Saturday, 4 November 2017

A simple guide to writing . . . Description




Anything that is not dialogue in a book or story, is description. Character – inside and out - scenery, plot, action. Everything is description. All of it. Description is the movie of your story you see inside your head. Everything you hear, the voices of the characters, the noises made in the world in which they live, how things feel, how people feel, even what things taste like.
All description.
All of it.
The aim of description is to enable the reader to experience the same pictures, sounds, smells, tastes, etc. that you experience in your head. Or as close as. The world and the characters inside your head are as real to you as the world and the characters of your daily life – or at least they need to be.
In a thousand years, perhaps, telepathy will render the writing of books meaningless, but until then the only way of transferring what is in your head to the inside of the head of the reader, is through the art of description using words.  
            I have already alluded to the five senses – touch, smell, hearing, sight, and taste. These are some of the means through which the world inside your head is transferred to the inside of the head of the reader. But that does not mean every single thing needs to be described with reference to these five attributes. Description – like all writing - is all about balance, it is all about saying the salient things.
The things that matter.
            What we are talking about is physicality. Making it real. With words. Your words. To have any chance of transferring that picture in your head to that of the reader, making it real has to be your goal. To do this, you must be specific with your words. To say a character is angry is not enough. What gives you the idea the character is angry – his movements, his actions, his face? What actually is it? If it is his face, what about his face gives his anger away? What movements? What colours? What? What? What? If it is the way he is moving, how is he moving? How? How? How?
You must constantly ask yourself these questions. Adjectives, such as angry, quite often do not provide the clarity required for the reader to picture in their head what the author has in theirs.
Vagueness is not enough. Vagueness transfers a fuzzy picture to the reader. Specificity transfers clarity.
            On the subject of adjectives, and adverbs come to that, these are to be avoided at all costs, if possible. I am not saying never use them, but if you can find a way not to use them, so much the better. Adjectives and adverbs are the enemies of specificity. Always. Of course, too much specificity – describing everything as it is – runs the risk of your writing being dry and mechanical. As we have already mentioned – balance is key.
            A way to enliven your writing – balance out that specificity – is through the use of metaphors and similes. Metaphors and similes have the same aim – to make your writing stronger by creating images in the reader’s head. The two – metaphors and similes - differ only by degree: a simile describes something as being like something else, for example ‘her eyes were like broken diamonds’. Here, the reader gets the idea the character’s sparkling eyes are like tiny sparkling diamonds. A metaphor goes one step further, describing something as actually being something else – not like something else – actually being. For example, ‘the Professor was a dinosaur’. Here we get a much stronger image of age. We know the Professor is not actually a dinosaur, but describing him as if he is creates a much stronger image.
            A quick note about similes and metaphors – beware the cliché. A cliché is a simile or metaphor that has been used so many times, it has become tired. Literally. The test is, if you have written something you have heard or read described before in a certain way, it is probably a cliché in some degree. Coming up with original similes and metaphors is part of the fun of describing things. Be creative, just don’t be too obscure. Don’t forget, the sole aim of description is to transfer a concrete image from your mind to the mind of the reader. If the simile or metaphor is too obscure, chances are, all you will have transferred is confusion.
            So, to summarise - senses, metaphors, similes, and the overriding concept – balance. And there’s another thing. In a piece of writing, be it short story or novel -or anything in between - pace is key. In short, description slows a piece of writing down, dialogue speeds it up. So, be careful you are not choking the life out of your writing with too much description. If when you read your piece out loud and it tends to drag, check to see if you have overdone the amount of description.
The old Victorians loved a bit of description, after all, there was no telly or radio to impart images outside of their own lives into their minds. They liked to know to the nth degree what something looked like, sounded like, felt like, etc. They had very few reference points from their own lives. The modern reader, however, has a million reference points. This being so, you do not have to describe everything about something, just the salient points – the points that tell the reader what the reader needs to know.
Metaphors and similes are not the only ways to describe that image in your head. A couple of other interesting techniques are the use of onomatopoeia and synaesthesia. Onomatopoeia are those words that sound like the thing they are describing, such as giggle, bang, clatter, whoosh, fizz, etc. Onomatopoeia can be used to really bring a description to life in terms of sound. Poets love a bit of Onomatopoeia. They are also quite partial to a drop of synaesthesia every now and then. Synaesthesia is a technique whereby one sense is described or characterised by another. For example, the taste of fear or the smell of victory. Don’t be afraid to be a bit imaginative in terms of describing something as having a quality it doesn’t actually possess:  the sound of dreams shattering, etc. Be creative.
Don’t forget, the only point of description is to clearly impart the image in your mind to the mind of the reader. That is all. Impart it in a way that is interesting and original, and the reader has a new reference point for the thing you have described.

