Writing: Scene business, style, and dialogue
Viewpoint is one the most important aspects of writing. It is the eye through which readers see your work. Creating a strong viewpoint “presence” within your story relies on several related narrative techniques. One of the most important is the handling of character interactions and specifically dialogue.
Related to dialogue, one of the most common problems in beginning writing is the “talking head” syndrome. Essentially, characters in a scene begin talking, and after some discourse, we lose track of who’s talking, where we are, and what the characters speaking are doing.
This is usually because the writer is aware of repeats in dialogue attribution, so they try to compensate by cutting away tags—resulting in lots of “floating” quotes. Another way beginners will compensate is with “swifties” and myriad variations and synonyms for the word ‘said’. Swifties are adverbial modifiers for attributions. Examples: “he said hotly”, “she said cooly”, “he said quickly”, “she said tartly”, etc. Used in moderation, these aren’t so bad. When we start seeing several per page though, they stop being color and the affect becomes both diluted and annoying. More importantly, while they might describe how something is spoken—they are more tell than show.
The last dialogue symptom, that of ‘said synonyms’, is a result of synaptic damage caused by too much direct contact with a thesaurus—(just kidding). ‘Said synonyms’ are like swifties, they’re okay in moderation (one, maybe two per page). When every attribution is ‘he snarled’, ‘she snapped’, ‘he interjected’, ‘she declared’, ‘he asserted’, ‘she affirmed’, ‘he announced’ this is something that shouts beginner! There are better and more effective ways to handle dialogue and character interaction. So, let’s get to it.
Let’s start with one little rule to keep in mind.
The word “said” is perfectly okay. It’s a nice—very innocuous word. It’s a word that most people who read fiction barely even register as their eye passes over it. That’s a good thing. The less noticed the better. If some other context doesn’t already identify the speaker, go ahead and use ‘he said’ or ‘she said’ to identify who is doing the talking. It’s all right—really.
Moving on to scenes where dialogue will take place. Before handling the scene itself let’s do some preparation.
FIRST, we want there to be some dynamic elements in the scene besides the characters. If this is a private scene, in a quiet place— any environmental cue will work; crickets chirping outside, a cold draft of air causing the drapes to flutter, some smell or anything else that heightens our sense of place. The slats of the bed can creak, floorboards can groan, or the moan of bricks as the building settles. The real world is dynamic—rarely is it devoid of some sound or sensation. Your world should be the same way. Think about the setting where the scene is taking place. If you were there, what sounds, smells, tastes, visuals and feelings would you note? Make a list of these sensory details—then consider the ones your viewpoint character might note. Choose this list carefully, because what details the person picks up on will characterize them. Keep this list on hand for when you start polishing the finished scene— it will become important.
SECOND,set the stage. You are the director. In the movies, rarely is a scene shot straight on. The camera is usually at an angle or pans around the characters. As a writer, you can simulate these dynamics and can do something else they do in Hollywood— use stage props. Rarely are characters alone in a scene without a phone, a knife, something. People talk with their hands and bodies as much or more than with their mouths. When a warrior reaches down and grips his sword white knuckled and glares at someone—he/she has communicated. No words are spoken, but a message is sent. This kind of indirection is an extremely valuable tool. It cannot be stressed enough how key this can be to effective and stylish storytelling.
Props: make them a part of the scene and use them. Props can be fiddled with, gestured with, massaged, tapped, crunched— all of them can put an otherwise static character in motion. Motion is good. Characters should never sit still unless the stillness—such as “freezing” in surprise—is a mechanism in itself.
THIRD, tagging the characters themselves. We just talked about props for characters to play with. Let’s build on that idea for the characters. Clothing, jewelry, hair, scars— anything that sets that character off from others is GOOD. These tags help us not only to visualize the person, but also to identify them. A simple example: one female character in a group is always portrayed as wearing bells. It’s dark in a room and the main character cannot see. He can hear though—he hears bells that jingle to a stop nearby and he hears a feminine voice. We don’t have to identify the speaker now. We might add— “a familiar feminine voice said from on his right.” This is especially good, because the reader is being invited to fill in the rest.
With our scene preparations taken care of, time needs to be spent considering methods for making the character interactions interesting and dynamic. Unless it’s a short exchange, never have two characters simply discuss something. Always break up the material somehow. Another character can interrupt—sounds can cause the characters to look up. Do whatever you can to vary the rhythm of the interchanges.
