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Don’t say what you mean: writing conflict through dialogue

17 April 2015 | 3 Comments » | fictorians

A guest post by David Jón Fuller.

There are a lot of ways to express conflict through dialogue in a scene, but it can be very effective – and a lot of fun – if it isn’t done openly.

People (and characters) hate conflict. They usually do everything they can to avoid it, unless they’re devoid of empathy. But readers… they love conflict. It makes for great dialogue, exciting scenes, and a plot that keeps moving.

I think, as a writer, it can be easy to fall into placating one or the other of those camps. You want to protect your characters from too much pain, so they work out compromises too often and no one gets hurt. Or, you throw them into the exciting drama of constant conflict, and they will die on that hill before they give in.

The happy middle ground – for characters, your story, and readers – is somewhere in between; and when I’m writing scenes, I follow some basic guidelines that govern how it plays out. These aren’t the only ways to do it, of course, but they’re options to consider.

(Also: one assumption underlying any scene I write is that the characters in it need something from each other. If they didn’t, one or more of them would just leave.)

 

  1. Characters want different things, but they don’t necessarily say so.

Conflict is more than this:

Character 1: I want the thing!

Character 2: I don’t want you to have the thing!

 

It’s more often like this:

Character 1: Say, why don’t we go outside and enjoy the warm weather? (The thing I want is hidden in the garage, and I want to get it)

Character 2: No, let’s stay in the living room and play chess! (I’ve already stolen the thing from the garage and I don’t want you to find out)

Give your characters subtext! They don’t have to say what they really want from each other. In fact, I think it’s better if they avoid doing so until they have no other choice.

 

  1. Characters want different things, but one or both of them don’t realize it.

In a different scenario, things could play out like this:

Character 3: Is there a gas station coming up soon? (My highly contagious stomach flu which I haven’t told you about is acting up and I need a washroom)

Character 4: Don’t worry about that! Even though it says “empty” here, we have plenty of fuel. (If we stop, I’ll be late for my meeting with the loan shark I owe money to)

 

You can use this to heighten tension, but be careful about confusing the reader. You can make it clear something deeper is going on by showing other details, rather than having the character say anything.

Character 3: (gripping the armrest, sweating, pale, trying to conceal a grimace) Is there a gas station coming up soon?

Character 4: (Checks wristwatch, glancing repeatedly in rear-view mirror) Don’t worry about that! Even though it says “empty” here, we have plenty of fuel.

 

  1. Characters generally want to avoid revealing deep truths about themselves. They may not know those truths, either.

It would be nice if scenes played out as logically as this:

Character 5: If you leave home, I’ll feel like a failure as a parent! That’s why I’m trying to make you feel like you’re the failure for leaving.

Character 6: If you keep me here, I’ll feel as if I’m not my own person! I need to leave so I can prove to you – and myself — I’m competent and independent.

 

Even if both characters know what the underlying issue is, they may try to frame it in a way that makes themselves look better:

Character 5: Go ahead and leave – you’ll never make it on your own! (If you leave, I’ll feel like a failure as a parent)

Character 6: If I stay here, I’ll kill myself! Is that what you want? (I need to leave so I can prove to you – and myself – I’m competent and independent)

 

  1. Try this: whatever the character says, make it the opposite of that they really feel.

Instead of a straight back and forth like this:

Character 7: I’m so attracted to you, despite many reasons I shouldn’t be!

Character 8: You disgust me, but I want to help you!

 

It could go like this:

Character 7: Get out of here and leave me alone! (I want you to stay, but I’m afraid my attraction will become too strong and you’ll see I actually love you)

Character 8: As soon as you’re done throwing up, I will! (Drunkenness disgusts me but I couldn’t live with myself if you came to harm because I abandoned you)

 

  1. This is not so much a rule, but it’s a handy tool: Characters generally won’t say what they really, desperately want or need until the climax of the story. It doesn’t have to be a speech, it doesn’t have to be that articulate – but at the climax is where they will be most honest about what they say. If that means they can’t say anything, that’s fine, too. But I generally don’t think the climax is the point at which they will be flip or indifferent – it’s cards-on-the-table time. So when the conflict of the story comes to a head, try to find a way for the characters to declare, or defend, what they love and prize more than anything else. It can be as simple as a single word, like “No.”

 

If you use any of the above strategies throughout the story leading up to the climax —showing what your characters desperately want but won’t come out and say —having them finally be open about it in the climax can be very powerful.

For examples, think of your favourite books, stories, movies or plays, where the climax was truly electrifying. Consider why that is, and whether the characters are finally revealing something about themselves. I’d bet that very often, that revelation or all-pretenses-abandoned sense of the climactic scene is what gives it its power.

