5 C’s: What Every Story Must Contain

Whether flash fiction, short story, novel, or screenplay, every work of fiction must contain the 5 C’s—without any one of them, a story fails to be a story at all.

Just as a building must utilize certain structural items–a solid foundation, walls, joists and support beams—so must each story incorporate the 5 C’s. Yes, they really are that important.

The 5 C’s are: Character, Conflict, Climax, Conclusion, and Change.

Before we discuss writing a story and the required 5 C’s, it’s wise, even mandatory, to define the term for our needs.

A definition of story from Merriam Webster online reads: an account of incidents or events; a statement regarding the facts pertinent to a situation in question.

Oxforddictionaries.com says, An account of imaginary or real people and events told for entertainment.

 The above definitions pertain to all stories, including those spoken by people that don’t adhere to the needs of a written and printable (hence, saleable) story—think of a friend explaining a conversation with someone you both know.

Other dictionaries give equally bland definitions, which for the most part are of little use to what constitutes a story from a writer’s (or reader’s) perspective.

The definition needs to be more clearly defined, consistent, at times unyielding even though there are uncountable ways which a character’s journey can be portrayed.

For our purposes, the definition of story can be summed up like this:

A character must solve a problem, and after repeated conflicts (obstacles), the character either succeeds or fails to reach the goal (climax), and because of said conclusion (outcome), the character and/or situation are changed.

Some contend at least one C (usually Change) can be removed and still constitute a story. They point to James Bond novels where super spy 007 remains pretty much the same at the end of each novel. Although the change is not within his “person,” there is change—he defeats the bad guy and saves the world from destruction. Change always lurks nearby, at times subtle, at times not, but always present.

Perhaps the character succeeds in one aspect and fails in another. That is something you decide as the story matures.

Characters are People, too

First and foremost, a story is about a character or characters the reader emotionally relates to. Without a bond, there is no reason for the reader to continue.

The bond adheres when the reader can relate to the character in some way, and this is done by developing well-rounded “people” with flaws, personal backgrounds that makes them who they are, and therefore unique . . . just like you.

Conflict is Imminent

The catalyst forcing the reader forward is a problem of great magnitude. The dilemma can be internal or external (and preferably both, especially in a longer piece), but must be important to the character—your lead MUST address the problem, and there is no way to avoid it. Otherwise, there is no story.

Character plus Conflicts Equals Climax

The character is beset by great adversity that threatens him/her and shatters their world. It must be of extreme importance to your lead (physical or emotional death, total ruin as in losing a loved one or one’s job/profession) and the character must overcome several conflicts to reach (or not reach) the goal you set forth. One hurdle is not enough, and they cannot be small, easily rectified problems.

Think of Jonathan who needs money for an operation to save his life. If Jonathan possesses something he can sell to pay for the life-saving operation (even if it hurts to part with the item), the selling is not enough to keep the reader’s interest. Instead, have Jonathan homeless and penniless. Nothing defines adversity like certain death.

 Conclusion with a Future

Stories end.

The details at the beginning and the ensuing conflicts need to culminate to a satisfying conclusion.

Following several attempts to solve the problem (ideally, each increasingly more difficult than the one before), the character succeeds or fails, depending on the point of the story. Not all stories have happy endings where lovers embrace against the background of the sun disappearing on the horizon. Like life, people fail, but there is often also a silver lining.

Evident Change

 A character is different at the conclusion of a story, and ideally changed by the challenges the writer puts forth. The change can be large or small, but like the goal, must be important. Perhaps the character learns a great lesson, sees the world and others in a new way, or simply resigns that their life-view is correct.

Let’s say Jonathan is depicted as a selfish man. While he’s desperately seeking treatment he meets a young boy who needs a transplant to save his life. Will Jonathan remain selfish, die alone in some alley, or will he go to great lengths to donate his organ to the boy and finally give his life meaning?

Whatever the realization, the character or their situation changes—the job offered, the girl won (or lost), and the conclusion illustrates the change, and thereby, points toward a future not told by the writer.

