Dialogue Can Make a Character

Dialogue is a simultaneously overlooked and much appreciated part of storytelling. It is through dialogue that characters relay information to us, be it how they are feeling, or how a story is developing, or just summing up a particular plot point so maybe we don’t get too confused. It’s through dialogue that the detective reveals to us just how he solved the case, or that a great hero gives a big motivational speech to a waiting crowd.

Dialogue is one of the most important elements in traditional fiction, from novels, to plays, and even to film which is generally a visual art form. Since many of us assume we know dialogue very well (we do after all exchange it every day), it can be easy to take it for granted and not do it quite right, but this is a mistake. Dialogue can make or break a character.

One of the biggest points in dialogue is it’s not necessarily which information is conveyed, but how it is conveyed. For example, take this line here.

“Hey everyone, come this way. I found where all the colonists are hiding.”

This is a simple line that reveals a plot point, our characters looking for some missing people. However, it doesn’t say much about the character who delivers it. What type of person are they? What archetype do they fall into and so forth? This line is actually an altered line from the movie Aliens, which in its original form reads like this.

“Yo! Stop your grinnin’ and drop your linen. Found ’em.”

As you can see, we’ve received the same information as before, and are brought up to speed on the current plot point. The only difference now is some flare has been added to the dialogue, which now reveals a lot more about the character. He’s a jokester, seems to have plenty of confidence, and may not be taking the situation all that seriously.

Simple injection of words in an otherwise unremarkable line of dialogue can also drastically change it’s meaning. For instance, in Ghostbusters after Spangler says they’ll be able to capture a ghost, Venkman is impressed and responds with

“Egon, I’m going to take back some of the things I said about you.”

The injection of the word ‘some’ completely changes the sentence from an ernest apology to one Venkman’s usual snarky backhanded compliments. It also says a lot about Venkman, that he has ridiculed Spangler for some time and in spite of being impressed with his new ghost catching technology, still doesn’t completely respect him. All from a simple word with the proper placement.

Another point to remember about dialogue is sometimes you can have too much of a good thing. It is tempting, especially for first time writers such as myself to have characters speechify and deliver information and backstory with long drawn out speeches.

This can be very effective when done correctly, such as Quint’s famous Indianapolis speech in Jaws. The scene is permeated with a feeling of dread, only strengthened by the haunting way in which Quint recounts the horrors experienced by him and his shipmates. But it’s not the length of the speech that makes it work. Rather, it’s the words Quint uses, such as comparing a shark’s eyes to a doll’s eyes. This speech lasts several minutes, and doesn’t overstay its welcome.

Keep speeches and monologues to a minimum. Usually you can only get away with one.

But as there’s a time and a place for speeches, there’s also a time and a place to just keep it short. In the movie Escape from Alcatraz, a counselor asks the Clint Eastwood character what his childhood was like, to which Eastwood replies “Short.”

So much about the character is revealed in that one word. He doesn’t go into a big long speech about how his mom was a neglectful sex worker or how his dad got drunk and hit him, or how he had a dog named Spot who was his best friend in the world before he got run over by the milk truck. All we know is this character never had what most would consider a childhood, so whatever did happen must have been pretty awful. Our mind fills in the blanks in a far more effective way than a monologue ever could.

While this approach wouldn’t have worked during the Indianapolis speech in Jaws, it does work here. The trick for a writer is to see which situation calls for what approach, the monologue or the story of few words.

One of the biggest tricks in dialogue is how the exact same lines can have drastically different meanings based on how they’re delivered. An ‘I’m fine’ told with a wink and a smile tells of a person who is well, whereas an “I’m fine!” shouted through gritted teeth tells of a person who is obviously not doing very well and trying to hide it.

This was a simple example, but picture this used in another situation. What if instead of the quiet and dignified way Atticus Finch delivers his closing argument in To Kill a Mockingbird, we switched it out with him being red in the face, frothing at the mouth, and flipping over tables in the gallery? The words are the same, but the actions speak of a man not interested in justice and protecting an innocent man, but an obsessed lunatic coming undone when he realizes he’s losing. A stirring speech can be transformed into a paranoid rant at the drop of a hat.

