Finding your way around my blog

To help you find posts from the past, I’ve added a guide to my home page, like a long list of contents.

In August and September last year, posts are about getting started (including things not to worry about), from late September to December we look at character, in January this year we started learning plot skills and from April posts are about what Stephen King calls the Box of Tricks: aspects of the writing craft.

This week, we’re busy rewriting, polishing to the highest standard, with a section to follow between now and the summer, about getting your novel out to the public.

Happy writing, everyone! More next week.

DIALOGUE 3: SUBTEXT AND LYING

SUBTEXT

John Mortimer said that translating opera libretti felt strange because they used subtext so little. Each aria is like a pop song where a character’s true feelings come pouring out, usually to let the audience know something important that can’t be said to the other characters.

Subtext is about things that are felt but not said. Things we keep to ourselves.

EXERCISES

  • Write a scene where one character wants something but can’t say so, and the other is unaware of it. If you already have one in your draft, have another go at it from scratch, bringing in what you learned last week about writing dialogue.
  • Write monologues for a scene where one character wants something but doesn’t say, and the other character is aware of it. They can be people who live together or work together, or would like to.

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FIND OUT THE TRUTH

A way to find the truth of what your character is, or is not, saying is in writing practice monologues for them before you start your drafting. It can feel circuitous when you long to get stuck into the real writing but it’s actually a short cut that can bypass several drafts for you. (I learned this trick from studying drama writing.) Take a few minutes, before you start into your chapter, to spend time with each of your characters and ask how they’re feeling just before the action in your chapter begins. Write down everything they tell you – in the usual scribble-chat way – for at least ten minutes and let them surprise you. When the writing begins to take on a life of its own, keep going as long as you can.

Have you planned an ending for the chapter? Write a monologue like this for each character just after your ending too. It will deepen the emotional truth of your writing and turn up plot solutions you may not have dreamt of.

The thing about good writing is that it’s a bit like what Tim Minchin said about happiness: the more you examine it, try to hunt it down, the more elusive it will be. Try listening to your characters in this way and see what turns up.

 

Go through the monos you’ve written and highlight the best lines, the ones that stand out. Those can be valuable lines of dialogue right from the heart.  

Some characters have more forthcoming personalities than others. And sometimes even the most open people want to keep certain things to themselves. Have a scribble-chat with each of your characters about where they are about all this. Let them tell you what they would never tell anyone else in the world. There is the heart of that character. Your reader will sense it and want to know, eventually, what it is. Even if you didn’t think it was important to your story, it probably is.

LYING

We all do it, of course we do, we adjust the truth now and again to make ourselves look and feel better, or get out of a tight spot. Some are more successful at it than others and it’s a rare few who resist lying at all.

HOW DO WE LIE?

  • In what we say,
  • and do not say. Silence can be a lie too.
  • What we do. Body language is a very useful writer’s tool, often more truthful than words but it can lie too, Judas’ kiss being a perfect example.
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  • Like silence, absence can give a false impression.
  • Expert liars often have badges of excellence to give them a look of reliability or worthiness. Sadly, their sheep’s clothing can include charity work, hospitality, offers of help and positions of social authority. It doesn’t stop them being liars.

Lies have their own story arc. They change the future as well as the past. So it’s a good idea to plot your characters’ significant whoppers to keep track:

  • When is the reader first aware that a character is lying?
  • When are the lies found out? What is the very best place for that discovery to happen, in the best interests of your story’s stakes?
  • There are many plot devices for revealing truths, ranging from emails sent to the wrong person to phones falling into the wrong hands.
  • What do other characters’ reactions to lies reveal, discovered and not?

Lies are at the heart of all our interactions. Sometimes ‘white lies’ gently smooth our interactions; other lies can be profound and disruptive betrayals.

