Okay. I’m a little behind the times. Or maybe I just need to be in the mood for a drama, but anyway, I just finished watching Denzel Washington in Flight. The first fifteen minutes were incredible. The tension. The plot. Disaster loomed but I stuck with it anyway. After the crash I watched this terribly damaged man wallow deeper and deeper into a bog of self loathing, fueled by alcohol and drugs. Just when I thought he’d gone as deep as he possibly could, strangled by his own addition, suddenly he came up for air in the last minute. His mind clear and ready for confession. It was to nice. Too neat. Too Hollywood. The ending stuck in my head long after the credits had rolled. But not in a good way.
All the craft books on characterization state that a character must change either through a physical or psychological journey. Evolution, according to Cynthia Whitcomb, comes in five stages:
- The Self
Most stories concern numbers one through three. Some touch on four, but rarely do they ever get to five. The bigger the jump the more memorable the character. Whitcomb sites five memorable number five characters such as Scrooge, Casablanca, A Wonderful Life, King Lear & Godfather. I think what Whitcomb fails to touch on is the progression of that jump must be a gradual ascension. You can’t wallow in number one and suddenly jump to number five. In my experience people don’t change. And they don’t change that drastically. I think that’s what ate at me about Flight. Denzel’s Washington’s transformation was too big. Too sudden. And it just wasn’t believable. Not enough for me.
While at work today, I was doing my usual data collection and listening to my Ipod. Strangely, it decided to play three Warren Zevon songs back to back. Now, I’m a product of the 1980s. I got stuck listening to a lot of my parent’s music. I do remember Warren Zevon, but honestly it’s his hooks that I remember the most. “Werewolves of London”, “Excitable Boy” & “Lawyers, Guns & Money”. Now that I’m older and I can actually comprehend the lyrics…man Zevon was exercising some serious issues on his third album (yes – I had to look that up). But one thing that struck me and struck me hard was his use of irony. And dang, does he know how to use it.
Take the song “Excitable Boy”. It’s a great example of dramatic irony (if you don’t know what irony is, look it up). It starts with an upbeat kinda 50s feel. A lot of oohs and sha-na-nas. It hooks you with the nostalgia feel. Then you have this guy coming down to dinner in his Sunday best. Okay, you know that he’s going somewhere, but you don’t know where. It’s just dinner. They’re having a pot roast. Instead of eating it, the guy rubs it all over his chest. Okay, this guy is a loon. But the chorus with the upbeat ladies, is like the good mother saying ‘oh there’s nothing wrong with him’ he’s “just an excitable boy”. While his actions clearly state something else: this guy is positively nuts. I could break my comments down by each line of lyrics, but I won’t. You gotta listen to this yourself.
When you’re thinking about starting a novel and writing up a character sketch, don’t forget their wheels. What type of car a person owns can go a long way to show not only a person’s economic state, but how they feel about themselves.
I love the look of Packards. They’re elegant. Classy. But unless my husband had been a doctor, lawyer or a movie star, I wouldn’t have owned one of these beauties. They were a sign of wealth. Of establishment–and cost four times more than Chevys and Fords.
That’s too bad. But a girl can dream…
Dialogue must do three things:
- Advance the plot
- Provide action
- Enhance characterization
If your dialogue doesn’t do these three things–cut it. Or find another way to move your story forward. Personally, I don’t find dialogue that difficult. It’s a matter of listening to your characters even when you as the writer don’t want to. Here are eight example from authors who I believe write great dialogue (FYI – there is some profanity below):
1) Dashiell Hammett’s The Thin Man (1934. New York: Vintage Crime/Black Lizard Vintage Books, 1992, pg. 5)
We found a table. Nora said: “She’s pretty.”
“If you like them like that.”
She grinned at me. “You got types?”
“Only you, darling—lanky brunettes with wicked jaws.”
“And how about the red-head you wandered off with at the Quinns’ last night?”
“That’s silly,” I said. “She just wanted to show me some French etchings.”
2) Ernest Hemingway’s Farwell to Arms (1929. New York: Scribner, 1957, pgs. 22-23). I despise his writing style, but I understand why people try to copy it.
“It’s not really the army. It’s only the ambulance.”
“It’s very odd, though. Why did you do it?”
“I don’t know,” I said. “There isn’t always an explanation for everything.”
“Oh, isn’t there? I was brought up thinking there was.”
“That’s awfully nice.”
“Do we have to go on talking this way?”
“No,” I said.
“That’s a relief. Isn’t it?”
“What is the stick?” I asked. Miss Barkley was quite tall. She wore what seemed to me to be a nurse’s uniform, was blonde and had a tawny skin and gray eyes. I thought she was very beautiful. She was carrying a thin rattan stick like a toy riding-crop, bound in leather.