In closing, treat your dialogue with care. Carefully consider your word choices and understand the importance of each one, think carefully about whether a monologue or a short sentence will be more effective, and after all that is done, think about how these lines are delivered. I myself am still a relatively new writer. There’s much for me to learn and hopefully plenty of time to learn it. In re-writing my own manuscript time and again, I’ve come to realize just how important a part of character and story dialogue can be. All of these elements can make a huge difference, and can come together to create magic when executed properly.

 

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Why a Series Bible?

What is a series bible? Simply put, it’s an encyclopedia of a fictional universe that creators use to keep track of everything within it, and make sure they don’t break certain established rules of character and mythos. series bibles have been used by the creators of prominent television shows such as Star Trek, The X Files, Supernatural and others, and are a tried and true method of making sure they don’t stray too far off the beaten path.

To all people writing or planning to write a story dealing with science fiction and fantasy, take my advice. Write a series bible. Trust me. You may think you don’t need it and that you can keep all the information in your story lined up, but it’s not that easy. I too assumed it was something I didn’t need.

I was always an encyclopedia when looking at other works of fiction. I could quote scenes from favorite movies verbatim, sometimes even recite an entire film almost down to the word. Keeping names straight, plot threads, characters, mythos, none of it was ever an issue. So organized was I, that I had no trouble following the plot of the 1984 film Dune, widely considered one of the most incoherent films ever made.

So when it came time to write my own story with an extensive mythos, it seemed that memorizing the material would be just as easy. Here’s why that was wrong.

The books and films I had been exposed to before were not ever changing for one. They were finished. When writing your own story, ideas change, characters appear or are discarded, and backstory is written and re-written by the day. This is especially true for science fiction and fantasy stories, which require a strict set of rules to keep its universe consistent. The moment these rules are broken, be they rules of magic or technology, the audience is removed from the story.

Take for example the Harry Potter universe. That universe has magic that works nicely within certain set binds that keep it consistent. If the magic was too powerful for example, many of the threats the characters face could be dealt with instantly, making the series a bit less exciting.

The universe of my book series is a complicated one. It spans an entire planet filled with many mystical beasts, a variety of races and cultures, and is rich with history and tradition.

It is filled with names upon names from the great city of Ravenwood, to the tiny outlet of Allan’s Meadow. It has great historic figures like Graham Gilliam and Davies the Kind, lost relics like the sunken city of Reuel, an entire language crafted by dragons, names for spells upon spells, and so forth. And we haven’t even gotten to something so simple as the size of my main character.

He’s a dragon, so his measurements are a bit harder to remember than six foot five.

This doesn’t even go into anything like the rules in which spells are cast (which causes an illness if it is done too much), character backstories, likes and dislikes, favorite drinks and hangout spots, friends and family. A universe like this is very complicated, and it’s hard enough to keep it straight while you’re watching it, let alone creating it from scratch.

Since I hadn’t created a series bible yet, finding this information once I forgot it was a chore. I would have to search the manuscript to make sure everything was correct, and doing this really slowed down the process of writing. It wasn’t until a few months ago that I finally decided to create a series bible.

The thing isn’t even done yet, and it’s already 26 pages.

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The level of information in the story really hit home on my way back from my recent vacation. I had a three hour flight and thought I would take the time to do some manuscript editing. Upon finishing that, I still had two hours before the plane landed, so I took a look at my series bible. It wasn’t entirely organized, so I figured it would be both fun and creatively stimulating to sort out what was in it.

That lasted right until the plane landed, and I hardly typed a single new word.

Looking back, I wish I’d started work on this thing sooner, as it would have saved a lot of time searching through the manuscript for the name of this spell or that city. Also, there have been other benefits. The mere act of editing the series bible has helped me get back in the mood to work on the manuscript.