  • Who are your favourite liars in fiction and in reality?
  • How do they get away with it, if they do?
  • How do they pull off the trick of being known liars but still likable/lovable, if they do?
  • How do you feel when you discover that someone you rely on has lied to you?
  • Have you ever told a lie and not regretted it? How do you feel about that?
  • Have you ever told an important lie and not been found out? How do you feel about it?
  • Which of the characters you are currently writing tells most lies? Why? How do the other characters react?

Your scribbles about this should perhaps hit the shredder afterwards but it’s worth taking time to work out how you feel about such a big part of human life, and how it affects your characters.

Happy writing!

Dialogue – how to keep it real

What does dialogue do for your novel or story?

  • It brings your reader right into the action in what feels like real time. It’s the powerful essence of ‘Show, not Tell’.
  • It’s a direct route into character. The moment we begin to speak, we reveal who we are, where we come from, our age, viewpoint and a thousand other things.
  • Readers love to work out for themselves if they trust characters or not – are they truthful? – and how deeply characters know themselves.
  • You (as writer) can show how different your characters are in different contexts. The people we are at work are not the same as who we are with mum or an old friend. IMG_2214The play La Ronde by Arthur Schnitzler (David Hare’s stage version is The Blue Room) exposes how the way we all behave and speak depends on the company we are in: a Duke’s behaviour in bed with a servant girl is not the same as when he is with his wife, for example.
  • Which means that dialogue is a quick route into showing your characters being as inconsistent as we all are. This is not the same as lying, it’s just that we are all multitudes inside. If stakes are rising and we are tested beyond our usual limits, our presentable mask slips. This is where you can bring out your character’s vulnerabilities and hook your readers emotionally more than ever.
  • Dialogue makes your page more attractive to read. One of the first things we learn in journalism school is that the more ‘white space’ there is around your words, the more likely people (any people) are to stay and read it. Good dialogue has plenty of white space.
  • Better than anything else, dialogue can raise questions as well as answer them. You can use it to expose longings and ambitions, hint at secrets.
  • You can switch from comedy to tragedy relatively easily, as we do in real life.
  • Dialogue breaks up passages of description, varies the texture.

How close is written dialogue to real conversation?

In some writing classes, you’ll be asked to eavesdrop on chatting strangers and record what you hear. That’s a time-consuming way of discovering that we all repeat ourselves a lot, have verbal habits like ‘You know’ or ‘Yeh yeh’, say the same thing several times in other ways, interrupt each other and do not always reply to what the other says as if it’s a game of ping pong. Eavesdropping is fun, and all writers do it. Be careful though: if strangers find out what you’re up to, they might not be best pleased.

The biggest lesson you will learn from your recording exercise is that dialogue needs editing. A lot of editing.

If you’re on a roll with a first draft, don’t let thoughts of editing get too much in your way. The only rule of first drafts is to keep writing and at all costs finish, so best of luck. We’ll leave you to it.

If you are ready to take things further, let’s look at how we make dialogue on the page feel real while doing the work we want it to do in terms of character and plot.

DIALOGUE & CHARACTER

What is revealed in the way we speak?

  • Age, personality, birth place and origin, economic status, education, world view.
  • Character traits you have been working on, such as the most important wound in your characters’ lives or what they passionately want and need above all else.
  • Relationships in our lives come through how we speak. Whether people are happy at home or have established religious faith is usually obvious from their conversation.
  • Fears, ambitions and dreams creep in too.
  • Any verbal tics you have given them (like Gatsby being ‘an Oggsford man’).

Each character also arrives in every scene with:

  • Context (has she slept badly, has he just been sacked, have they got money worries etc)
  • Mood (happy/sad/angry/fed up etc).
  • Agenda: what is each character looking for? We are all always looking for something from every encounter we have with others, whether we are aware of it or not. If a journalist is trying to persuade someone to be interviewed or to divulge a secret, that’s an obvious agenda. It can be more subtle: when you come home at the end of a day’s work and call ‘Hallo’, is there anything you want from that moment? Dramatic conflict (the essence of all stories) comes from the clash between our agendas and what actually happens. Don’t be too easy on your characters and give them what they want too soon.

