Monday, August 1, 2022

A Picture is Worth a Thousand Words: The Art of Writing Dialogue

Think of your plot as a blank linen canvas stretched over a stiff wooden frame, and your dialogue as the oil paint you will use to create a masterpiece. Well written dialogue produces a vivid image that truly brings your story to life in living color!  It’s also one of the first things agents and editors look at when reviewing a manuscript.

If dialogue is choppy, wooden and stilted, a potential agent will assume that that sets the tone for your writing, and then reject your manuscript.  For the indie published, poor dialogue is what makes a potential reader either skip a purchase, or write a very bad review!

Dialogue has many functions, but two of the most important are to advance the story and intensify the conflict, all the while keeping it natural.  So here are a few ways to craft dialogue into a more compelling and natural sounding work of art.

Red: Tension, Conflict, Emotion
In Writing Fiction For Dummies, Randy Ingermanson and Peter Economy say, “Dialogue is war! Every dialogue should be a controlled conflict between at least two characters with opposing agendas. The main purpose of dialogue is to advance the conflict of the story."  

·         Skip the pleasantries.  No one cares about the “Hi, how are yous?” Jump right into the heat of the moment.
·         Stay away from the info dump monologue.  Providing information without tension is boring.
·         Never use dialogue as filler.  Dialogue has to  heighten conflict, advance the story or display character development.  If it does none of this, hit delete.
·         Show emotional tension in dialogue through your characters actions and reactions. Perhaps a he falls silent, she interrupts, or the teen changes the subject.  

The Abstract: Loose and Free Flowing
Dialogue has to have a natural flow, but a common mistake among many new writers is to make it stiff and formal. Use these guidelines to make yours sound real:

·         Read dialogue out loud.  Does it pass the “ear test” and sound like actual conversation? Avoid fancy words.  In The Elements of Style Strunk and White say, “Do not be tempted by a twenty dollar word when there is a ten-center handy.”  "Seeing her confused him” is plain and simple. “Upon looking at her, he became discombobulated" is not.  It’s also too wordy. Streamline your dialogue and cut out unnecessary words.
·         Use contractions:  will not/ won’t, do not/ don’t, we will/we’ll, etc. They’re much less formal.
·         Think about real conversations with family and friends. It’s okay to be grammatically incorrect by ending a sentence with a preposition. “So what was that about?” sounds more realistic than “So about what was that?”  In stressful situations, you can use sentence fragments and one word answers.
·         Avoid the lecture.  A character expounding in detail about a subject will bore your reader. You’ve done your research, but it’s not necessary to show how much!

Flesh Tone: Make it Real
Stay away from unnatural dialogue.  Would your sister really say, “How’s your husband Ed and your step-son Frank, the child by Ed’s ex-wife, Beth?”  Using dialogue like that sounds artificial. Find a subtle way to convey those facts.  For example:
     “So where’s Ed?”
     “I left him at home working on my honey-do list.”
     “Is Frank helping him?”
     “No, he’s with his mom, this weekend.”
     “Beth, the wench?”


The Portrait: Provide a Distinct Voice for Each Character
Dialogue is an important part of characterization. Keep in mind the time period, age, gender, social status, education and geographic locale.

Imagine how different a Wall Street executive would sound compared to a Georgia factory worker.  White collar professionals are more likely to use correct grammar and speak in longer sentences, whereas blue collar workers might use rougher language and shorter sentences.

Take into account individual personalities: quiet, talkative, cruel, manipulative, compassionate, insecure, outgoing. Be mindful of the situations they’re in; dialogue has to be suitable for their action and reaction.


The Difference Between the Male Still Life and the Female Landscape   
According to Richard Drobnick from an article in YourTango:

“He believes communication should have a clear purpose. Behind every conversation is a problem that needs solving or a point that needs to be made.”

“She uses communication to discover how she is feeling and what it is she wants to say. She sees conversation as an act of sharing and an opportunity to increase intimacy with her partner.”

So keep in mind that men are more direct and brusque in tone. They use simpler vocabulary with fewer modifiers, and are likely to use one word responses and shorter sentences.  Instead of talking about people and feelings, they’d rather talk about things.  Also, dialogue is action for men.  Instead of discussing a way to save the heroine, the hero plans and executes it.

Women, however, love talking about people and relationships.  Their language is softer, and they’re more likely to talk around a subject.  “I’m not too happy about this,” she might say, while he says, “I’m mad as hell!”  Women express themselves in complete sentences, and want to share their feelings.

In closing, always keep your dialogue tension filled, loose, naturalistic and distinct for each individual character to create your masterpiece!

What do you like most about writing dialogue? Thanks for visiting and have a great week! 

Monday, July 25, 2022

Sometimes It's Okay to Tell and Not Show

Writers have been hearing about the importance of 'showing' for so long that they've begun to forget the value of 'telling'--of exposition, of summary, of omniscient narration." Robert Masello, Robert's Rules of Writing, Rule 12. Tell, Don't Show

This rule sounds contrary to anything most writers have ever read or been taught.  It's of course important to show everything worth showing, such as dramatic interaction and heated dialogue.  But it is acceptable to tell a few things, too.


Utilize the power of description about surroundings, what's going on inside a character's head, or in the world of your story itself. Masello points out the opening of Dickens A Tale of Two Cities, "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times."  So if Dickens can do it...

Also, things that don't need to be seen don't need to be shown.  Who wants to read about a heroine getting ready for work? We know she'll shower, style her hair, put on makeup, get dressed, make coffee and eat breakfast.

