Writing Dialogue that Echoes

img_1375.jpgGreat dialogue echos against the insides of your skull, and bounces off every person you’ve known and stored up there.

You can either focus on the words, as some of us were taught to do, or you can focus on the thoughts and feelings of the characters behind the words. The thoughts and feelings are more important, but fortunately there’s an easy way to improve both aspects.

Here’s a suggestion: Go buy the program “Great Dialogue”:  http://www.greatdialogue.com/

It’s cheap, less than twenty dollars right now. I have absolutely no connection with it whatsoever – except that I use it and love what it’s done for my dialogue.

“Great Dialogue” is a compilation of short dialogue excerpts from excellent writers and great writers. There’s context and thoughtful comments as well. It’s even organized in an interesting way.

I use the program to prime my dialogue pump before writing. Using it gets the characters’ voices to subtly fall in line with good dialogue. I don’t even think about it. I don’t try to remember anything. It just happens.

The subconscious mind kicks in, learns things that linear analysis can’t teach, and influences the dialogue as I write. The influence wears off after awhile, so I try to use the program before every writing session.

It helps more than anything else, including anything I’ve read in writing books.

Reading excellent dialogue from a novel is a similar influence, but less intense.

Go buy “Great Dialogue,” I’m begging you.  http://www.greatdialogue.com/

As you know, to write good dialogue you need to get into the head of each character to see how the world feels from that perspective – before you try to speak.

Here’s an example of me trying to do just that… Lets’ say I’ve got two people in a small bathroom. I take the hero first. He’s standing in front of the stinky urinal about ready to say something that will advance my plot and increase the depth of his personality by showing his twists of motivation. Before I write a word, I get into his head and “remember” that he might have left the stove on this morning. His house could be burning down to the ground, even as he’s peeing. He worries too much. The smell in this bathroom is not insignificant to him. He’s a clean freak, maybe. The new hiking boots his girlfriend got him for his 20th birthday are making blisters on his feet. He hated turning twenty and now hates it more. He needs to take the ransom money to a drop-off point before 9:00 AM, which doesn’t give him enough time if traffic is bad. (The kidnappers are unreasonable bastards.) He’s getting a caffeine-withdrawal headache now because he rushed out of the house without his coffee this morning. The floor under his feet is sticky. The urinal was made by Kohler. A flying-saucer shaped pink “deodorant” bar is balanced on edge against the dome of the drain, smelling worse than anything else in the room. The guy in the urinal next to him, his side-kick and friend says, “Johnnie, we got any toll money for the bridge?”

What is this hero going to say? How about this…

He goes to check his pants pockets and pees on his shirt sleeve. “One thing at a time,” he says out loud to himself, trying to relax. “Hey, call Carol would ya? I think I left the stove on.”

“But the toll money. We aren’t getting very far if…”

“Do you have to whine so loud?” Johnnie bangs the side of his head with his one dry wrist. “Just call Carol. Soon as I’m done peeing on myself I’ll check my pockets.”

Or… when the sidekick asks him if he’s got money for the toll bridge, does he say:

“Yeah, got it covered.”

If you don’t put in the work to get inside your people’s worlds and look around at everything through their eyes – and maybe take notes – your characters are going to sound like cardboard.

After you’ve got some rough dialogue down, go back over it one character at a time. Take the hero first and go through the dialogue again, making changes only to the hero’s words. Don’t let anything take you out of that guy’s head. Forget the others until the next pass. Then do the same for another character, and only that one.

When you work your dialogue, if you’re like me, you tend to worry too much about how things are said, rather than what is being said. One key to good dialogue is to do the opposite: Think content, not wording.

Example: “I don’t care who you say your daddy is, I’m not going to lie to the people of this county just to keep your sorry ass out of prison.”

The word-centered worthless edit process that I tend to do would produce this: “It doesn’t matter to me if your dad’s the president, I won’t lie to the people of my district to keep you out of jail.”

See that? I’ve merely said the same thing with different words. Honestly, I don’t know if the first one was better or the second one.

But I know this, if I let myself, I’ll spend hours trying to tweak words until I think I’ve made an improvement. The sad thing is, in the same amount of time I could have made a huge improvement to my dialogue if I’d just forgotten the words, stopped and noticed the texture of life from the character’s perspective.

