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Dialogue Tags vs. Action Leads/Inserts – Part 2

THIS POST IS FOR WRITERS:

When your characters speak, allow your readers to hear and see them.

(Note: If you haven’t read my article, Dialogue Tags vs. Action Leads/Inserts – Part 1, I recommend you do so before continuing with this one.)

In the aforementioned first installment of this series on dialogue, I said I would address the issue of ensuring that the reader hears and sees the dialogue as it occurs. All righty then… here we go.

First, let me remind you of the key passage from that hub:

      7) For human beings, communication is as much physical as it is verbal. Picture the conversations you have; you rely on facial expressions and body language to help you interpret the spoken word.

          A) If you wish to provide the reader with that image (“show”), do so before the dialogue, where it will be meaningful.

           B) If you want us readers to hear a specific tone of voice, or see a specific expression on the character’s face, or feel the character’s emotion, all as she speaks, you must prepare us for that before she speaks.

           C) Don’t overdo it. You must strike a reasonable balance between action and dialogue, and if you choose precisely the right words and punctuation, those that convey mood, attitude and volume, you can often drop the inserts altogether. In other words, let the dialogue do as much of its own heavy lifting as possible.

The differences are subtle, but consider this simple example:

BAD: “I’m going upstairs to see if the burglar is still in the house,” Jimmy whispered in the corner of the basement, where he and Susie had gone to hide behind some boxes.

      (Note: The real problem here is that Author TELLS us the key emotional elements after the fact. Since the relevant dialogue is over—even if only for a couple of seconds—we’ll no longer hear the whisper, feel the tension, or envision the scene as vividly as we would have had Author reversed the sequence. The character has already spoken the words. It’s too late.)

GOOD: Jimmy and Susie had gone to the basement to hide from the intruder, and they now crouched in the corner behind stacks of boxes. Jimmy whispered, “I’m going upstairs to see if the burglar is still in the house.”

      (Note: In this improved version, I SHOW the scene immediately prior to Jimmy’s dialogue. This ensures that the atmosphere will be fresh in the reader’s mind, that she’ll feel the tension as Jimmy speaks. I also place “Jimmy whispered” before the dialogue, to ensure that the reader hears Jimmy’s soft voice as he speaks.)

I’m sure it’s obvious, but allow me to reiterate the key: …as Jimmy speaks….

The key to any successful action, of course, is for Author to establish the details that support and intensify the action before and as it occurs. Most writers understand this, yet many of them ignore that simple rule when providing dialogue. When I edit pieces, I see this mistake far too often.

The human mind functions in a specific manner. In real life, when you witness someone speaking, you infer from both the sound (volume, tone) of his voice and his body language a wide range of details: emotions, attitude, intelligence, veracity. If, on the other hand, you were not present to witness his conversation, but rather hear about it later from a friend who did, your experience (observations, understanding, opinion and feelings) is much weaker.

The same holds true for the written word. Think of those clunky tags tossed onto the end of dialogue as your friend relaying the story of what happened. It’s a weak experience for you.

However, think of the action leads—the scene builders—as the equivalent of you standing there and witnessing the dialogue. They make your experience much more satisfying.

I will illustrate further through a series of simple examples I’ve seen in some pieces I’ve edited. As always, I shall keep authors’ names and story titles confidential to protect the not-so-innocent. [Smile]

BAD: “Was Beast Eater a man of flesh? Did he bleed?” Greld asked as he walked beside Rom.

      (Note: This is one of the most common, most boring, most unsatisfying examples of a dialogue tag doing more than it should—and not nearly enough. First, the author uses question marks, but still considers it necessary to tell is that the character asked a question. Second, although you may not know it from just these two sentences, the dialogue comes at a tense moment. The character of Greld is nervous, perhaps frightened, or at least he should be. The problem is that the passage evokes no emotion from the reader, provides no detail to help the reader feel what the character feels.)

GOOD: Greld frowned and fidgeted with his hands as he walked beside Rom. He did not want his friend to think of him as a frightened child, but he could contain himself no longer. “Was Beast Eater a man of flesh? Did he bleed?”

BAD: “Bill,” Jane says, “this is Management.” I hear the tremble in her voice.

