Elysia: Pure Heaven
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Some Notes on Characters, Narrative & Dialogue
It's easy to forget some of these points or dismiss them as patently obvious. I have this up here for *me*, so I don't forget these when trying to betaread or revise my own work. Don't bug me about copyright, blah blah blah then I'll just take it down. Direct quotes are in dark blue, passages I've made up or modified using Gundam Wing characters in dark green. I seriously doubt that my little homepage is going to affect book sales anyway.

Caveat: Editing mode is significantly different from writing mode. Forget all this stuff when you're in the grip of the creative muse, and just write!

Breathing Life Into Characters
Telling vs. Showing
Realistic Dialogue

Breathing Life Into Characters

Here's a tidbit from Chapter 7 in Creating Characters: How to Build Story People by Dwight V. Swain. The Breath of Life - How do you bring a character to life? You make the character reveal emotion. OK a lot of things the author says here seems to be pretty self evident, but it wouldn't hurt to review some basic concepts.

To summarize:

  1. Need conflict. It's easier to work with a main character who's trying to accomplish something but is frustrated.
  2. To accomplish things, a character must feel like doing something, or not doing something.
  3. Create emotion in the character by feeling the emotion yourself.
    --- Live through the moment, experience tension, dryness of mouth, smell of dust, sweat or tobacco or burning bacon.
    --- Select and arrange the feelings for your character for greater impact.
  4. Create characters readers will like. Characters who are similar to the readers in terms of attitudes, standards and beliefs, things we feel to be important. Yet, the character must be like us, and more.
    --- a quality that we all wish we had but frequently do not. This is courage.

Narrative: Telling vs. Showing

Another book I just bought today is Description, by Monica Wood. There's a very good chapter that explains the difference between showing and telling. To my chagrin, it said, 'Show, don't tell' is merely a guideline for beginning writers, not a rule. A good story can be 'told' as well as 'shown', and usually a combination of the two techniques yields the most satisfying descriptions.

Here are the examples Wood uses in her book.

Version One - Narrative (Telling):
Alice was a timid young woman who looked like a mouse. She was short and skinny, with brown hair, small eyes and a pointed face. She always peeked inside the doorway before entering a party, thus giving herself a chance to flee in case she saw no one she knew.

Version Two - Scene (Showing):
Alice hovered at the door of Everett's apartment, chin lifted, tiny feet balanced on their toes. She peered inside, shriking at the loudness of Everett's new stereo. She breathed quickly, her black eyes darting back and forth, as if keeping her face in motion might prevent her from toppling over. When she finally spotted the wide-grinning Everett approaching, she scurried to the punch bowl, her flat shoes making a scritching sound on the polished wood.

Then Wood points out that "too much telling can flatten your story, too much showing can overwhelm it." A combination of showing and telling is usually best.

Version Three - Combination
Alice stood at the door of Everett's apartment with all the self-possession of a field mouse. Hands clasped at the waist, she stood on tiptoe and peered inside to see who she might know.

When to use narrative (telling) and when to use scene (showing)?
Use narrative to:

Instead of writing a full-scale scene in which a young couple worries about how to tell their folks about their recent elopement you could dispatch the information through a line or two of narrative: 'On the way home they decided to tell her parents, who were the soft-spoken ones, and leave his blustering parents in the dark.'

Use scenes to:

Instead of telling the readers that a character is painfully shy, you might shape a scene around that shyness: for instance, somebody could challenge the shy character's religious beliefs while she's minding her own business in the grocery line.

Realistic Dialogue

Again from the book Creating Characters, Swain makes some good arguments for adding more dialogue.

  1. It's easier to read.
  2. Watch people browsing at the bookstore - usually they'll pause at a broken page, one with lots of white space, vs. a solid page, blocky with copy. A page with dialogue has lots of white space.
  3. Dialogue means more drama.
Characteristics of good dialogue
  1. Words and the manner in which they are said individualize the characters.
  2. Good dialogue not only conveys info but reveals and build emotion.
  3. Dialogue of agreement is dull. Disagreement and conflict call for more development, conflict calls for more emotion.
  4. Strive for the provocative line.

There was also a useful chapter entitled Description and Dialogue, from the same book by Wood. Description and dialogue are like Venne diagrams. Neither is better than the other.

General rules of thumb:

Direct dialogue: "Heeeeeeeeero!!! Why won't you look at me! I'm pregnant!" Relena announced. Advantage? Gives the reader a better sense of the character's personality.

Indirect dialogue: Clutching her blossoming belly, Relena announced her pregnancy in a voice loud enough to make everyone in a ten mile radius flinch. Advantage? Gives writer more room to use own language for description.

