Sunday, July 7, 2013

12 Ways People Use Words: more on dialogue

We all know that we need to make characters sound different, we need to be careful with dialect, and we need to use appropriate vocabulary. Pretty broad stuff.

Well, here are a dozen other real-people traits that are discussed in length in The Theatre Student, Playwriting by Peter Kline, that can improve characterization through dialogue:

1. Use of subordination:
Some people are good at organizing five or six ideas in one sentence. For example, 'I remember when I was young, my father would take us fishing early in the morning, and whilst we dangled our legs over the pier and watched the sunrise, he would tell us stories about the old fisherman who built this town.' Other people try and fail: 'When I was young, maybe five or six, Dad would take us fishing, and we watched the sunrise - we'd be sitting on the pier, see, and, anyway . . .' Some people use conjunctions to string ideas together: 'I was young and Dad would take us fishing and we sat on the pier and watched the sunrise and Dad would tell us stories.' Other people stick with one idea at a time: 'We were kids, yeah? Boy, Dad used to go on about the old geezers.' 

2. Use of imagery:
Remember the different ways people learn? Those who aren't fond of the good old textbooks might like visual, audio, or hands-on media. The same applies to how people speak. Kline suggests that original and spontaneous people tend to use imagery in language. One of the senses usually dominates, but some people naturally combine sight, sound, and textual experiences (called synesthesia) and express these in language. 

3. Irony vs sentimentality:
Getting a sarcastic or cynical character together with a sincere one can lead to sparkling, conflict-filled dialogue.
A: What a beautiful night.
B: Yeah, if you're into mosquitos and midges.

4. Acuteness:
Some people just 'get it' while other people need everything spelled out before they understand the logic behind what the other person is saying. Classic one-liners are often spoken by acute thinkers and talkers. But be careful of characters delivering the perfect line every time. Most real people just can't do that. 

5. Thinking vs reacting:
A: I'm gonna kill 'im.
B: Now hold on a second, Bill.
A: That no-good slime-bag stole my wallet.
B: You need to be sure before you go accusing him. 

6. Circuitousness:
Some people say it straight. Some people tap dance around the point.
A: How are you?  
B: Well, I was woken up at 5 A.M. by the blasted dog next door, and then I realized I'd forgotten to buy more coffee, and . . .

7. Rhythm:
Have you ever listened to a person who sounds almost musical when they speak? Some people are naturally sensitive to the sound of words. Kline gives this example: 'I don't think I want to,' compared with, ' 'Twouldn't hardly be worthwhile.'

8.  Use of clichés:
Some people have a cliché for everything: 'Oh well, whenever you get lemons, you can make lemonade, you know?' Although it's not a good idea to flood dialogue with clichés, a character prone to their use is one who takes himself seriously and uses clichés so that others might take him seriously too. It is an attempt to appear wise without taking the trouble to think (which is not always laziness, says Kline, but human nature).

9. Word play:
Just as some people are good with the sound of words, others are quick to apply clever double meanings to words, often for dramatic effect. Shakespeare was, of course, the champion at creating characters with this trait. Unless you're writing a piece where cleverness is a central element, word play in dialogue should be used sparingly. Kline suggests that a character prone to word play often uses morbid humor to demonstrate that the world is a sick joke that shouldn't be taken seriously. Kline offers Hamlet as a fine example here.

 10. Whimsy, playfulness, and childishness:
The whimsical character is happy and imaginative and likes to have fun, usually by varying the tone, rather than words in her speech. She might indulge in pseudopoetry, or baby talk, or make deliberately silly statements to lighten the situation.

11. Exclamatory quality:
A: Dead! No way!
B: It happens to all of us, I guess.
A: I just can't believe it.

12.  DePersonalization:
Some people talk about themselves a lot, and other people don't. Two people must quickly establish how personal they want their relationship to be at any given time. Some people will tell you their whole life story in three minutes, and other people remain aloof for years. Misaligned or misunderstood boundaries relating to personalization can lead to embarrassing or irritating situations. All good stuff for storytellers.
Peter Kline suggests 78 more elements that affect how people use words. See how many you can think of (no points for the obvious like age and education).

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Statue Days and Seagull Days

Somedays you're the statue, somedays you're the seagull.

In my year of rejection, I'm taking a blog break to concentrate on the ups and downs of statuehood and seagullhood.

On my statue days, I am unmoved. I am a rock. I am true to myself. (Or so I keep telling myself.)

On my seagull days, I try to watch my yawping, and I try to be considerate about where I . . . stand.

I hope your statue days are few and far between, and your seagull days are filled with humility.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Why, oh Why?

[Here are my thoughts on Save the Cat by Blake Snyder, for the Progressive Book Club.]

