Friday, December 30, 2011

Creating a Strong Voice: Use Dialog to Show

I’ve talked about using the five senses to “show” rather than tell. I also talked about using strong and specific nouns and verbs, being cautious with adjectives, and generally avoiding adverbs. All this comes together especially well with dialogue.

Sometimes authors try to avoid the repetitiveness of “said” by using a lot of alternatives. Although writers may notice how the times they use “said,” the word virtually disappears during dialogue scenes. The reader won’t notice it. On the other hand, they may start to notice if you use a lot of fancy alternatives, such as reply, retort, answer, interject, state and questioned. Those words call attention to themselves, without adding anything to the dialogue.

It’s all right to occasionally use dialogue tag verbs that describe the volume or speed of speech, such as yelled, whispered, stuttered. But if everybody is constantly screaming and snorting and sputtering, your characters will look ridiculous rather than realistic, so use these alternatives sparingly.

You should also avoid adding an adverb to “said.” This is almost always telling rather than showing. Instead of using “he said angrily,” make sure the dialogue conveys anger, or add a bit of action that shows the anger.

Here’s an example from my inspirational biography, Jesse Owens Young Record Breaker, written under the name M. M. Eboch:

            A month later, JC could barely breathe with the pressure on his chest. He wondered if he would die. He lay down, gasping, unable to sleep. He heard his parents whispering.
            “We’ve got to do something, Henry,” his mother said.
            “You took one of those bumps off his leg once.”
            “But this one’s so big!” Mama said. “And it’s near his heart.”
            “Emma—” his father started to say.
            “Don’t say it!”
            “I’m going to say it,” his father insisted. “If the Lord wants him—”
            His mother interrupted again, her voice rising. “The Lord doesn’t want this child.”

Do you get a sense of his parents’ emotions, and even their differing personalities, just based on the words they speak?

To make your dialogue read more smoothly, you can occasionally cut the dialogue tag altogether, if it’s clear who’s speaking. If two people are having a conversation, and you are punctuating your dialogue properly, we know that the speaker is alternating in every paragraph. Identify the speaker roughly every third time and the reader should be able to keep track. (With the youngest readers, you may want to err on the side of identifying the speaker every time, for clarity.)

Coincidentally, the day after I wrote this I read a blog post on Dialogue Nuts & Bolts by Jodie Renner. She says some of the same things I do, so you know they must be true. Plus she offers detailed instruction on the technical aspects of punctuating dialogue, so if you are not sure when and where to use which type of punctuation, check out her post.

Assignment: Write about two people at a party, showing emotion through dialogue. They could be fighting, flirting, planning mischief... you decide. You can use characters from your current work in progress if you like. Don’t name any emotions. If you want to test your work, share the writing with your critique group or other friends. See if people can guess the emotions.

Get more writing advice in Advanced Plotting.

Friday, December 23, 2011

Creating a Strong Voice: When You Might Need to “Tell”

I’ve been talking about the difference between showing and telling, and made a strong case (I hope) for showing. However, every rule has its exception. For younger readers, you may need to define emotions more, as they may not have enough world experience to always recognize what it means when someone crosses her arms or raises her eyebrows. You can still use specific language and the five senses, but consider your readers age before you get too creative with the showing details. In some cases, you may want to reinforce the showing with a clearly defined emotion.

You may also need to use “telling” adjectives or adverbs when you’re dealing with unexpected reactions. Here’s an example from my novel, The Well of Sacrifice, where the main character is describing her sister:

 “Feather was beautiful even as a child. She had reddish brown skin, smooth and glossy like wet clay. Her dark, slanting eyes were crossed, and her high forehead was flattened back in a straight line from her long nose.”

American children today probably don’t know that the Maya thought crossed eyes and a high, flattened forehead was beautiful. If I had just described Feather, young readers might have thought she was ugly, and the main character’s jealousy wouldn’t make sense. Using that “telling” word beautiful shows the different standards of the ninth-century Maya.

