Monday, December 10, 2018

Using a Letter in Narrative

QUESTION:  In my story, important information is revealed by a character reading a letter.  What is the most suitable way to write it?

I’ve written this kind of scene a number of ways.  

When the letter is being viewed by the viewpoint character and isn't terribly long, I've put the text in its entirety on the page but separated it from the regular text by having an extra space break above and below the letter and an inch-wide margins on both sides.  (The inch is from your normal margin, not from the paper’s edge.)  Some writers put this text in italics.

This method works particularly well when the content isn't highly emotional for the character.  It also works when the character is alone.

For longer letters, particularly those with emotionally charged content, I have a character read it aloud as dialogue to another character.  At certain important points where the character or characters are emotionally affected or the content changes things in a big way, I'll have the reading character stop and express an opinion, feelings, or questions.  A bit of dialogue/discussion between or among the characters will also break up a long monologue to make it easier for the reader to keep up and not be bored with too much information.  

When the character begins reading again, I say something like "Adam continued reading," or "Adam picked the letter up again and continued."

Normally, when a character quotes someone else, you use single quotes to denote it.

“Gramps always said, ‘You reap what you sow. boy.’”

If a character is quoting a letter, and the reader knows he is quoting it, you need only use standard double quotes.

Monday, December 3, 2018

Info Dumping and Modern Technology

I read a novel recently where characters researched other characters by using their smart phones to check out Facebook and search engines.

To a certain extent, this worked.  The information was given in a tidy manner without some character thinking about his past or offering too much information via dialogue, and, these days, it’s a very common way to check someone out so it was realistic.

On the other hand, the writer went overboard with this technique by giving too much time and attention to facts in a massive info dump at the very beginning and stalling the story for pages.  He also spoiled the reader’s fun of figuring out what makes this character tick and wondering about the dark hint some other character gives by mentioning the hero’s final Superbowl game.

Sure, the hero is a former NFL player, but the YouTube video of him accidentally killing another player during a tackle doesn’t have to be presented immediately if that information doesn’t inform the reader of what is happening at the present time.  Later, when the hero makes a comment about this moment changing his life, another character can watch the moment of YouTube.

Just because information is easy to find these days doesn’t mean that the reader needs all of it at the beginning of the story. 

Monday, November 26, 2018

No One To Talk To

After last week’s post on characters having conversations with themselves, I thought I’d talk about similar situations in my own writing.

In my novel, STAR-CROSSED, my hero had no one but the heroine to talk to in the first part of the novel.  To cover topics he wouldn’t discuss with her, I didn't want lots of internal monologue or flashbacks which tend to be boring.  

What I ended up doing was letting him have imaginary conversations with his best friend.  Since he was also stuck in one place, I put these conversations at interesting locations from their shared past that showed more about the hero and his past.

The first conversation, for example, was in a bar on a Wild West style planet where the two friends have rescued a sweet young thing during a bar fight.  The two characters shared a beer, talked a bit about the good ol' days, and the hero spilled his guts about what was bothering him.  

At other times, the best friend was the devil's advocate for one side of a choice that the hero was trying to make.  
If you do something like this, it needn't be as elaborate as an entire scene.  It could just be the mental presence of someone whose opinion the character either values or can't escape.  Most of us, for example, can hear our mom or dad in our head reminding us to do or not do something.  

I’ve also had a character talk things out aloud to a horse he was grooming or a cat she was stroking.  The animal’s actions, as if commenting with a purr, a snort, or the shake of the head, gave a nice light touch as well as making the scene more interesting than internal dialogue.

If you want the hero himself as the other character, you should choose some aspect of him you want to emphasize.  Say Dr. Indiana Jones--the scholar versus Indiana Jones--the adventurer.

Set up the use of the mental dialogue/scene fairly early in the novel or story so that the important scene when the character finally must make the big decision won't make the reader go "huh?" when the other side of his personality or an imaginary character shows up to discuss the matter.

In other words, have the mental character show up a few times so the hero can tell his other side to shut up or whatever.

Monday, November 19, 2018

Me, Myself, and That Jerk

QUESTION: I am trying to write a dialogue scene in which a character is arguing with himself yet it seems that there are two distinct persons talking, almost as if the good side of him is arguing with the bad side. What is a good way to show this?