      (Note: The narrator TELLS us—after the fact—what he heard, rather than allow us to hear it and see it as Jane speaks.)

GOOD: Jane takes a deep breath to control her trembling, but the quiver in her voice remains. “Bill, this is Management.”

BAD: “I’ll let you know all about our heritage when I return,” he said flatly.

      (Note: Yikes! Beware the dreaded weak adverb in dialogue tags. Remember what I said earlier about mimicking real life situations.)

GOOD: He smirked and grunted. “I’ll let you know all about our heritage when I return.”

BAD: “You didn’t have to break the damn door!” Ralph said. He croaked the words like a frog and his eyes swirled as he focused on Ed.

           “I knocked,” Ed said innocently and shrugged. “Your hangover is amplifying the sound.”

      (Note: For the character of Ralph, Author provides the details too late for us to hear, at the very least. Even the part we see would have been better had we seen it sooner. For the character of Ed, say it with me now, “Yikes!”)

GOOD: Ralph’s eyes swirled as he tried to focus on Ed. He croaked like a frog, “You didn’t have to break the damn door!”

             Ed shrugged and rolled his eyes. “I knocked. Your hangover is amplifying the sound.”

‘Til next time, remember this: Writing well is not easy. It takes work. You mustn’t be lazy.

Dialogue Tags vs. Action Leads/Inserts – Part 1

THIS POST IS FOR WRITERS:

“Let your characters sail through dialogue. Don’t weigh them down with awkward anchors.”

The subject of dialogue tags has occupied a large swath of my Editor’s Radar lately. If you’ve studied the art and craft of writing at all, you know how important dialogue it is to us as both readers and writers—an engaging way to advance character, conflict, setting and plot. Nothing brings characters to life—makes them breathing, feeling, thinking beings—quite like dialogue. It generates realistic character interaction and builds their relationships, and provides readers a greater understanding of what truly makes the characters tick.

Dialogue is intimate. In a sense, it makes us more than just readers; it makes us eavesdroppers. Many readers give up on stories that don’t utilize dialogue both quickly and effectively. Some magazine editors feel the same way about submissions to their publications. For example, I’ve seen short story submission guidelines that state—flat out—that stories must include dialogue within the first 150 words for the editor even to consider them for publication. I think that’s a bit melodramatic myself, but to each his own. The editor can do what he wants with his magazine.

You must often mix action with the dialogue—a good thing. However, do so with straight narrative—action leads and inserts—rather than by throwing anchors (tags) onto the dialogue.

Let Subject rules for paragraph construction aide you in providing crisp dialogue. Once you establish a specific character as the Subject of that paragraph, you can simply go to his/her dialogue, using the previous portion of the paragraph as a dialogue lead. Then you needn’t add awkward tags.

Here are some basic rules to remember when providing character dialogue:

1) Always make clear which character is speaking. If there can be any doubt at all, you must clarify.

2) Use proper nouns (names or titles) only when you must; revert to simple pronouns when you can. It helps if you have one character address another by name, thus eliminating the need for an identifying tag. Just make sure it doesn’t sound forced and awkward; in other words, it must sound natural, precisely what a real live person would say in that circumstance.

3) Once you establish a clear back-and-forth between two characters, cut back on the identifying tags. Readers will be able to keep up without any trouble. Revert to those tags only when the dialogue breaks, or when a new character becomes involved, or it’s been a long stretch since you last identified them by name, such that you must remind the reader of who is speaking.

4) People don’t “smile” words, or “laugh” words, or “pause” words, etc. They “say them with a smile,” or they “laugh and say,” or “he said, and paused.”

5) Dialogue tags murder the pace and flow of a conversation, and often smack of author intrusion. A reader will pick-up on it and, depending on how much the author tries to cram down her throat, may think, “Geez, this guy is really forcing it. Does he think I’m an idiot?”

A) Keep the dialogue crisp. Readers want dialogue that represents conversation—period—quote mark to quote mark. They don’t want dialogue that happens like this or as if that, or as he did this, or while she did that, or with heaps of this. Provide those details in the narrative, and keep the dialogue sharp and fast-paced—in other words, real.