Put the character into a terrible predicament that gets increasingly worse, have them fight through the conflicts with courage or guile, finally reaching the resolution, for good or ill. By using the 5 C’s, you will hook the reader and pull them into and through your tale all the way to the end.

See you on the next page,

Rick “C” Langford

If you enjoyed this article, Sign up to follow Knights of Writ — Fiction Musings, and receive all future posts in your email. SHARE with fellow writers, and as always, comments are encouraged and highly appreciated. I respond to all blog comments: dialog between writers is crucial in the continuing effort of sharpening our skills.

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Story Formula: Acts and Gateways

I read a book today, oh boy
About a lucky man who made the grade
And though the news was rather sad
Well, I just had to laugh
I saw the writer’s craft . . .
(to the Beatle song, “A Day in the Life”)

I recently read a fantasy novel written in a style that propelled me to the next page, though I knew I was being manipulated.

Despite the many fantasy tropes—portals, magic amulet, young viewpoint characters, England—and the step-by-step progression as set out by many writing books—enticing moment, Acts 1,2, and 3, two Gateways forcing the character to move forward despite their reluctance to do so—I enjoyed the book. This also despite mustache-twirling villains, harried multiple viewpoint characters, and (at times) contrived cliff-hangers I saw coming halfway through the chapter.

The novel was SO formulaic.

You may wonder, after all that, why I liked the book, and so did I. I spent an afternoon at the park reviewing the “pros” and “cons” of the book’s value, and of course, the so-called value was based on my many prejudices, comparisons to other books I’ve read, what and how I write, among other things, like . . . feelings.

I discovered three things:

I liked the pacing: a good balance of sentence structures, description, and word choice; short chapters, and clean jumps from chapter to chapter between the different viewpoint characters—multiple viewpoint stories garner a special interest to me.

The world-building had a consistent foundation: the author stayed true to the imaginary world where several Londons existed simultaneously, and took great care to show the reader each of the city’s differences and contrasts, per plot requirements.

The characters became my friends: this is probably the single most important factor to why I liked the book and was able to look past the deficiencies (as I viewed them, one lone reader)—I cared about the people.

The author is a relative newcomer, but by any estimation, successful (she recently signed a $1 Million deal on a 3-book series). She has sold a dozen or so books, and she’s in her early 30’s.

She’s talented, and she’s probably read many of the same writing books I have. She put their information to use, though I have to wonder (or laugh) at the obvious and systematic pat structure formula.

Here’s the formula:

Act I (more on the 3 Act structure here)

The Hook and enticing moment where the main character (MC, also known as protagonist) is forced, usually kicking and screaming (metaphorically at least), from their normal and comfortable (or not so) everyday world into the new and exciting “adventure” that is their destiny.

1st Gateway

Fighting through multitude hardships and conflicts, the MC becomes a participant (though reluctant and probably begrudgingly) in the “adventure.”

(Some writing books insist this must be reached by 20-25% into the novel, which this novel hit at 25% per my Kindle)

Act II (longest of the three Acts)

Battles, villains, and treacheries abound as the MC fights their way to that elusive and slowly clarifying goal. Note: The MC, and thereby the reader, become aware during this section of the many mysteries and “foreshadowing” hinted in the preceding chapters, as well as others to be solved throughout the book. This is also the section where characterizations and relationships deepen.

Act III

The rush to the end, the climax, the final battle. Do you feel the tension and uncertainty if the MC will succeed?

2nd Gateway (at about the 75% point of novel, which the novel of note hit at 72%)

The MC’s last chance, deep in the throes of desperation, where they decide to dig deeper than ever before, thus conquering their fears–and the “bad” people that stand in their way–to obtain their goal.

The End

All those hints and foreshadowing come together in a cacophony of reader splendor, of release and satisfaction as the hero saves the day.

Unless it’s a tragedy, then the MC is dead. Bummer.