I heard author Richard Peck speak at a conference. In his novel Representing Super Doll, a character is described simply as “the most beautiful girl in the world.” Pretty vague. You don’t know her hair color, eye color, height or weight, or even what race she is. And that was his intent. He wanted the reader to imagine his or her own version of the most beautiful girl in the world. The description isn’t specific, but it does exactly what the author wants.

You can also sometimes use “telling” adjectives to show your character’s feelings. Here’s an example in the third person, from the point of view of a girl named Alice, describing her father’s new girlfriend. “She wasn’t as pretty as Alice’s mother. She wore old jeans and a sweatshirt, and her dull brown hair was pulled back in a ponytail. She was thin and talked too loud. Alice’s mother was soft and gentle and elegant.”

There is a lot of telling in there, but it shows us Alice’s opinion. A savvy reader will understand that the girlfriend may or may not be as pretty as Alice’s mother—but Alice doesn’t like her.

Remember, these are exceptions to the rule, not an excuse to ignore the rule. In general, putting effort into showing rather than telling will improve your voice.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Creating a Strong Voice: Show, Don’t Tell Emotion

Last week I talked about the difference between showing and telling. One of the most common places author slip up and tell rather than show is when it comes to emotion. It’s tempting to explain that your character is happy, sad, angry or whatever. Simply naming the emotion is quick and seems clear. However, it’s not the most successful method.

Telling us that a character is angry, happy, or upset doesn’t give a picture. We can’t see what that character looks like at that moment. Different people express their anger in different ways, from silently seething to screaming and throwing things, so showing the anger through specific actions and words creates a clearer picture—and one that shows much more about that character.

Showing emotion through the character’s action and dialogue, plus using the five senses, also creates more vivid, dramatic scenes—the kind that will have an editor raving about the writer’s voice.

Here’s another quote from Antarctica: Journey to the Pole, a novel by Peter Lerangis:

            Colin Winslow ran through the canyon streets of lower Manhattan. He ran even though his chest hurt and the rain pelted him and his feet slipped on the wet pavement. …
            His stepmother was dead. It happened while he and Andrew were watching, while they held her hands in the hospital room. She woke from a sleep, called Father’s name, and closed her eyes. Just like that, the pneumonia took her, and Colin felt his heart squeeze, exactly the way it had when his mother had died. Suddenly the hospital walls couldn’t hold enough air for him, so he ran.

Can you tell how Colin feels in that moment, and also how he felt about his stepmother? And yet, notice that no emotion is ever named.

One advantage to showing the character’s emotion in this way is that you evoke a similar reaction in the reader. If you simply have your character see or hear “something frightening/exciting/sad,” the reader won’t necessarily feel frightened, excited, or sad as well. On the other hand, if you describe what the character sees or hears using specific details and the five senses, then the reader can share the character’s emotion.

Here’s a description of the cat Dragon, from Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH, by Robert C. O’Brien:

“He was enormous, with a huge, broad head and a large mouth full of curving fangs, needle sharp. He had seven claws on each foot and a thick, furry tail, which lashed angrily from side to side. In color he was orange and white, with glaring yellow eyes; and when he leaped to kill, he gave a high, strangled scream that froze his victims where they stood.”

Can you imagine how the mice and rats feel about Dragon?

Assignment: Write a page on entering a new setting that evokes a strong reaction (fear, joy, excitement, anger, pity). Don’t name the emotion.

Assignment: Remember a time in your life when you were scared. Describe it, without telling how you felt.

Find more writing advice in Advanced Plotting.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Creating a Strong Voice: How to Show, Not Tell

Writers often hear the advice “Show, don’t tell.” But what exactly does that mean? At a basic level, showing is really pretty simple.

Showing uses sense data, information perceivable by one of the five senses. Telling interprets or explains that data. If a character sees or hears something “frightening,” the author is explaining that the character should be frightened. To show, draw on the five senses—what the character can see, hear, smell, feel, or taste—so that we sense the fear too.