B) Whenever you must say more than “he said,” “Mary said,” “John asked,” etc, utilize action leads or inserts in lieu of tags wherever possible. (See “Bad/Good” examples near the end of the article.) The following are examples of the kinds of simple tags you should use.

1) “I’m heading over to Steve’s place,” Dave said.

2) “I can’t believe Sue actually said that,” Linda said.

3) “Take it easy,” he said. “It’s not that bad.”

4) “We have to follow certain rules,” I said.

6) In accordance with #5 above, avoid nasty, lazy adverbs to the greatest extent possible. Schoolteachers often teach just the opposite, but in this circumstance, their instruction is 180 degrees out of phase with the industry. Convey or imply emotion through the actual words exchanged, through the give-and-take, through well-utilized punctuation, through interruptions or ramblings—in other words, through conversation. This is one of the basic tenants of that high commandment of writing: “Show, don’t tell!” The following are examples of what to avoid.

A) …he said angrily.

B) …she said sadly.

C) …she said lovingly.

D) …he said frustratingly.

7) For human beings, communication is as much physical as it is verbal. Picture the conversations you have; you rely on facial expressions and body language to help you interpret the spoken word.

A) If you wish to provide the reader with that image (“show”), do so before the dialogue, where it will be meaningful.

B) If you want us readers to hear a specific tone of voice, or see a specific expression on the character’s face, or feel the character’s emotion, all as she speaks, you must prepare us for that before she speaks.

C) Don’t overdo it. You must strike a reasonable balance between action and dialogue, and if you choose precisely the right words and punctuation, those that convey mood, attitude and volume, you can often drop the inserts altogether. In other words, let the dialogue do as much of its own heavy lifting as possible.

D) I’ll address this issue in greater detail in a future article: “Dialogue Tags vs. Action Leads/Inserts – Part 2.”

I will illustrate through a series of simple examples I’ve seen in some pieces I’ve edited. As always, I shall keep authors’ names and story titles confidential to protect the not-so-innocent. [Insert chuckle here]

BAD: “What do you expect to happen now?” he asked as he leaned in until their faces nearly touched.

(Note: First, given the author’s use of a question mark, is it truly necessary to add that he asked? This is, in my opinion, one of the most overused and frustrating dialogue tags. Second, the character’s lean-in implies a softer tone of voice, which the reader will better infer [hear] if it precedes the dialogue.)

GOOD: He leaned in until their faces nearly touched. “What do you expect to happen now?”

BAD: “I knew you’d come back,” she said as she rose from the chair.

(Note: The author can tighten this up and improve the flow without losing any impact and, in doing so, cut the ever-critical word count by three.)

GOOD: She rose from the chair. “I knew you’d come back.”

BAD: “Yes. We fought,” she said, and she looked at the front of her gown. “He…he… He stabbed me,” she yelled. “I heard someone say I was dying,” she sighed, and she placed a warm hand on my arm. “Did I?”

(Note: First, let paragraph POV rules work to your advantage. Second, a simple exclamation point can replace the unnecessary she yelled. Third, action inserts are smoother and less awkward than tags, and people don’t “sigh” words.)

GOOD: “Yes, we fought. He…he…” She looked at the front of her gown. “He stabbed me!” She placed a warm hand on my arm. “I heard someone say I was dying. Did I?”

BAD: “John!” Fred shouted.

(Set-Up: As the author indicated in a previous paragraph, Fred needs John to help his pregnant woman, who is going into labor. Note: First, the exclamation point works here, such that the author needn’t go on to tell us that Fred shouted; it’s redundant. Second, this is a moment that begs for emotion, yet the author gives us none.)

GOOD: Fred clenched his jaw beneath wide eyes. His back stiffened, and he had to swallow the lump in his throat before he could breathe again. “John!”

In closing, let me remind you that we humans are gregarious creatures; we interact and speak with one another. As readers, we expect the same of your characters, or those characters may not seem real to us. You might get away without dialogue in a short—very short—story, but it will always be difficult to satisfy certain readers if you omit dialogue from large segments of your story.

When you utilize that ever-critical dialogue, resist the urge to anchor it with a bunch of awkward, unruly tags. Provide action leads and inserts wherever necessary, and choose words and punctuation for the actual dialogue (the conversation) that provide as much of the necessary details—emotion, volume, etc.—as possible.

