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Monthly Archives: August 2012

Making your characters speak: part 1

“An editor is one who separates the wheat from the chaff and prints the chaff.”

– Adlai Stevenson

I’ve posted a lot about finding and creating characters. But they need to speak. There is an art to creating dialogue and some writers seem to have the gift for getting the dialogue rolling. Others need a little nudge and practice.

However, before we get into creating dialogue, I’m going to put on my editor’s hat and talk about setting up the dialogue. When I edit books, dialogue setup is one of the three top ways authors mess up. And no wonder. If you check out published books, the authors and editors seem to be all over the map with dialogue setup. I admit that some of the traditional rules have loosened up. But some still stand. So, here goes with the rules of thumb for setting up dialogue.

  1. Generally, you start a new paragraph with the dialogue and start a new paragraph when you go back into narrative. EXCEPTIONS: You can insert some action by the character speaking as they speak or as they finish speaking.
  2. The setup for dialogue is: “Dialogue,” Michael said. OR less common: Michael said, “Dialogue.” OR “Dialogue.” Michael smiled and stepped back. (In the latter Michael is doing something as he speaks, so it’s not necessary to put “Michael said.”
  3. Notice where the punctuation and quotation marks go. NO to “Dialogue”, he said. Instead, it is “Dialogue,” he said. And it is double quotation marks for Canadian and US style, with single quotation marks for British style. For US and Canadian style, if the speaker is quoting someone else, the quote uses single quotation marks as in “Shelly said, ‘Don’t you dare,’ which startled me,” Mark said. British style is reversed.
  4. Don’t be creative with speaker attributes. NO to “Get out of my way,” he barked. Dogs, not people, bark. I’ve had my knuckles wrapped (figuratively) for being creative with my speaker attributes. Stick to the standard he/she said/replied/asked.
  5. Keep the …ly adverbs out of the speaker attributes. NO to “Get out of my way,” he said sharply. Instead show the reader the speaker’s emotions in either what he says or what he is doing when speaking. We’ll cover this more in next’s week’s post.
  6. When you have two, even three speakers yakking for some time, you don’t need to have a broken record of he/she saids. Use each character’s name the first time he or she speaks and after that just use their dialogue. If the dialogue goes on for awhile, have your characters do something (and you can use their name here) to differentiate. For example, in my story “Saving Grace” from Beyond the Tripping Point (Blue Denim Press, fall 2012), when Detective Sergeant Fielding is speaking to Dana Bowman, it is obvious when he speaks, because he stutters. Again, we’ll get into these intricacies of dialogue next week.
  7. If one character speaks a lot at once, for example if recounting a story, don’t shove it all into one paragraph. You can divide it up into paragraphs. But the quotation marks setup changes – here you put opening quotation marks at the beginning of each paragraph, but no closing quotation marks until the character shuts up.
  8. Just for fun (and confusion) – when you are reading a book (e-book or print), see how the dialogue setup is handled. You’ll be surprised at the variation – some of which actually confuses the reader.

Or is that the editor in me speaking here?

Cheers.

Sharon A. Crawford

 

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Creating eccentric characters

I might write pages and pages of conversation between characters that don’t necessarily end up in the book, or in the story I’m working on, because they’re simply my way of getting to know the characters.

–          Norton Juster

Quirky characters appear in many novels and TV series. Think the main character in
Dexter
, all of the characters in NCIS and NCIS Los Angeles and the Agatha Christie character, Hercule Poirot, who has crossed from books into movies and TV. Not surprising as life is filled with eccentric characters. Look around you as you go about your day. It could be that old lady wearing sandals, a winter coat and straw hat standing on the corner and yelling. It might be your dad who insists on having one white vegetable, one yellow vegetable and one green vegetable at dinner; then meticulously cuts them all into tiny pieces before spooning them into his mouth.

Or maybe it’s you.

How do you create an eccentric character for your short story or novel and what can you “borrow” from life or can you?

Most of my short stories in Beyond the Tripping Point have at least one eccentric character, although most, if not all, the characters contain a certain amount of quirkiness. My favourite is Great Aunt Doris who appears in two of the four linked stories featuring the fraternal twin PIs, Dana and Bast.

Where did Doris come from?