Try to make characters have noticeably different speech patterns. This doesn’t take much. If one character uses a particular curse, or they always speak in third person. Patterns can be used simulate dialect without using ‘ symbols all the time. Even something as simple as the character always puts the verb before the noun so they have sentences like: “Go we to the mountain”, “leave us now”, “Going away am I”. Simplistic—yes, it is. Simple is good. The more easily identifiable a pattern is, the less you will have to attribute it.
In more mainstream fiction, where characters are not quite as exotic, the writer is left with cultural and racial differences. These can be reflected in the dialogue, and the patterns are more distinct than many realize. If you’re having problems, get a source—live or recorded—practice the dialogue aloud until you can hear it in your head and capture it on paper. Whether it’s a wee bit a the Irish, a dose o Scottish, or a scent of zee French—the essence can be captured with a few simple word choices and an occasional intentional word misspelling. Go light, complete authenticity is not the goal. Focus on simply having enough flavor, that the words provide an easily identifiable cue and clue as who is speaking.
Take note that everything we’ve discussed are tools you put in your tool box. They are energy you will use to pump into the scene. The more visual and interesting the details, the more spark it will put into the interactions you depict. When you are creating the cast for your book or story, giving them traits that can be exploited in this fashion will provide a bounty of visual and sensory “beats” that will anchor the reader.
Before doing some examples, lets summarize the tools in the toolbox and add some additional dialogue and scene guidelines.
- Be mindful of environmental cues – and USE them in a scene to occasionally remind us where we are.
- Set the stage, and give the characters props to interact with, and make use of them to strengthen their presence in the scene.
- If characters don’t already have identifying tags, figure out what significant details you can use to set each character apart from the others in the current scene.
- “Said” is OKAY.
- Differentiate speech patterns.
- Gestures and motion serve as dialogue attribution.
- Vary the rhythm of the exchanges in the scene. Break up any monotony with discord, sensory details, and environmental reminders. The real world is full of distractions. Make your world real too—again (as always) maintain moderation.
- When voices change pitch, register, or tone—let us know. Don’t say—he said “angrily”. SHOW US. Give the stiffening of the man’s body, his face turning red, the dropping of his voice, and the clenching of his fists. That is how vivid storytelling is done.
- When the intent of dialogue is other than the dialogue suggests, give us the character’s expression, or some kind of visual context that clues us to the emotional register at work. Example: John sighed and shook his head. “Oh sure, this’ll be loads of fun.”
- Physical contact is one of the strongest kinds of human communication. Lovers and friends demonstrate their closeness by touch. Do not underestimate the power of this mechanism for visually reminding us not only of the presence of significant “others” but to reinforce their relationship to the viewpoint character. Note: This rule can work very well in reverse— the character isolated from contact.
- Eyes are marvelous tools in scenes. Much can be “said” with a simple raise of an eyebrow and no dialogue at all. (Look what it did for Mr. Spock!) Eyes can narrow. They can flash. They can mist over. DON’T OVERDO IT! Watch out for disembodied eyes that “follow people around”, that slide up legs or down deep cut blouses. The eyes don’t do this—a person’s gaze might—but their eyes stay in their skull (at least we hope so).
- Hands speak as loud as any words. Be mindful of what a character’s hands are doing. Characters can emphasize with them, they can threaten, they can plead. Yelling “Why me!?” doesn’t have half as much effect without the visual of the gaze turned toward the sky and the arms flung out to either side.
- When used sparingly, the EM dash (— or in manuscripts –) is an effective dialogue tool that helps simulate broken or interrupted speech. Characters interrupting and overriding each other in a scene give the narrative more punch and realism.
“You can’t! It’s not—”
“Fair?” Celia interrupted. “Who said it had to be fair?”
- Remember attitude. In every scene, characters will play roles and serve different functions—passive, aggressive, instigator, or instigated. Opposition is key to maintaining the energy of the scene. Consider two men, friends for years. their banter is often faintly abusive. It’s simply part of male machismo, and an aggressive trait of human nature. The characters don’t have to fight, but play up the tension and give us the possibility of anger or insult, characters looking for hidden agendas, guessing at hidden meanings and intent.
