I do get so tired of “absolute” rules. Don’t do this, never do that, Stephen King said blah blah blah and therefore it’s sacrosanct. Chuck Wendig nails it with this rant—okay, gentle disquisition—on the “sacred cows” of writing advice.
Category Archives: Plot Development
I was scrolling around today and found some good cautions for us all about creating realistic story lines in our fiction. I especially like the first warning: Stop having characters read each other’s minds by looking into their eyes!
It has often occurred to me that it’s not “the eyes” that carry emotion anyway. It’s the facial muscles around and below the eyes that make them cruel or sad or joyous. So note to self: be careful about using this trope.
Today, though, I especially want to pick up on the point that it’s okay if characters can’t always tell exactly what the other person is thinking.
Ambiguous communication opens the way for that revealing dialogue tactic, “‘No’ Dialogue.”
I’ve scoured the remains of my film-writing library (used only for one intense period in my writing life) looking for the book that introduced me to this terminology. You won’t find this phrase with search terms, which return sites about films without dialogue. In contrast, in “‘No’ Dialogue” one character refuses to give the other what he or she wants without ever quite saying so.
The technique delivers “subtext,” what’s really going on below the surface, without the characters having to stop the story to explain. At the same time, it builds tension, as the main character cannot get what he or she wants. Here are a few lines from that wonderful scene between Bud White and Lynn Bracken in L. A. Confidential (warning: I’ve ** the bad words, but you’ll still know what they are):
Miss Bracken, don’t ever try to f**king bribe me or threaten me or I’ll have you and Patchett in s**t up to your ears.
I remember you from Christmas Eve. You have a thing for helping women, don’t you, Officer White?
Maybe I’m just f**king curious.
You say “f**k” a lot.
You f**k for money.
There’s blood on your shirt. Is that an integral part of your job?
Do you enjoy it?
When they deserve it.
Did they deserve it today?
Last night. And I’m not sure.
But you did it anyway.
Yeah, just like the half dozen guys you screwed today.
Actually, it was two.
Dialogue like this is a verbal contest—instant conflict—in which each character refuses to acknowledge what is actually being asked, which is “What kind of person are you?” because answering that question would set in motion a terrifying commitment. Yet we know from their refusals to state the obvious what it is that bothers them about themselves, what they’re struggling with behind the repartee, what they’re trying to deny.
In only one place in this exchange does Bud answer the question Lynn actually asks: “Did they deserve it today?” And when Bud finally answers, his tough-guy façade slips. “I’m not sure.” That uncertainty has been there all along, as she throws him off balance and disrupts his self-image. When his doubt emerges, it’s a surrender he didn’t plan and a giveaway to what lies ahead.
And note that we get this many-layered interaction between two people searching for the possibility of something more than what lies before them without a single reference to the look in their eyes.
Although many writing coaches don’t use the term”‘No’ Dialogue,” several suggest ways of incorporating this technique into your stories.
- Janet Burroway, in Writing Fiction (I’m looking at the 5th edition), analyzes examples in which “[t]ension and drama are heightened when characters are constantly (in one form or another) saying no to each other.”
- Lew Hunter, in Screenwriting 434, suggests “180-degree dialogue,” in which a writer looks for “the most obvious line a character can say,” then “flip[s] it upside down.” “See where that takes the moment,” he says.
- Jack M. Bickham, in Scene & Structure, discusses “dialogue at cross-purposes,” in which “the antagonist either doesn’t understand what’s really at issue, or is purposely nonresponsive to what the lead character keeps trying to talk about.”
In my own case, when I’ve felt that a scene has really delivered at least some of the impact I hoped for, I’ve looked back to see that “‘No’ Dialogue” has played a role in that success.
Do you have favorite scenes where one or more of these versions of “‘No’ Dialogue” has served the story well? Share!
Writers in the Storm often supply good lessons. This is a particularly cogent first-page critique that takes aim at some my worst foibles: too many metaphors, authorial intrusions, details readers don’t need, details they do need–what about you? How would you rate this first page?
Here’s an article that breaks down the basic elements of story structure to the scene level, with excellent, clear examples. Sometimes I suspect writers think they’re too “literary” to observe the basics that this article (from The Creative Penn via Chris the Story Reading Ape) lays out. But these guidelines are just that: basic. Because they work. Pay special attention to the discussion of the “literal” and “essential” elements of a scene. Enjoy and apply!
on The Creative Penn:
Intro by Joanna Penn:
It can be easy to assume that writing a story is just about getting words on the page. After all, we’ve read and watched and listened to so many stories that creating one can’t be difficult, right?
The truth is that writing a compelling story involves a lot more than words. You need to understand aspects of story structure.
In today’s article, Valerie Francis breaks down the elements of a scene.