I did have an eccentric aunt who at one time when she was alive was the same age (70s) as Great Aunt Doris. Like Doris, my aunt was short and had a mouth on her. There any resemblance ends. My aunt was deep into Catholicism and anti-fluoridation and spoke her mind on both in a somewhat whiny voice, punctuated by a grin showing all her yellow teeth. Great Aunt Doris isn’t particularly religious, but she is conservative and has set ideas on what mothers should do and be. And she hates gays. As Dana is a mother and a PI with a son and Bast is gay, you get an idea where that could go. Doris is also the great aunt of Dana’s ex-husband, but that doesn’t stop her from showing up uninvited on Dana’s and Bast’s doorsteps. And meddling in their lives.

  1.  You can base your eccentric characters on someone you know or met but remember “base” is a four-letter word. Pick one or two traits you like about your real-life eccentric and build your character from there using your imagination.
  2. Envision how your character looks and sounds: Great Aunt Doris has an ugly face – her aging wrinkles and puffy, yet sagging cheeks, plus that ruby-red lipstick make her resemble a gargoyle, especially when she opens her mouth. And she does, in a gravelly voice, to criticize Dana’s parenting skills and insult Bast as well as poke herself into the Attic Agency’s current case. Her usual garb is a flowered housedress and flat shoes or pumps but when she’s on a case, she does a female version of Sherlock Holmes – minus the pipe. I did say she was conservative.
  3. Don’t create an eccentric character just for the sake of having one. He or she must fit into your story and interact realistically with the other characters. In other words, he or she must do the impossible – blend in as well as stand out as a distinct character. Here’s a dialogue excerpt from my short story “Saving Grace.” Dana is in the middle of tracking down a suspect when her cell rings. It is Great Aunt Doris.

“Yes, Doris,” I say.

“David…David,” deep breath, “David…is throwing a tantrum,” Aunt Doris says. “He’s…hey, little fellow, take it…gulp…easy. Dana, you’d better be a good mother and get back to the hotel…now.”

“Aunt Doris, calm down. I’ll be—”

A vehicle’s coming down the road, slowing down.

“Just a minute, Aunt Doris.” Without disconnecting the cell, I jump off the veranda and scurry behind a nearby bush.

“What is the matter with you, Dana? Your little boy is having a fit and you run off….”

“Shh, Aunt Doris.”

“Don’t you shush me young lady. Your son—”

(Excerpted from “Saving Grace,” from Beyond the Tripping Point, Copyright 2012 Sharon A. Crawford, Blue Denim Press, due out fall 2012).

There is also Detective Sergeant Fielding who gets migraines and sometimes stutters. But that’s another story…or is it? He appears in many of the Dana and Bast stories and shares one trait with Great Aunt Doris. He doesn’t like Bast, but not because Bast is gay. So your eccentric doesn’t have to be a pariah. Remember the eccentric must fit into your story.

When you get an idea for an eccentric character, do a detailed character sketch. Don’t forget the feelings, including how you feel about him or her. What is the character’s purpose in the story? And make sure the eccentric isn’t someone from your real life. This is fiction, not memoir.

Cheers.

Sharon A. Crawford

 

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Staring at the blank page

Writing is easy; all you do is sit staring at a blank sheet of paper until the drops of blood form on your forehead.”

– Gene Fowler

Suppose for a minute you are sitting at your computer or with a piece of paper in front of you. You want to write something but all that stares back at you is the blank screen or page. You haven’t a clue what to write and that blankety-blank glaring into your eyes isn’t any help.

What do you do? Don’t give up. There are a number of ways to get over the hump of writer’s block.

