Digging for Words

One writer's quest to bring the past to life through imagination


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He Said, She Said

Great dialogue tips from Writers Circle Associate Director, Michelle Cameron:

Writing dialogue is a critical aspect of fiction and memoir, and many writers struggle with it. So in a recent class, we considered what factors could comprise a successful section of dialogue. As we do in many of these more technical discussions, we deconstructed a few passages of published work. We’ll use some of them in this post to help us extract some guidelines for writing dialogue:
He said She said
Dialogue should never happen in a vacuum.

        “Oh, I wish I knew what I’m supposed to do with that child!” She took a deep breath: “I’m absolutely at the end of my rope.” She gave the shower curtain an x-ray like look.
                – Franny and Zooey,
                  J. D. Salinger

Note how the speaker gives that shower curtain a piercing glance. Placing your characters in a setting – and reminding us of that setting with simple cues, like sipping from a coffee cup or turning to look out a window, will keep us grounded in the story.

Your character’s personality should infuse the way he or she speaks.

        “Your new friends must be damned smart – they’ve managed to saddle you with their responsibilities in less than two months.” He shook his head – pitying me for being so gullible.
        I just stared at him.
        “She’s a cute kid, but she’s got no claim on you, Juliet, and you’re going to have to be firm about it. Get her a nice dolly or something and say good-bye, before she starts thinking you’re going to take care of her for the rest of her life.”
        Now I was so angry I couldn’t talk. I stood there, gripping Kit’s porridge bowl with white knuckles. I didn’t throw it at him, but I was close to it. Finally, when I could speak again, I whispered, “Get out.”

                                – The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society,
                                  Mary Ann Shaffer & Annie Barrows

The man speaking above is an American in a British novel – he’s sharp, cynical, and caustic. We always know when Mark comes on the stage.

Consider also that silence sometimes speaks louder than words. In natural life, we often don’t reply when we’re talking to someone – and our silence can suggest so many things: anger, resentment, confusion, pain… Juliet’s hand curves around that porridge bowl and we know what she’s feeling, without the author having to provide her feelings via dialogue.

        I finish chewing and ask, “Do you know who the secretary of state is?”
        “Huh?”
        “Do you?”
        “No.”
        “And see? You’re still allowed to vote.”
        “What does that have to do with anything?”
        Jen drains her beer and laughs.
        “I think I get it.”
        “Go to hell, Jen,” Rhonda says icily. “One beer and you’ll roll over for anyone.”
                                – Fragile Beasts, Tawni O’Dell

Use tags – he said, she said – sparingly.

You don’t need to identify who is saying what if it is clear to the reader. Note the exchange above – the swift back and forth over the secretary of state. By eliminating tags and just focusing in on the dialogue, we center our attention on the brief argument – akin to keeping your eye on a tennis ball during a swift volley.

Use tags, however, when it is necessary to identify who is speaking. When a third party is introduced into a dialogue, for instance, or when there is any doubt who is saying what, you need to make sure we know who is talking. Note, however, how skillfully Ms. O’Dell introduces Jen above: because she has just drained her beer and laughed, we know the unidentified “I think I get it” is her statement.

Watch the use of adjectives and adverbs.

Too many of them can dilute what you’re trying to express. But use them when they will convey emotion better than anything else. Strong verbs can and should carry much of the burden of the story, but this doesn’t mean a good adjective or adverb can’t help out once in awhile. When Rhonda says “Go to hell” icily to Jen, we’re left in no doubt as to how she’s feeling. But it’s because that’s the one and only adverb in the entire conversation that it works so well.

Let your characters think before they speak.

        “I don’t believe I feel like it just now, Amanda.”
        “Did I ask you if you felt like it?”
        He spread his fingers and looked at the bitten nails, not answering. Speak sharply to Jeremy and you will bowl him over; he can’t stand up to things. You’ll get further being gentle with him, but I always remember that too late. He puts me in a fury. I can’t see how he could let himself go the way he has. No, letting yourself go means you had to be something to start with, and Jeremy was never anything. He was born like this.
                                – Celestial Navigation, Anne Tyler

Give your characters a chance to reflect on what is being said, to consider what it might mean to them, and even to change their minds about it mid-thought.

Also remember that what our characters say can sometimes hide the truth of what they really feel. “Language was given us to conceal our thoughts,” as Talleyrand said at the Congress of Vienna. In this passage and throughout the book that follows, Jeremy’s silence covers a myriad of emotions and thoughts. Sometimes a little misdirection can add suspense and engage the reader in trying to discover the truth.

And one final note – dialogue should sound natural but not be studded with the pauses and stuttering that we hear in everyday speech. Use your craft to hone in on any mannerisms that might be important to convey character – but make sure it’s not slowing down the passage unnecessarily. As with the passage above from Fragile Beasts, a single “huh” can go a long way.