EXERCISE 1

Imagine you’re in a park and see two people with a baby buggy. You move so close, you can hear what they say …

For five minutes, write their dialogue, showing as much about each character and their relationship as you can. Don’t bother with too many attributions (he said, she said, he muttered, she explained) – let rip and enjoy it.

EXERCISE 2

Psychologists have discovered that in ordinary conversation, we rarely say more than 7 to 10 words at a time. In plays and soap operas, it can be even less.

Re-write the first exercise, keeping each line to 7 words or less. Be strict with yourself about the word count.

Once your scene is flowing, try letting the reader know that there’s something that one is hiding from the other.

EXERCISE 3

People move, think and feel while they speak too. Rewrite Exercise 2 with brief actions, thoughts and feelings between the lines of dialogue. Now you have prose fiction as opposed to a radio script!

Two main problems crop up when we write dialogue in first drafts.

First is writing a radio script by accident. You’re deep at your page or screen with the action around you, rolling nicely to the page. Your characters are so present with you that you’re soaked in what they’re saying and their words to take over. This is exciting and marvellous and is one of the great ways to produce a first draft. But if you look back later and find that for page after page, you have almost nothing but dialogue – it’s time to edit.

The second is allowing your characters to fall into lengthy speeches.

There are times when one person in a conversation gets to hold forth, when one is a teacher or in some other position of authority, for example, or one has a problem to unfold. But most conversation is an exchange of short lines.

The good news is that the short stuff engages readers more easily, feels more real and, in the right scene, can raise the stakes for you all by itself by bringing up the pace.

EXERCISE 4

  • Invent a scene or choose one from your work in progress.
  • Sketch out the mood, context, agenda for each character before you start.
  • Write your scene giving your characters no more than 7 words each for at least 100 words.
  • Put a single line of action (she twisted her wedding ring, he held his breath) or thought or feeling between each line.
  • Be amazed at how much has been revealed in those few words, and how actively it all reads.
  • Notice what your characters have not said, and the power of that. Renoir, 1879 IMG_2210
  • Keep writing, and when the scene needs it, allow a longer speech to one of your characters.

See how the change of pace makes the whole scene work better for you? The seven-word exercise can feel really hard and unreasonable but it’s one of the most valuable fiction-writing skills there is. If you do it often, it will soon feel natural and your dialogue will improve no end.

Happy writing!

 

 

Show and tell? What’s the difference?

In many writing courses, you will be told firmly to ‘show, not tell’. But we’re telling stories, aren’t we? What’s wrong with ‘Once upon a time in a land far away lived a king who had three daughters’?

Thanks to cinema and television, our readers are more used than ever before to being shown a story as it unfolds. Yet even among the relentless action of soaps and ‘reality’ shows, you will find scenes where characters swap stories from the past. They tell each other things.

Both showing and telling have their uses. So, what is the difference between the two?

 Great Expectations

Let’s look at the first page of Dickens’ masterpiece:

My father’s family name being Pirrip, and my Christian name Philip, my infant tongue could make of both names nothing longer or more explicit than Pip. So, I called myself Pip, and came to be called Pip.

Dickens starts by introducing us to his main character who tells us in the first person how he’s known by his childhood name. It’s endearing; Dickens knew it would be.

I give Pirrip as my father’s family name, on the authority of his tombstone and my sister — Mrs Joe Gargery, who married the blacksmith.

So poor old Pip’s father has died. In Pip’s voice, Dickens develops the lad’s tragic history:

As I never saw my father or my mother, and never saw any likeness of either of them (for their days were long before the days of photographs), my first fancies regarding what they were like, were unreasonably derived from their tombstones. The shape of the letters on my father’s, gave me an odd idea that he was a square, stout, dark man, with curly black hair. From the character and turn of the inscription, ‘Also Georgiana Wife of the Above,’ I drew a childish conclusion that my mother was freckled and sickly. To five little stone lozenges, each about a foot and a half long which were arranged in a neat row beside their grave, and were sacred to the memory of five little brothers of mine — who gave up trying to get a living, exceedingly early in that universal struggle — I am indebted for a belief I religiously entertained that they had all been born on their backs with their hands in their trousers- pockets, and had never taken them out in this state of existence.