  1. This is one of my favourites and one I use when writing nonfiction articles.  My late journalism instructor, Paul Nowak used to drum it into us about starting our stories with a good lead – one that will hook the reader. That got me into the habit of not going beyond writing the article’s beginning until I got the lead right – at least the gist of it – the wording might be changed slightly in the rewrite. Fiction – short story and novel – needs a good beginning to lure in the reader. Try focusing on writing a good lead.
  2. What if you are swimming around among several leads? This happened to me once with a story I was writing. I can’t remember the story itself but I do remember I had four leads written to express two ideas. Do you think I could decide which one was best? No. I phoned a writing friend and read all four out to her. She chose the best one to her ears. That’s the one I went with.
  3. If sticking with the lead isn’t your forte for the first draft and/or you can’t even get going at a first draft, try freefall writing. I mentioned this in a previous post with Brian Henry’s workshops. So, in a variation of that exercise, pick a word or phrase that has been lurking in your head (come on; you really don’t have a blank mind; only the screen or page is blank). Put the phrase on your paper or computer screen and keep on writing. Write whatever comes into your mind and go with whatever feeling is there – anger, sadness, joy. Don’t be afraid to go with the deep dark feelings. Unleash them and you will unleash your writer’s block.
  4. If none of the above seems to work, then try temporary avoidance but make sure you do something that relaxes your mind. Go into your garden and pull weeds or deadhead the dead flowers; sit out in your garden; do some Yoga; meditate, or go for a walk. Guaranteed, something will pop into your head, something you can write about. And you may be scurrying to get back to your pen and paper or your computer. This latter also works when you are mid-story or rewriting a story and for the life of you can’t figure out where it is going. I’ve done that many times with some of the situations my female private eye, Dana, gets into. In “Saving Grace,” I knew the beginning and knew the end but got into several tizzies in between, especially sorting the whys and wherefores of all the cars showing up in the story (You’ll have to read the story in the book to find out. I’m not telling).

Dana also has to deal with eccentric Great Aunt Doris in two of the linked stories in Beyond the Tripping Point. But that’s something for next week’s post – creating eccentric characters and making them work in your story without coming across as  too eccentric.

Meantime check out my publisher’s page http://www.bluedenimpress.com.The cover of my book and some more info is now posted there. Or click under My Publisher – Blue Denim Press from the links to the right. When I figure out how to get the book cover icon on this blog, I’ll do so.Hey, I’m a writer, not a designer.

Cheers.

Sharon A. Crawford

 

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Turning incidents into stories

I have written a great many stories and I still don’t know how to go about it except to write it and take my chances.”

– John Steinbeck

In last week’s post I listed an incident that is not a story under baddies for fiction plotting. Today I’m going to give some tips on turning an incident into a short story using the beginning of  “Saving Grace,” from my short story collection Beyond the Tripping Point.

Grace Milhop, age eight, disappeared just after two this afternoon from the backyard of her east end Toronto home. Her mother, Terry Milhop, went into the house to answer the phone and when she came back out 10 minutes later, her daughter was gone…. Milhop is estranged from her husband—

I drop the laundry basket and charge into the living room.

…police are asking anyone with any information to call—

It’s not the picture of a child with short red curls and freckles staring at me from the TV screen that stops me cold. Neither does the photo of a 35-ish man with thick black hair and matching moustache. My concern is the seven-year-old boy standing at the end of the coffee table, remote in his hand, staring at the TV.

“No, David.” I scramble over to him. “You don’t need to see this. Give me the remote.” I hold out my hand.

My son jumps back and shakes his head. When I lean forward and try to grab his hand, he butts his head into my stomach.

“No, David.”

Foot stomping.

“David.”

He stiffens; the remote clatters to the floor and he begins to whimper.

(Excerpted from “Saving Grace,” from Beyond the Tripping Point, Copyright 2012 Sharon A. Crawford, Blue Denim Press, due out fall 2012).

This could very well be an incident about a boy having a temper tantrum over whether he should be watching something on TV. As far as that goes, my late journalist teacher, Paul Nowak would say “So what?”

But more is going on here and I make it so. How?

1.Think beyond the incident itself – go for the big picture. Is this TV on/off battle only one in a long line of temper tantrums the mother is trying to deal with? Is the son acting out in other ways, maybe even bullying others at school or being bullied himself?

2. Figure out what the conflict could be in your story. Continuing with the above, does the mother constantly fight with her son? Maybe this is something new and she wants to find out why and fix it.

3. Build your incident and conflict into a plotline. For example, maybe the mother is a single mom trying to juggle a demanding job; maybe her daycare is threatening to quit, maybe she’s getting notes from the school about her son’s behaviour and she is dreading the appointment she has with the school principal. You can add in a few bad behaviours on her son’s part (use your imagination). Use dialogue and action to show the reader the escalating conflict. Build it up to a climax and then some sort of resolution – not necessarily the son becomes a good boy again.