Now, about those little exclamations at the beginning of phrases…

“Jeepers, I thought you were human!”

“Son of a bitch, that’s great coffee, Marge!”

“Look, I’m just saying this once.”

These preliminary words of emphasis can go viral. You’ll be up to your teeth in them because once you’re accustomed to hearing them, your dialogue won’t feel forceful enough without them. Worse still, they can sometimes fool you into “hearing” powerful dialogue when it’s not really there.

What about using four-letter type words?

All I know is this: don’t be a lamb and use vege-bad words like I tend to do in my nonfiction writing. They sound distracting, unless they make a point about the inconsistency of a character…

For instance, a crazed pseudo-religious killer might use watered down cuss words as part of her characterization. (Misery, by Steven King?) She’d break an author’s knees but feel compelled to use baptized exclamations rather than the sinful four-letter stuff.

That works, especially for King. But he’s not going to bring us a high school bad-boy saying, “Dang it, I’m going to kick your bottom!”

Either use four letter words or forget about them completely. It’s very difficult to play the middle ground and make it sound natural.

Another impossibly great piece of dialogue advice: Overdo it. When you speak for your characters, “dance like nobody’s watching.”

Is she angry? Find an angry person in your head (someone you actually heard yelling at someone) and amplify that voice, amplify the anger, make the cutting remarks crueler, think of something stupid for her to yell about. Maybe make her less than brilliant when she’s mad. Don’t edit yourself, just let the smoke fly.

Then go back later and write it all again (save the original) as if she were an upper-class British intellectual using cold, subtle criticism without losing her temper… saying cruel things in a calm, clever way.

Now you have two extremes to compare. Contrast is where magic is born. Choose one or the other and stick to it.

Have you got a kind person? Find out what made her capable of seeing only the good in people. Then when you believe in the genuine goodness of her personality and can feel it, let her talk without any editing or self-consciousness about words.

Have the courage to use this “over-the-top” stuff you’ve written. It’s probably your best dialogue, but if necessary, it will be easier to tone it down later than to add life to something dead.

Dialogue echoes if you reach across time with famous dialogue ringing in your head. Use the “Great Dialogue” program, or something like it.

Dialogue echoes if the 3-D details and feelings of a character’s world are fresh in mind before you let him speak.

Your dialogue will echo if you write loudly and fearlessly, as if no one were watching you dance.

M. Talmage Moorehead

Emotion as Focal Point

img_0941.jpgWhen you write your next chapter, try something really different, plot the emotions of your viewpoint character. You’re probably centered on plot right now, or a spellbinding scene in your head? You’re pulling a new combination of quirks together for an interesting, round character with strong desires that contrast and clash with others.

I love that approach.

But here’s something to consider…

I’m reading Collin’s Hunger Games and scratching my head wondering what she might be doing to come up with that intense and continuous rotation of Katness through that broad array of emotions, every feeling integral to plot and scene. It’s as if the scenes and plot arise from the emotions. It seems impossible that the author came back to a dry scene and wedged in an extra expression of emotion here and there.

Collins is gifted. Maybe it all flows out of her at once, the characters, plot, scenes, dialogue and emotion. But if a lesser talent with little experience were trying to reach millions with a young adult novel, I would have to take one thing at a time. Zero in on emotions, letting everything else flow out from the feelings of the characters.

Instead of starting with plot or untested characters, I’d start with an emotion map. Everything would grow up and out from there.

Something like this:

“Viewpoint Character’s Emotions, Chapter 1 – Surprise, remorse, pride, self-loathing, love, regret, fear. Chapter 2 – Fear, relief, exhaustion, new hope, confidence, love, hate, sympathy, forgiveness, surprise, helplessness, desperation. Chapter 3 – Nostalgia, confinement, longing, loneliness, ray of hope, surprise, relief, fear, excitement, euphoria, exhaustion, love, loyalty, commitment.”

Can that even be done? I’ve never tried it, but I will. Probably a draft of my next chapter.

At the moment, I’ve already written characters, a plot that the characters ignore, scenes needing work and a paucity of emotion throughout.

