Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Talking Heads (or, When Life Hands You Dialogue, Throw in Some Action )

We’ve all seen it:

Hello, Cindy.”
“Hi, Jane.”
“How are you?”
“Fine, thanks. You?”
“Fine. Got any plans for after work?”
“Maybe go out for a drink.”
“Mm. I was gonna go for groceries.”
“Well, that, too, but I’d rather get a drink.”

Boooooooring. And how many of you had to count the lines to remember who’s talking? Or how about those passages where one person provides exposition of the plot or background, then another person presents an opposing opinion, then a third tosses in an idea that negates everything the first two said, and it starts all over. 


Talking heads are boring on TV and they’re boring at a party and they’re boring in a book. (I’m not talking about the Talking Heads you still hear on FM radio. Though some people find them boring, too.) Humans are visual creatures and we like action. It’s up to you, the writer, to give your readers action.

Take a tip from director Ken Burns, for instance, in his great series on the Civil War. As in so many of his films, he has actors read from letters written during that tragic conflict. Gifted though the actors are, the readings could be a snooze. But Burns also gives us action, in the form of photos. Not static photos--he zooms in on a heartbreakingly real face, pans across fields of broken bodies, or highlights a telling detail. The spoken word blends with the pictures to create an indelible image.

So how do you emulate Ken Burns? By adding action to your dialogue. For example:

Jane stopped by her friend’s desk late on a Friday afternoon. “Hey, Cindy, whatcha doin’ after work?”
Cindy rubbed her eyes and gestured at the stack of paperwork beside her computer. “All this, then I need to get groceries.”
“Hmmph. Me, too. Wanna go for a drink?”
“Sweet Goddess, yes,” Cindy said with a laugh. Her shoulders lost some of their tension.

See the difference? Instead of just reporting what each person says, you’ve now given your characters a setting, indicated how hard they work, and shown something of their personalities. You’ve engaged your reader in the passage.

As for those long expositions, report in dialogue only what is necessary to the plot. Summarized the rest from your character’s POV or break it up into shorter bits that can be inserted into scenes where they do the most good. Show the listeners’ reactions by indicating their body movements or interior dialogue. Maybe a word from the speaker triggers memories or makes a connection:

Jason’s mind wandered while the boss droned on. He caught the phrase “binomial equation” and drifted back to his high school algebra class. He’d been far more interested in that pretty girl Vanessa What’s-her-name than in… Now the boss was sketching on the white board, a complex pattern of cross-hatching and curved lines. Jason raised his hand. “Maybe we should get Professor Martin in on this,” he suggested.

If you must include long speeches, remember Ken Burns, any televised political debate, or a good science documentary. Include visuals like the audience reaction or appropriate clips of related action.
In short, do whatever you must to engage your readers’ visual cortex. Remember, we humans are visual creatures, and we like action.

Nikki Andrews is an editor at Champagne Books and a writer of mysteries and scifi. Visit her blog here for more grammar fun.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Mastering Structural Revision

Linear revision kills
Many writers jump into revision like a swimmer into shark waters. They wade through their draft again and again, focusing on different elements, and slowly they drift out deeper and deeper, moving in circles, making deeper changes without a proper reference. Then the sharks show up and guess who's on the menu?
Whether those sharks are the editors or agents who send out polite rejection letters, or the Gollum in your head that tells you the task is hopeless, linear revision is bound to kill you sooner or later.
It's madness, but there's method in it
Not all is lost! Time to stand up straight and learn how to master revision. The first stop is the posture clinic, aka the post-draft outline.
What is this, exactly? (Or, if you're a "pantser", the dreaded O-word might make you cringe.)
For me (an outliner) it is an outline, but if you prefer to avoid outlines altogether, consider this an exercise. 
Go through your manuscript and try to identify distinct chunks of your story. These are not necessarily scenes or chapters. They are segments, anywhere from 200 to 2000 words or so, where your story takes on a unique cadence and shape. For example, if your scene is a dialogue between conspirators overheard by your POV character, followed by your POV character's introspection while she rushes down a dark alley to warn her father about the plan to kill him, these events would stand alone. 
Develop a numbering system -- I use decimals to show divisions. For example, if I'm in chapter 1, the segments will be 1.1, 1.2, 1.3, and so on.
Go through from beginning to end. If one of the sections is particularly long, don't worry, but do see if there is an inflection that breaks it up. For example, if you have a long conversation in one passage, have a look. If it starts out with an exchange on the history of the world, then someone interrupts with a recent event that changes the topic, then this inflection divides the action to make the two parts unique segments.
Going over your whole story and dividing it up will allow you to appreciate where certain segments wander. Imagine each segment as a plunge under water. If you keep pulling your reader into the depths without giving them a breath, they're going to politely swim away to another tour guide. Similarly, if you pull them under for a long time once in a while (which you should!) then it had better be worth the view.
Once you have your manuscript divided up, go over and ask what each segment does -- how it helps the story as a whole. Cut, develop, re-write. Be honest. Be brutal. Be thorough. 
Most important, watch out for the sharks!

Graeme Brown is a junior editor with Champagne Books. This post is based on Step 10 of his Storybuilder Inc. series, which he adds to every Tuesday at Worlds of the Imagination. To find out more about Graeme visit his website: