Critique Technique, Part 27— Narrative and Dialog

This post begins a series on narrative and dialog. Stated most simply, narrative and dialog are the tools writers use to tell their stories. They take different forms and serve complementary functions, but with plenty of overlap.

Writers use narrative to:

  • Describe—to show—action (“Bob ran down the street after Alice’s car”) or emotion;
  • Describe a person (“Alice’s hair was dyed souvenir-shop-coral red”), a place, or a thing;
  • Make connections between people, places, actions, emotions, or things; and
  • Provide the reader with whatever other information she might need.

It is the words not placed inside quotation marks or used for internal monolog (sometimes shown in italics).

While it’s true that dialog can do many of these same things, and often does, narrative is the better choice in many cases. Consider how awkward it would be to have characters discussing the details of every setting in order to present that information to the reader:

“Oh, look, Alice. This room has windows through which the sun is shining on a round oak table with two chairs set opposite each other.”

“Yes, Bob, and the far wall is nothing but bookcases filled with leather-bound volumes and the occasional knick-knack.”

Oy.

On the other hand, while it’s possible to write a story that contains little or no dialog—I published one that had only internal monolog; none of the characters ever said a word to each other—it’s rare and unless done well, hard for readers to stay engaged with.

One reason is that we engage in dialog every day: we talk to each other. Characters need to do that, too. Dialog:

  • Allows characters to interact with each other: to support each other, provide information or direction, deceive each other, etc.
  • Illustrates character. What a character says reveals what he knows, how she’s feeling, what he thinks about a situation, how she perceives another character, and so on.
  • Can build or relieve tension and conflict.
  • Lubricates the plot and the narrative and keeps them moving forward.

In short, dialog is all but essential to a story.

Much of what I wrote about in earlier Critique Technique articles dealt with problems in narrative. This next series will, too, because many problems in dialog appear in narrative, too, and vice versa. But there are also some problems that are unique to dialog, so this is where I’ll address them. Specifically, we’ll be looking at:

  • Awkward, choppy, and stiff or stilted writing;
  • Overused words, phrases, or text patterns;
  • Writing that is verbose or cryptic;
  • Inappropriate language, including but not limited to obscenities and vulgarities;
  • Unintentionally contradictory language and statements;
  • Imbalance between narrative and dialog;
  • Name-calling within dialog; and
  • Using dialog to blatantly convey information to the reader, including the “As you know, Bob” problem.

I may add other items to the list as we go along, but this is where we’ll start. What other problems would you like me to discuss in this section? Add your suggestions in the Comments below.

 

TFOB 2012

Well, another Tucson Festival is in the books, you should pardon the pun.  I’ll bet everyone who went can feel a few muscles–walking muscles, stair-climbing muscles, book-toting muscles, and writing muscles.

I didn’t take a lot of notes this year but would like to share a few points I found worth jotting down.

T. C. Boyle, novel and short story writer:

  • Take an ordinary event, such as a man not wanting to go to work, and see how you can up the stakes, push it over the top.

Sy Montgomery, author of The Good Good Pig:

  • When you can’t believe in yourself, you can believe in your animals.
  • When the student is ready, the teacher appears.  Sometimes it’s an animal.
  • If you’re writing about animals, ask why you were attracted animals in the first place.  What do you get out of your relationships with animals?

Ilie Ruby, Naomi Benaron, & Sarah McCoy – panel discussion, Capturing a Sense of Place in Fiction:

  • Capture the moment when everything changes for good or ill.
  • History and myth can add depth to a setting.  Show what it has come to mean in people’s minds.
  • Capture the voice that makes you want to write.  Then just write the story.

William Pitt Root, poet and teacher:

  • What do you need to be in touch with in order to write well?

Richard Russo, Margaret Coel, & Louis Bayard – panel discussion on Edgar Allan Poe:

  • Remember to get to the interior life of all your characters.  Villains are people.  They have mothers, too.
  • Everything a character experiences in a story prepares him/her to face himself/herself and  the external challenge at the story’s climax.
  • Read “up”–that is, read work that is better than yours is at the moment.  Read like a writer.  See how good writers achieve the effects that make their work excellent.

Alison Hawthorne Deming, Heid Erdrich, Ofelia Zepeda – Layers of Knowing – poetry reading & discussion:

  • Efforts are being made to save indigenous languages that may contain ways of knowing that we need for survival.
  • Arts improve empathy between individuals and between people of different generations.

Pam Houston, writer of fictionalized memoir (I’d recommend Sight Hound)

  • Looking for something to write about?  Feel around for your own emotional bruises and press on them.
  • Shine the light as strongly on yourself as you do on others.

Hope there’s something useful in this potpourri of ideas.