You could do it like regular dialogue between two people.  The "real" character could give his better self some kind of snarky nickname which you could use as a dialogue tag.

Jon sneered at his other self.  "Why don't you shut up, Angel Fart. I stopped believing in virtue and nobility years ago."

"If you stopped believing, why am I here?"

Or you could do it like normal internal monologue but with the good Jon’s comments underlined/italics.

Jon fought to ignore his inner voice.  He knew what he had to do, and he'd do it.  He'd stopped believing in doing the right thing years ago.

If you stopped believing, why can you hear me?

Monday, November 12, 2018

Can You Say That in Elf?

QUESTION: I have several scenes where a man is around elves. I don't want to invent my own language, and I'm afraid to use Tolkien's elf language. What can I do?

You're right to avoid using Tolkien's language. I doubt Tolkien's estate would be too pleased about that.

The simplest way to write the scene without inserting the language is to use the viewpoint of someone who doesn't know the language. You can then write something like--

Adam listened to the two elves talking to each other. Their language sounded like the wind in dry oak leaves mixed with babbling creek water. 

Finally the elf who could speak English said, "Our king says we will not help you."

Or you can have the scene from the viewpoint of the elf who speaks English.

The king said in their own language, "I do not trust these humans. Tell them that I will not help them find passage through our mountains."

Mossbark nodded and said in English to the humans, "Our king will not help you."

These tips works with any language.

NOTE: I use the word “English” as a catchall, but you should use the term for whatever language your viewpoint character speaks.  

Monday, November 5, 2018

Pushing Humor Too Far

The mystery series was a cozy with a light tone and humorous moments, but the third book in the series started with the murder of the heroine’s closest friend and moved through the next days with sleuthing as well as the process of grieving for and burying someone you love.

I imagine most would agree that this situation is not a comedy waiting to happen.  Unfortunately, the writer was so desperate to bring the light tone in that she proceeded to add slapstick.  

At the family visitation, one of the heroine’s friends pretends to knee the heroine’s boyfriend, her heel breaks, and she really kicks him in the jewels.

The heroine receives a threatening phone call, then her bedroom door knob jiggles.  She slips as she reaches for a Taser and bangs her head, then, before she realizes it’s a cop friend, she shoots him as he enters her room and he slips banging his head.  They end up concussed together on the bed where her friend discovers them the next morning and has a fun time wondering what went on between the not-a-couple.

I could only shake my head during these scenes that so desperately tried to add humor to a situation that wasn’t funny.  Not only was the over-the-top-to-the-point-of-ridiculous humor displaced, it tried so hard that the book fell apart.  

Moments like this are what trusted critique partners, beta readers, and good editors are all about.  They should have told the writer that sometimes a light tone just doesn’t fit the situation, and that poor taste and slapstick have no place in certain situations.  

How can you judge this with your own writing?  Think of your novel as a movie.  If you are writing a mystery movie full of dark atmosphere and duplicitous suspects, a scene from DUMB AND DUMBER just won’t  fit, will it?  A light moment of character revelation or a funny story about a victim would.  

Stay true to the tone that’s needed and listen to your early readers.  That’s more important than trying to maintain the tone of the series.  If not staying true bothers you, then find another plot that will fit that tone. 

Monday, October 29, 2018

Creating Witty Dialogue

Witty dialogue is found in most Regency romances, and the comedies of Shakespeare are rife with word plays and banter between clever characters, but it also has a place in other writing.

Put two clever characters with a sense of fun together and let them at each other so they duel with words, and the reader is in for a treat that requires as much attention to the word play as the characters must pay.

This is from an unpublished contemporary novel.

"You have the tail of an ass," Ariel said. 

David raised one eyebrow haughtily. "Women have told me I have a nice ass, but not one has mentioned a tail." 

"They told tales." 

"I am happy you are named for the sprite Ariel and not Puck. I could wake up with the head of an ass." 

“Don't toss Shakespeare at me, amateur, or speak of Bottom. Why change your head into an ass? It would be redundant since you act like one already." 

Witty dialogue, particularly in a romance, is emotional and personal foreplay.  It reinforces a sense that these people “get” each other and are equals emotionally and intellectually.  
Outside of romance, the most surprising and common use of witty dialogue is between the hero and the villain who also “get” each other.

Dueling with words can be just as much fun for the characters and the reader as dueling with swords, and just as dangerous.