This is my current process (long, tedious paragraph ahead, but well worth reading):

Johanna, my viewpoint, goes into an ancient submarine that was once a flying machine.  What are the emotions she would have in there?  She almost drowned on the way in, so she wakes up disoriented and confused with Max doing CPR on her.  It’s the closest she’s ever come to being kissed.  How does that feel? It’s new and powerful, but she pushes away.  Her mind is foggy and she’s coughing and catching glimpses of the inside of this strange vessel. This character has a curious, sharp mind. She would be analytic, excited by the novel technology as she figures out how things work. There’s a section of the control panel that the people who now run the sub don’t understand.  How would it make her feel? She’s overwhelmed by curiosity and fascination, and figures out a function that even the owners don’t know. This brings satisfaction and excitement. She would hide what she’s figured out, in case she needs it later. What do you call the emotion of hiding a secret? That’s what she will express in some way, maybe body language. She would be afraid that her kidnappers might not honor their word to leave her brother James out of the deal. She took Jame’s place to keep him safe. She would want reassurance from the kidnappers, a promise to keep their word. She would feel bold and want to threaten them if they touched her brother, but she would be afraid to bring up James name at all, for fear of drawing attention to him and getting the bad guy’s minds churning as to how they might still make use of her brother.  She would try to be hopeful that they’d forgotten about him. She’s smart and plans ahead, so she would try to get on the good side of the captors, getting them to like her, assuming that the two bad guys with her on the sub must be mere pawns in the hands of a powerful figure she’ll meet eventually. She would be afraid to meet that person.  She’s a good person so she would try not to hate the one behind the kidnapping, but it would be no use. She would plan her words for the meeting, plan threats, imagine a fight to the death. The crew would like Johanna, everyone in her past has at least respected her for her mind. The crew would speak fearfully to her of the mastermind behind the kidnapping (the Queen).  They would tell Johanna how to approach the Queen cautiously and appropriately to avoid any conflict. The Queen, they say, kills people on a whim these days. Something is wrong with her, they believe. Johanna would feel fear mixed with her anger and simmering hatred. Max, her friend, could have claustrophobia in the sub. That’s a specific and interesting feeling! Johanna would empathize and dream up a way to help him. Her ability to solve problems is almost legendary in her world of genetics, the world she’s left behind now. She would remember the place with a feeling of loss, separation anxiety and an intuitive knowledge that she will never see any of them again. What emotion would contrast with all the other I’ve got in the scene now? How about embarrassment?  OK, when Max was saving her from drowning, her legs were stuck in the coral. He pulled on her limp body so hard that he pulled her out of her jeans. When he was doing CPR on her, they wrapped a blanket around her. She’s still in that blanket. Now a while later she realizes she’s not wearing anything but her shirt. She’s embarrassed, having never been seen that way by a man before. What would she feel in addition to embarrassment? She’s going to be angry at Max for seeing her, but that is met by how grateful she is to him for saving her life.  And she’s starting to have new feelings for him, of a romantic nature. She could deny the romantic feeling, saying to herself that it’s just a normal sort of love you’d feel for any friend. Analyzing love would make her think of her brother, the person she loves more than anyone else, even herself. She would flash back on James, realizing that she will probably never see him again. She feels the loss, but even worse, she puts herself in Jame’s shoes and sees him calling her on the phone… endlessly, day after day, year after year. He would never stop. (He’s a teenager whose mind has made it to the high-functioning side of the autism spectrum.) He would only hear the lonesome indifferent ring of his phone. She sees James as an old man, sitting with his phone, calling her every evening to hear one more of the stories she would tell him every night. Johanna, sitting somewhere alone, breaks down and sobs.  Nobody sees her tears. She hides them, knowing they would make her look weak. Weak things are always attacked in the real world, she would say to herself.”

Anyway, that’s a peek into my inner process, as it stands now.

So far, this process is at least giving me the enthusiasm to write instead of checking email.  (Looking back at this article from a later point in time, I should add that this focus on emotion has improved the page-turning quality of my story, in my humble and yet infallible opinion.)

