Posts Tagged ‘Fiction’

Two crucial skills for the writing life.

Wednesday, November 13th, 2013

Each day, we are bombarded by the tasks we must do, by the things we want to accomplish, and by the demands of tasks and people upon our time. There is only so much time, and so often too many things to do. We necessarily must master the skill of multitasking, of doing more than one thing at a time: answering the phone and emails, scheduling meetings and signings, managing children and pets, managing a household, making time for love, tracking our books and our word count.

Writing & publishing have become a multi-skill career, especially for writers, where we must write, have a business plan, set goals, design covers, write a blog, maintain a website, and market our books. Some of us do all of these things, some of us out-source some of it. And most of us do have other demands placed on our time, like family, friends, favorite past-times, other jobs.

And all of this demands that we multitask, and that is necessary. It’s almost a survival skill.

Lost in all of this multitasking, all of this busyness, is the equally crucial skill of … focus. Being able to focus fully, for long periods, is very important. Lost too is perhaps our best work, our richest and most engaging writing, and our real potential as writers. Without focus, our work suffers, our creativity isn’t as great or as deep. The constant interruptions and distractions mean we not only do not get as much done of what is really important for our dreams (writing, for example), but what we do during those crucial hours isn’t of the quality that we could want.

What can we do to more fully apply that skill of mental focus to our work, our writing. On my blog post about writer’s block (filed under Writer’s Life), I recommend using a timer and freeing up the mind from other things that might intrude. It’s kind of like beginning to practice meditation, where other thoughts and distractions must be kept to a minimum, and where mental discipline must be continually exercised. Once you’ve decided that it is more important that you become more deeply focused when you write, then you will probably think of other ways to accomplish this.

Here are some tips on focusing from that previous blogpost:

1) Before ending the day’s writing time, write a few lines of the next scene or a few ideas for that scene, so that it’s easier to pick up at the next session.

2) As you sit there, take the first 10 to 15 minutes to read a section of a book on craft or articles on craft, to switch your mind from the daily grind to writing and craft.

3) Set up your writing time so that all you have to think about is writing. Since you have other pressing things to do in your day, perhaps schedule your day on the evening before, so that when you begin to write, all of those other things are settled, done, and you’re not thinking about all the other things you have to do that day. Instead you’re thinking about and focused on writing. (see No. 5 & 6)

4) Write in a Journal before you begin your writing time, to dump all the things that are bothering you or distracting you. Assign a maximum time for this (5 minutes), otherwise it could take over much of your writing time.

5) Set a timer for the length of time you want to write and then think of nothing else during that time–that is the time you have for writing–until the timer goes off. This allows you to fully focus on your writing, and to set everything else aside for that hour or for whatever time you’ve allocated.

6) When you sit down to write, if other things occur to you that must be done or that are competing with focusing on writing, then quickly create a list of those things you need to do or think about. And then put it aside, so that they’re all written down and will be less likely to distract you.

7) Plan–an outline or variation of one, but at least a general idea of where you’re going with the novel, whether it’s a general statement, a synopsis with the main plot points, or an outline.

And a quote on the subject:  “…when you are completely open, when on all levels you are in complete communication, completely integrated, then there is joy and you begin to create … creativeness is a sense of total self-forgetfulness, when there is no turmoil, when one is wholly unaware of the movement of thought.” — Krishnamurti.

How do you see yourself applying & balancing these skills in your life?

 

 

Review: BLOWBACK, an espionage thriller

Monday, September 30th, 2013

BLOWBACK <><><><>

An exciting new espionage thriller, with insider detail and the realism that only a former spy could provide, by former CIA ops officer Valerie Plame Wilson and thriller writer Sarah Lovett.

Covert CIA ops officer Vanessa Pierson pits herself against Bhoot, alias The Ghost, the world’s most dangerous international nuclear arms dealer. The fast-paced action takes the reader from Europe to Washington D.C. to the Near East.

Be inside the head of a CIA ops officer, a heroine to admire—courage, stamina, intelligence, determination—as she risks her cover, her career and her life to hunt for and take down not only arms dealer Bhoot, but also another man, a talented elusive assassin who kills a highly valued contact.

The non-stop suspense, action, and intrigue will likely have readers wanting to finish the novel in one sitting, while the emotional connections between characters, including a forbidden love affair with handsome as hell David Khoury, give the story and characters depth, and a sense of real community in a dangerous profession. An exceptional thriller, and a great read!! I can’t wait until their next book.

This is the first installment of the Vanessa Pierson series.
________________________________________________

Valerie Plame Wilson also wrote Fair Game: How a Top CIA Agent was Betrayed by Her Own Government (with Laura Rozen). Her career in the CIA included assignments in Counterproliferation operations, ensuring that enemies of the United States could not threaten the country with weapons of mass destruction.

Sarah Lovett’s five suspense novels–Dark Alchemy, Dantes’ Inferno, Acquired Motives, Dangerous Attachments, and A Desperate Silence—feature forensic psychologist Dr. Sylvia Strange, and have been published in the United States and around the world.
________________________________________________

Blue Rider Press / A member of the Penguin Group (USA) Inc. / New York.
________________________________________________

Link to Amazon: http://www.amazon.com/Blowback-Vanessa-Pierson-Novel-Valerie/dp/0399158200/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1380595871&sr=1-1&keywords=blowback+by+valerie+plame

 

The Craft Warehouse in Your Head

Thursday, February 14th, 2013

How or where do writers get their ideas? If you asked our loved ones, they might feel like they could swear the ideas were found somewhere just outside a window, or that somehow the idea stork drops another package for us after the appropriate incubation period, or as in The Hunger Games, some avid beneficiary will parachute it down to us in our hour of need. A gift from “your sponsors.”

So, really, where do we get our ideas? In case your loved ones didn’t know, the raw materials of fiction are available at your very own local craft warehouse. Yes, the craft warehouse…of fiction writing. The one in your mind. So, next time you’re found staring out the window, your friends and family can now picture you parking outside that “store,” and perusing for those fiction gems, up and down those mental aisles, pushing your “shopping cart,” checking the shelves for that perfect plot or hero or setting. There we’ll be, filling that “shopping cart” full of ideas, realizing that we might have to come back later for more, that we might have to in fact exchange some things. Or sometimes just wandering around looking and comparing. Now where was I stocking that one thriller plot?

That warehouse is an accumulation of all those things we’ve been exposed to, all our ideas, divided into two not-so-neat departments, nature and nurture. Not to say that we’re using “stock” characters or “stock” anything. For me—for any writer—that warehouse “stores” all the experiences I’ve had personally, all the people I’ve met and known, all the stories I’ve read, characters I’ve met, and more importantly, all the wonderful spaces and possibilities in-between where my ideas or the fragments of ideas to come may be found. And those departments are divided, of course, into other departments, other sections. Everyone’s is the same; yet everyone’s is so different.

So, there we are, trundling our shopping carts through those aisles, row upon row, shelves stacked. Signs overhead pointing to Department of  Plots & Subplots, and Department of Psychology (Character arcs) or Human Resources (heroes, heroines, secondary characters, villains). The World Market (world-building, settings).  Starter Kits (openings, themes, genres).  Department of Communications (dialogue, non-verbals). Research & Development. And in the back corner or perhaps the basement—isn’t it always—there’s… Bed Bath & Be-Erotic (with directions. Insert A into B—in infinitely (we hope) different ways). And so on. Oh, and don’t forget the Open Bin section, for those miscellaneous things—ideas returned or those we might use someday.

Obviously, some writers have more shelves stacked with particular things (in, for example, HR), like vampires and werewolves; others with action figures or hunky romance heroes, or hard-nosed detectives; and still others with female helicopter pilots and CIA operatives; beautiful suspense heroines, duchesses, teachers, wives and girlfriends.

But while you’re cruising those mental aisles, don’t forget about restocking those shelves. Yes, restocking. (Picturing myself struggling with a large box of dialogue, shelving it in Communications after a trip to the University? Or to uh…Craft Warehouse?) But restocking is the other fun part of writing. It’s refreshing your supply of …everything. Getting out and experiencing. Reading, researching. Then reorganizing. Sifting through. And restocking. And it’s all on the conveyor belt of Life.

Then it’s ready for you, the writer, to create something…with those elements of fiction. And like DNA—Recombinant. In this case, Dialogue, Narrative, Action and everything in-between.

The elements or molecules of fiction are the [writing sequences] that result from the use of the craft to bring together the writing material from multiple sources, creating sequences that would not otherwise be found in written “organisms.” Like Recombinant DNA, it is possible because those craft molecules share the same basic structure; they differ only in the sequence of elements within that “identical” overall structure. And of course, the writer’s creativity.

What’s on your list today?

 

Happy Valentine’s Day!!

Note: (For the last paragraph on Recombinant DNA, I was paraphrasing from Wikipadia’s text on Recombinant DNA, but changing text to apply to writing, so I could “recombine” some metaphors.)

 

Christmas & Character Arc

Tuesday, December 25th, 2012

In one of my Twitter posts, I commented that if you believe in grace, then God must have believed in Character arc. That’s probably true. This post is about character, but also about people and how fiction and the real mirror each other.

Regardless, it’s struck me again today how all humans are basically the same, wherever you go, whatever you do, whoever you meet. And the same is true for characters in novels. The truth of character and character traits is valid for life and vice versa. We all have the same spectrum of emotions, of agendas or goals, of desires and wants, of ways of thinking that are valid and not so valid. What we are is human, and there’s a lesson or at least food for thought in the way that those same character traits that are assigned to fiction characters are analogous to real people in real life.

One of the keys in real life or real fiction is that we don’t comprehend why the character or person does what they do, without reading the whole novel, and sometimes not even then. How could we? But we can try to understand, both  our similarities and our differences, by applying what we know about ourselves and other people’s stories to any story that we are exposed to–not that this means we will fully comprehend but that we have a better chance of doing so.

What I’m saying is that you take a basic proposed character for a story, and you give that character traits, usually traits that will most effectively resonant with the theme that you want to “illustrate” or give breath to, in your story, from a grouping of possible character traits. Those traits are simply traits, tacked on to the essential character, a cardboard representation of a person, until that stereotype or archetype gets filled out with those good AND bad character traits which make the character more real to us.

Those traits could be anything, from race to religion to hair color to skin color. From occupation to favorite pasttimes to ways of dealing with conflict. Some of those things, like ways of dealing with conflict, are keys to who we are, to the essential person. Some are just window dressing. But it does just come down to the fact the we ARE all the same, regardless of whether we are blonde or red-haired or black or Asian or white or Christian, Jewish or Muslim.

And because we are basically all the same, that means our civilizations and countries and organizations–all are basically the same too. Each has done good and bad. Each has had some kind of Group Think that leads to some kind of wrong-doing or some kind of real and lasting good. Each has similar faults, which is why people can write books that speak of how, in general, this (whatever it is) is how it is, and this is why such and such should be done instead. But each culture or country has done something not so good, each has been guilty of some kind of genicide, of some kind of terrorism, of some kind of greed or irresponsibility–some more, some less, some now, some in the past, and some most likely in the future.

What is good is that we, like the characters in our novels, can grow and change, become more, in order to deal with the obstacles that are presented to us, obstacles to our goals. But we are still essentially the same. Some people like to emphasize the differences, for good and bad. Some like to emphasize the similarities, for good or bad. Some people get caught up in thinking a group is either all bad or that they must be all good…otherwise it’s prejudice, but that’s just another form of prejudice.  No group–or person–is either all bad or all good.

I think we should emphasize and value both our similarities and our differences–as we do with any fictional character, hero, heroine or villain. That’s why we don’t write unsympathetic protagonists, because no one wants to read about them, and because they really don’t exist. Not that we should value badness. But only our perceptions of them exist or change, depending on what we know about them, how they are presented to us–or come presented to us or how those created preconceptions have blinded us sometimes to who people are, either a character or a real person. Our differences are tests, they are our obstacles to our potential–as both ourselves, and our countries and our world, could be thought of as the hero in our story.

Because we have those basic similarities and differences, we are mirrors of each other–all of us. Some recent readings come to mind here, when I think of mirrors. I’ve been reading “Wired for Story” by Lisa Cron, that one section about how we have “mirror neurons” that allow us to “experience” what other people experience, either by empathizing or by reading about other people/characters in story. [There is much more to it than that, but you’ll have to read the book.] So perhaps our basic wiring should give us hope, that in writing or reading our stories, especially the ones that most resonate with our most inner selves, we grow in both our understanding of others but also of ourselves, and perhaps that will lead us–all of us–to valuing both our differences and our similarities. It is only in those differences and similarities–what we are–that we will find the way as humans, as a country, as readers and writers and thus, as heroes or heroines in our own stories.

So this is my Christmas blog. Grace and character arc…birth, beginnings, potential, growth, conflict, resolution. Maybe I’ve said too little about too much or not enough. I certainly haven’t said everything I could say, or everything there is to say. Thoughts?

Halloween: spooky inspiration for writers

Saturday, October 20th, 2012

First, some background. Halloween comes to us from ancient New Year festivals. The church, in A.D. 800’s, established All Saints’ Day–continuing a festival that was pre-Christian–and the evening before was All Hallow e’en.

Storytelling Traditions have included tales of ghosts, fortunetelling, and jack-o’-lanterns, turning the paranoia of past times into the paranormal of current times.

According to Irish legend, jack-o’-lanterns were named for a miser called Jack who couldn’t enter heaven or hell, and had to roam the earth, carrying a lantern, until Judgment Day. In the past, people in England and Ireland have carved beets, potatoes and turnips as the lanterns, but when the custom reached the U.S., pumpkins became the norm. Inspired by this, Ray Bradbury wrote The Halloween Tree.

Fortunetelling was popular, using coins, cards, and yarrow stalks (I Ching). It also often took the form of hiding objects in a cake: a ring, coin and thimble. The person who “found” the coin would become rich. The one who found the ring would marry soon, but the one who found the thimble would not.

People once believed that ghosts roamed the earth on Halloween, as though a chink in the netherworld opened briefly to let them all come out to play or wreak havoc. They also thought that witches gathered on that night to worship the devil.

All this is great foddor for stories. Many stories have opened with someone telling a story that was related to ghosts. Excellent examples are Rebecca, by Daphne Du Maurier, or The Woman in Black, by Susan Hill.

Fortunetelling has been used in novels as well, such as A Wild Ride, by Jennifer Crusie and Bob Mayer, or  The Stockholm Octavo, by Karen Engelmann.

Other books with ghosts and witches, etc. would be Regarding Avalon, by Dom Ossiah, Stardust by Neil Gaiman, and Touched by Cyn Balog, and books by Gregory Maguire, Wicked, and Out of Oz. There is also, of course, the very famous Harry Potter series about witches and warlocks by J.K. Rowling.

And Halloween can’t pass by without mentioning Vampires, those mythological and folkloric beings that were popularized in the early 18th century, coming to Western Europe from the Balkans and Eastern Europe. Books about vampires, of course, have become very popular, but some unique tomes that come to mind are Dracula, by Bram Stoker, The Twilight Saga, by Stephenie Meyer, Interview with a Vampire by Anne Rice, and the series beginning with Soulless by Gail Carriger.

And isn’t it interesting that the NANOWRIMO starts the day after Halloween.

So much to read. So much that could be written…

 

Story Arc … and I pose a question

Sunday, July 29th, 2012

The Story Arc is the essential or main plot, the external conflict that becomes the focus of the hero or heroine through which all the conflict is played.

The external conflict involves the protagonist’s main goal and the obstacles that must be overcome.  A novel begins by establishing the protagonist’s ordinary world, and then moves the action ahead with the Inciting Incident, the escalating conflict and turning points,  the black moment, and concludes with the climax, and resolution.

In my previous blog post about conflict (last week), I wrote that conflict unifies and drives the story.  Without conflict, without a unifying plot of some sort, there is no novel. By definition, a novel must have a plot.

The story arc is set up in Act One, by introducing all the story elements–characters, plot, setting, tone, Inciting Incident, POV. The setup orients the readers and focuses the story line.  The Inciting Incident should happen within the first 3 chapters.

But the setup of the story is not completed when the inciting incident happens. Here I’ll pose my question to readers of this blog: What element that starts with the letter C must be introduced to complete the setup? (I’ll answer the question in a future blog if the Comments don’t provide the answer.)