The parts of the Story Formula—the Acts and Gateways—flared and glared as I read, blinding beacons bleaching the shadows of intrigue without illumination. “Okay,” I considered when arriving at the 2nd Pillar, the 1st Gateway, “Here it is.”

The formula should be invisible, not so “Here we go reader, now follow along as I direct you to the next section. Oh, I’ll clearly show you the following section when we reach it—that will be the third shining pillar.”

And yet, each of the blinding pillars leading to the next staged section were introduced and made important, and none should have been.

Yes, the Acts and Gateways need to be present—they are an ages-old and reader-satisfying part of the plotting process—but they should lie beneath the characters and the story, interwoven rather than having attention drawn to them. Ideally, you should look back at the pillars, not see them on the story’s horizon.

The novel lacked that hard-to-put-your-finger-on feature that is the culmination of all fiction’s beauties layered in harmony and all speaking the same dream.

Somewhere the novel failed even though I enjoyed the journey. The pillars should have been a part of the landscape rather than towering above more important reveals, but I can’t tell you or the writer how to correct the misstep. I only know that I saw it, and each pillar jolted me from the reading illusion.

I may have been especially keen to Story Formula, having just finished a free online plotting course by a moderately successful new author who just signed a $75,000 3-book deal.

The likelihood is also that my expectations went unfulfilled. I expected an adult fantasy novel (which was how the book was promoted), when in fact the structure, language, situations, and characters deemed the novel young adult. YA novels are expected to be of a simpler nature, but the pillars should still be subdued and within the natural story flow.

As I re-read my novel for the umpteenth time, I know the locations of the Acts and Gateways, but somehow I hope my readers won’t notice. Perhaps I’m a fool and wizened readers detect the craft ploy; hopefully they will enjoy it even so.

What are your thoughts on formulaic story plot? Does seeing the upcoming pillars have any effect on your enjoyment? Let us know in the comment section below.

See you on the next page,

Rick “C” Langford

If you enjoyed this article, Sign up to follow Knights of Writ — Fiction Musings (Click the link and join at the domain, not on this site) and receive all future posts in your email. SHARE with fellow writers, and as always, comments are encouraged and highly appreciated. I respond to all blog comments: dialog between writers is crucial in the continuing effort of sharpening our skills.

Character Paraphernalia

My last post talked about using a calendar to ensure an easier time during the writing process, especially revision. Along with character placement and who they are with, weather, travel time, chapter and pages (to easily locate scenes), etc., another important item to include is character paraphernalia.

I made a list of what I possessed yesterday when I left the house: wallet, keys, pen and notepad, cell phone, comb, cough drops, water, and what I wore. Your characters also have their own possessions at any given time.

Some items are obvious (wallet, purse, available weapons if applicable), but not all are equally important. It depends on the story, and it is up to you as creator to mention only those elements that perform a necessary function tied to your plot.

I was recently made aware how important knowing what a character has—or doesn’t have—when my friend-and-critique-partner, James, requested I remind the reader that my protagonist had recently dropped his sword when attacked.

I left my poor protagonist in a dire situation at the end of a chapter; the next chapter shifted to a different VP.

When I returned to my protagonist, it was simply a matter of “his sword lay out of reach” and the reader was reminded why he was fighting for his life with only a dagger.

Another instance James noted was that my POV arrived at his destination wearing a battered bronze breastplate. Two days later he removed the armor when he bathed in a nearby hot spring. “He wore it for two days while he slept?” James queried. Good point.

Each character possesses too many items to list in the small daily calendar boxes, which is reserved for the basics: character location and who accompanies them, the weather, and in the case of my world, Ananyll, the phases of the moons.

I make a list of what my characters own (sword, dagger, shield perhaps, food, bedding, coin purse, particular clothing if applicable) within their individual Character Sketches, and add to the calendar what they do not currently possess if appropriate and necessary to the story-line.

It is imperative you know what each character has or doesn’t have in all situations.