My story doesn’t exactly follow those lines. “Saving Grace” is the second in four linked stories in this Beyond the Tripping Point story collection. For one thing, Dana and her fraternal twin, Bast, run a private investigative agency. The previous year David himself was kidnapped and it traumatized him so much that he couldn’t speak. Dana and David attend therapy consisting of talk and art therapy. As part of the process David harbours a lot of anger, and because he’s not speaking and he’s still scared, he reverts to the terrible twos and throws temper tantrums, including a lot of foot stomping. The plot itself has David trying to sort through his difficulty by honing in on other children being kidnapped. So, when Dana, David and eccentric Great Aunt Doris take a holiday to Goderich, Ontario, and they see a little girl who resembles the missing Grace, David literally tries to shove his mother into finding Grace. Dana is torn between doing so and leaving it to the police. It doesn’t help that Great Aunt Doris (who locks horns with Dana on a regular basis) tries to stop both Dana and David from becoming involved. She even calls Dana a “bad mother.”  The story continues…but I’m not going to reveal the climax but you can get the idea. I use plenty of action, dialogue and feelings.

So, if you have only an incident, don’t trash it. See if you can develop it into a real story.

Cheers.

Sharon A. Crawford

 

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Plotting your way through your story

We have to continually be jumping off cliffs and developing our wings on the way down.

— Kurt Vonnegut Jr., science fiction writer

Vonnegut describes the fiction writer perched at the computer. The writer is ready to roll with the plot. Sometimes he soars, but sometimes his wings get clipped.

In my short story, “For the Love of Wills,” two of my main characters are literally “up there.” The story begins:

“Clara, I’m going to fall.”

“Pipe down, Mother. Do you want them to hear us?”

“I can’t move. I’m stuck. See.” She tried tapping her toes against the stone rock wall, but to no avail.

“Well, whose idea was this anyway?” I whispered.

“Yours.”

“Mine?  Now, listen here…”

“Shush. Do you want Will and that blonde Bimbo to hear us?”

That blonde Bimbo is what got Heidi Anastasia Clarke started. Bad enough that on her 62nd birthday, her husband of 40 years, William Everett Clarke, decided to toss her out of their old-money mansion in Toronto’s Rosedale. All this for a post-mid-life crisis which brought his oh-so-much younger secretary in and sent my mother packing. (Excerpted from Beyond the Tripping Point, copyright 2012 Sharon A. Crawford. Book available fall 2012).

These two characters, Clara and Heidi, are definitely “ready to roll with the plot,” if they don’t fall first.

Now, let’s look at some baddies in fiction plotting.

A literary magazine editor once scrawled on one of my short stories, “This is not a short story. This is an incident.”

A novel that I evaluated contained quirky characters. However, they solved everything too easily and their relationships, including the love relationship, had no problems.

In another novel, the author had created a certain atmosphere from the setting and characters. Unfortunately, the plot resembled those 500-piece jigsaw puzzles that you finally toss out in a garage sale.

Kurt Vonnegut  Jr. describes plot as:

I don’t praise plots as accurate representations of life, but as ways to keep readers reading. When I used to teach creative writing, I would tell the students to make their characters want something right away — even if it’s only a glass of water. … When you exclude plot, when you exclude anyone’s wanting anything, you exclude the reader, which is a mean-spirited thing to do. You can also exclude the reader by not telling him immediately where the story is taking place, and who the people are. … And you can put him to sleep by never having characters confront each other.

The characteristics of a good plot are:

  1. A protagonist or main character with a conflict to resolve. The characters drive the plot. Let them struggle to get there. Life may be a bowl of cherries, but the characters need to experience the pits.
  2. The plot moves forward, usually chronologically, although some flashbacks can work. If you get lost, use Doug Lawson’s rule, i.e., figuring out where the characters would rather not go.
  3. Events must be connected, not random and they must link from one event to another with some purpose.
  4. The plot must be believable, whether commercial or literary fiction. Your story line may seem unbelievable, but you make it believable by suspending the reader’s disbelief. Think “Once Upon a Time.”
  5. Their must be a climax, whether it’s a moral one in the protagonist’s mind or the opposite extreme, such as a sword fight.
  6. The plot must have some resolution in the end.

Cheers.

Sharon A. Crawford

 

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