More about Story Arc: The story arc and suspense are powered by the turning points, obstacles, barriers, reversals and complications.  The suspense, as a function of that external conflict or story arc, should be strong enough to carry the reader through to the end of the book. If the story arc ends too soon, the novel, action and characters would then have no direction, no purpose.–the conflict ends, the suspense ends and you’ve lost the readers.

__________________________

I’ll be presenting a workshop on the Novel Arcs: Piloting Your Craft, at the Write on the Sound conference, which is October 6th & 7th, with pre-conference workshops on Friday.

Have a wonderful week!!  And a happy and hot August!

Writing Conflict: some shoulds and shouldn’ts

Saturday, July 21st, 2012

Conflict is a key ingredient of fiction. Conflict unifies and drives the story.  In fiction, you have some characters, you have a plot… but it is the characters enacting and reacting to the conflict–obstacles, reversals, complications, turning points–that makes up the plot.

Here are some shoulds and shouldn’ts:

Conflict Should be a part of every scene.

Conflict should build on what has happened previously–escalation.

The Conflict shouldn’t be something the protagonist could just walk away from.

The Conflict should involve something where the goals of the protagonist and villain are mutually exclusive–for example, the villain wants to do something and the protagonist wants to prevent whatever that is from happening.  Or the protagonist and the villain both want something or someone but their goals are in direct opposition and only one can achieve the goal–and thus, the conflict. They might want whatever/whoever it is for different reasons, but the objective is the same. But both cannot win.

The Conflict shouldn’t be something that could just be resolved with a conversation.

The conflict should have a sense of immediacy–the readers should feel the action happening as though they were a part of it, as it unfolds. It is partly this sense of immediacy that keeps the reader turning the pages.

———————–

For more on conflict and fiction, I’ll be presenting a workshop on the Novel Arcs: Piloting Your Craft, at the Write on the Sound conference in October.

Have a great weekend and week!!

The Unsympathetic Protagonist–Characterization

Sunday, June 24th, 2012

Nearly every writer has heard about this character. From other writers, from editors, from agents. We know that editors and agents will reject a manuscript with an unsympathetic protagonist. They won’t want to read the novel; they believe, rightly so, that readers won’t like the protagonist, won’t want to spend 400 or more pages in close association with that character.

So who is this mysterious character that invades our prose? Who is this masked entity, this unsympathetic protagonist? … What is meant by this term and how can we, as writers, avoid this pitfall and create characters that are, instead, sympathetic? The answer is: By unmasking these characters, by peeling away the layers, by making them real. …

What can be done to change that character so that he or she is considered sympathetic? Three basic things related to characterization must occur to have the reader perceive a character as sympathetic:  (1) the characters must be rounded and believable; (2) the readers must like them and connect with them; thus, the author must reveal the right balance of the character’s good and bad traits for the story being told; and (3) the reader must understand how and why they are how they are; the author must, therefore, make the protagonist known to the reader. …

What are the techniques needed to make the unsympathetic protagonist sympathetic? As stated above, the main way to do this is to make the reader identify with, know and like the protagonist, preferably before any revelations of wrongdoing. …

In Shawshank Redemption, the character, Andy Dufresne,  has murdered his wife. If we’re introduced to Andy without knowing the extenuating circumstances, then we’re much less likely to try to excuse him and to like him when his good or interesting qualities are revealed. Thus, the storyteller immediately reveals that Andy was upset and drinking, that his wife was having an affair with another man, and that he tried to confront them when he was drunk. The audience can’t approve, but we know why it happened, and we can excuse him more, knowing those circumstances–he didn’t, for instance, murder her for the insurance or because she drank his last beer.  …

The following are 5 of the techniques to help make your protagonist sympathetic:

(Note: these techniques should not be used alone. They work best when several are combined  There are  9 techniques in the article.)