If Jessie left her purse in the living room, she can’t be desperately searching for a scrap of paper with the PI’s hastily scribbled phone number if she’s in the bedroom, AND you made it clear she stuffed the paper in her purse while at the bar.

Much of writing incorporates the sense of the who, what, when, where, and why in each particular scene, and a calendar is the map that tracks your world and people living there.

See you on the next page,

Rick “C” Langford

P.S. University of Iowa is once again offering a FREE writing course for writers at all levels and from anywhere in the world; it’s called the International Writer’s Program.

If you enjoyed this article, Sign up to follow Knights of Writ — Fiction Musings, and receive all future posts in your email. SHARE with fellow writers, and as always, comments are encouraged and highly appreciated. I respond to all blog comments: dialog between writers is crucial in the continuing effort of sharpening our skills.

Why You Need a Story Calendar Before You Begin Writing

Writing a novel entails dozens of scenes, locations, many characters—both vital and secondary—and the interactions between them, along with nuances, innuendos, hints, and foreshadowing to keep the reader enticed and turning the pages. Keeping track of all the finer points can be daunting, and the last thing you want as creator is to confuse the reader, or be unsure yourself.

A Story Calendar eliminates such potential disasters.

Once the ingredients of a story have congealed—character, setting, problem, enticing moment, and plot (though any part is likely incomplete at this point)—I pull out my blank monthly calendar . . . before I write a word of the story itself.

IMPORTANCE OF A CALENDAR

Setting up the calendar at this early stage accomplishes 4 main things:

Produces a story starting point, date and time
Establishes an overall time frame
Grounds your characters in a place
Eases many burdens during revision

Think of a calendar as a catalog of the people and events of your story, a place you will return to dozens of times during the first draft and several revisions a publishable manuscript requires.

Knowing the preliminary information, I start by asking questions: what time of day does the story start? Does the story-line require a specific date, such as holiday, or a particular day of the week? What about the weather?

The importance of having a calendar is multi-faceted, but the purpose is singular–consistency.

Readers are smart. They’ll remember that on Tuesday Dwight pawned his .45 to buy his girlfriend a present, so he couldn’t have it Friday when he robbed the convenience store; they’ll be aware that Brad wore a pale blue shirt in the morning (if you reveal this information), so he can’t be wearing a navy blue shirt after work if he didn’t have time or the means to change.

You better know these particulars, and a thousand more tiny details or your reader will gladly point out the glaring errors to you. A calendar will save such embarrassment.

Calendars work as an outline of events, times, weather, travel, and any other important factor for your characters and their world.

Character placement (their physical location), who they are with, and what they possess needs to be completely clear in order for your story to be “true.” Any relevant information can be noted in the daily blocks on your calendar.

In my Veil fantasy series, the world has two moons, and their placement in the sky and degree of visibility is integral to the world and the story’s plot. I keep track of that on the monthly calendar.

TRAVEL TIME

Regardless of story setting, characters move. Realistic time to allow for travel is required for believability.

In fantasy, travel is primitive: by foot, wagon, or beast of burden; a modern story will allow for cars and an assortment of other travel types, but the distance between destinations and the time required to reach them must be accurate; Science Fiction is no different, only the mode of travel changes.

A calendar virtually guarantees you consider travel as a prerequisite to your character’s location, movement, and the plot in general.

I drew a map of my fantasy world before I started writing and calculated distances: the island continent of Ananyll is 350 miles east to west, 250 miles north to south. The numbers had to be adjusted to those dimensions, I realized, because of the calendar.

A horse can reasonably and safely travel about 40 miles per day, figuring 8 hours of travel time. (more info on horse travel time depending upon gait). Once I added a couple cities to my map—between which my characters must travel—I found the distances adversely affected my plot timeline.

Knowing the fictional world’s size at such an early stage of development saved hours of tedious and painful revision to shore up reasonable travel allotments.