So far we have spoken about describing things external. The internal life and world of a character is arguably just as important to describe, if not more so. Don’t forget, your job as the writer is to make the reader feel what it is be that character. You can only impart this feeling clearly if you know what it is like to be that character. Do not be afraid to access your own experiences and emotions in describing the fears and hopes of your characters, and find the best words you can to describe them.  Describe them till those feelings come flooding back. Attach those feelings in words to the character you are describing, and the reader will thank you.
Be brave in your writing.
Be courageous.
Be creative.
Do that, and you will have transferred to the inside of the head of your reader the film of the story playing inside your head - a film only you have ever seen.
And that, that is a magical, magical thing . . . :)

Sunday, 29 October 2017

A simple guide to writing . . . Dialogue


There are several basic components to writing dialogue. At its most fundamental level, dialogue is only ever about characters conversing using the spoken word. 

Characters
These characters can be office workers in London or hobbits in the Shire. They can be hobbits in London, or office workers in Hobbiton. 

Doesn’t matter.                     

It’s your story. 

Always.

In the real world, whenever we engage in a conversation, we have an agenda – whether we realise it, or not. We engage in a conversation wanting to appear a certain way, or to achieve a certain end. Everything we say is subsequently designed to achieve that end. The characters in your fiction are no different. They all have a motive. Or, at least, they should do. Your job, as the writer is to either reveal a little more of the character’s motivation or to further the plot. 

So, number one, you must have an idea of what motivates the character to engage in the conversation they are about to have. Each character will have their own motivation, their own goal. Even the most incidental character must have a reason for being, for existing in this particular book/story and by extension, chapter/scene/ part of this particular scene. If not, you have to question what they are doing in this book/story/chapter/scene/part of this particular scene. If you can’t come up with an adequate answer, stick them in another book. They won’t mind. This one was never theirs to begin with.

As always, the golden rule of writing, is to keep the reader reading. Make it interesting. So, in dialogue, make it tense, make it funny, make it difficult for each character to achieve their goals. If each of their goals is incompatible – so much the better. 

Most of all, let the character speak. Let them be themselves. They are not your mouthpiece. You are theirs.

Dialogue
The content of the dialogue itself, the words the characters say, is not to replicate real life dialogue – otherwise it would be full of ‘ums’ and ‘ahs’ and ‘errs’ and all sorts of round-the-houses nonsense. In real life, we filter those out. In writing, they just become irritating. What you want is the essence of what the character is saying – just the essence. Unless, of course, a round-the-houses sort of speaking is telling the reader about the character or furthering the plot. Then it is valid. If it does neither of these things, it has to go. If there is anything in your book/story to edit the life out of, it is dialogue. Bless its little cottons.
           Also, people in real life speak in different ways, have different verbal mannerisms. Try and get some of these into your dialogue. The dialogue needs to sound natural for that particular character in that particular situation. 

            A warning: try to limit your use of stutterers and pirates.
            Be a bit subtle, eh.