What beautiful detail. Just where it’s needed. Dickens even brings in an odd little smile about his five little brothers’ headstones. It feels as if it just fell from the pen – but nothing is wasted, it is all precise.

Then, after just two vivid paragraphs of background, Pip draws us into the first, terrifying slice of action. Look how carefully Dickens places us in the churchyard, beside ‘the small bundle of shivers growing afraid of it all and beginning to cry’:

Ours was the marsh country, down by the river, within, as the river wound, twenty miles of the sea. My first most vivid and broad impression of the identity of things, seems to me to have been gained on a memorable raw afternoon towards evening. At such a time I found out for certain, that this bleak place overgrown with nettles was the churchyard; and that Philip Pirrip, late of this parish, and also Georgiana wife of the above, were dead and buried; and that Alexander, Bartholomew, Abraham, Tobias, and Roger, infant children of the aforesaid, were also dead and buried; and that the dark flat wilderness beyond the churchyard, intersected with dykes and mounds and gates, with scattered cattle feeding on it, was the marshes; and that the low leaden line beyond, was the river; and that the distant savage lair from which the wind was rushing was the sea; and that the small bundle of shivers growing afraid of it all and beginning to cry, was Pip.

Take a moment to look at how much detail Dickens has given us so far, and how much he has not given. There is exactly as much as we need to see and feel the place and the small boy in it. Now to raise the stakes sky high:

Hold your noise,’ cried a terrible voice, as a man started up from among the graves at the side of the church porch. `Keep still, you little devil, or I’ll cut your throat!’

2016-07-15 15.12.33Dickens is accused of verbosity but he’s anything but wordy here. There is no mawkish simile about ghosts ‘as a man started up from among the graves’ – the man is all too real. Dickens hurtles on with no time for verbs:

A fearful man, all in coarse grey, with a great iron on his leg. A man with no hat, and with broken shoes, and with an old rag tied round his head. A man who had been soaked in water, and smothered in mud, and lamed by stones, and cut by flints, and stung by nettles, and torn by briars; who limped, and shivered, and glared and growled; and whose teeth chattered in his head as he seized me by the chin.

`O! Don’t cut my throat, sir,’ I pleaded in terror. `Pray don’t do it, sir.’

The perfect mix of show and tell. If the author or a character is explaining something, we are in ‘tell’ country. If we are in the midst of action and dialogue, we are being shown.

 Wind in the Willows

In chapter 8 of The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame, Toad is in gaol, chatting with the gaoler’s daughter who has a plan for his escape.

First, as you read this, notice how wonderfully lively this scene is. How does Grahame do that, when the action could have been dismissed in a couple of sentences?

Second, take a moment to mark where you find ‘show’ in it, and where it becomes ‘tell’:

One morning the girl was very thoughtful, and answered at random, and did not seem to Toad to be paying proper attention to his witty sayings and sparkling comments.

“Toad,” she said presently, “just listen, please. I have an aunt who is a washerwoman.”

“There, there,” said Toad, graciously and affably, “never mind; think no more about it. I have several aunts who ought to be washerwomen.”

“Do be quiet a minute, Toad,” said the girl. “You talk too much, that’s your chief fault, and I’m trying to think, and you hurt my head. As I said, I have an aunt who is a washerwoman; she does the washing for all the prisoners in this castle—we try to keep any paying business of that sort in the family, you understand. She takes out the washing on Monday morning, and brings it in on Friday evening. This is a Thursday. Now, this is what occurs to me: you’re very rich—at least you’re always telling me so—and she’s very poor. A few pounds wouldn’t make any difference to you, and it would mean a lot to her. Now, I think if she were properly approached—squared, I believe is the word you animals use—you could come to some arrangement by which she would let you have her dress and bonnet and so on, and you could escape from the castle as the official washerwoman. You’re very alike in many respects—particularly about the figure.”