So again, people working or getting ready to work on a story, most notably something dealing with complex worlds found in science fiction and fantasy, make a series bible. It will be a very helpful tool, and keep the cacophony upstairs organized so you may more easily create a coherent, and exciting story.

End of my Blogging Break

Last week I was whisked away in the air to a far away magical land, the land from which I came and to which I always enjoy to return. Ironically, this land is Kansas. Funny, because generally you expect people to be whisked away to magical lands from Kansas, but I digress.

It was a nice relaxing week of zoos, museums, and lots of good eating with the family. I had an early birthday, received some wonderful gifts, and spent many relaxing late nights watching films with everyone from Groundhog Day to Lincoln. I didn’t do too much work in the way of writing apart from the draft for an upcoming short being completed and editing a few book chapters here and there. I tried to keep clear of those things to keep myself relaxed.

This vacation, like everything, had to come to an end, so I clicked my heels together three times and wound up back in Los Angeles. Again, I thought clicking your heels brought you to Kansas instead of zipping you away from it. I must be doing this Kansas thing wrong, but how about we move on?

I’ve been back in tow for one day and am feeling well rested and eager to start my writing again. There’s certainly no shortage of work with a book to edit and three scripts to perfect, as well as a short film to prepare, job opportunities to seek out, and this blog to maintain.

Don’t worry. I’ve got some new articles coming up, and hopefully production on this thing will also be more fruitful in coming months as schedules become more lenient. Will be typing up a new article tomorrow.

Anyway, thanks for reading and it’s good to be back.

Break from Blogging

Some may have noticed I haven’t posted anything on this page in almost two weeks.

It has quite simply been a pretty rough few weeks. The project is slow going, I’ve been exhausted, and just started a long awaited vacation to my home state of Kansas. The depression I’ve been going through has hardly made things a walk in the park, and has threatened to cause great strains in my professional and personal life.

On top of that, I haven’t exactly had a lot of material to show. I don’t have too many ideas for writing tips and articles to put forward, and the progress with the book series and other projects has been slow, so there aren’t exactly a lot of updates to share.

I’ll share a few on the novel at least. Up to chapter 13 on the prose edit, and I’ve been doing a final pre-edit to fix up dialogue, and it has helped a lot with character development and world building. I just finished chapter 4 of that run through yesterday.

Started working on another draft of a script for a short film that we’re going to try and get shot before December of this year. This draft is already almost halfway done, and hopefully it can be something special once the cameras start rolling.

That’s about all I have to share at the moment. Since things are dry for the time being, I’ll be taking a break from this page. Maybe for a few more weeks, maybe longer. At the very least until my vacation in Kansas concludes. Once we have more stuff to show, or an article comes to me, I’ll be back to write again.

To all those who have followed this page and showed your support for this pretty small little page, I thank you for your kindness and wish you all your due success on your pages. See you all again soon.

Painful Writing Decision

This last few weeks has been rough. It has been rough on my writing, rough on my psyche, rough on both my jobs, rough on pretty much every aspect of life.

Even though my outline for my second book in my series of fantasy/action epics is done, and the outline for the third book is already taking shape, I haven’t been able to write a single word of it since last month.

It’s not ready to be written.

It was a painful and frustrating realization that dawned on me while the edits for the first book were still ongoing. A few well founded criticisms from friends and the manuscript as it is hardly being finished, I can’t spread myself too thin.

It makes no sense to start working on a sequel before the first book is even finalized. I got too eager to get going, and wrote 100 pages of material that already is going to undergo some drastic changes. I suppose that’s what a first draft is for in the end, to help you get the start of the ideas out on the page so you can refine them into a better story.

We’re crossing through chapter 13 in our prose edit, and I’ll be going through the manuscript yet again in the meantime to do a little bit of work on the characters and dialogue before our final run through, which will exclusively be character focused.

While all that is going on, I just can’t work on the second book like I was planning, at least not in prose.

There is simply another project that needs to be finished first.

