Dialog Part Two

Dialog – when two people get together and talk to each other. In case you missed my first post on dialog, you can browse it here.

So, what do you do when you have a scene with dialog that isn’t quite working? Read it out loud? Start over from scratch and rewrite it? Find another writer to hash it over with?

Those are all options. Generally when I come across a scene with a lot of talking and I don’t think it’s quite working I step back and run it through three layers of scrutiny. Before I get to these three things, let me point out that this isn’t a checklist, it’s more like a troubleshooting procedure. If one of these things work, there’s no real reason to keep going, unless you’re really dedicated to perfecting a scene.

The first thing I do is try and identify exactly what I’m trying to accomplish with a scene. Your writing needs to serve your story. Every scene needs to accomplish something in pushing forward your plot, a sideplot or perhaps even the myth arc. Identify exactly what your scene is trying to do, then go through and trim out everything that doesn’t advance that goal. You might go back and add some of what you trim back later, but at least look at it without all the excess fluff. Most likely, it doesn’t need to be there. Hopefully that will give you better, snappier dialog.

If that doesn’t work, it’s time to look at pacing. I know I said it last week, but it’s vitally important that you keep your characters from saying too much at one time, and from keeping too many people from being in a conversation at once. While conversational free-for-alls aren’t that rare in real life, most people will tend to tune out some conversational threads and focus on others. You don’t want that to happen in your scene. By the same token, people don’t tend to launch into huge, prepared speeches in causal conversation. Yeah it can happen, but if it happens more than once a scene you probably need to rework something.

When all else fails, I resort to the index card method. You’ve probably heard writers talk about laying your plot out on index cards and spreading it out on a desk or the floor so you can see the whole thing at a glance. Well, this is the same principle applied to writing a scene. In this case, instead of writing plot points on your index cards, write out the first line of each chunk of dialog, or each action that a character will be taking between chunks of dialog. Then spread them out and start sorting. Move things around, cut things or, if necessary, add them until the scene starts to work like you want. This is a court of last resort, and by the time you’re done the scene is probably going to need a total rewrite. But not necessarily.

Dialog is a tricky thing. It drives plot, gives insight into characters and makes for memorable moments all at once, but if you don’t handle it well it can also leave your readers confused and lost. I hope these tips from the last few weeks will help you to assemble better written and more believable dialog.

Cool Things: Index (x2!)

Indexing is a new serial by Seanan McGuire, available from Amazon.com through the Kindle store. I discovered it because I made the mistake of reading one of those periodic e-mails Amazon sends out, you know the ones where they recommend things for you. They’re dangerous, dangerous things and my wallet doesn’t like them very much. In fact, they’re one of the prime reasons that I don’t let Amazon show me pictures in their e-mails.

But the name caught my eye. I’ve already mentioned one of McGuire’s works in this spot before, the very high quality October Daye novels. Indexing plays around in very different headspace, running with themes of self-generating narrative similar to Mercedes Lackey’s 500 Kingdoms series. This is weird, very metanarrative stuff. As far as I know the idea first started with Terry Pratchett but has become more popular over time (or maybe just speaks to the breadth of Pratchett’s influence on modern fantasy). It may only appeal to the literary minded.

The basic idea of a self-generating narrative (or SGN from here on out) is that there are stories out there, and some unknown force causes them to play out over and over again, frequently bending or breaking the laws of nature to create the necessary circumstances. There’s problems with the concept of SGNs and the implications that most authors give to them that the more logically minded might question. But the whole point is not to think too logically and just enjoy the ride.

In short, SGNs offer a chance for fractured fairytales on a grand scale, giving the author license to mix, match, avert and otherwise put their own spin on classic tales. Indexing looks to be no exception. It focuses on members of a special government task force who’s job is to deal with SGNs before they get out of hand. However, since Ive only read the first few installments of the series, gauging it’s exact tone and the level of the story behind the stories, so to speak, is a pretty iffy game. Still, if you like the idea of story on top of stories, McGuire looks to be bringing a pretty good one to the table.

What’s really cool about this, at least to my mind, is the fact that Indexing is really taking advantage of changing technologies to bring readers a good experience. The serial will update every two weeks with a new installment, but you only have to pay for the book once. After that, each installment is synced to your Kindle (or iPad/desktop app) as soon as it comes out and you can pick up reading right where you left off. Neat! Plus, it looks like while it’s running as a serial you get a considerable discount on the final price. It’s worth talking a look at.

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Totally unrelated to the above: Indexed is a sort of webcomic, published on Tumblr by Jessica Hagy. It uses simple line graphs and Venn diagrams, and occasionally something a little more complicated, drawn on the back of index cards, to make humorous and sometimes insightful points. It updates most every weekday and is a lot of fun to read. Check it out!