There are other strategies for writing dialogue, but the above approaches are ones I find most useful when throwing characters with different agendas together in a scene.

About David Jón Fuller: 100819 David Fuller 0002
David Jón Fuller is a writer whose fiction has appeared in Long Hidden: Speculative Fiction From the Margins of History; Tesseracts 18: Wrestling With Gods; Kneeling in the Silver Light: Stories From the Great War; and in the upcoming anthology Accessing The Future. He lives in Winnipeg, and as time allows, blogs at www.davidjonfuller.com.

Don’t You Just Love the Metaphor?

14 April 2015 | No Comments » | Leigh Galbreath

Ever have one of those moments where you’re character gets lost in the turmoil of their own head – arguing themselves into circles that are vaguely reminiscent of filthy water swirling down a drain? Nothing ever gets resolved, and the character just looks like they’re passively wallowing in their own little “woe is me” pity party. I have. On more than one occasion. It was not pretty.

Sure, I could have put someone else in the scene for the character to talk to. Two people sitting around talking about their problems could be interesting if they have different views, but let’s face it, while talking it out might be healthy, it’s can also be boring.

One of my favorite ways to keep this from happening is to take that personal, internal conflict and externalize it.

Enter the metaphor.

As you can imagine, I’m not talking about the typical use your English teacher might bring up where a woman’s smile is a sunrise. I’m talking about when a brawl stops being just a knock-down drag-out between a protagonist and antagonist and becomes an argument between the two sides of the protagonist’s inner turmoil.

This is most easily seen in film, where internal conflict has to be externalized since we don’t get any of that nifty expository internal narrative that we do from books. Instead, we get Hellboy fighting an elemental for ten minutes without taking a scratch, but starts bleeding when one of those normal people he just saved throws a rock at his face and calls him a freak. The elemental was a fun night out, but the guy with a rock cuts to his desperate desire to fit into a world he pretty much knows he never will. That one action stands in for the argument.

I was watching the new Daredevil and reached the inner conflict that seems part and parcel with any super-hero – that of staying a good person when faced with the need to do violence. The struggle to retain one’s humanity when faced with inhuman circumstances, and the aftermath of facing that struggle, might be one of the oldest internal conflicts in literature and shows up in every genre we have devised. So, how do we keep a tried and true conflict from sounding old and stale? We come up with a nifty metaphor to stand in for one guy talking to himself or his best friend. In a fantasy, the hero might find it difficult to use his sword, even at the possible cost of losing those he loves. In SF, maybe it’s a heated argument about purchasing a worn-out old spaceship. The possibilities are endless.

Not only does this get the character out of their own heads, and liven the argument (so to speak), but also has the effect of giving those action scenes that keep the story moving more depth and meaning. Sure, the pacing might be slow at that one point in the middle of the book, but while just slapping a fight scene in there might get things moving, it would have so much more impact if it pressed a button somewhere inside the character, putting pressure on an already tense situation eating away at them.

Of course, I’m not saying that every conflict within a story should harken back to some internal argument the character is having with him or herself. Some conflicts are by necessity strictly plot driven, but I’m one of those writers who sincerely believes that character is where the story lies. The more you can infuse the characters into the fights they get into, the arguments they have, the hard decisions they face, the better off the story is.

Keeping the Tension Ramped Up in Combat Scenes

7 April 2015 | 1 Comment » | fictorians

A guest post by Doug Dandridge.

I mostly write military science fiction, and am writing military fantasy when not working on the next scifi novel. Exodus: Empires at War is a series with very detailed and lengthy battle scenes told from multiple viewpoints. I originally learned the main technique I used from reading the Dritzz DoUrden novels by R. A. Salvatore. If you’re not familiar with these wonderful stories, they involve a Dark Elf who has turned his back on his evil people and now fights the darkness with his mighty companions. There are very detailed battles in which maneuvers great and small are described, and often the companions find themselves fighting out of sight of each other. Not only are their battles told from their viewpoints, but the point of view of their major enemies. In my own battles, which can last for as many as eight chapters, you get the points of view of characters at different areas of the fight, on the different departments of the ships, even from both sides of the battle. I even switch back and forth from battles going on simultaneously hundreds of light years apart. Some people might find this a bit confusing, but my fans, military science fiction aficionados all, write rave reviews about the amount of detail.