Moose Mystery Explained

Last Saturday, I was driving down Davis Road from our isolated home in the hinterlands of Cochise County, Arizona. I was counting the turns–how many left and how many right–so that during the week, I could stop at the County Recorder’s office, look through one of those big books of maps, and find out who owned that property on the outside of the curve around the thirty-one-mile marker.

Why? Because back in September–as I mentioned in a post on this blog–I spotted a moose-crossing sign at that spot. Burned up a week’s worth of rubber, skidding to a stop and backing up to see if I’d really seen what I thought I’d seen. This was in the Sulphur Springs Valley, about a dozen miles from the Mexican border and hundreds of miles from moose habitat.

In that September blog post, I said that mysteries were good for writers because they can kick start the imagination. But then solving mysteries is good, too; it’s satisfying. Which was why I pulled over next to the white pickup parked just off the road, introduced myself, and asked the man behind the wheel if he could tell me about the moose sign.

First, he told me that the story was on the back of the sign. I gave myself the flat-forehead salute because it hadn’t occurred to me to walk behind it. Then, in tears, he told me that on January 6, 2011, his friend, Marvin S. “Moose” Barker III, had rolled his pickup truck at that spot and had died.

We sat quietly for a moment. Then I told him I was a writer and had posted a picture of the sign on our group’s blog, along with a piece about my surprise at seeing it. In response, he handed over a small notebook where he’d written a few thoughts about Moose. By the time I read his last line–“those who didn’t know him missed out”–I wished I’d known the man whose death had inspired such grief in his friend.

I told him how sorry I was for his loss and pulled back onto Davis Road, determined to stop next time I came this way and read the back of the sign.

Until then, thanks, Mike from Mud Springs, for sharing your loss with a stranger and for satisfying my writer’s curiosity.

Gratitude List

‘Tis the season to be thankful, and I have a lot to put on my gratitude list, in general and in my writing life.

For one thing, I’m blessed with a wonderful bunch of writing partners, the Cochise Writers’ Group that puts out this blog.  For years, I tried to pull myself up by the bootstraps as a writer.  It was only when I found classes and critique groups that I began to grow in my art.  This group is serious about writing and publishing–and we often laugh so hard at our meetings that the librarians come in for a dose of humor.

I grew up in the Age of Manual Typewriters and thought correcting electric typewriters were the ultimate technology.  Now we live in the Age of Computers that make revisions so much easier.  On a computer, my fingers can almost keep up with my thoughts.  Grateful?  Oh, yeah.

I’m also grateful that we can afford to be a two-computer family, partly because Dennis and I shared a computer for a long time and partly because I can use his while mine is recuperating in the computer hospital, also known as Two Flags Computer in Douglas, Arizona.  (Over the phone, Charles said I brought in a computer, and he’s giving me back a rocket ship.  I’m both excited and apprehensive to find out what that means.)

Technologically, I’m grateful for the Internet and its proliferation of information, notwithstanding the frustration of getting 37,000,000 hits for the query “writing rules.”  In the late 1980s, I was dating a techie from Los Alamos National Laboratory who impressed me by dialing the computer he’d brought home from work (even he didn’t have a personal computer) into the Internet’s predecessor, set up by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA).  I was awed that he could search for data on a computer in Germany.

I’m grateful to have more ideas written down for poems, short stories, and novels than I would have time to write if I were twenty again and expected to live to be a hundred.  Those ideas are like gold coins in a treasure chest.

Did I mention how grateful I am for my fellow scribblers?  Thanks, Annette, Bob, Debrah, Jeri, JoySue, Pat, Priscilla, Ross, Steve, Terry, and everyone who’s dipped into our meetings and found that life had other plans for them.

I couldn’t do it alone, any more than the Pilgrims could have done it without the Indians.

Moose Crossing

Dirt and gravel sprayed up behind my Chevy Blazer as I jammed on the brakes, locked the wheels, and skidded to a stop. I threw GW (Great White, as in shark, not hope) into reverse and gunned the engine, swerving to a stop in the middle of the road.

Then I rubbed my eyes and shook my head, having a hard time believing what I was seeing. The yellow, diamond-shaped warning sign contained a picture of a moose.

I knew what it meant: Be careful. Moose cross the road here. Hitting one of those big guys or gals (6-7 feet at the shoulder, 850-1580 pounds) could trash your car–and you–so watch out.

Now, this is a sign people might see a lot–if they lived in Canada, Alaska, some Northeast states in the U.S., and parts of the Northwest. It is not one I generally associate with the high-desert basin-and-range land of the Sulphur Springs Valley, Cochise County, Arizona, a dozen miles from the Mexican border.

Cow crossing signs? We’ve got plenty of them. Deer crossing signs? There should be more. Javelina crossing signs? We ought to have ’em. But moose?