I’ll still be able to work on the later entries in the form of outlines and jotting down ideas and dialogue. There has certainly been no shortage of that kind of material. I just can’t write two books at once. I suppose not many people can, and it’s nothing to be ashamed of.

The reason this really gets to me is the manuscript seemed done again. It has seemed done three times now, but as the days wear on I look at it and can only see the cracks. I’m beginning to wonder if this one editing job is all it needs to make it the story I know it has the potential to become.

There’s another equally troubling concern that I’m being too much of a perfectionist. What if the story will be ready to go in a few months but I’ll be so worried that I’ll see cracks where there are none? What if I edit a good manuscript into a failure? It’s an equally dangerous possibility. Adding more may make the reader understand less.

I’ve fallen into that author’s trap and fallen in love with my story. I can feel all the sweeping emotions and see all the spectacular landscapes and battles of fire and wind, and since I can already see them as vividly as I see the keyboard in front of me, I often forget my reader cannot.

It’s my job to make sure they can, but that will take time. Hopefully I’ll be able to last.

My Protagonist May be Too Mean

As the edits on the manuscript for my first book in a series of four moves onwards, much has improved. My villain has a more defined and distinct personality, the action has been taken up a notch, and the world it builds has grown more defined and real.

I am faced with a problem though, the problem of my hero.

The protagonist in the story, a massive red dragon, is proving to be a challenge. He is over a thousand years old, and has a reputation and ill temper to boot. That is my main worry. I may have made him a little bit abrasive for the reader.

Never-Heroes-Zhyx-The-Dragon

Detailed illustration of Zhyx the red dragon’s face in profile for the novel Never Heroes.

Zhyx, or ‘Red’ to his companions, was supposed to be a character who would have been the villain in any other story. In many ways he is similar to Smaug from The Hobbit. He is nasty and mean spirited, vain and boisterous, an absolute legend in his own mind.

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When the story begins, Zhyx is meant to be menacing and imposing. Though he narrates the story in the first person, I wanted the readers to feel his presence, and be intimidated by his personality and self assured superiority. He is a scoundrel, and he knows it. It is that beginning that makes the journey and changes he goes through more worthwhile. You can’t just have the character start off being perfect, but you at least need to keep them interesting for the reader.

I wanted him to be a menacing and cruel character, but in a fascinating way so the reader would be curious what he does next. There are such characters that have been successful, such as Harry Callahan from the Dirty Harry series.

The problem is when you start off on a note like this, you could lose the reader. If the reader doesn’t warm up to the character by a certain time, they will jump ship before the change even takes place.

Indiana-Jones

The main inspiration for this series was not Smaug believe it or not, but my favorite character of all time, Indiana Jones. Indiana Jones is the quintessential everyman hero. He has a down to earth job as a college professor, troubled relationships with his family, a less than successful love life, and that’s even on the best of days.

When he’s forced to take on his role as the action hero, he is awkward and clumsy, fights dirty just to win, and scarcely comes out of his adventures looking very good. That’s what I like about him. Since he doesn’t execute his plans perfectly, they seem more real, and are thus far more engaging.

My protagonist fancies himself like Smaug, but he really is an every man wrapped in the body of a great wyrm. He is pulled into an adventure by forces beyond his control, and is humbled by his experience. This allows the reader to see who he really us underneath in spite of his efforts to convince them otherwise. He finds that he is not much different from the every man. He must no longer be a legend in his own mind, but a legend for real.

Since my hero narrates, he tries to sell the reader on the image he prefers. It is not his narration that reveals who he really is, but his actions in the story. The issue I face is just how far do you go when delivering a character like that? What level is acceptable for the reader and how much is too much for them to take anymore? Zhyx not only insults the characters in the story, he isn’t too kind to the reader either. How condescending do I go before the reader says “I didn’t pick up this book to be insulted” and put it down? How do I show who he really is early enough for them to stick with it? Or should I even try?

It is a tough tightrope to walk when writing a character like this. Hopefully we both don’t fall.