1) Make the protagonist someone who is perceived as more likable and less reprehensible within that group of characters. For example, in Pirates of the Carribean [1st movie in the series], Captain Jack Sparrow is not the worst character among those in the film; we see he has a better standard of behavior than the other pirates and that he’s smarter. He’s not perfect, but we can accept him and like him anyway. Early in the film, he saves the heroine, who we have come to like–and he’s funny, rather charming & smart. …

2. ) Make the anatagonist less likable — someone you’d hate more and whose actions/ words make the audience sympathetic to the protagonist. …

4.) Show that the protagonist has … been wronged, betrayed or hurt by someone–something that will get the readers’ sympathy. For example, in Bodyguard of Lies, by Robert Doherty [Bob Mayer], the protagonist Neeley discovers she has been betrayed: “When had she finally known that the man she loved had handed her a bomb to carry onboard a plane full of people.” …

8.) Show in what ways the protagonists might be admired or have them do something readers would admire. This includes doing something really well, or being a leader of some sort…something that makes the character special. …

9.) Show how the protagonist is the underdog within the group of characters. Examples of this are Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte; the Titanic  [James Cameron’s movie] hero Jack Dawson; and the protagonist Rye Forrester in A Reason to Believe by Maureen McKade. …

How does your protagonist compare with other protagonists & to real-life people?

To grow in our craft, we need to be objective and learn from other writers and from life.  … Analyze why you like certain protagonists. What are their flaws? What do you find endearing or interesting about them?  .. Look at people who you like in real life. What are their flaws? What do you like about them, despite their flaws? Analyzing other protagonists will help you create better characters and increase your repertoire of narrative techniques.

[Excerpt from “The Unsympathetic Protagonist,” an article by Janice Hussein, Document Driven, which appears in Writer’s Digest’s 2010 Novel & Short Story Writer’s Market. Pages 46 – 50. Link to full excerpt of article’s opening: http://bit.ly/zdCMWy on my website www.documentdriven.com.]

__________________

Do you have any techniques or tips for other writers about how to  make a character likable–having readers identify with, like, and connect with a character?

Your eBook Public Library

Friday, June 1st, 2012

If you haven’t tried the ebooks at your local library, it’s a marvelous option. And you don’t have to have a Kindle or a Nook to take advantage of it. Keep reading…

Here’s a trip through one online ebook system at a local library.

First, you don’t have to log in to scan the books they offer.

The link to the ebooks is on the Home page and once you log in–of course, you do have to have a library card–then the first page you will see offers the following  list of options.

My Cart
Lending Period
My Bookshelf
My Holds
Wish List
Rated Titles: titles you have rated and allows you to change ratings.
 

The basic rules are that you can check out 5 ebooks at a time, and have 5 ebook holds at a time. Any number of ebooks may be added to the Wish List–as you might assume. Ebooks may be checked out for 21 days, and when due, they just disappear from your device or computer. When ebooks placed on hold become available, the system emails you and then you have 5 days to check them out.  The formats available are Kindle and ePub & epub/PDF, and from 1 to 6 of each title is available for check out–for each title, the screen shows how many copies are available and how many total library copies there are. If you don’t have a Nook or a Kindle for reading ebooks, there is  also Adobe Digital Editions for use on your PC, as well as Apps for reading on Mobile devices–all available for download, right there.

Beginning on the browsing pages, there are several windows: fiction, nonfiction and teen/kids sections. There are also sections to browse, such as:

New ebook Additions
Most Popular
Suggested Titles
Recently Returned
All Subjects
All ebooks 

For the almost 3,000 titles of fiction, the categories are Classical Literature, Historical Fiction, Literature, Mystery & Suspense, Romance, Sci Fi & Fantasy, and View All Fiction. 

The categories for the approximately 1,000 nonfiction titles are Bio & Autobio, Cooking & Food, Health & Wellness, History, Humor, Family & Relationships, Religion & Spirituality, Self-Improvement, and Travel.  For Kids, there are about 250 titles; for teens, about 100 titles.

Once you have your titles in My Cart, you have 30 minutes to check them out. Checking them out requires that you log in to your Amazon account, where they will be available for download to your account and then to your ereading device.  The books you have checked out will then be listed in the My BookShelf of your ebook library account.