“We’re not,” said the Toad in a huff. “I have a very elegant figure—for what I am.”

“So has my aunt,” replied the girl, “for what she is. But have it your own way. You horrid, proud, ungrateful animal, when I’m sorry for you, and trying to help you!”

“Yes, yes, that’s all right; thank you very much indeed,” said the Toad hurriedly. “But look here! You wouldn’t surely have Mr Toad, of Toad Hall, going about the country disguised as a washerwoman!”

“Then you can stop here as a Toad,” replied the girl with much spirit. “I suppose you want to go off in a coach-and-four!”

Honest Toad was always ready to admit himself in the wrong. “You are a good, kind, clever girl,” he said, “and I am indeed a proud and a stupid toad. Introduce me to your worthy aunt, if you will be so kind, and I have no doubt that the excellent lady and I will be able to arrange terms satisfactory to both parties.”

Next evening the girl ushered her aunt into Toad’s cell, bearing his week’s washing pinned up in a towel. The old lady had been prepared beforehand for the interview, and the sight of certain gold sovereigns that Toad had thoughtfully placed on the table in full view practically completed the matter and left little further to discuss. In return for his cash, Toad received a cotton print gown, an apron, a shawl, and a rusty black bonnet; the only stipulation the old lady made being that she should be gagged and bound and dumped down in a corner. By this not very convincing artifice, she explained, aided by picturesque fiction which she could supply herself, she hoped to retain her situation, in spite of the suspicious appearance of things.

Toad was delighted with the suggestion. It would enable him to leave the prison in some style, and with his reputation for being a desperate and dangerous fellow untarnished; and he readily helped the gaoler’s daughter to make her aunt appear as much as possible the victim of circumstances over which she had no control.

“Now it’s your turn, Toad,” said the girl. “Take off that coat and waistcoat of yours; you’re fat enough as it is.”

Shaking with laughter, she proceeded to “hook-and-eye” him into the cotton print gown, arranged the shawl with a professional fold, and tied the strings of the rusty bonnet under his chin.

I’m shaking with laughter too!

It’s all about telling stories in the most engaging way possible. What engages our readers most is vivid characters, their thoughts, feelings, actions, their hopes and dreams.

So when is telling good and when is it better to show? Both have their uses…

How to ‘show’?

  • Dialogue. The surrounding text can be present or past tense – we will look at that in another post soon – and as each character speaks, we learn about that character as well as what is or is not going on. Please do not forget to bring in how they move as well; sometimes this can contradict their words.
  • Action. The plainer your action language, especially your verbs, the stronger your action will be. Strip away as many adjectives and adverbs as you can, they just hold things up, and try not to forget ambience as well as action.
  • Thoughts and unspoken feelings. Cinema, television and theatre use monologue as a diversion from the action to show us a character’s deepest thoughts and feelings. Where Hamlet comes to the front of the stage to say ‘To be or not to be’, for example, the audience is entrusted with emotions he cannot share with anyone else. But visual media tend to use dramatic monologues sparingly and actors wrestle with ways to show their audience what they think and feel. For us fiction writers, those unexpressed inner workings, maybe unexpressed even to the characters themselves, are our special territory and whole books can be written in it. This is why fiction gives such unique depth of empathy with characters, and has been credited with changing societies.

 When is it better to TELL?

First of all, beware of the info-dump.

In your character work you will have discovered where your character was born, went to school, first fell in love, was first rejected or sacked, and how he or she feels about it all. Before Dickens wrote his first page of Great Expectations, he will have known all that too. Did he set down to tell us at length, or did he bring us as quickly as possible into one of the most terrifying scenes ever written? Agents can tell beginners by the slabs of casual biography dropped into their sample pages, known as info-dumps.

Train yourself to spot an info-dump – a boring slab of ‘tell’ – and learn to spin it, as Dickens did, in engaging ways. There. That’s all there is to it.

How can ‘tell’ serve our story?