Dialogue Tags
A dialogue tag is the verb and, dare I say it – adverb - that comes after the spoken section of the dialogue. Once you have established which two people are talking, you can dispense with dialogue tags for a while, but you do need to bring them in every now and then to orient your reader, remind them, in case they lose track. There is nothing more frustrating for a reader than to have to re-read a section of dialogue to remind them who is speaking. A judicious use of dialogue tags is a must – the key word here being ‘judicious’. 

            There is a school of thought that the only dialogue tag you ever need are variations on the verb 'to say' – he said, she said, etc. And that same school of thought also says do not ever use an adverb. Here’s the thing, if a character is angry, and you have found yourself writing he said, angrily, have a look at the words you have put into your character’s mouth. Are they angry words? If not, they should be. Make the words angry, and you can dispense with the adverb. The same goes for all the other adverbs, and verbs.Make the dialogue itself do the work.

            As, always, though, there being no absolutes – do whatever works for you.

Movement
If you simply had one dialogue line after another, you are placing the reader in the middle of two talking heads. And, as in real life, that is never fun. The over-riding rule of writing fiction is to make it interesting. And talking heads, in general, are not interesting. Break up your dialogue with actions. We all have bodies, faces, idiosyncrasies. We all move when we talk, do things. I talk with my hands constantly, other people shuffle from one foot to the other when they are nervous, other people fiddle with things, look away, look down, run their hand through their hair, stuff like that. Break up your dialogue lines with action, have the character interact with the setting you have placed them in, have them react physically to the words they have just heard. These physical beats tell the reader more about the character. 

              And that is your only job, after all.

Direct/indirect speech
There are two ways of portraying dialogue in fiction. Direct speech is when the writer shows the words of the characters as they are spoken:

              ‘Not another thing about dialogue,’ the bored reader said.

and indirect, or reported, speech:

             The reader was bored, and muttered his displeasure regarding the interminable dialogue lesson.

              Direct and indirect speech is not dissimilar to the use of show/tell in fiction, and is another tool for the writer to vary their writing.

              Again, these are ways of varying your portrayal of a dialogue scene. And, of course, variation is key in keeping the reader interested.

Formatting
Formatting dialogue is really important.

Some simple rules:

A new line for each speaker. 

Single inverted commas enclosing the dialogue (Unless you are from the Land of Trump – my sympathies – where they like to use the double inverted comma wotsit) with a comma before the closing one, if you are using a dialogue tag. If not, a full stop: 

             ‘I can’t believe it, not something else to remember,’ the bored reader said.

             ‘I can’t believe it, not something else to remember.’

You can also split the line of dialogue, to vary the pattern:

             ‘I can’t believe it,’ the bored reader said, ‘not something else to remember!’

Again, variation, variation, variation . . .

Some do’s and don’ts

Do not use your characters to preach your own personal beliefs. Allow them to be themselves. Have some respect. They are not your mouthpiece.

Known as ‘stating the bleeding obvious’ – do not have your characters tell another character something that character already knows, just to convey information to the reader.

People will say and do anything to get what they want in real life. Fiction is no different. Do have your characters lie, cheat, mislead, all that sort of stuff. Lying is great.

People, in general, speak in contractions. Contractions are an easy way for dialogue to appear natural. Do this, if it fits the character.

Do have conflict in your dialogue. Characters constantly agreeing with each other is no fun to read.

Variation
As always in your writing, the only goal is to make it interesting. Variation is the key. Use direct/indirect speech, physical beats, conflicting motivations, dialogue that reveals character and furthers the plot, that bounces off the page, and you won’t go too far wrong.

The Golden Rule
As always in writing, have fun with it. Don’t get all hung up and stressed out. It’s only words. And putting words in the mouths of other people and making them say stuff is great fun.

       Oh, the other golden rule:

                                               READ IT OUT

That goes for anything you have written, but particularly dialogue. Read it out aloud, and you will hear where to split the sentence, when the dialogue sounds unnatural, if it fits the character, and a million other things. Dialogue is an aural thing. It is meant to be heard. Just not by other people – that’s where you get all sorts of strange looks. Trust me, I know 😊