‘Til next time, remember this: Writing well is not easy. It takes work. You mustn’t be lazy.

No Weak Knees Allowed; Write Strong – Part 1

THIS POST IS FOR WRITERS:

“Keep it strong and direct.”

Dear Writer, please make the above quote your watchwords: “Keep it strong and direct.” Your readers will love you for it.

As the author, you must be the authority. Readers expect you to provide a strong and decisive narrative voice, the true authority, and to convey the story with confidence. This, in turn, builds confidence within the readers and makes their reading experience more enjoyable.

Avoid weak phrases that harm the narrator’s credibility. First, you must decide, once and for all, that you’re confident in your own ability to tell a story, that you enjoy the courage of your convictions. Do not allow your narrator to get weak knees, and to use weak qualifiers that display an utter lack of self-confidence.

BAD: She seemed to walk as though her leg was bothering her.

(Note: Please… just say it!)

GOOD: She limped.

BAD: Maybe he should grab the gun from the bureau drawer before he answers the door.

(Note: This sort of weak hesitation in the main narrative is murder on a story. Now, if you employ this sort of weakness in dialogue, or in a character’s silent monologue, it would be appropriate if such weakness fits that particular character. In the main narrative, you need to get right to it and paint the scene.)

GOOD: He grabs the gun from the bureau drawer, tucks it under his belt at the small of his back, and takes a deep breath before answering the door.

BAD: He probably should have taken Cindy up on her offer. If he had, he’d be with her right now.

(Note: This sort of construction is quite common, and is both wordy and weak. You can convey his sense of regret in concise terms.)

GOOD: If only he’d taken Cindy up on her offer, he’d be with her right now.

TRIGGERS

Seemed, tried to, could, should, maybe, perhaps, possibly, might, began to, started to, etc.

When you utilize words such as those above, let them trigger a critical self-review. Ask yourself, “Have I gone weak in the knees?” There are many appropriate uses of those words, of course, but most writers overuse them to the detriment of their stories. If you can answer the question, “Nah, I really need that word here,” then great! Just be honest with yourself, and always keep in mind what readers expect of you, and don’t forget your watchwords: “Keep it strong and direct.”

Another sure sign of weakness is the excessive use of state-of-being verbs:

Am, is, are, was, were, to be, had been, etc.

We call these state-of-being verbs because that’s all they do: convey a state of being. They convey no action, no sense that something is actually happening, which makes them—say it with me now—dull. Most of the time, you need simply stretch yourself a bit in order to create a more action-centric sentence. This typically means you must restructure your sentence(s). Keep it simple, and remain in active voice: Subject commits Act upon Object. If you adhere to that basic structure, that basic concept, you’ll find a solution.

Beware also those verbs that, while not strict state-of-being verbs, nonetheless convey little or no action:

Did, had, went, came, got, took, kept, made, put, had, etc.

In the following example, from a piece I edited (character name changed to maintain author confidentiality), examine the number of weak, inactive verbs, and the weak qualifiers, in the original “bad” version. Then compare the revised “good” version, and examine the more active verb choices. Key: They need not be earth-shattering, thrilling, grab-your-socks-and-hold-on verbs—merely verbs that convey some sense of action, something more than a simple state of being.

BAD: Mary was more popular than I was. It wasn’t any large mystery as to why she was popular with guys, or why she had boyfriends who were routinely among the most good-looking, athletic, etc. In addition, she also had a large amount of other friends who always seemed to be with her and who always seemed to enjoy her company. I had friends too, a fair amount of them; however, being an adolescent, I was a part of the inescapable hierarchy that slated a certain top group of kids as popular and positioned other groups in sequential status order on down. While I was far from the bottom rung of this ladder, I knew that Mary held a much higher position on it within her own respective class.

GOOD: I couldn’t fathom Mary’s popularity. Her boyfriends routinely stood out as the most good-looking and athletic. Her regular friends numbered in the dozens and hovered around her, always placing her, the star around which the others orbited, at the center of attention, pleased just to share her company. I enjoyed a fair number of friends too, but we occupied a lower position in that inescapable adolescent hierarchy, the one that elevated a certain top group of kids to popular status, while relegating the rest of us lower in the pecking order. I stood far above the bottom rung of this tall ladder, but Mary occupied one near the top. She shared that rarified air with friends and members of her own respective class.