I have seen writers who do their battle scenes from a single viewpoint, and they read like an endless description of the good guys fighting an unknown, a faceless enemy that could be anything. They go on and on with description after description, interspersed with dialogue, until the writer has to get to the climax or totally lose his readers, in most cases much too soon. I like to use a movie approach that switches back and forth and gives play to both sides. For example, think of The Wrath of Khan. First scene is Kirk watching the Reliant approach without establishing communications. The scenes switch back and forth to Khan ordering shields raised, Spock telling Kirk; Khan ordering locking on phasers, Spock telling Kirk; Khan yelling fire. Switch to the scene of phasers hitting the Enterprise, then a shot of the panic in engineering as everything goes to hell. Then back up to the bridge. The action comes in bursts from different points of view, including the omniscient one of the Reliant blasting the Enterprise.

Of course, Hollywood likes to show these kind of scenes in a manner that puts both combatants front and center, even if there are a whole bunch of them. Witness the final two episodes of Deep Space Nine, where there were over a thousand ships, and the screen was crowded with them. Something to do with wanting to awe the audience. In my novels battles are fought at long range, beam weapons almost useless until units get within a light minute of each other. Even at that range it takes time for a weapon to hit, and even ships two kilometers in length would appear tiny if on the same screen. In a book, the screen is the mind, and as long as you can convince the reader of that immensity, they will see it. But even here Hollywood gives an example when they want to. The movie Midway showed the battle between American and Japanese carrier forces, a fight where the ships didn’t see each other, but launched aircraft to do the actual attack. But with judicious switching of viewpoints they conveyed this type of fight perfectly. And it’s much easier to do in a book.

Doing each chapter as a series of mini-scenes in this way makes almost every scene a cliff hanger. Each installment ends with an unknown. Missiles coming in, lasers burning through the hull and klaxons sounding, the characters on the edge of disaster. The next scene does the same to someone else, on some other ship, then to the enemy, who is having problems of their own. Interspersed are scenes of small victories, and, as the fight progresses, much larger ones. After a sequence covering one part of the fight I like to change to a different area of the battle, maybe even a different star system, for the next. In this way I move the reader through an epic battleground where they are carried from tension to tension, with some small resolutions along the way.

To me the worst way to resolve a battle is with a non-event. I have read a lot of books where they build up to the fight, the training, the organization, the hopes and dreams of those involved. And in the next scene, it’s all aftermath. I feel ripped off by those stories. People read books that promise action because they want to read about that action. I provide that action. The first book of my Exodus series, more of a Universe establishment tale, had limited action, maybe twenty to thirty percent, and that is the worst reviewed of the series. After that, the action increases, until the later books have almost eighty percent action sequences. Some people may think that too much, preferring more time for character development or background. The thing is, I am working as a full time author by writing such, and success proves to me, at least, that the method works.

About Doug Dandridge: 11022903_860155284027899_98329783_n
Doug Dandridge is a Florida native, Army veteran and ex-professional college student who spent way too much time in the halls of academia. He has worked as a psychotherapist, drug counselor, and, most recently, for the Florida Department of Children and Families. An early reader of Heinlein, Howard, Moorcock and Asimov, he has always had a love for the fantastic in books ad movies. Doug started submitting science fiction and fantasy in 1997 and collected over four hundred rejection letters. In December of 2011 he put up his first self-publishing efforts online. Since then he had sold over 100,000 copies of his work, and has ranked in the top five on Amazon Space Opera and Military Science Fiction multiple times. He quit his day job in March 2013, and has since made a successful career as a self-published author.

Should the Socially Awkward be Professional Writers?

6 April 2015 | 1 Comment » | fictorians

A guest post by David Boop.

Despite what jocks, preps and princesses might believe, not all nerds are created equal. Just like any pool of people, some rise to the surface while others languish in the shadows.

Is this fair? Heavens, no. Is it reality? You bet your sweet bippy.

Whether or not you believe all persons are the same in the eyes of God, it is a truth that we place people in mental categories within our minds. Smart – Stupid. Safe – Dangerous. Normal – Awkward. It is easy to drop those we meet into virtual file cabinets of our brain to help us determine how much effort we’ll spend on them.

I grew up a geek in small town Wisconsin. I was verbally and physically abused by my classmates for it. This is a common experience among creative types, including writers, artists, and filmmakers. (Musicians seem to get away with more, I have no idea why. You can be a dork, play the guitar and somehow still be cool.)

It started with my last name, Boop; a funny sounding, easily picked on name. When you have a name like Boop, you’re put into a category of clown, even if you’re not one. My name was used as a swear word around my school.

“I’m going to go take a Boop.”

“I’m going to Boop you up!”

“I Booped your mother last night.”

I didn’t make things any better by not growing out of comics, action figures, video games, cartoons and science-fiction novels. I found very few people to share these interests with in a school focused on athletic excellence. Dating was next to impossible. I was told by a friend on Facebook that there were warnings not to date me or risk being removed from the popular crowd. Girls called me a “goon” behind my back. But this wasn’t solely due to my nerdy proclivities.