- LESS is MORE. You’ve heard it before—it’s still true. Remember tension—especially large amounts of it—is hard to maintain. Paint your scene, satisfy your agenda, and move on. A scene can be perfect right up to the point it begins to drag. You have to cut away before that happens.
Putting it all together
We have the tools, let’s see if we can’t put them to use. Apologies to folks who don’t read fantasy or science fiction. It’s what I write. However, style and technique is universal to fiction. While the rules and content may be different, the tools used to put the reader in the story are the same. Any writing “authority” who tells you they aren’t “qualified” to provide feedback on your work based on its genre has questionable credentials as a teacher.
Genre is an issue of taste, not one of style or technique. I might be bored to tears by a fictionalization of someone’s autobiography. I might never have read one. I can still tell the writer when a piece of description is unclear or a transition is too abrupt. It is true that each genre has its unique pitfalls and rules. Someone well read and versed in your genre’s intricacies should eventually review your material to address those particular issues. The biggest concern, that of how well the story is portrayed, any good writer or editor can evaluate. If you didn’t do a good job creating an immersive piece, what value is there in knowing that you didn’t follow guideline x for your target market?
Critique on your material should be based solely on how well you tell the story. Suggestions should involve how to make the story more vivid and engaging. The content—what the story is about—should be between you and the editor interested in buying it. Period. The only valid comment is in this area is whether the content will sell. Even that no-one can accurately predict anymore—the bookshelves are full of books I would put down after the second paragraph. Somebody bought those—someone might buy yours.
Note: In this first example. Annawen’s dialogue is handled with ‘<’ and ‘>’ instead of standard quotes. This scene is late in the material long after I established that when she “speaks” other people hear it in their head (telepathy). The ‘<’ and ‘>’ are a visual tag that immediately identify her as the one communicating.
I picked this scene because it has attitude. It’s not a fight, in fact it’s like a love scene turned sideways. Both characters communicate their feelings verbally and visually and we know how they feel. Interestingly enough—the word ‘said’ never appears in the whole passage.
Here’s a little handling of dialect and speech patterns to keep an exchange interesting.
Now lets go for something completely different.
Without apparent concern, Idun greeted Odin’s charge with shoulders back and chin up. She toyed with her hair, and brushed at her armor as though the approach of this assemblage of juggernauts was nothing but a harmless parade.
Odin stormed at the group looking as if he would ride right over them.
“Don’t flinch,” Idun’s voice whispered in Bannor’s ear, even over the deafening crash of the Aesir’s charge. He guessed Idun spoke to them all because Sarai jerked at the same time he heard her voice. Resolve hardened the expressions of the others.
From a full gallop, the massive war-god boomed to a stop only a pace from the goddess. Rocks and dirt bounced around her feet and a thick cloud of dust drifted over everyone. The eight-legged beast tossed its head and snorted, its breath making Idun’s hair flutter. Behind them, Tymoril and Kegari growled.
Winged helmet pulled low on his head, and a jeweled patch over one eye, the craggy-faced Allfather glared at them, his single blue eye flashing. He slammed his giant war spear Grungir point down into the turf at Idun’s feet.
On Odin’s right, one-handed Tyr reined in, his russet mane of hair and braided mustaches threaded with bones. On the left, Loki had halted his horse, and stared at them with folded arms. A goddess in gold robes that Bannor guessed was Odin’s wife Frigga held up directly behind the leader. A bald god with a smooth blocky face halted at her side. Decorated in an entire arsenal of weaponry, he wore nothing more than a pair of dark breeches to cover his rippling physique.
Bannor guessed that he must be Thor’s brother Vidar, the warrior Euriel warned them about. His role appeared to be protecting Frigga. Seven more deities made up the Aesir war party, five more men, and two women. Bannor didn’t know their names, or anything about them except they all looked capable—powerful—each one able to rip apart a continent if they desired.
“Idun,” Odin spoke her name in a voice that sounded like a roll of thunder. He raised his chin and arcs of lightning danced around him. “You stand your ground like one confident of winning.”
The corner of the goddess’ mouth quirked. “I stand my ground like someone who hasn’t done anything wrong.” She sniffed. “That and because we will win.”