Don’t be hesitant. Display your self-confidence as author. You may use the so-called “weak” verbs and qualifiers I listed above, but please do so sparingly. When you do, ask yourself the critical question: “Does it truly add to the tension of the moment, to the characterization, to the conflict or resolution—or is it just weak?”

In very general terms, there is no single right answer. You must determine that on an individual basis, but allow those words to trigger your critical self-review. Be honest with yourself, and then stretch yourself to provide the reader with something more evocative. Don’t move on until you’re confident you’ve made the right choice.

In closing, let me remind you—because I just can’t seem to say it enough—to make these your watchwords: “Keep it strong and direct!”

‘Til next time, remember this: Writing well is not easy. It takes work. You mustn’t be lazy.

I’m Back! A Progress Report on THE DEVIL’S BANE.

I had lost my site for a few weeks, hacked by… someone. Now it’s back, so I guess I’m back. I’ll be posting new content soon, including some more discussions about some recent releases I had the pleasure of editing. In fact, you can drop over to my Facebook fan page at LaneDiamondAuthor and see some of those discussions there. Naturally, I hope you’ll LIKE my page while you’re there.

In other news, I’ve made some additional progress on my second “Tony Hooper” novel, THE DEVIL’S BANE, since last I posted here.

Completed and HIGHLY polished: Prologue-Chapter 10 (27,000 words).
Completed and final polishing pass pending: Chapters 11-16 (11,000 words).
Best guess at final length? 85,000-90,000 words.

It’s a slow go, but I made the decision not to postpone its completion any longer, regardless of my current workloads as publisher and editor. I’m working on it at least 3 days per week, 2 hours per day. So even at just 6 hours/week, I’ll finish it up and have it ready for launch come the spring.

FINALLY! Yeesh… only been 8 years in the waiting room.

NOTE: The cover pictured will NOT be the final cover, but I’ll use it for various marketing efforts.

So all in all, it’s good to be back. I’ll make a reasonable attempt to be a bit more active here at my site. Thanks for hanging in there with me.

What’s in a Pen Name?

THIS POST IS FOR READERS and WRITERS:

You know me here as Lane Diamond, but my real name is Dave Lane. So why did I decide to write (and edit and publish) under a pen name?

When I first prepared to shop my first book around to literary agents back in 2008, I did what every author in that situation should do: I searched the internet for anyone else who’d published with the same name as mine. Why? Because every author should be unique. Many actors use screen names for precisely the same reason: you don’t want to be confused with another actor, or in my case, with another author. When people search on my “name” as an author, I want them to find my work, not someone else’s.

In my case, there were a few too many Dave Lanes out there in the internet world and publishing world. One of them was some knucklehead aryan race white supremacist out of the UK who’d published several books. Yeah, just what I needed: to be confused with that guy.

So it was settled: I needed a pen name. Now, what should I use? Well, I’d long been known by my nickname of Diamond, which went back to my old band and karaoke days (shortened from Diamond Dave), so it made sense to me to incorporate that. Dave Diamond? Taken. Diamond Dave? Taken rather aggressively by David Lee Roth, formerly of Van Halen. Diamond Lane? Nah, that just sounds off, since Diamond is more of a last name and… wait a second…. Lane Diamond?

And there you have it. You won’t find any others, unless you happen to be looking at an engagement ring, in which case you might purchase a [Neil] Lane diamond. As far as individuals go, I think I cornered the market. That means if you search my pen name in some combination with literary, book, author, writer, editor, publisher, etc, you’re going to find me. Perfect.

Are you an aspiring author? Is your name John Smith, or Jane Doe, or… eek!… Stephen King or Kathy Reichs? Yeah, then you need a pen name. The most important consideration in picking one is NOT some hidden, special meaning to you. It is uniqueness. Period. If you happen to be able to get both, as I did, then good for you.

Oh, and as far as using as a title for your book the same one that’s been used a dozen times by others? …well, that’s for another discussion.

~~~~~~~~~~

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