Why, oh why, would anyone dedicate a chapter to made-up genres relevant to nothing?

Snyder stresses the importance of knowing your market and knowing your audience. He recommends approaching strangers within your target demographic to ask what they think of your logline. So why, oh why, does he describe a ridiculous genre of 'Man With a Problem' and crowd Die Hard, Titanic, and Schindler's List under that dubious umbrella? To me, this makes no sense.

Audience aside, Snyder refers to traditional genres: romantic comedy, drama etc., throughout the book, and defines 'genre' as such in his own glossary. So, what, oh what, is the point of chapter two?

Chapter three reveals that a movie needs a hero with a goal. Hmm, okay, nothing startling about that piece of news.

Chapter four discusses structure and uses Miss Congeniality as an example. By now, I'm thinking Mr. Snyder and I are not quite on the same sailing ship, but one of us is obviously at sea.

The visual tools Snyder recommends in chapter five, I found useful. The concept of writing plot points on index cards and arranging them in five acts is by no means original, but I appreciate the practical and visual methods recommended by the author, and I confess, I have tried it.

At around page 121, 64% of the way through the book, Snyder finally caught my attention with the fun advice about the 'Pope in the Pool,' and the 'Double Mumbo Jumbo.' I chuckled at the irony of 'Laying Pipe' and 'Watch out for that Glacier,' and I don't really remember much about the rest of the book.

I give Save the Cat, 5 out of 10. I won't deny I learned something, and it's always worth reading a book if it sends you away with one useful tip, but half of me wishes I had taken the advice of the title and donated my ten bucks to the Snow Leopard Trust.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

It's Hip to be a Square... or is it?

March's lighthouse:
Le Phare de Kermorvan,
Brittany, France.
(Original photo by McPHOTO.)
Are you a round lighthouse, or a square one?*

As I flick through my Novel and Short Story Writer's Market, I can't help but notice the word 'experimental' littered throughout the section on literary magazines.

Okay, now everything I do is experimental, but in the literary sense, if there's one thing I'm not (yet), it's experimental. I'm a traditionalist through and through.

Yes, it's true. I'm a round lighthouse.

In defence of the unoriginal, consider the basic expectations of a reader. The Daily Writing Tips website lists the following:
  • at least one sympathetic character with whom we can identify and root for;
  • a story with a clear beginning, middle, and end;
  • a narrative style that draws us into the fictional dream;
  • language that conforms to standard rules of syntax, meaning, and punctuation;
  • typography that conforms to printed conventions regarding margins, etc.

And what about all those expectations of genre, a word usually preceded by the word 'no' in the section on literary magazines?
  • a romance is expected to contain flowery scenes;
  • a Western is just not a Western without the manly man with the six-shooter;
  • a suspense novel is generally plot driven.
Is there a fine line between meeting the expectations of genre and stereotyping? I think so.

And so, again I ask, are you a round lighthouse, or a square one, or something else altogether? Hexagonal, perhaps?

* For those geometrically sensitive people, are you a cylindrical lighthouse or a cuboid one (or another 3-dimensional shape altogether)?

Friday, March 8, 2013

Christie Power

Friday is International Women's Day. I'm not about to launch into a political discussion, but I will say cheers to the ladies of literature, past, present, and future, and to one in particular who continues to inspire me through the wit and cleverness of her stories.

Dame Agatha Christie doesn't look easy to surprise. That's probably because the Queen of Crime knows all the tricks. How many of these plot devices (sourced from the Christie Mystery website) do you have in your toolbox?

  • Red Herrings. A writer must be fair. Introducing vital information on the last page is just plain mean. But who says you can't mess with a reader's mind a little?

  • The Unlikely Suspect. A murderous child? An unreliable narrator? Agatha Christie was a master of using the values and assumptions of the reader to construct some excellent twists.

  • The Disguise. Does sticking on a fake moustache fool anyone nowadays? Maybe not, but a change of identity - real or metaphorical - is a crafty way of hiding, and eventually revealing secrets.

  • A Closed Setting. The comings and goings of real people in the real world can muddy the character pool, especially in a whodunit. So what do you do? Try sticking the players on a boat, or a train, or in a big house in the country.

  • The Trap. It's not easy to prove guilt. It may not be standard criminal procedure, but contriving a scene is a nifty way to expose a phony.

  • The Illusion. A suspect may fake his or her own death, or employ a distraction, or frame someone else, or discredit a vital witness. Who's telling the truth? And who's telling big, fat porkies?

  • The Alliance. What do we really know about a relationship between two people? Lovers may appear to the world as enemies. Siblings might pretend to be strangers. Two heads can be trickier than one.