My story requires four viewpoint characters: protagonist, antagonist, and two others. I had to develop some way to know where each is located at every plot stage, who accompanies them, and their assets. Because the four VPs come in contact with each other throughout the tale, it became imperative the plot included travel distances and times for one to reach another. The calendar was the perfect solution.

My novel covers a year and a half, so I had a stack of 18 monthly calendars by the time I finished the first draft.

Below is an example of the calendar for The Returning’s opening chapters and pages:

Ch. 1,2          ½ moon

Battle w/Jharmans

Meeting w/Elders

King Theldron “taken”

 

 

 

Pgs. 1-19

Ch. 3,4

B4 sunrise—Syjer escapes

PM  Theldron w/Elvrym

 

 

 

Pgs. 20-34

Ch. 3

Syjer meets women warriors; Syjer, Uleyha, Raelda @river

 

 

 

 

Pgs. 24-29

The main things I keep track of are:

Chapter and scene
Characters’ location and who they are with
Dates (times if necessary)
Manuscript Pages—this is invaluable during rewrite and edits to quickly reference  an earlier scene and event.

Your calendar can accommodate items particular to any story (like the moons in mine), allowing for easy look-up when necessary.

Once you have the formulation of a story—before the actual writing—have a calendar ready; you’ll save yourself a lot of grief, especially when it comes to revision.

As a FREE gift, sign up to follow Knights of Writ, and I will send you a blank downloadable calendar (as an attached Word document) that you can print so you have it before you start your next story. It’ll save you time later on, guaranteed.

NOTE: Sign up even if you already have—I’ll eliminate duplicates so I don’t send multiples in the future.

See you on the next page,

Rick

If you enjoyed this article, Sign up to follow Knights of Writ — Fiction Musings, and receive all future posts in your email. SHARE with fellow writers, and as always, comments are encouraged and highly appreciated.

Writing Quote:
“Easy reading is damn hard writing.” ~Nathaniel Hawthorne

 

Lessons From a Book Hound’s (and Writer’s) Dream Outing

(1st 10 minutes of opening)

Every April local libraries host a Library Book Faire. Stretched out on dozens of twenty foot tables, eighty-to-a-hundred-thousand paperbacks and hardbacks fill the main event center. No type or genre is forgotten, most selling for $2; children’s books are $1 and some of the nicer more popular hard backs are $3 or $4–they even have “old” and autographed sections where prices stretch considerably higher.

Books arrive here both by donation and shelf overabundance (many still have the Dewey Decimal numbers along the binding), available for the ten thousand people who visit the event over the weekend.

In the Science Fiction section, a tall slender man with gray hair pulled into a full pony tail talked loudly to three people who had been caught by his “expert” tenor:

“I come here to see what’s being published. That way I know what to write. I’m a writer.”

One woman edged away, nodding with a look of panic that his eyes might meet hers.

“Of course a lot of these are crap,” he continued. “As a writer, it’s my job to find what is really popular, you know, so I can do better.”

I noticed his book bag had only one volume in it—Twilight. I chuckled and stayed far enough away so that he didn’t think I was part of his audience. By this time he had locked pale blue eyes on the woman who had been edging away, and who now stood nodding as he continued to pontificate with a soap-box preacher’s flare.

“Yep, it’s important to read the best stuff, you know. What have you got there?”

With his attention focused on the poor woman with doe-in-the-headlight eyes, his “crowd” moved away, leaving her mouthing that she’d just arrived and had only found one for her granddaughter, and that . . . .

I left the aisle, feeling sorry for the woman less than for the tall, pony-tailed writer . . . if he wrote at all, that is.

You see, he had everything wrong.

The most popular books are not necessarily the best; many “crowd” favorites are barely readable.

When a writer develops an idea seedling into a full-branched finished piece (thereby sending it to an agent or publisher), at least eighteen months will pass before the literary masterpiece finds a home on a bookshelf, first in a store, then in homes.