I got out of the truck with my camera, but before I clicked the shutter, I looked around the grassland and the swath of mesquite greening up along a nearby wash to see if there were, in fact, any moose. My imagination was already shifting into high gear. Maybe someone retired here from Maine or Michigan or Montana and brought their favorite herbivores.

Unlikely but not impossible. There’s a wildlife preserve in Texas where hunters can bag African big game. If things can get that nutty, there could be moose in southeastern Arizona.

When I got home, I even ran an Internet search to see if there was fossil evidence of moose in the megafauna era of the last ice age. Apparently not here, though in the upper Midwest and East there was an impressively large Pleistocene stag-moose.

So what’s the moose sign about? It’s still a mystery to me, though I’m planning to take down the pertinent information, go to the County Assessor’s Office, find out who owns the land, and contact them, just to satisfy my curiosity. Maybe someone brought the sign back from a northern trip and just wanted to blow the minds of local ranchers and retirees. It sure worked on me.

Beyond the pleasure of telling this tale, is there a point? Surprisingly, yes. Mysteries are great things for writers to encounter. This one jolted me out of my ho-hum commute down Davis Road, which is one of the “freeways” my husband and I drive from our isolated home to the local towns Douglas and Bisbee.

It got my imagination revved up. And who knows, maybe there’s a story in the episode. If the truth turns out to be boring, perhaps I’ll write something much more interesting.

Writing, with Parrots

I was surprised at our last meeting when Terry said she had a computer question for me. Ross, after all, is our Computer Guru, our King of Ones and Zeros (binary code).

Terry asked what to do when your parrot (in her case, an adorable cockatiel whose ancestors hail from Australia) pries the keys off your keyboard.

The question garnered more laughs than any answers we could come up with.

Nevertheless, this is what I’ve done over the many years I’ve shared my life and computers with parrots:

  •  Tried to grab the key back, only to have the parrot either drop it and bite my fingers or fly away with it and let it fall behind the desk, dresser, or washing machine.
  • Replaced the missing key with one from the number keypad. I learned to type on a typewriter and use the number keys at the top of the keyboard, so it works to have a keypad 5 become an S. I touch type, so it doesn’t matter what the key says.
  • Purchased a defunct laptop and taken all the keys off the keyboard, put them in a plastic bag, and stored them safely away in a desk drawer as spares.

Peaches, Maggie, Willie, and Sunny have taken turns played hob with my computers over the years, marching across the keyboard to type what may be psittacine wisdom but looks more confusing than Greek to me. Usually in the middle of an important document. (Do I ever type documents that are unimportant, at least to me?)

When I was living in Los Alamos and freelancing out of my home as Business Mom, things like this would appear on the monitor: Third quarter earnings /l;koj787645–thanks to Maggie, whom I had touched on the shoulders with my favorite ballpoint pen and dubbed my administrative assistant. I’m sure he put that job experience on his ré sumé when he applied for the position of Willie’s mate.

As I mentioned at the meeting, the wildest thing the birds have ever done to my computer involved Sunny’s Charleston on the keys. I have no idea what combination she fat-footed, but the results were unforgettable. The screen went blank, and when it came back on, the document had turned ninety degrees. I got a kink in my neck, trying to read it.

I tried everything I knew to get the screen back to normal, then called a computer-savvy friend in New Mexico, then called Lawanna at Two Flags Computers in Douglas. No luck.

Fortunately, a customer who happened to be in her office knew what to do: Right click anywhere on the desktop, click on Graphics Options, then Rotate, then Normal. His fortuitous presence was the only thing that kept me from having to figure out how to prop my monitor up on its side.

Writing, with parrots certainly keeps my life interesting.

Circles

I live at the connection point of three circles of friends. That doesn’t quite work in the Venn Diagram sense, because none of the circles overlap. Maybe I should say I live at the apex (apexes? apices?) of three triangles that share no sides. Whatever.

Anyway, the point is, not only do these three circles/triangles/whatevers share no members, they consist of three distinctly different groups of people, particularly when it comes to their political persuasions. My writer-friends circle has a definitely liberal cast, as the writing world, especially the fiction writing world, does generally. The non-liberal fiction writer is a rare thing, indeed. My Air Force Association/veterans circle has a definitively conservative bent, although veterans, as a group, cover the entire political waterfront. And my BMW club circle is, well, pretty much all over the place.

Which makes life interesting. Among liberals, I’m a conservative. Among conservatives, I’m a liberal. Guess that puts me right about where I want to be: in the middle.

And it gives me lots–I mean, LOTS–of material to draw from when I write a story that has political overtones or undertones. Or undertows. Or UnderAlls(R). Or something.

Earlier this week, Washington Post columnist Robert J. Samuelson wrote an interesting piece on our current political, um, situation called “Radicals, reactionaries, and an unhappy Fourth.” It’s not as depressing as the title might suggest and you’ll likely be surprised by whom he labels “radicals” and who “reactionaries.”