“It belonged to a boy who was killed last year.”
“I’m awfully sorry.”
“He was a very nice boy. He was going to marry me and he was killed in the Somme.”
“It wsa a ghastly show.”
“Were you there?”
3) Elmore Leonard’s Maximum Bob (New York: Dell Publishing, 1991, pgs. 4-5).
“Dale , he’s put more offenders on death row than any judge in the state.” That shut him up. “What I’m trying to tell you is be polite. Okay? With this judge you don’t want to oiss him off.”
Dale was shaking his head, innocent. He said, “Man, I don’t know,” in a sigh, blowing out his breath, and Kathy turned her face away. “you gonna tell him how you see this?”
“When the judge asks for recommendations, yeah, I’ll have to say something…”
“Well, that’s good. Tell him I’ve been drinking since I was fourteen years old and I know how, no problem. Listen, and tell him I’m still working out the sugar house. Have a good job and don’t want to lose it.”
“That’s all I can think of.”
“Just lie for you?”
“It wouldn’t hurt you none, would it? Say I’m working? Jesus.”
“You think I’m on your side?”
“Well, aren’t you?”
“Dale, I’m not your friend. I’m your probation officer.”
4) James Cain’s Double Indemnity (1936. New York: Every Man’s Library, 2003, pgs. 124-125).
“I haven’t any reason. He treats me as well as a man can treat a woman. I don’t love him, but he’s never done anything to me.”
“But you’re going to do it?”
“Yes, God help me, I’m going to do it.”
She stopped crying, and lay in my arms for a while without saying anything. Then she began to talk almost in a whisper.
“He’s not happy. He’ll be better off—dead.”
“That’s not true, is it?”
“Not from where he sits, I don’t think.”
“I know it’s not me, I don’t know what. Maybe I’m crazy. But there’s something in me that loves Death. I think of myself as Death, sometimes. In a scarlet shroud, floating through the night. I’m so beautiful, then. And sad. And hungry to make the whole world happy, by taking them out when I am, into the night, away from all trouble, all unhappiness… Walter, this is the awful part. I know this is terrible. I tell myself it’s terrible. But to me, it doesn’t seem terrible. It seems as though I’m doing something—that’s really best for him, if he only knew it. Do you understand me, Walter?”
“But you’re going to do it.”
“Yes, we’re going to do it.”
“Straight down the line.”
“Straight down the line.”
5) E.M. Forster’s Howards End (1910. New York: Barnes and Noble Classics, 2003, pgs. 310-11)
“Here are the keys,” said Margaret. She tossed them towards him. They fell on the sunlit slope of grass, and he did not pick the up.
“I have something to tell you,” he said gently.
She knew this superficial gentleness, this confession of hastiness, that was only intended to enhance her admiration of the male.
“I don’t want to hear it,” she replied. “My sister is going to be ill. My life is going to be with her now. We must manage to build up something, she I and her child.”
“Where are you going?”
“Munich. We start after the inquest, if she is not to ill.”
“After the inquest?”
“Have you realized what the verdict at the inquest will be?”
“Yes, heart disease.”
“No, my dear; manslaughter.”
Margaret drove her fingers through the grass. The hill beneath her moved as if it was alive.
“Manslaughter,” repeated Mr. Wilcox. “Charles may go to prison. I dare not tell him. I don’t know what to do–what to do. I’m broken–I’m ended.”
6) James Ellroy’s L.A. Confidential (New York: The Mysterious Press, 1990, pgs. 12-13)
Kinnard ran out, tripped over Rudolph. Bud cuffed his writs, bounced his face on the pavement. Ralphie yelped and chewed gravel; Bud launched his wife beater spiel. “You’ll be out in a year and a half, and I’ll know when. I’ll find out who your parole officer is and get cozy with him, I’ll visit you and say hi. You touch her again I’m gonna know, and I’m gonna get you violated on a kiddie raper beef. You know what they do to kiddie rapers up in Quintin? Huh? The Pope a fuckin’ guinea?”
Lights went on—Kinnard’s wife was fussing with the fuze box. She said, “Can I go to my mother’s?”
Bud emptied Ralphie’s pockets—keys, a cash roll. “Take the car and get yourself fixed up.”
Kinnard spat teeth. Mrs. Ralphie grabbed the keys and peeled a ten-spot. Bud said, “Merry Christmas, huh?”
Mrs. Ralphie blew a kiss and backed the car out, wheels over blinking reindeer.
7) Diane Gabaldon’s Voyager (New York: Delcorte Press, 1994, pgs. 220-1)
“Stop you?” I said. “What should I have done? Steamed open your mail and waved the letters under your nose? Made a scene at the faculty Christmas party? Complained to the Dean?”
His lips pressed tight together for a moment, then relaxed.