That is the way of traditional book publishing. Although internet publishing can take a shorter time, editing and preparation can still take several months, hence, looking at what is popular now has  little relationship with what will be the newest and greatest “wave” when you are ready to publish your own writing.

Don’t Catch the Wave, Start One

Vampires, werewolves, zombies . . . all overdone and losing their popularity. To be fair, and regardless of what you think of her abilities, when Stephanie Meyer wrote Twilight, she did two things right:

She put a new twist on the vampire and werewolf story, and
She knew her audience

That’s why the book and series worked, and it is true of others who have started the next literary wave.

Develop an idea that has not been beaten to the grave, add a twist to a concept, and write. That is not to say a vampire, werewolf, or zombie story won’t sell, only that your tale will need to be exceedingly distinct from the already oversized crowd.

Perhaps a wolf that turns into a man every full moon would be unique enough to garner attention, but do you want to spend a year writing on a topic that agents and editors have tired of, so much so that they reject most during the query or synopsis without even attempting Chapter One?

I ran into this problem when the idea for The Returning, my fantasy novel, arrived in my frontal lobe.

Stories of immortals are fairly common, so I knew I had to offer a unique approach: I began with an immortal who wants to be dead (suicide is not an option, nor is simply being killed), and the plot grew from there. More unique aspects materialized during first draft, more during subsequent rewrites, leaving me with what I view as a one-of-a-kind story only I can write.

Consider a few stories that took common genre aspects and turned them inside out: Harry Potter (a wizard school), Hunger Games (post apocalyptic society where children are sacrificed to hold together a fragile peace), Game of Thrones (medieval fantasy that crystallized the Grim-Dark sub-genre), the movies, Cowboys and Aliens (Sci-Fi meets western) and Avatar (perfect blend of Sci-Fi and Fantasy)—there are many others that succeeded based on the radical change they made to existing story types.

You need to do the same.

See you on the next page,

Rick

P.S At the Book Faire, I bought nine books: oddly enough, three were books on the writing craft, three research novels, and likewise three novels. Not bad for $18, and all but one are like new.

Writing Quote:
“If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time — or the tools — to write. Simple as that.” – Stephen King

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More to Say About Dialogue

My most recent post, Much to be Said About Dialogue, touched on a few common problems (and how to fix them) when contemplating dialogue in your stories. One was the use of said as the go-to attribution to identify the speaker.

But said can be overused.

“I don’t want to go to the movies,” Justin said.
“You never want to see a movie,” Josie said. “How about dinner at that little seafood place on the pier?”
“Nah, the service is terrible,” he said.
“But the food’s good,” she said.

As a reader, boredom quickly sets in and casts a pall over the conversation and the story as a whole. Can you think of a worse response?

Once the characters are established within a conversation, the attributions and beats are only necessary if the back-and-forth is prolonged, in order to keep the reader “in place.”

In the example, tension exists but is minimal—conflict does not (and cannot) be earth-shattering all the time, but should be apparent at least as an undercurrent.

Rewriting the example conversation might look like this:

“I don’t want to go to the movies,” Justin said.
Josie sighed. “You never want to see a movie. How about dinner at that little seafood place on the pier?”
“Nah, the service is terrible.”
“So what do you want to do? The pub and a plate a fries, I suppose.”
His face lit up. “That’s a great idea.”
So much for a nice quiet night, just the two of us.

One of the main purposes of using dialogue attributions is showing who is speaking—the reader must never be confused. Adding character movements, beats, or thoughts helps make clear who is speaking; the reader will know the speaker and their emotional status, which should include tension. Differences in vocabulary, emphasis, and cadence will also help differentiate the characters.

Adding an -ly adverb to describe how the character is talking (Frank said nervously) weakens the character’s words. Here’s another type of attribution that will throw off a reader and scream amateur:

“You better not be going over to that boy’s house,” he snarled.
“Billy’s a nice boy,” she replied, “and he treats me good.”
“What do you know about it? You’re only fifteen.”
“I know enough,” she exclaimed.
“Don’t take that tone with me, young lady,” he said through gritted teeth.

Had enough? For one thing, people don’t snarl, dogs do; replied is redundant; if the girl in this encounter (supposedly the daughter) exclaims, let her do so, but don’t tell the reader.

Through gritted teeth. As a writer, you may be able to get away with that particular phrase once in a novel . . . maybe. Putting the action before the spoken words would be more effective:

He gritted his teeth. “Don’t take that tone with me, young lady.”

Add her reaction and you have a scene rife with tension. Or, even better, leave off the last beat and let the words speak for themselves—they show the rising emotions and tension during the exchange.

“You better not be going over to that boy’s house,” he said.
“Billy’s a nice boy, and he treats me good.”
“What do you know about it? You’re only fifteen.”
“I know enough!”
“Don’t take that tone with me, young lady.”

Smoother, wouldn’t you agree? Smooth transition from one character to another is the key to believable dialogue. And please, never this:

“How you doing?” Ralph asked. (asked is unnecessary because of the obvious question.)
“Great, you?”
“Fine, thanks. What did you do last night?”
“Stayed home and played video games. What’d you do?”

As a reader, do you care?

Believable and trustworthy dialogue in fiction is vital. Having your characters speak to one another accomplishes several things in relatively few words: adds depth and substance to the characters, an important aspect in the reader’s illusion that the “people” populating your stories are real and multi-dimensional; dialogue, and the white space breaking up long narrative blocks of print, allows the reader to catch a breath; people talking speeds up the prose, the action, and the plot.

The last point is invaluable. If while reading your story over and you find it’s dragging, adding dialogue moves the story into second gear.

Word of caution: don’t use dialogue to inform the reader information you deem necessary that the characters would already be aware of.

“As you know, Dobson, a person’s molecular structure changes when in space. Your experiments prove that space travel can also alter DNA, if only marginally.”

“That’s true, David, but it has only been tested while in orbit. What you are talking about is inter-planetary travel. There’s a difference.”

“Perhaps.”

I enjoy writing dialogue: it’s challenging, and when done right, brings to life the characters, their conflicts, and adds a robust flare to the other story parts.

Practice writing dialogue. Here’s a little exercise to open a well-spring of ideas:

“I know you love me, honey. I’m just not sure if you like me.”

See how many different paths a conversation begun this way might travel. A husband and wife? Lovers? Remove “honey” and have the conversation take place between a father and son, mother and daughter, or siblings—tension is inherent in these few words regardless of the cast of characters.

See you on the next page,

Rick

If you enjoyed this article, Sign up to follow Knights of Writ — Fiction Musings, and receive all future posts in your email. SHARE with fellow writers, and as always, comments are encouraged and highly appreciated.

Writing Quote:

Dialogue is not just quotation. It is grimaces, pauses, adjustments of blouse buttons, doodles on a napkin, and crossings of legs.” ~Jerome Stern, Making Shapely Fiction, 1991

Writing Links: Free stories and places to send your fiction:

Short Stories
Daily Science Fiction

 

Much To Be Said About Dialogue

In a previous post, The Making of a Hero, Part 2, I wrote that a character comes alive to the reader through four processes: their actions, descriptions (least preferable most times), their thoughts, and what they say (and to a degree how they speak).

He Said it Best

Dialogue gives readers insight to your character’s purposes, desires, and motivations, and thereby speaks volumes about who they are—Let them speak.

And use said most often. Said is an innocuous word passed over like the or a, connectors allowing the reader to focus on what’s really important in the sentence. In the case of dialogue, said gives the clarity of who is speaking each time. That’s its purpose.

The trouble looms—and foolishness follows—when the writer decides to add adverbs to explain what Frank said, or how.

“I didn’t know he’d come,” Frank said foolishly.

Who says Frank is being foolish? Is Frank the viewpoint character, or is it someone else, and why would either think his words are foolish?