Below is a list of some available human emotions. I will use it to get past the narrow range of emotions I seem to wear out:  fear, hate, love, anger, tooth extraction.  If my emotion map idea becomes a breakthrough for me, I’ll let you know.

Here’s that emotion list, not grammatically consistent or properly spaced. I’m sorry…

fear                                 calm, exuberant, robust, buoyant, faith, trust, love

greed                               generosity

helplessness                    confidence, Self-reliance

sadness                           joy

anger                                affection, not particularly perturbed, calm

feeling entitled                   thankfulness, feeling unworthy

dissatisfaction                   satisfaction

hunger                               feeling stuffed, satiated, full, nauseated at the thought of food

feeling afraid, chicken          confident, unafraid, brave, bold, courageous

boredom                             surprised, interested, excited, overstimulated, overworked, at wit’s end

feeling alone                        feeling that you belong, feeling like a family, befriended, in love

hopelessness                      hope, sensing a glimmer of what’s possible, determined

ashamed                             proud, bloated in ego, full of yourself, arrogant, unabashed, undaunted

remorseful                            impenitent, without pity, without regret

sorrow                                 rejoicing

regretful                               justified, feeling no regrets

embarrassed                        comforted, gladdened, unrattled, unflapped, undaunted, unruffled

self-conscious                     uninhibited, unaware of himself, self-assured, mater-of-fact, open, secure

hostile                                friendly, forgiving, cool-headed

abashed                               unabashed, blatantly flaunting it

chagrined                             unabashed, not disappointed

proud, grandiose                   humble, meek, lowly, a commoner, average, sub-par, self-effacing

disconcerted                        unconcerned, comfortable with, not worried about

worried, anxious                   confident, courageous, on Prozac, ambivalent

eager, anxious to go            dreading it, bored, wishing to stay

disconnected                       in touch with reality, feeling with it, belonging, having a purpose, motivated

rattled                                 confident, composed, poised, unaffected, unmoved, unruffled

unmovable                           moved to tears, convinced, talked into it, converted, persuadable, naive

undecided           convicted, convinced, persuaded, unconfused, brainwashed, not baffled, not perplexed

indecision                    decisiveness, confident leadership, conviction, mind already made up

fazed                                   unfazed, untouched, teflon, clueless, unmoved

unfocused                           in the zone, alert, bright-eyed, awake, wired, tweaked

mortified                              unmoved, no empathy, unsympathetic, insensitive, pitiless, callous,                   unconcerned, indifferent, too narcissistic to care

miffed                                  tickled, happy, pleased

distress                               holding up, stoic, gallant, bold

disgusted                            unaffected by, tolerant of, accepting, able to ignore it, accustomed to it,

humiliation                          feeling exonerated, honor, arrogance, self-righteousness, superciliousness

shamelessness                   guilt, self-depreciation,

shame                                pride

skeptical                             impressionable, brain-washable, unscientific, naive, not jaded, non-analytic, inexperienced

guilt                                    apathy, self-justification, blamelessness, pride, smugness

uncertainty                       conviction, assured, convinced, surety, oriented, doubtless

doubt                                 certainty, grounded in faith, healthy doubt, doubtless,

insecurity                           self-assurance, self-confidence, lacking normal insecurity, lacks self-doubt

hate                                     love, indifference

indifference                        love, hate

despondent                       rejoicing, overjoyed, no longer depressed, exuberant, buoyant

discouraged                      determined, never-say-die mindset, encouraged, hopeful

cornered                          unconfined, free, not jailed, able to escape, in pursuit, in the open

I think it will be valuable to have a list of emotions beside me, keeping subtle differences and broad contrasts in the front of my quark-sized mind as I write.  Not for the sake of finding better words, but for the sake of drawing rounder characters and more gripping plots.

Subtle differences matter to my characters, but for most readers, contrast means more.

My old voice teacher used to shout, “All sunshine and no shadow is boring, M.!” He was talking about tone quality, brightness and darkness. Without one, you can’t appreciate the other because anything you hear for a long time becomes background, resetting the norm for that listener for that moment.

It’s the same deal with emotions and the characters and readers who feel them.

M. Talmage Moorehead

Note:  If character emotion interests you, you might check out my article (above), “Valuable Procrastination.” It’s an update, I guess.