I was and, in many ways, still am socially awkward.

I didn’t walk the walk, nor talk the talk. I wasn’t into the same things other kids were and thus didn’t have the vernacular down. Slang eluded me. I came from a conservative household. It is hard to be a “good boy” while feeling pressure to lose your virginity, drink and raise hell. I finally caught up to my peers at nineteen when I went into radio, started working nightclubs and doing stand-up comedy. I finally understood what it took to be popular and that meant being a crazier bastard than everyone else in the room.

The “good boy/crazy bastard” dichotomy has carried over into my career as a writer. Yet, thirty years later, the tables have reversed. Now the popular kids want me to be a good boy; always be politically correct, sensitive to minority and women’s rights and not to sleep around at cons.

Wait! That’s not fair! I just got this down. Filthy mouth, bad jokes and loose morals meant popularity. How and when did that change? These new rules are the same rules my parents tried to instill in me as a child. You mean they were right? (Please tell my child that someday I might be right, too. Please?)

And so I shift again, not always as quickly or effectively as I’d like. I’m still that awkward kid, trying to get the vernacular right. Still trying to prove I deserve to be one of the cool kids.

With the accessibility of publishing and the growth of the genre market, writers who may never been that socially awkward kid are finding success, and thus have no frame of reference to what we’ve been through. And they’ve been given a platform called the Internet. There are too many watchdogs with too little compassion for people like me who don’t always “get it.” Writing used to be a solitary craft with very little exposure to either other writers and/or fans. Back then, when authors did get together, everyone was socially awkward and more forgiving. They welcomed the weird with open arms and it was a safe place to be wrong sometimes.

Now that geek is chic, some people claim ownership of all things nerdy and say that nerds shouldn’t be creepy or inept, holding themselves up as examples. Shows like The Big Bang Theory and King of the Nerds poke fun at what are very serious issues for some nerds. People say they want a Raj or Leonard in their life until one tries to make friends with them and they’re turned away and shunned. It has been my experience that there are writers with little-to-no tolerance for those not playing at their level mentally, socially or politically. Any mistake in judgment is highlighted and waved in front of millions. If the offender does not fit into their definition of “acceptable,” then they should be attacked, banned, kept from getting published in certain circles, despite any skill they might have.

And, to be honest, in some cases they have valid reasons. They are writers who don’t know when to lower their voices, use tact, pay attention to their audience. I have been accused of many of these things, and while I’ve learned and adapted, many others haven’t. Some of these writers are not used to being around the opposite sex, or try too hard to be liked by their peers. They miss social cues, speak out of turn and don’t know when to back off. And when they find themselves in the sights of the socially adept, they have no clue why. Even when they have a light-bulb moment, they don’t know how to change. Most times the damage is already done. They lose friends, contacts and opportunities.

But don’t misinterpret what I’m saying that there aren’t dangerous people out there that need to be exposed. The predators who pretend to be what they are not. These are not socially inept people, they are sociopaths and bringing them out in the open is everyone’s responsibility.

Not all non-socially awkward people are evil and not all socially awkward people are saints. If I’ve learned one thing, there are plenty of buttheads on both sides of any disagreement. Heck, I know I’ve been accused of such by both sides. But we’ve all been bound together by this need to express ourselves creatively. Some of the most imaginative people I’ve read can barely carry on a conversation. Should they be ostracized for what may be the hardest thing in the world to them? I don’t think so.

Despite the challenges, I’ve adapted. I’ve learned to hold my tongue under most situations. I’ve developed patience and looked for deeper understanding when dealing with people in social circumstances. As I change, I’m building better relationships with other writers who understand, those who “get me.”

It’s worth it. I want to make writing work. I have to. The goal is worth the effort. Does that make me smarter than some? Does that make me better than others? No. I’m far from perfect and I still make mistakes…

And that just makes me human.

About David Boop:
writing bio picDavid Boop is a bestselling Denver-based speculative fiction author. In addition to his novels, short stories and children’s books, he’s also an award-winning essayist and screenwriter. His novel, the sci-fi/noir She Murdered Me with Science, will return to print in 2015 from WordFire Press. David has had over forty short stories published and two short films produced. While known for Weird Westerns, he’s published across several genres including media tie-ins for titles like The Green Hornet and Veronica Mars. His first Steampunk children’s book, The Three Inventors Sneebury, had a digital release in 2013 with a print release due in 2016. David tours the country regularly speaking on writing and publishing at schools, libraries and conventions.He’s a single dad, Summa Cum Laude graduate, part-time temp worker and believer. His hobbies include film noir, anime, the Blues and Mayan History. You can find out more on his fanpage, www.facebook.com/dboop.updates or Twitter @david_boop.

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