Only show these things if something important happens to affect the story. Perhaps she slips in the shower and breaks her leg, or spills hot coffee and scalds herself, etc., etc.

Masello mentions something that Elmore Leonard, a master of pacing, once said.  He keeps his books moving briskly along leaving out all the parts readers don't want to read.

Anything in your current WIP that can be told and not shown? Happy writing, and thanks for visiting! 

Tuesday, July 19, 2022

Pinky

Racial passing is a subject matter that interests me and Pinky, a film from 1949, deals with this issue. I have never seen it, but plan to watch it this week for research purposes. Pinky is a race drama about a light-skinned black woman passing as white. For more about the film and the plot, click here

One of the controversies regarding the film was the casting of white actress Jeanne Crane to play the title role. Black actress Lena Horne had wanted the part, but having a white actress as Pinky with audience appeal and monetary pull led to the casting of Miss Crane. (In my opinion, since the actress had to be white, I would have chosen Jennifer Jones. She could have more realistically passed for black, again, just my opinion.)

Anyway, here's another interesting fact about the movie from Turner Classic Movies:

[A] major change in the production of Pinky was the director. [Director] John Ford left the film after only a week of shooting that was so traumatic [black co-star] Ethel Waters described it as a "shock treatment", with Ford's abrasive personality making her "almost have a stroke". [Producer] Zanuck was unhappy with the rushes he saw. 
Jeanne Crane
"Ford's Negroes were like Aunt Jemima caricatures. I thought we're going to get into trouble. Jack said, 'I think you'd better put someone else on it." Ford was replaced with Elia Kazan, who had made Gentleman's Agreement (1947), another racially-themed film for the studio, and earning it an Academy Award in the process. The official reason for John Ford's departure was listed as a bad case of the shingles, which Kazan later admitted was a lie. 
Lena Horne
"He pretended to have shingles. Some years later I said to Zanuck, 'Jack Ford never had shingles, did he?' And he said, 'Oh, hell, no. He just wanted to get out of it; he hated Ethel Waters and she sure as hell hated him.' Jack scared her to death and he knew she didn't want to work with him. I also think maybe he didn't like the whole project. Anyway, Zanuck wired me and asked if I'd come out. I wired back, 'I'll do it as a favor.' Firstly, I threw away whatever Ford had shot. It was poor. It showed a lack of interest and involvement. So, all the footage was mine. The only things that were not mine, which are a hell of a lot, were the script and the cast. It was the last time I ever allowed that. Jeanne Crain was a sweet girl, but she was like a Sunday school teacher. I did my best with her but she didn't have any fire. The only good thing about her face was that it went so far in the direction of no temperament that you felt Pinky was floating through all of her experiences without reacting to them, which is part of what 'passing' is." 
Jennifer Jones
Have you ever seen Pinky? If so, what did you think?

Thanks for visiting and have a great week!

Tuesday, July 5, 2022

Happy 4th of July

 


Happy 4th of July, a day late! I'm taking a break from blogging this week but will be back next Monday!

Monday, June 27, 2022

Ina Ray Hutton: Soulful Siren of Swing

Before Madonna and before Beyonce, there was Ina Ray Hutton! Never heard of her? Neither had I until I stumbled across her on the Internet.

Ina Ray Hutton (March 13, 1916 – February 19, 1984) was an American female band leader during the Big Band era of the 1930s and '40's.  She was also the sister of band singer June Hutton.  

Beautiful and talented, Ina Ray carried a secret to her grave.  But before we discuss that, a little biographical info from Wikipedia follows below.

Ina Ray Hutton began dancing and singing in stage revues at the age of eight and attended Hyde Park High School on the South Side of Chicago. In the 1930s she appeared on Broadway in George White's Scandals and The Ziegfeld Follies.

In 1934 she was asked by a vaudeville agent to lead an all-girl orchestra, the Melodears.  Hutton and her Melodears were one of the first all-girl bands to be filmed for Paramount shorts including Accent on Girls and Swing Hutton Swing and Hollywood feature films. 

Although the group disbanded in 1939, in 1940 Hutton led an all-male orchestra that was featured in the film Even Since Venus (1944); it was disbanded in 1946. During the 1950s, she returned to the all-girl format for variety television programs including the Ina Ray Hutton Show for a local station on the West Coast. 

Here's the secret to her story:  Her parents were identified as "negro" or "mulatto" by census takers. According to Blackpast.org.:

Hutton was born Odessa Cowan at her parents' home in Chicago on March 13, 1916.  Her mother, Marvel (Williams) Cowan, was a newlywed housewife, married to Odie Cowan, a salesman.  By the time Odessa was three years old, she and her mother were living with her maternal grandmother, and her step-grandfather, a dining car waiter for a railroad.  That year, Odessa’s sister, June, was born at home.  When the census taker arrived a few months later, their father was not recorded as a resident of the family home.

Odessa and June grew up among black neighbors on Chicago’s South Side.  Their mother played piano in dance halls and hotel ballrooms.  Odessa studied dance with a prominent black teacher and choreographer, Hazel Thompson Davis.  The Cowans' hometown black newspaper, The Chicago Defender, first wrote glowingly of Odessa’s performances when she was seven.  But the next year, despite the fact that she had the same South Side address into her teens, mentions of Odessa Cowan in the Defender disappeared.  By some accounts, that was the year she was “discovered” by a white vaudeville producer.

When watching Hutton perform to the segregated audiences of the day, she's quite soulful and jazzy, almost with an attitude of I'm pulling one over on you--I'm getting away with it--and I'm laughing all the way to the bank! Good for her!  Here she is performing Truckin' and Suzy Q.  Enjoy the show!