“You might have behaved as though it mattered to you,” he said quietly.
“It mattered.” My voice sounded strangled.
He shook his head, still staring at me, his eyes dark in the lamplight.
“Not enough.” He paused, face floating pale in the air above his dark dressing gown, then came around the bed to stand by me.
“Sometimes I wondered if I could rightfully blame you,” he said, almost thoughtfully. “He looked like Bree, didn’t he? He was like her?”
He breathed heavily, almost a snort.
“I could see it in your face–when you’d look at her. I could see you thinking of him. Damn you, Claire Beauchamp,” he said, very softly. “Damn you and your face that can’t hide a thing you think or feel.”
There was silence after this, of the sort that makes you hear all the tiny unhearable noises of creaking wood and breathing houses–only in an effort to pretend you haven’t heard what was just said.
“I did love you,” I said softly, at last. “Once.”
“Once,” he echoed. “Should I be grateful for that?”
8) Jayne Krentz’s Family Man (New York: Pocket Books, 1992, pg. 58-9)
“You upset her,” Justine said after a moment.
“Yes. She’s normally very calm. Quite unflappable. She’s also extraordinarily cheerful most of the time. Justine frowned thoughtfully as she picked up her cup of tea. “I’ve often wondered how she does it. It doesn’t seem quite natural somehow. Nevertheless, she’s rather a delight to have around, actually.”
“Is that why you’ve kept her? Because she amuses you?”
Now, you can read all the craft books you like. Try to emulate the greatest writers every day of the week. But in the end the best way to master dialogue is to listen and practice.
And practice A LOT.
Justified stars Timothy Olyphant as U.S. Marshall Raylan Givens, a character created by crime novelist Elmore Leonard. His sparse, in your face style stands beside great crime novelists like Chandler and Dashiell. He died yesterday at the age of 87.
He’ll be missed.
I love his 10 Rules of Writing. Even if you’re not into crime novels, his advice is spot on.
Here’s the list:
- Never open a book with the weather
- Avoid prologues
- Never use a verb other than ‘said’ to carry dialogue.
- Never use an adverb to modify the verb said “said.”
- Keep your exclamation points under control.
- Never use the words ‘suddenly’ or ‘all hell broke loose’.
- Use regional dialect, patios, sparingly.
- Avoid detailed descriptions of characters.
- Don’t go into great detail describing places and things.
- Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.
Here’s some additional links:
I don’t watch a whole lot of television. But over maternity leave, television episodes were the easiest to watch while caring for an infant. One series I always wanted to see but never got around to was Breaking Bad. Last night was the first of eight final episodes. And all I can say is: WOW!
Few television series, or book series, for that matter show the transformation of a character as wells as Vince Gilligan and Bryan Cranston have with Walter White. Comparing the Walter in the first season to fifth season, I was struck by where Walter White has landed. Gone is the meek chemistry teacher fighting the prospect of economic poverty and lung cancer, to become a drug kingpin willing to destroy anyone that gets in his path.
I think what makes this character so intersting is that he didn’t start out evil. He chose to be that way. Life is about choices. And in Walter’s case, very, very bad choices. But it isn’t just the fact that Walter makes good meth or he’s ruethless. His greatest gift is that he lies. He lies so well to everyone. His wife. His drug partner, Jesse. His kids. His brother-in-law, Hank (who’s also a D.E.A. agent). And most of all himself. He even made me convinced too when he told Hank he was just a lolely car wash owner. Then Hank tells him he doesn’t recognize the man Walter has become. Then Walter tells him to ‘tread lightly’.
Oh, my goodness. Just one sentence and Walter tells the entire audience just how he’s changed. It’s also a great hook. I want to see how this story ends. And what happens to Walter. Will the cancer finally catch up to him. Or will someone else finish off Walter before the cancer does? Seven more episodes left in this amazing series.
If you haven’t watched any of this yet and you have Netflix, download it. Or watch AMC. I’m sure they’ll have a marathon of the series again soon.
Most published authors will tell you to read lots and read often. Fiction. Non-Fiction. Anything to keep your mind concentrated on the story. Currently, that’s where I’m at. After reading a couple books on the craft of mystery writing, I closed both of them in irritation. Write sympathetic characters. Write sympathetic plots. While sympathy is an okay word, it wasn’t the RIGHT word.
A scene from the movie Road House kept popping into my head. When one of the bouncers asks their cooler (played by Patrick Swayze) how to respond to an insult, the cooler responds with: “It’s two nouns combined to elicited a prescribed response.” To me sympathy elicits feelings of affection, maybe sorrow brought on by someone sharing their feelings with me. So I care about this person. I have a stake in their welfare. But is this the right word to use to describe how a literary character makes me feel? No. Not really. I think the RIGHT word is empathy.
