interesting was the assasin monk. The good thing about citing TDC is that everyone has read it, so we know what you're talking about.

So, what you can learn from the TDC? First, if you want to pace a book, but you don't feel particularly confident with your ability to deal with time, set it over a two or three day time period. It's much easier to deal with the passage of time in a book when it takes place over a short time. I did that in Practical Demonkeeping, Brown does it in TDC. Do I think this is the way to tell every story? Absolutely not. But it is a way to keep the reader engaged and make it easier on yourself in dealing with time.

Brown also does a great job of getting a ton of esoteric information to the reader in the context of the story. I wasn't nearly as engaged by this element of the story as it appears that everyone else on the planet was, but it is well done and actually seems to move the story along, rather than slow it down, as is often the case.

You can't argue with over 8 million copies in hardcover. This guy did something that connected with readers world-wide, but it wasn't his characters. Brace yourself for hundreds of "puzzles of history" thrillers to follow.

Post Sat Aug 07, 2004 12:29 pm   View user's profile Send private message Send e-mail Visit poster's website
Q



Joined: 19 May 2004
Posts: 297
 Reply with quote  

Brown also did for me Crichton did for me...taught me a lot of things about subjects that, I wouldn't have ventured out to learn on my own. It hit me reading Crichton's Jurassic books that he seem to go out of his way to keep characters from relationships whose dynamic would clutter up the action. While I would normally think this a cop out, I couldn't because I was too busy being fascinated by what I was learning (evolution, biological history, natural selection, etc.) The books seemed to be a platform for himto show off his enormous intellect, and I would complain about that except I'm now to proud of knowing that oxygen was an accident that occurred due to a meteor strike. That and that raptors are COOL!

Same thing with Brown and the Vatican, the Illuminati, and other things.

Just like, thanks to Mr. Moore, we have all learned that demon's make unreliable and dangerous hood ornaments.

Q
_________________
Angels, Devils, and Men:
The first forgets,
The third regrets,
and the second has all of the fun.

--Analytics of Five

Post Sat Aug 07, 2004 1:58 pm   View user's profile Send private message Visit poster's website
Cassie



Joined: 20 Jul 2004
Posts: 3
Location: Denver, CO
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Hey, what can I say? The guy wrote an interesting novel. It definately had it's moments that peaked my interests. Chris, you're right, you can't argue with eight million hardbacks, and I won't deny that I picked up a few facts that will make me feel smug the next time I watch a televangelist. However, you hit the nail on the head by saying that the character descriptions did not match their actions, and I stand fast to the notion that no hero should be infallible, even Superman had Cryptonite for God's sake!
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Post Sat Aug 07, 2004 5:13 pm   View user's profile Send private message
Goudron



Joined: 03 Aug 2004
Posts: 2570
Location: near Cleveland OH
 Reply with quote  

Cassie wrote:
even Superman had Cryptonite for God's sake!


That and he was a sap. Couldn't stand to see anyone die or get stomped on Smile That's a weakness for most superheroes, though.

Back on topic: it's possible to write an entire novel where the protagonist never gets described, right? Gender usually slips out somehow or another, but you can do without even a name right? Or is that just bad form?
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Post Sun Aug 08, 2004 8:23 pm   View user's profile Send private message Visit poster's website
chris
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 Reply with quote  

Goudron wrote:
Cassie wrote:
even Superman had Cryptonite for God's sake!

Back on topic: it's possible to write an entire novel where the protagonist never gets described, right? Gender usually slips out somehow or another, but you can do without even a name right? Or is that just bad form?



Yes, of course it's possible to not describe the protagonist, it's been done, but I can't think of a good example right now. Wait...

Oh yeah, Lamb. (Although he did have a name.)

Anyway, of course it's okay -- what I think is unfair is to describe a character after you've let the story go too far. I remember reading a novel by T.C. Boyle called Water Music about 20 years ago, where the narrator tells the story, and he's some sort of gun-bearer or other African-type servant to the Bwana main character, and at about 100 pages or so, he sort of casually mentions that he's short and weighs like 300 lbs. I was so pissed off. I had already formed a complete picture of the character in my head, and that wasn't it. Anyway, Boyle is an awfully good writer, so I assume he did it for effect, and not by accident, but the effect was that it pissed me off, and I didn't trust the narrator for the rest of the book. (That's a bad thing, by the way.)

I'm not sure about the name thing. You can do it, but you gotta call your main character something.

There's a story called "Born of Man and Woman" by Richard Matheson, which is from the point of view of a child who is locked in the attic of a house where a very normal suburban family lives. And its voice becomes very distinct, as he describes "mother and father, and little mother, who is like mother and father, not like me" and toward the end of the story it says things like, "I will run across the ceiling and drip goo down on them, and they will be sorry, really sorry". Well, the story works really well with the main character and narrator having no name, and not describing himself, but that's the whole gig of the story. I'm sure you've heard that short stories only try to accomplish one thing. They really can't do a whole lot more in the few pages the form allows, so one goes for effect in any way one can. Revealing identity and the unusual appearance of the character was what Matheson did with that story, and in the process, kind of scared us and made us think.

I've seen killer's POV chapters in suspense books that don't describe or name the character, selectively concealing information from the reader -- sometimes fairly, sometimes not. In that context, there's a real reason for not revealing the character. (And if it's not done right, it feels really, really cheesy. I think James Patterson does this fairly often and not particularly well. )

So, my answer, I guess, would be, don't conceal the character's name or description unless you have a reason for it. I mean, you don't have to stop the action to describe the character -- it can happen over the course of many pages, or as I said before, in just two or three details. But don't conceal that stuff unless you have a reason to. You want your reader to be able to identify the character.

(That said, I don't think that James Lee Burke ever describes Dave Robecheaux, his Louisiana Sherriff, but the way he behaves and the way women behave toward him, you get an awfully strong feeling for what he looks like. I could be wrong about this, though. By the way, if you want to read an author who is able to take the first person POV and use it in all sorts of ways you wouldn't think possible, then Burke's Robecheaux series is a good example. )

Post Mon Aug 09, 2004 1:06 am   View user's profile Send private message Send e-mail Visit poster's website
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