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Tuesday, March 2, 2010

The Hardest Words

Please welcome guest blogger PG Forte

It’s a question writers hear a lot: what’s the hardest part of writing? It’s a question for which there are probably as many answers as there are writers. And it’s one I was never quite sure how to answer. Sometimes it’s all a struggle. Other times the words just flow. However, I recently had a revelation. I realized the part of writing that takes me the longest, that I struggle with more than anything else is dialogue.

This took me by surprise, I must admit, because I’m one of those writers whose characters never seem to shut up while I’m writing their story. They’re in my head day and night, night and day letting me know exactly what they think.

On top of that, I’m a plotter. I make outlines. I make notes. I generally know exactly what everyone is going to say (and do) in every single scene before I begin. I know their voices. I know their motivations. I know just what they want to say. And yet…

I think part of the reason why I find dialogue to be so challenging at times is that nowhere else is the distinction between the right words and the almost-right words so apparent.

Descriptive passages can be overdone. Too long or too detailed descriptions can slow a book down or irritate readers who want to imagine for themselves what someone or something looks like. Most of the time, the less said, the better.

Action scenes are largely straightforward affairs. They’re mostly “show, don’t tell” scenes. As long as you don’t get bogged down with confusing pronouns or complicated choreography, there’s a lot of leeway built into them.

But dialogue…well, it’s not just two people talking. It’s more than he said, she said. It’s what they say, it’s what they don’t say, it’s how they say it. Good dialogue reveals more about a character than almost anything else. If you don’t get dialogue exactly right, it can ruin the moment.

Take the movie The Empire Strikes Back, for example. If you’ve seen the film, you know the scene I’m talking about. It takes place toward the end. Han Solo is about to be flash-frozen into a big block of carbonite. The equipment is old and the odds are good he won’t survive the process.

Princess Leia—who’s been fighting her attraction to him throughout the whole movie is looking on anxiously. Finally, knowing it might be the last chance she’ll get, she breaks down and tells him, “I love you.” Han, ever the bad boy, gives her a crooked smile and says, “I know.”

It’s the perfect line of dialogue, absolutely classic. It’s totally in keeping with Han’s character. We know he loves her—hell, we’ve known that all along. But with those words and that look, Han also reveals just how well he knows Leia. Well enough to know that what she really needs at that moment is not sappy words that’ll likely send her into tears, but something that will stiffen her spine and give her the strength to keep fighting—even if he doesn’t make it.

Interestingly, however, that line was not part of the original script. It was ad libbed by Harrison Ford—who clearly understood the character he was playing a whole lot better than George Lucas ever did. George’s script called for Han to gaze soulfully back at Leia and say, “I love you, too.”

Um…yeah. Nice, but no cigar.

Obviously, there’s nothing wrong with the line itself, but for that character at that moment it was not quite right. Worse yet, it would not have done any of the things we expect from dialogue. It doesn’t reveal character, it doesn’t tell us something we don’t know and it doesn’t move the story forward. The two of them could have stayed silent the whole scene and we would still have known how they felt about each other.

That’s not the only potential problem when it comes to dialogue either. There are also the little nit-picky details. Things like slang, dialect, regional quirks, vocabulary choices. A little slang goes a long way. Too much can very quickly date your story or make it incomprehensible to readers. Too little can leave all your characters sounding stilted. Things get more complicated if your story takes place in another time or on another planet. Things get even more complicated than that if you’re dealing with time-traveling characters or immortals from a variety of time periods who may have known each other for several centuries.

And then there’s my personal favorite pitfall: the dialogue tag. I’m not a huge fan of the no-dialogue-tag style of writing. As a reader, I’m too easily confused. Losing track of who’s saying what can pull me right out of a book—and it happens far too often. I also find endless repetitions of the word “said” too tedious to even contemplate. I know it’s one of those words that are just supposed to fade into the background as you read, but for me…not so much. Finding the right balance—just enough tags but not too many—probably accounts for half the time I spend on writing dialogue.

But with great challenges come great rewards. There’s probably no part of writing that gives me more satisfaction than crafting the perfect conversation and putting just the right words in my characters’ mouths. Well…other than typing “the end” of course.

Love without Limits, Romance without Rules

PG Forte inhabits a world that’s only slightly less strange than the ones she creates.  Filled with serendipity, coincidence, love at first sight and dreams come true, it also bears a sometimes startling resemblance to Berkeley, California.

In the Dark
When you live forever, you’re bound to make a few mistakes.

Children of Night, Book 1

1969 San Francisco. World-weary Conrad Quintano should have known better than to fall in love with a human—much less Suzanne Fischer, the barely legal, adventure-seeking hippie beauty known as Desert Rose. And the very last thing he should have agreed to do was to raise her babies and protect them with his life. But even twelve-hundred-year-old master vampires can find it hard to reject a deathbed request—especially when issues of love, guilt and blood are involved.

Present day. Raised in virtual isolation, twins Marc and Julie Fischer have always known they are vampires. But they never knew their parentage—or their unique status in the vampire world—until their “uncle” Damian comes to fetch them home. The family reunion, however, isn’t what they expect. They’re thrust into a world for which they’re totally unprepared. And the father they expected to see, Conrad, is missing.

How to find him…and whom to trust? Solving the mystery of betrayal and vampire family values will prove the Beatles had it right. All you need is love…and an occasional side of blood.

Warning: While reading this book you may experience any of the following, an increased desire to wear flowers in your hair, dress in tie-dye or nap during the day. Other symptoms may include an intolerance to sunlight, an aversion to garlic-flavored tofu and a pronounced urge to bake…or get baked.


Danica Avet said...

Great post!

I love writing dialogue. There's something just so challenging about making your characters speak in a way that reflects their personalities that I find irresistible.

Lisa Kessler said...

Fun blog!!! :)

I live for dialogue writing! It's setting and descriptions that I rush through...

But if writing was easy I'm not sure it would be as thrilling when you finish... It's the journey, right?

Lisa :)