Only Hammocks Should Sag
By Martha Powers
Sure, you've got a boffo opening and a final chapter that would knock the socks off even the most jaded Pulitzer Prize judge. But what are you going to do in between?
How are you going to make the reader believe the ending? How are you going to create a thoroughly satisfying read? The middle of your story is the toughest and most crucial section of your book. It is here that your characters come to life and your plot develops. A book with no middle is as disappointing as a chocolate eclair without the custard.
The middle of the book contains scenes that develop the action of the plot or give depth and growth to your characters. You might have scenes just to add local color or history to your story, but plot and character are your primary focus. The best vehicle for bringing your characters to life and advancing your plot is dialogue.
For my money, dialogue is what makes the difference between a great writer and an amateur. More than anything, dialogue is going to bridge the gap within each scene and eventually lead the reader to your dynamite ending. The reader will believe your ending because your characters will have revealed their motivations through the use of dialogue.
All dialogue is action and reaction. Dialogue stems from your characters and will never work well unless you know your characters. If you do not know the background of each of your characters, how will you know what to write when your heroine is asked, "Do you want a drink?" You must know her well enough to know whether she drinks, spits or chews.
Beginning writers get a plot idea, create some characters and then start to write. It's fun to write. There's a glory and a joy in writing. As page after page stacks up, you can feel a real pride in accomplishment. You're really getting your story written. When you come to the end, mail it off, and an editor sends a polite rejection, the letdown is terrific. Sure, I know about the writer whose first book was snatched up for a half million advance. Trust me, you've got as much chance of winning the lottery. The pay is better.
Do a little preparation work before you start to write. If you were going to wallpaper your bedroom, you would first move the furniture, take down the pictures and do a little re-plastering. Without that preparation work, the wallpaper would show up every flaw in your walls.
Without prep work on your book, your writing will show up all your flaws. You should make out a background sketch of each of your characters. Some people do this in their head, but it's a lot easier on paper, and you can pin each sketch above your desk for quick reference. This way you won't start with a blond hero and end up with a black-haired one. The sketch should contain physical descriptions, family background, and psychological motivations. The better you know each character, the easier your writing will be.
Once you know your characters, you should have no trouble keeping the middle of your book fascinating. Each scene will come to life because your characters will have something to say to each other. Like a play, the story will unfold. Good dialogue will ease you smoothly from beginning to end of your story.
Alexandre Dumas said that dialogue is "the backbone of drama." As a writer you must understand that dramatic dialogue differs from real dialogue. When you listen to an actual conversation, it tends to be boring, disjointed, rambling and uninformative. Good dramatic dialogue is concise and motivated. You as the writer must plan your dialogue and craft it to work for you. Don't waste time and space on useless dialogue.
Dialogue should be used to create atmosphere, give information, reveal character and advance the plot.
A. Creating atmosphere and giving information
This one's easy, and we all know how to do it. You should be careful so that it doesn't sound contrived. Sometimes you can use it to tell about a scene that would not have been interesting in itself.
"How did your meeting go with the Colonel, dear?"
"He just wanted to let me know we would be leaving for Istanbul on Friday."
"But what about the uprising there?"
"The situation's pretty much in control even though most of the city is still in flames."
This is somewhat heavy-handed, but you can see that with a few lines you can get a fair amount of info across. Note that the scene with the Colonel would have required narrative to describe a new place, a character sketch of the Colonel, and action within the scene that in the long run might have been boring. You've directed the dialogue to serve the same purpose.
B. Revealing Character
A character's dialogue must reveal his own make-up. If you don't know you characters, they will sound exactly like you do and come off plastic and one-dimensional.
The speech patterns of a character are made up of vocabulary, rhythm and dialect, but they are also affected by the circumstances of their lives. When you write up your character sketches, be sure to include some idea of how they speak. Each person in your story should have his own voice, his own method of speech.
Notice the different voices in the following examples:
1. Lady Wallace accepted the plate of cucumber sandwiches from Lady Dentwater. "Oh, you sweet child, what cunning little sandwiches. Why my cook can't seem to understand what I mean when I ask for cucumber."
2. Lady Wallace accepted the plate of cucumber sandwiches from Lady Dentwater. "Really, Edna, that cook of yours can't seem to get anything right. Why in my day we'd have given her the sack."
3. Lady Wallace accepted the plate of cucumber sandwiches from Lady Dentwater. "Thanks ever so, milady, but me mum would hit me upside the head if I took another one."
In the first example, you can see the fluttery old lady in the too-young dress. In the second, you see the overpowering harridan. In the third, you see a young, undereducated girl who may have a title but little gentility. The choice of words and the cadence of speech make a big difference in the effect of your dialogue.
Dialogue also reveals what relationship the character has with others. Note how each line below gives you a different feeling about the relationship between the character speaking and Harry.
"Harry, darling! I've been waiting all evening for you."
"Harry, old boy. Good to see you again."
"Harry? Is that you, lad?"
C. Advancing the Plot
Dialogue helps make the story more readable and gives dimension to your story. You have to use every line of it. Plan your scenes so that the dialogue actually moves the plot along. You can use it effectively to prepare your reader for a new character or a new situation. If the dialogue is meaningful, it will advance the plot just by showing us the character's strengths and weaknesses, the conflicts between characters and give us a hint of where the story is going.
Handling dialogue for more than two characters
When you have more than two characters in a scene, you have to be careful that you don't leave anyone out for longer than three or four lines. Think of the scene as you would real life. You would not talk exclusively to Jill if Gwen were sitting beside her. It's rude, and eventually the reader is going to say, what about Gwen?
You might be wanting to prove that Gwen is of no account and therefore the point of your conversation is to exclude her. If that's the case, you have to let the reader know what you're doing. (She continued her conversation with Jill, delighted that she could ignore the upstart Gwen.)
Some scenes require one or more additional people around at the beginning. However if you want to have any personal conversation between two of your characters, you're going to have to get the others to leave or move your people away from the group.
In my book Grey Fox Wagers, Jena is accompanied by Nanny to find toe drunken peg-legged Martine. I needed Nanny for convention's sake and wanted her to do some things in the room before Jena's talk with Martine. It's a shouting scene which would be awkward with a third person having to be catered to. Jena offers Nanny a cup of tea. Nanny: "Perhaps later, child. For now I'm more interested in a nap." Off she toddles to the corner of the room and is soon snoring. Now Jena can have her heart-to-heart with Martine.
Controlling a conversation with more than three people is tough. You have to keep everyone in the conversation and at the same time not confuse the reader with who is talking. Keep in mind the group does not speak in consecutive order. Think of the scene in your mind and work it through. Act it out, it it will help. In general, in group conversation there is usually a pivotal figure, probably the hero or heroine. Most of the conversation circles around him/her.
For Part II of this article, click here!
Martha is the author of several Regency romances, including FALSE PRETENSES and her 1985 Golden Heart winner PROXY BRIDE.
Her upcoming release is a mystery thriller suspense entitled SUNFLOWER from Random House, due out mid-August.
You can visit her website at http://www.geocities.com/Hollywood/1976/mpowers/
To order Martha's books from Amazon.com, visit our Bookstore.
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Copyright 1998, M. Powers