Here are the two definitions from Word English Dictionary:
Sympathy: n. 1)the sharing of another’s emotions, especially of sorrow, or anguish; pity; compassion.
Empathy: n. 1)the power of understanding and imaginatively entering into another person’s feelings.
Okay. We’ve looked at both definitions. Let’s take the word sympathy head on. Would you offer sympathy to a character like Hannibal Lector, Humbert Humbert, or Dexter after they murder someone? No. You’d be repulsed. You’d empathize—after entering into the minds of these characters you see and understand the reasoning behind their actions. You may not agree with them. But you UNDERSTAND. And that’s what a writer must do. Get the reader to understand your characters. Find them interesting enough to see if they get thrown in the slammer or killed in the same vein as they’ve killed. Words are the atoms of any writing. A wise man once said if you take the words cat house and house cat, they’re the same words but mean two entirely different things. And it’s important to use them correctly and in the right order or as in the cat & house case, you’re liable to get slapped in the face.
3) WRITE GREAT DIALOGUE: Television relies on the things you can see and hear. This is just one of the aspects of great fiction too. Dialogue must enhance the plot and characterization simultaneously. This is where this show really shines. Pop-culture infused fun. Here are some of my favorite lines:
– From Season (1), Episode (1), “The Pilot”
Sam: When I told dad I was scared of the thing in my closet he gave me a .45.
Dean: What was he supposed to do?
Sam: I was nine years old. He was supposed to say don’t be scared of the dark.
Dean: Don’t be afraid of the dark? Are you kidding me? Of course you’re supposed to be afraid of the dark. You know what’s out there.
– From Season (1), Episode (11), “Scarecrow”
Dean: [To the scarecrow] Dude, you fugly.
– From Season (3), Episode (11), “Mystery Spot”
Dean: [after Sam tells Dean he saw him get hit by a car] And?
Sam: And what?
Dean: Did it look cool, like in the movies?
Sam: You peed yourself.
Dean: Of course, I peed myself. Man gets hit by a car, you think he had full control of his bladder? Come on!
– From Season (3), Episode (12), “Jus in Bello”
Henricksen: I shot the sheriff.
Dean: But you didn’t shoot the deputy.
– From Season (4), Episode (22), “Lucifer Rising”
Dean: I’m not sure if he’s my brother any more. If he ever was.
Bobby: You stupid, stupid son of a bitch! Well boo hoo. I am so sorry your feelings are hurt… princess! Are you under the impression that family’s supposed to make you feel good? Make you an apple pie, maybe? They’re supposed to make you miserable! That’s why they’re family.
– From Season (5), Episode (1), “Sympathy for the Devil”
Sam: So let me ask the million dollar question: What do we do now?
Bobby: Well, we save as many as we can for as long as we can. It’s bad, and whoever wins, Heaven or Hell, we’re boned.
Dean: What if we do win? I’m serious. Screw the Angels and the Demons and their crap apocalypse. Now if they wanna fight a war, they can find their own planet. This one’s ours, and I say they get the hell off it. We take ‘em all on. We kill the Devil, hell, we even kill Michael if we have to, but we do it our own damn selves.
Bobby: And how are we supposed to do all this genius?
Dean: I got no idea. But what I do have is a GED and a give-em-hell attitude and I’ll figure it out.
Bobby: you are nine kinds of crazy boy.
Dean: It’s been said.
4) APPRECIATE YOUR AUDIENCE: You gotta stay connected to your fans whether it’s through email, snail, or through the numerous outlets of social media. This show pays homage to their fans in a number of ways. One of the best examples is episode 18 of Season 4: “The Monster at the End of this Book”. The writers incorporate/mention real life online slash fan-fiction into this episode’s storyline. Sam and Dean stumble across a cult book series written by Carver Edlund, a pseudonym for Chuck Shurley who’s writing the story of Sam and Dean. Castiel, the angel, informs them Chuck is actually a prophet and that he’s writing what will become the Winchester Gospel.
I just finished How to Write Killer Historical Mysteries and I thought I’d discuss outlining.
Now, I outline. I need a map. It’s usually a chapter by chapter sketch of the POV, general setting, and what I want the chapter to accomplish. Usually, I have the first 1/4 and the last 1/4 of the book outlined in my head. It’s always the middle 1/2 where I have trouble. It comes eventually, though.
Not everyone outlines. Kathy Emerson outlines as she goes. Benjamin Leroy, founder of Tyrus Books, consideres himself a ‘pantser‘. Meaning he says to ‘hell with it’ and simply writes what flows from his fingers. I admire the writer who does this. My brain simply doesn’t work that way.
The outline of He’ll Bring You All Down (my new YA novel) is about 3/4 complete with about 1/4 written. There’s still some kinks I have to work out in the first draft, but I’m getting there.