Monday Challenge: That’s What She Said

Yup.

I’m putting words in someone’s mouth. Again.

Just another part of the job, along with making floor plans for places that don’t exist and getting on a government watch list with every Google search. Writing fiction is telling someone else’s story in our words. Ever wonder how much of it we get right? Or, more interestingly, how much of it we get wrong?

Readers of Stephen King’s novella collection Different Seasons will remember this motto: “It is the tale, not he who tells it.” But the teller has their part to play as well. After all, what is Nabokov’s Lolita without its fundamentally untrustworthy narrator? And I bet Vader had a different take on the lava fight than Obi-Wan.* There’s more than one side to every story, certainly, but there’s also the difference between the events as they happened and the story that is told.

Hell, we don’t even have to go that far afield. You mom probably tells the stories of your youth differently than you do. How often have you interrupted a friend who was attempting to tell a story of which you are a part? That’s not how it happened, you say. Let me tell it.Here’s how it really went…

And who’s right?

Hard to say, without a memory machine. And even then, things are open to interpretation. Which is part of the fun.

Monday Challenge, should you choose to accept it: write a character telling someone else’s story. How well do they do it? Do they get it right? Do they even try? Are they trying to make themselves look good at someone else’s expense? Or are they just doing the best they can?

*Did anyone else find that part super fucking weird? “Oh hey, you’re terribly injured and in a lot of pain. Think I’ll leave you here to die slowly. And I’m the good guy!”

Monday Challenge: Hey, I’m Talking To You!

DIAF, you creepy little git.

It’s amazing that people ever manage to talk.

Ever listened to conversations? I mean really listened? Half the time, you’d swear that the people involved aren’t even talking about the same thing. They wander, repeat themselves, subtly try to shift the conversation back to their own concerns, forget what they were about to say…

Considering that we’re a species that prizes communication, I don’t know how we get anything done.

But in fiction it’s different.* In fiction, people are on point. Not so much that they’re Conversation Robots**, but it’s a little more controlled. And it has to be; fiction, like spice, must flow.

One way you can do that is to make your character’s voices distinctive. You should know it’s them talking without a dialogue tag; leave out the “he said, she said, it said” and you’d still have a pretty good idea of who was speaking. It’s not all about accents, either, though that can play a part. Better way to get there is to use grammar and sentence structure. Which is what an accent really is, but never mind that. Also: try using distinctive words. I know people who use ‘listen’***, ‘massive’, ‘really’, and ‘you see’ more than most. Kind of like verbal tics.

A great way to polish this skill? Poach from your friends. Because you talk to them on a regular basis, you’re more likely to notice distinctive speech patterns. For example, if someone wanted to imitate me, they’d have to drop pronouns at the beginning of a sentence. “Just the way things are” instead of “It’s just the way things are.”**** And swear. More swearing.

Your Monday Challenge: write two characters talking—or more than two, if you’re feeling ambitious—with no dialogue tags. Make their voices as distinctive as possible so that the tags aren’t needed. You should not get the speakers confused with each other. I don’t care what they talk about—death, taxes, who ate all the snacks, the problem with these love-lorn robots all over the place—but make sure they talk as themselves.

You have your marching orders. Dismissed. *Salutes*

*Most of the time. There are authors who use the hyper-realistic model of conversations, but it’s rarely pulled off well. Usually it just confuses the reader. Conversations in fiction are conversations distilled.
**Like Conversation Hearts, but more metal-ly. DOES THAT UNIT FEEL POSITIVELY TOWARD THIS UNIT QUERY.
***Like that goddamn fairy in Legend of Zelda.
****What can I say? I like efficiency.

The Art of Fake Conversation

Detail

So then I said, “That’s no garden gnome, that’s my husband!” (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

You ever really listen to a conversation? A real life one? Especially if the two—or more—participants don’t know each other that well? Man, it gets fucking confusing in there. If you took what each person was saying in isolation, you might find it tricky to trace the actual thread of the conversation they all think they’re having. What relates this anecdote about the bishop’s wife to that one about  the best place to hunt in the Rockies? Often, not much. Because most people don’t actually have conversations, by which I mean an exchange of ideas and opinions with considered responses to each other. People, especially strangers or others outside the circle of your heart, tend to just…talk. About themselves, about other stuff. It all masses into an amorphous word-blob that is hard to pin down with a subject.

So: how do we translate this to writing? Do we meander and non-reply and tell unimportant stories, because that’s how real people talk and we need that ring of veracity? Or do we make things more focused but also more unrealistic?