The problem, you may realize, is that the writer of that sentence is telling the reader how to feel about Frank. When you use -ly adverbs to tell the how something is being said, you are in essence telling the reader that the character’s words do not accurately or wholly describe what you want them to feel.

Writing such a sentence is laziness. Although it may be fine as a “reminder” in the first draft of what you really want to say, that’s all it’s good for—Rewrite the sentence.

One way is to add an action beat or a thought.

“I didn’t think he’d come,” Frank said, feeling foolish.

Better yet, use sensory description to indicate Frank’s state of mind.

“I didn’t think he’d come,” Frank said, and felt his face flush.

Frank could lower his eyes, glance away, or any number of reactions that shows how he feels. Consider, though, that what you show may not be absolutely clear to the reader unless they have a good idea of Frank’s personality beforehand. Lowering his eyes, glancing away, even his face flushing could indicate Frank is shy rather than embarrassed or feeling foolish.

Said followed by an adverb, though grammatically correct, removes the power of the words spoken.

He said feverishly; she said poetically; they intoned simultaneously all say little. How do you say something feverishly? Are the words fast and furious, or is the character sweating? If your character is going to say something poetically, wouldn’t it be just that, a poem? Intoned simultaneously—you probably lost the reader here.

No Tension, No Reason

Dialogue has one of two functions that are always entwined: characterization and forward plot movement. Adding tension is critical to up the ante for your characters.

Gloria Kempton, in her book, Dialogue, from Writer’s Digest’s Write Great Fiction series, states the value of tension within dialogue this way:

“Dialogue’s purpose, and there is no exception to this, is to create tension in the present and build suspense for what’s to come.”

Can’t get any clearer about dialogue’s importance than that.

“I didn’t think he’d come,” Frank said, looking away.
What a fool. “Of course you knew he’d follow you.”

In this example, the viewpoint character is not Frank, and the VP’s reaction (their words and internal thoughts) speak to Frank’s character as well as their own while adding tension between the two. It’s always nice to have multiple layers within dialogue.

Character movements can often add to the words and a scene’s tone.

Dana adjusted the flowers in the vase, and glanced over her shoulder at Francis. “Ben must have gone to the cabin in the middle of a work week for a reason.”

Depending on your story (has Ben gone missing, was he found murdered at the cabin, or caught in an affair?), Dana’s words hint at a tension, asking the question why Ben was at the cabin when he should have been at work.

Dana stared the bay window, focused on nothing but the one question that kept rattling through her head. “Why did Ben go to the cabin when he had an important appointment scheduled at 2 PM?”

This example shows distraction and concern: again, tension underscores her speech.

Making Speech True

Another point: watch to make sure your characters speak according to their environment and time period. Today few people say “groovy” although it was quite popular among the counter-culture of the 60’s and 70’s, and in the same way someone from the JFK period would not refer to “virtual reality.”

And, for your reader’s sake, do not give a character warped speech (even if it’s what you want to imply) by having them say, “Took me youngins down fir to the wat’rin hole cuzin’ they’s be wantin’ ta swim.” This becomes tedious quickly.

Instead, use only one or two “triggers” to indicate dialect: “Took me youngins to the watering hole ’cause they wanted be swimmin’ ” does a much better job, and doesn’t force the reader to work so hard.

And sometimes a zinger is the perfect fit.

“You could have said it different.”
“What, like gentle?”
“At least a little softer.”
“To save her feelings?” She nodded. “Sure, I could have sympathized, told her I understood it’s hard to leave, but that’s just another person giving her a reason to stay. I told her the truth, tomorrow she could be wheeled out under a pressed white sheet.”

Most of all, have fun writing dialogue. Think of the back-and-forth of a conversation, one character needling for answers while another is trying to save face or protect something or someone.

For a deeper study of dialogue, I recommend Gloria Kempton’s book mentioned and Character, Emotions, and Viewpoint by Nancy Kress (also within the Write Great Fiction series).

See you on the next page,

Rick

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“Every writer I know has trouble writing.” ~Joseph Heller

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