“Insanity!” Tyr blared, raising a war axe. “Milord let me—“
“Silence!” Odin halted Tyr’s tirade with a raised fist. Blue fire crackled around his hands as he stared at their group. “Idun, your perfidy is complete…” As he spoke, Loki rose in the saddle with a smirk. “By collaborating in the slaying of your immortal kin, Hella, you have sealed your fate and that of all who willingly served you. It is our honor-bound duty to cleanse the Aesir of your murderous presence—“
“What—?” Daena burst out in a voice so loud that it stopped even Odin. “Not this nonsense again! Know wherefore you speak, lord all father. She can’t have killed Hella—because Hella isn’t dead!”
Idun looked back at Daena with a raised eyebrow, then glanced at Odin.
He drew himself up, a vein pulsing in his temple. “What manner of foolishness is this? Hella is dead, Loki has seen it for himself.”
Daena put hands on hips. “Oh, right, you believe him!?” A fist seized Bannor’s chest as Deana stomped forward, shoving past Jord to stand within reach of Odin. “You only took his word because it suited you. Well, I have had enough!” Flames erupted in her eyes. “You posturing blackguards won’t disguise your agendas by pretending some righteous defense of my memory!” She swung her arms up as if tossing off a garment. Daena’s form shredded away like a snake’s old skin as another larger shape split it apart—the imposing figure of Hella. Her hair turned to flames, and shadows wrapped around her body. Sparks flashed from fingers that now ended in talons.
Chest heaving, she brandished a fist at Odin and swung around to glare at Loki. Her voice took on an echoing quality that resounded across the field, snapping like a rimy gale. “Do I look dead to you cretins?! Do I?! I started my life over to escape the petty squabbling of you blustering self-righteous thugs and your insipid bellicose arrogance. If you have a grievance against Idun that must be resolved by bloodshed—so be it. All my strength is with her. So, if I am dead this day. Odin will be my killer—not Idun. The High Jury should withdraw support of this self-serving injustice before irrevocable harm is done.” She pointed a glowing finger at the gods behind Odin. “You are warned.”
She spun on her heel and strode back toward the group.
Eyes wide, Idun stared at the other goddess. “Hella?”
The flaming apparition didn’t respond, she moved stiffly past Idun and Jord. With each step she shrank, a green light flickering around her body. By the time she stood by Bannor and Sarai, she had returned to her identity as Daena. Bannor stared at the young woman. He hoped that Idun wouldn’t learn of the duality she shared with Hella. Now, it appeared Hella was more alive in her than they guessed! Sarai tightened her grip on his arm, gaze shifting from him to the girl. Daena turned and faced the enemy, hazel eyes glinting in anger.
Even Odin was struck speechless for a moment. The gods in his contingent murmured and stirred. The Allfather glowered at Loki who shrank back with a dismayed expression.
Odin’s jaw set. Straightening in his saddle, he squared his shoulders. “We are neither amused, nor fooled by this trick. The penalty for slaying an immortal is execution of the perpetrator and all associated. Sentence to be carried out immediately. Our word is law. We have spoken.” He nodded to Tyr.
The one-handed god stiffened, a moment of doubt registered in his expression as he met Odin’s gaze. A distant rumble grew stronger as the two gods eyed one another. After a moment, Tyr sagged in resignation.
“Kill them,” he growled, gesturing with his axe. “Kill them all.”
Granting that all of these examples are out of context, the majority of the action and what the characters are doing is both clear and visual. In the last example, there are more than a dozen characters interacting.
Purists might find some looseness in the example prose, but what beginners and experts alike should focus on is the visual and visceral techniques at work. Notice that people move, they gesture, the quality of their voices are described, emotion is communicated not only in the dialogue but in the body language as well. The details of characters, even late in the story are still reinforced for the sake visual clarity and simply to remind the reader. Another key element is, that while there is a great deal of description, it is done in action, through a character’s viewpoint. The story doesn’t come to a screeching halt while the omniscient narrator chimes in to tell us about it. The details and description are given to us “in-line” or “on-the-run” as the story is unfolding, one or two details at a time—or a short paragraph if the action and visuals are complex.
All of the techniques together have a significant impact on storytelling, both making characters more vibrant and giving the story itself greater texture and life.
Simply put—good story is shown not told. Well-written exposition with strong voice can entertain, but vivid and visual narrative from a clear and dynamic viewpoint can enthrall. The moment we as readers are drawn into the story—the moment we suspend disbelief. . . we are hooked.
Getting the reader hooked is what fine fiction is all about.