My two cents: stories are not real life. They should be less of a mirror held up to Life and more of a lens through which it gets focused. So conversations in stories should be like real-life one, but boiled down. Reduced. Concentrated. Until they serve the story’s ends. People should talk with purpose. They should have something they want out of that conversation, and they should either get it or not, but there should be desire and drive. They shouldn’t just flail around and waste a lot of space talking about stuff that doesn’t either advance plot or illustrate character.

There are other opinions out there, and hell knows there’s enough books that take the more hyper-realistic route and include conversations in all their wandering, realistic glory. And that can be good, in moderation. Especially if it makes a point about how people don’t communicate effectively. But, for my money, trim that shit like an overgrown hedge. Reduce it until it’s sharp as an arrow. Don’t make the reader wade through a lot of ineffectual nonsense to find the point of all this.

Or at least make the digression about the bishop’s wife really fucking funny.

(Housekeeping Notice: I’m taking a week off from the blog in order to finish up some other projects that have languished in the Land of The Half-Done for too long. No new posts next week, and comments will likely get moderated at a slower pace than usual. Behave yourselves while I’m gone.)

 

Monday Challenge: The Voices

Tin Foil Hat

New in Autumn Writer Fashion…(Photo credit: James Provost)

(The following post has been translated from Early Monday Morning Sleepy-Brain Language. Be grateful. The original was entirely curse words.)

Do you ever talk to yourself?

I do. All the time. Admittedly, not as much now as when I was a kid, when I would occasionally be caught holding absent-minded conversations with myself in the grocery store.* Now when I do it I’m either a) trying to figure out something or b) trying out dialogue for characters. I don’t know that either of these options makes the habit healthier, but at least it serves a purpose, right?

Dialogue is the biggest one. Writing is in part acting—you have to find the voice of the character in order to write them with any conviction. You have to walk in their skin for a little while, even if—especially if—the idea of doing so makes your skin crawl. You have to speak with their voice. So sometimes I do.** While pacing around my living room. I don’t have a tinfoil hat yet, but it’s only a matter of time.

In the meantime, the new novel means lots of new characters. Which means lots of walking around the living room muttering to myself. And when I’m done with the muttering, I write test scenes.

Think of it like this: the character is a costume. You can design a costume, see it, draw it out, even cut out the pieces and sew it together. But until you try it on you’ll never know how it fits. If it’s too tight or too loose somewhere. If maybe it needs a little padding or some pockets. Then you can make adjustments if you need them.

Your characters are the same. So I encourage you to try them on for size before starting to write The Real Story in earnest. This week’s Monday Challenge is to write a test scene for one of your characters. Doesn’t have to be part of the story; after all, these people had lives before the events started. Some of them might even have lives after. But try them out for a scene or so, get some dialogue going. Really slip into that character’s skin. See how they fit. Figure out what’s missing, or what’s unnecessary.

And when you’re done, take them off and hang them in a closet, and know that you can slip back into them any time you need to.

*I sometimes wonder how often my parents considered pretending I was someone else’s kid and just walking away.
**I just realized I was talking to myself while I tried to think of the next line of this post. Guess I was in character as Blog Writer.

Monday Challenge: The Yearly Conversation

Autumn leaves sceenario.

It’s that time of year again. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Happy Labour Day, you working class writers. I don’t know about your particular climate, but here it’s sunny with just a touch of coolness. Harbinger of the coming change.

I’ve always liked Labour Day. Maybe it’s because it comes right after my birthday, so on some years it feels like my birthday becomes a holiday weekend*. Maybe it’s because I was one of those weird kids that looked forward to the start of school. Maybe it’s that it’s the start of autumn. Of my mind, I mean, not in the astronomical sense. In here the leaves have already turned.

Holidays are a funny time in any event. Everyone’s got traditions that go with them. Maybe the last family BBQ of the year. Maybe time to close up the cottage for the winter. Maybe leaving My Little Pony figures in your neighbour’s yard**.

Or maybe this is the time of year that you set aside for having a particular conversation.

Picture it. Two people on the grass. Leaves are already falling around them. There’s walkers on the trails nearby, but right here it’s just them. They’ve made time for this, just like they did last year, and the year before. Just like they probably will next year, unless things have changed. They know it probably won’t be a comfortable conversation; there’s too many things at play. But it’s time for a decision to be made again, and this is the anniversary of their first decision on the matter. So they meet, and talk, and decide. For one more year.

Today’s Holiday Monday Challenge: write that conversation.

*AS IT SHOULD BE.
**On a related note, if anyone in my neighbourhood is missing Pinkie Pie, she’s on my porch.