This a long piece, but it is so on the mark! I find Kristen’s advice especially good for those of us involved in critique groups. It’s so tempting to try to fix every little thing some (wonderful and much appreciated) reader suggests. NO! That way lies madness. Keep the critiques and come back to them when you have a sense of how the whole book played out with your group. And you will read your work very differently after a long interval of absence. So check out this advice and let me know what you think!
By Kirsten Lamb:
Editing is essential for crafting a superlative story. We clip away the excess, delete the superfluous and prune away the detritus to reveal the art. Yet, editing is something we’re wise to handle with care.
While lack of ANY editing is a major problem today, editing too much, too soon is just as big of a problem. Perhaps an even a bigger one.
For clarity, not all ‘editing’ is the same.
From Ruth Harris at Anne R. Allen’s blog via Chris the Story Reading Ape! My pet peeves fall into the category Ruth discusses as “plot contrivances.” Pet peeve #1: The cell phone somebody forgot to charge, so that the hero can’t call for help. #2: Police who are so abysmally stupid or unprofessional that the hero gets thrown in prison for a crime she didn’t commit, with no hearing or Miranda rights or lawyers; #3: This is more or less related to Ruth’s No. 1, Lapses in Logic—the rescue or physical action that couldn’t possibly happen unless sixty million stars were aligned and even then would need divine intervention. Example: a book I read in which the villain supposedly killed the victim by throwing a rock and hitting him in the head while the victim was riding a horse a hundred feet away. Next time I want to commit a murder, will have to try that one!
Right now I’m working on a variation of the “girl walks into the warehouse to confront the killer alone” pot hole identified in the comments. My girl does something pretty stupid. The payoff is spectacular, though. Waiting to see if my group readers will buy that as her excuse.
What “plot holes” are your pet peeves?
by Ruth Harris on Anne R Allen site:
We all come face to face with them, those pesky glitches, oopsies, OMGs and WTFs that ruin a story, turn a reader off, guarantee a slew of one-star reviews—and kill sales.
Beta readers will often point them out. Editors are professional fixers, always on the lookout for booboos. You will realize them yourself when you wake up at 3AM sudden realizing that the MC’s beloved pet who started out as a friendly, tail-wagging Golden Retriever, has somehow become a snarling, saber-toothed attack dog.
These unforced errors range from plot holes, small and economy-size, to lapses in logic. They also include poorly conceived characters, blah settings, pointless dialogue, and momentum-killing info dumps. Even a few will make your book—and you—look like a loser on amateur night.
You need to find them—and fix them—before readers do.
I often get good posts from Writer Unboxed, and today’s example is a recurring feature of the site called “Flog a Pro.” Monthly contributor Ray Rhamey invites readers to vote the first page of a current bestseller up or down: would you turn the page?
I’m sharing the most recent candidate because it speaks with particular eloquence to an issue I’ve been encountering in the writing groups I haunt. Although I understand the reasons a few commenters voted no (e.g., snarky narrator, too much alliteration), I’d vote “yes” on this sample for one simple reason: it has a hook.
Wait! Doesn’t everybody know that the first page, or at least the first chapter, of a novel has to have a hook?
Evidence that not everyone understands this basic principle of story-telling comes not just from recent writing-group conversations but also from a set of contest entries I recently judged. Novel after novel opened with “introductions” to plain-vanilla characters going about their daily business or mundane scene-setting, or, all too often, gobs of backstory about people I have no reason to care about.
A scintillating voice or a rapier sense of humor can carry me for a few such pages, but even then, by the end of the first chapter, I have to have someone to worry about, something really perplexing to wonder over, some hint of a serious conflict that will drive the book. Those are “hooks.”
When I ask, “But where is the story going? What is this character’s problem, goal, frustration?”, and of course, the generic but important, “Why should I care?”, the (often indignant) response will be
“Oh, that will come in Chapter Two.”
“The reader will see that develop over the course of the book.”
Um, the reader won’t see anything develop over the course of the book because she won’t read it. She won’t get to Chapter Two.
From occasional comments I’ve received, I think it’s possible that this defense arises because the writers in question are producing LITERATURE. People who read LITERATURE don’t need bombs going off on page one. They will patiently wait for a story to develop. They’ll slog through long, tedious details because they know that only simpletons require things to actually happen. Endless observations of people tying their shoelaces—portraying the cosmic meaning in such minutiae—that’s what LITERATURE is all about.
Excuse me. I read LITERATURE, too. And the LITERARY writers who get read know that story isn’t necessarily about bombs going off. In fact, it’s usually not the bombs that matter.It’s what they do to the people they blow up.
Story is built on heart-wracking conflict, on blistering emotion, on goals set and surrendered and recovered, on needs. STORY transcends genre.
And story begins on page one.