Here’s an example from the prologue to Antarctica: Journey to the Pole, a novel by Peter Lerangis:
            The call of Antarctica is loud and clear: Go away.
            You hear it in the groans of colliding ice floes. In the shriek of 200 mile an hour winds hurtling down the Transantarctic mountains. In the thunder of an ice shelf splitting into the sea. In the hostile silence of the darkness that begins in April and ends in June.
            You feel it, too, as the temperature drops to -100°F and your breath forms a mask of solid ice inside your hood. Standing still can kill you, and you fight off the urge to sleep, because you know you may never awaken.

That’s a powerful assault on the senses, especially sound and touch, which are often forgotten in favor of sight. (Notice all the specific verbs and nouns as well, like I mentioned in last week’s post!)

Here’s another example, from The Gray King, by Susan Cooper:

Close to, the fire on the mountain was very much more alarming than it had seemed from a distance. They could smell it now, and hear it; smell the smoke more bitter than a farm bonfire; here the soft, dreadful sound of flames consuming the bracken, like paper crumpled in the hand, and the sudden crackling roar as a bush or a patch of gorse went up. And they could see the flames, leaping high, bright red and yellow at the edges of the fire but ferocious and near-invisible at its heart.

You may notice that she uses quite a few adjectives, including some that might be considered vague, such as alarming and dreadful. But these work in combination with specific details and an appeal to multiple senses to bring the scene to life in a vivid, emotional way.

For more expert writing advice, order Advanced Plotting, with two dozen essays that will help you write better.

Assignment: Look at a descriptive scene from your work in progress. How many senses did you use? Rewrite the scene, describing what your character SEES, HEARS, SMELLS, TASTES, and FEELS. Be specific with your language.

You may not want to use this entire rewritten scene in your manuscript, as it might seem like too much. Pick out the sensory details that do the best job of showing the scene in an emotional way, with an attention to detail appropriate for the importance of the scene.

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Friday, December 2, 2011

Creating a Strong Voice: Be Specific

One way to strengthen your writing voice is to make sure you are choosing strong, specific words. In particular, focus on strong nouns and verbs.

Be wary of adjectives, which are often vague and open to interpretation. To me, the term “young girl” suggests a child no more than six years old, but I’ve heard the phrase used to describe a woman in her early 20s. Factual details or clear comparisons are less open to interpretation, so be precise. For example, calling a character “big” isn’t specific. A man who appears average or even small to an adult might still appear big to a child. A Japanese man who is of above-average size in Japan might be smaller than average in Denmark.

If you want to create a clear picture, you can use specific statistics, such as saying that the man is 6’6” and 300 pounds (would that be fat or muscle, though?). Or you could use a familiar comparison. Perhaps he’s built like a pro football player (would that be a quarterback or a linebacker?). Keep your audience in mind. Will they be more familiar with a linebacker or a sumo wrestler?

Specifics are especially important when writing for children, as a child may have a very different idea of what constitutes big or small, young or old. To a kindergartner, a 40-year-old teacher is ancient!

You can even create mood by being careful with specific word choices. Say you have a woman wearing a red dress. If you describe the dress as blood red, it hints at danger. Scarlet and crimson suggest an edgy sexiness. Burgundy, ruby, or garnet evoke a sense of wealth and luxury. Cherry red is cheerful. Rose red is soft and gentle. You can use specific words to create a mood that suits that character, or that point in your story. Or you could mislead your reader, creating certain expectations through word choice and then challenging them with the character’s behavior.

Be specific with your verbs as well. As for adverbs, some writers recommend avoiding them whenever possible. Adverbs may, on rare occasion, have their place, but often they are a lazy alternative to the harder work of showing with strong verbs. If someone walked slowly, did he stroll, stumble, shuffle, or limp? Those are all slow ways of walking, but each looks different to a viewer and has different connotations.

Assignment: write a paragraph about a character or setting, being as specific as possible with your language.