Combo is effective when the scene is too long and filled with details that don't need to be shown when you're trying to make a point: "I don't believe in violence," she said, "because I'm a pacifist." She then went on to threaten Une with a gun, and ordered Heero to kill her brother Zechs.

Descriptive interruptions are generally a good thing because conversations in real life are always accompanied by action, whether it's walking, mailing a letter, or just scratching your nose. Descriptions can be in the form of full narrative breaks, but usually are briefer, like 1) dialogue tags and 2)gestural pauses.

1) Dialogue Tags
DO: "she said"; DON'T: "she said, sadly". Avoid adding adverbs like happily, crossly, etc. This is a more awkward, heavy handed way of getting the emotion across. It should be clear from the dialogue itself or the action.

Mediocre: "Not in this lifetime," he said angrily.
Better: "Not in this lifetime," he said, shoving her aside.

2) Gestural Pauses
Gestural pauses can crowd out the dialogue if used too often. Don't use the same kind of tag over and over. The best way to learn effective dialogue is to look at an author whose dialogue you admire. Chances are you'll find some lines tagged, some modified with a phrase or full-sentence pause, and many others left to stand alone.

Using dialogue to describe a setting:

"Pheeeew, this place smells like the collective armpit of humanity. He probably hasn't seen the inside of a shower in ages!" Duo said.

Using dialogue to describe a setting by what the characters don't say:

"It's not exactly Buckingham Palace," Quatre coughed.

One last thing I've kinda copied...her examples illustrating why adding description to dialogue is important. I modified the original scenes a bit, and inserted GW characters. It's not just enough to write dialogue, you have to add to it. A dramatically different effect in all 3 examples below, with the exact same dialogue.

Version 1 - No description, just dialogue.


"I can't hear you."

"Duo, listen to me-"

"I saw Relena this morning. She had some very interesting news."

"She's never been balanced...where I'm concerned. You know that. It's not her fault, she can't help herself."

"Really? She seems to think she's going to marry you."

"Nani? Duo, you know I don't even like the girl. I respect her but I'd never want to marry her. Where did she get that idea?"

"How long have you been seeing her?"

Version 2 - Dialogue + Description A

Heero opened the door gingerly. "Duo."

Duo looked up from Deathscythe's cockpit, "I can't hear you," he said. He set his chin and went back to work. Dozens of tools, and wires lay in a heap at his elbow.

"Duo, listen to me-"

He picked up a laser cutter and began to solder some circuits together. "I saw Relena this morning. She had some very interesting news."

"She's never been balanced," Heero said. He moved closer, his senses hyperaware. The hiss-snap of the laser in Duo's hands. The smell of ozone. The sheen of light in Duo's hair. "You know that. It's not her fault, she can't help herself."

"Really?" Duo said, pointing the cutter. "She seems to think she's going to marry you."

"Nani? Duo, you know I don't even like the girl. I respect her but I'd never want to marry her. Where did she get that idea?"

"How long have you been seeing her?" Duo held up the cutter and began making little circles in the air. Heero shifted, putting the pile of tools between them.

Version 2 - Dialogue + Description B

Heero burst into the hangar and planted himself behind his partner. "Duo."

Duo looked at the broken innards of his gundam. "I can't hear you."

"Duo, listen to me-" he said, and made a grab for the braid.

Feeling the familiar tug, Duo went unnaturally still. They stood like that for a long moment until Heero released him. Duo relaxed fractionally, and retreated to the other side of Deathscythe's platform to rummage for a beer. "I saw Relena this morning. She had some very interesting news."

"She's never been balanced where I'm concerned." Heero picked up a laser cutter and abruptly slammed it into the concrete like a dagger. "You know that. It's not her fault, she can't help herself."

Duo turned, folded his arms as if steeling himself. "Really? She seems to think she's going to marry you."

Heero began to redden. "Nani? Duo, you know I don't even like the girl. I respect her but I'd never want to marry her. Where did she get that idea?"

Duo let out a breath. "How long have you been seeing her?"

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  • Writing - by: Yoruko
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    Fanfic Quote/Excerpt of the Moment:

    The whistles blared, the wheels clattered, and steam shot out from the braking mechanisms of both trains as they tried to slow down, but Heero had picked a spot far enough inside the tunnel that the effect would be minimized, and the wind force enjoyed to its full extent. It was perfectly calculated, a perfect mix of security and excitement, of serenity peppered with shots of adrenaline. Heero leaned forward, and at the exact point in time where each of the two trains shot past them on a different side, creating a miniature cyclone to which both boys were purposely oblivious, he pulled Duo even closer, and kissed him.
    --Bridlewood Manor by Mitsugi [Mitsu Gallery]
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    This Page Last Updated: Thursday, 19-Jun-2003 01:29:14 CDT
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