Some of the fiction authors available on the system include:

Lisa Jackson, James Patterson, Janet Evanovitch, Heather Graham, Karen Robards, George R.R. Martin, Danielle Steel, Terry Brooks, Nicholas Sparks, John Grisham, Anne Perry, Nora Roberts, Alexander McCall Smith, Tami Hoag, Barbara Freethy, Rita Mae Brown, Toni Morrison, John Case, James Lee Burke, Ted Dexter, Tess Gerritson, Lisa Unger, Suzanne Brockmann, Robert Crais, Lee Child, Iris Johansen, Linda Howard, and Michael Connelly, Jonathan Kellerman, Charles Dickens, Mark Twain, D.H. Lawrence, Agatha Christie, Susan Mallery,  Fern Michaels, and so on….

So, what’s on your wish list?

Conversation. Breaking rules in fiction

Saturday, May 19th, 2012

For dialogue, at least in fiction, breaking the rules of conversation can be a good thing.

First, the three rules of rule breaking, as best-selling author Bob Mayer will tell you (applied to writing), are (1) know the rules; (2) have a good reason for breaking the rules; and (3) take responsibility for breaking them. (These rules and other great info can be found in his book, Write It Forward: From Writer to Successful Author. ) This is excellent advice. And that can certainly be applied to dialogue.

What are some of the rules of Conversation?  From an old Linguistics course textbook*, which fell into my lap this week, I found a page covering H. Paul Grice’s Maxims of Conversation**. I thought I’d apply these to writing dialogue. These are some of the rules you’ll want to break in your fictional dialogue.  (Be aware, though, that conversations should probably still make sense, for those who write experimental fiction.) This is just one way of looking at dialogue, a different perspective, to help writers “think outside of the box,” though we usually don’t think in terms of rules of conversation,  except in specific cases, like the rule to not interrupt, and so on. These maxims have been criticized, but are useful as general guides to politeness–they don’t represent the full range of human communication.

What are Grice’s Conversational Maxims?  ***  And how can they be applied to writing dialogue.

There are 4 kind of  Maxims/ Rules.

Maxims of Quantity:  (1) make your contribution to the conversation as information as necessary, which means don’t make comments that seem to add nothing and mean nothing; (2)  but at the same time, do not make it more informative than necessary

This first part of the Maxim should be followed for storytelling–don’t make comments that seem to add nothing and mean nothing.  But they can be broken, for example, when the character is responding from a different perspective, or when that kind of comment is the character’s MO–when avoiding a topic or when frustrated, and so on. For this second part, a run-on sentence of dialogue would be the example of more information than necessary. This could be done to add conflict or humor. Though be cautious of anything that doesn’t add to the storytelling.

Maxims of Quality:

The two maxims of quality are (1) do not say what you believe to be false; and (2) do not say that for which you lack adequate evidence.

Both of these rules can obviously be broken to good effect in fiction–for example, to add conflict and obstacles for the protagonist to overcome.

Maxim of Relation:

The Maxim is to be relevant. Being relevant in dialogue isn’t absolutely necessary, if doing so for a character is actually part of the character or character’s behavior. Or it may be a way for a character to deal with a specific person or situation.

Maxims of Manner:

The four Maxims of Manner are (1) avoid obscurity of expression; (2) avoid ambiguity; (3) be brief; and (4) be orderly.

As far as the form of dialogue, I would be careful about breaking the rules. For content,  so much could be done. Some ways to break these rules in fiction are when the expression is fresh; the ambiguity provides conflict; and the long-winded character has a specific reason for tending to be that way–though again, I’d suggest caution, for any writing that doesn’t add to the storytelling. As for orderliness, human relations and conversation in real life aren’t always orderly–except maybe if you’re at a dinner party where conversation is the objective–and conflict  and dynamic dialogue are the goals in fiction, not necessarily orderliness. 😉

I hope this has helped you think from a different perspective about your approach to writing dialogue . Some writers who are noted for great dialogue and their use of dialect are Amy Tan, Susan Straight, and Elmore Leonard.

For writing fiction, what are your thoughts on creating great dialogue and on rule-breaking?

———————————————————————————————————–

*An Introduction to Language (4th Edit.) by Victoria Fromkin & Robert Rodman, pg 225.

** From “Logic and Conversation.”

*** http://www.usingenglish.com/articles/grices-conversational-maxims.html