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Thoughts on a Creative Education

What does it mean to be creative? Some people might imagine a “bohemian”, someone with no boundaries, who floats on a whim to seek the muse. Someone who dons wild clothing and wilder hair, who is as likely to fall in love as to commit suicide or murder.

To be creative, you don’t have to be erratic, uncontrolled, addicted or unpredictable. In fact, these qualities are far more likely to kill your creativity as to nurture it.

The word “creativity” shares the same root as the word “create”. In other words, you have to actually make something to be creative. Making things requires discipline, technique, excellent organization and problem solving skills. It’s nice if you have a little talent, too. But even if you don’t, creativity is a process and it can be learned.

In simplest terms, creativity experts summarize the lesson thus: first, you have to embrace the broadest thinking possible; then, you have to make an assemblage of critical decisions.

In an article in Newsweek, The Creativity Crisis, the creative process and its measurable degradation in America since the 1990s were detailed and scrutinized. What makes a creative thinker and how can creativity be nurtured? And where is American education going wrong?

I came face-to-face with the creativity crisis myself when my son was writing a report for elementary school. To guide him in his assignment, he had received a shockingly detailed (to me anyway) outline. Every paragraph not only had to be structured with a topic sentence, three detail sentences and a concluding sentence. He also had to give specific information in each sentence. This outline didn’t require any input from my son, only compliance. In fact, if he didn’t follow the outline precisely, he would be marked down.

This orderly approach was certainly easy to follow, and would be even easier for his teacher to grade. But it gave him no space to consider or explore his topic. It did not challenge him to make his own associations, organize his own research or thoughts. He just had to fill in the blanks. Simple call-and-response. No writer I’ve ever heard of works that way. Even those of us who depend heavily on outlining leave a little room for the possibility that an unexpected thought might fit in someplace we hadn’t thought of before.

In fact, the Newsweek article precisely stated the nature of my alarm. In it, an expert was discussing America’s educational focus with Chinese educators who have historically and notoriously emphasized cooperation over creativity. The Chinese response to our standardized curriculum, rote memorization, and nationalized testing was to laugh out loud: “You’re racing toward our old model. But we’re racing toward your model, as fast as we can.”

How do we teach our children creativity and preserve it in our culture? Talk to any creative person and they’ll tell you. Divergent thought must come first. Given a problem to be solved or a project to be executed, one must first assess – or even better, “play” with the infinite possibilities before settling on solutions.

As writers, this is as natural as breathing. Faced with a blank slate and the entire world for contemplation, we select a kernel of inspiration, a topic we are curious about, a thought we had briefly while walking down the street, and from it we create entire worlds.

In an exercise I use frequently in my creative writing workshops, I give students a pile of photographs of people’s faces. Some could be just “anyone”, but have curious, emotionally charged or meaningful expressions. Others are faces that are distinctly different, often defined so by unusual clothing, make-up, hairdo, setting and more. I ask my students to choose a face that speaks to them. This is the first decision of a creative thinker. It’s often an emotional choice. Why pick one and not another? Does one image remind you of somebody you love or hate, someone you’d like to meet or are afraid of? Does the expression reflect something that’s going on deep inside yourself?

Once the choices have been made, we don’t analyze. An analytical approach would poison the subliminal brew that’s essential to the creative objective. Instead, at this point, I simply ask students to write free-form for ten to fifteen minutes.

“Don’t think. Don’t edit. Don’t stop. Let your pen flow. Let your thoughts fall onto the page like rain.”

Here, you may think, comes the crazy “bohemian” and her shapeless approach to creativity. But in fact, as each writer works, they are making more decisions. They are looking at the face and choosing perhaps to describe it. Or maybe they start by giving the face a name. Or maybe they decide to write as if they are the person in the photograph. Or as if they’re holding the photograph. Or as if someone else found it in the glove compartment of an abandoned car…

As each choice is made, a new dimension solidifies in each writer’s creative process. Each choice informs the writer about their character and circumstance. Each choice transforms the fleeting sparks of inspiration into concrete words on the page.

With each choice, the options for that particular piece of writing narrow. The more detailed the decisions, the more specific the story becomes until all the divergent thoughts have drifted away and the story, characters, language, pacing and more are completely clear in the writer’s, and eventually the reader’s, minds.

The one thing that is missing in this process is absolute certainty. There are no quantifiable results. Writing is subjective. Each reader is the unique judge of failure or success. And this, I think, more than anything, is what’s scary to educators and administrators trying to shape the educational process. You can’t box creativity. You must let it breathe. It must be left to its own devices, but nudged and nurtured along the way.

It takes a little more energy, patience, intuition and a lot more courage to teach this way. But for our next generation to regenerate the American hallmark of creativity and innovative thinking before it is completely lost, we must let their minds out of the box and let them play.