Use it above all to vary your pace, tone and the rhythm of your story.

  • It can bring some distance after a heated scene or crisis.
  • A quiet moment, in a garden for example, between crises can raise poignancy, especially if your character is not likely to survive (for example, Jesus’s time alone in the Garden of Gethsemane before his crucifixion).
  • You can slow down the action to stretch a scene and deliberately raise stakes.
  • You can use it for you as author or for a character to comment ironically on what has just been, or to raise a question that will not be answered yet.
  • It can be a handy way to carry your story in a few lines across time, geography or culture.

The best description uses those few precise details that bring us there, not forgetting our five-plus senses.

Proportions of show and tell?

Many writers begin by thinking that the main job is telling, with intervals of showing. If anything, it’s the other way around.

Yes, you will have plenty of classic books on your shelves and e-reader that do it that way but our readers today have often been educated by cinema and television screens and this means two things. Not only do they expect to be in the middle of a story as it unfolds  – a trick incidentally as old as Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey – but they do not need as much detail as previous generations did. They like to guess. Credit your reader with being a few steps ahead of you and you will rarely be wrong.

So it’s show and tell, with a strong emphasis on show, being aware of both and the jobs they can do to engage your readers to the maximum.

 EXERCISE

Two people are arguing in a car park. They get into the same car which moves off.

  1. You are one of the two people. Tell us what is going on in the present tense as it’s happening, in the first person with dialogue and action.
  2. You are a reporter watching from a distance, not involved. Write your report in the third person, after the event so past tense, for your local newspaper.
  3. Write the same scene in dialogue only.
  4. Using your text from 3, add one sentence of action between each line of dialogue, eg: ‘A yawns, looks at his mobile’, ‘B pulls her skirt down over her knees’. Action only please, no description or thoughts. See how much you can convey in those lines of action about where and who they are, eg: ‘A kicks the tarmac’.

What do you notice? What difference does it make to your writing to be among the dialogue and action? How do you bring feelings into play? How does your balance of show and tell affect the stakes?

There are no right or wrong answers here; it’s a matter of being aware of what you’re after and how you bring it about. The distant observer can throw up questions that raise the stakes just as effectively as telling the story from the point of view of a terrified child in the back seat of the car.

 EXERCISES – 5 MINUTES EACH

Finally, in just two or three paragraphs each, without ever stating the obvious, describe all or any of the following. It’s up to you how you show or tell:

Harry was thrilled to be going on a date for the first time in ages.

If she had to put up with one more takeaway, she’d scream.

Sam stood outside the boss’s office shaking with fear.

Ellie hadn’t expected him to look so ill.

Any minute now she was going to grab his phone and throw it out the window.

The bedroom was a shambles.

The last thing she wanted was show how frightened she was.

It was a dark & stormy night…

 

A note to myregular readers of this blog,

I did promise to write today about the great epic novels of the past and present from The Iliad to Harry Potter but I’ve had an exceptionally busy week with no time for the extensive reading that post needs. Next week, I hope! Today in the mean time, as they used to say on Blue Peter, is one I made earlier. Not long ago I met a radio and television celebrity who is working with an editor on a novel. What was the advice coming his way, time and time again? Show, not tell. 

Happy writing – more next week!

Welcome

Since 2011 I have been helping groups of new writers find their feet, first in Bermondsey, then Greenwich and Cambridge. My posts here are going to summarise our sessions over the years about conjuring up characters that feel true, finding out why some plots and structures work better than others, and studying those writing techniques that make all the difference.

Usually my groups look at character in the autumn, classic plots through the winter months (plenty of excitement to keep us warm) and in spring and summer it’s all about tricks of the craft from handling dialogue and point of view to editing your pages and finding a publisher. These posts will try and follow the same calendar.

Each week I’ll post a visual prompt too, just to see where it takes us.

For years I longed to write but hadn’t the confidence to start. That’s why I take a particular interest in people with a strong wish to write but who feel that something is holding them back. In my next post we’ll look at how we can just get started…