  • Final Justice. Obviously, nobody told Agatha Christie that bad people must be caught and sent to prison forever. According to Wikipedia, the murderer escapes in six of Agatha Christie's stories, and dies in several others.

So who's your favourite female author, and what is it about her writing or stories that you admire?

Thursday, February 28, 2013

21 Rhetorical Devices, and their tricky names

What exactly is rhetoric?

To me, it's what a speaker or writer uses to get the message across, usually, with added effect. It's persuasive communication, and if it's not a down-right lie, it can be a powerful and legitimate tool, one we use every day, without even noticing the techniques we're employing. Our good buddy Aristotle even went so far as to relate intellect, emotion, and sense of credibility and fairness to demonstrate rhetoric.

Philosophy aside, there are many rhetorical devices available to the astute writer. Many are familiar: oxymorons, euphemisms, hyperbole, alliteration, metaphors. For those who do not have an MFA and who like to increase or test their literary vocabulary, here is a handful more taken from The Complete Stylist and Handbook by Sheridan Baker. Make up or look for your own examples, even if - like me - you struggle to pronounce the names.

Alluding to the Familiar:
Anamnesis: "A remembering." Emphasizing the point by reminding the reader of a former event. (Today is the day she kissed me goodbye, twenty-four years ago.)
Parachresis: Alluding to, or mixing another's words into your context for emphasis or effect. (Only the low-lifes laughed at my jokes. I guess Oscar Wilde was right about the value of sarcasm.)
Paradiorthosis: Twisting a famous quote. (Friends, colleagues, paperboy, lend me some money.)
Building to Climax:
Asyndeton: "Without joining." Rushing a series of clauses to indicate emotional haste. (They charged, they fought, they died in the hundreds.)
Incrementum: Arranging items from lowest to highest. (They devoured the plants, they razed the fields, they swept through the towns, and threatened the nation.)

Synonymy: Repeating, by synonyms, for emphasis. (A low-down, no-good, miserable son-of-a-bitch.)
Anacoenosis: Consulting your audience, often through rhetorical questions to gain intimacy and urgency. (I ask you, is being a good parent enough?)
Aposiopesis: "A silence." Stopping midsentence. (But the children....)
Erotesis: Commonly known as a rhetorical question. (Does bread pay the bills?)

Apophasis: Pretending not to mention something by mentioning it. (I won't mention the time I fell asleep in the park and awoke behind bars.)
Litotes: "Simplifying." Asserting something by denying the opposite. (Not the smallest dog I had ever seen.)

Zeugma: "Yoking." Pairing one accurate word with an ironic misfit. ('Waging war and peace.')
 Overstating and Understating:
Auxesis: Using an exaggerated term. (He's a saint.)
Meiosis: Making big things small. (Besides the mansion in the country, he owned a second modest abode by the beach.)

Posing Contrasts:
Chiasmus: "A crossing." Reversing order. (A good man is hard to find; a hard man is good to find.)
Enantiosis, also called contentio: Emphasizing contraries, often with chiasmus. ('Could not go on, would not go back.')

Refining and Elaborating:
Exergasia: "A polishing." Presenting the same thing several ways. (A dream, a vision, an illusion of magical things.)

Epistrophe: Ending sentences the same, as a way to emphasize. (He lives at sea. He loves the sea. He'll die at sea.)

Paregmenon: Using derivatives of a word. (A fantastic fantasy.)
Metonymy: Using an associated thing for the thing itself. (The White House said today....)
Synecdoche: Substituting a) the part for the whole (He is a brain), or the whole for the part (China wins the Olympics), b) the species for the genus, or the genus for the species ('the felines [for lions]'), d) the material for the object (He plays brass.)
So, does you tongue feel like it's been squished through a meat grinder? (Is that a metaphorical erotesis?)

Or that you need to see a doctor in case you contracted any of these symptoms?

As tricky as the terms are, you have to agree (anacoenosis), rhetorical devices are fun, fun, fun (that's an epizeuxis, by the way).

Enough already! (apodioxis).

I need a nap.

Sunday, February 24, 2013

February: Martha's Vineyard

Edgartown Lighthouse, Martha's Vineyard.
Original photo is by Paul Rezendes

Back in January, I set sail on my journey of rejection. I committed myself to devising some type of submission plan as I cruised around the Islets of the Scouts.

Now, my trusty ship (The Eggonaut??), with the help of my lighthouse wall calendar, has taken me to Martha's Vineyard, Massachusetts.

I have yet to visit the area in person, but I hear it's very relaxing there, particularly not in February for those of us allergic to cold weather.

It's fitting then, that I take a breath, and enjoy the calm.

The spreadsheets are spreading, the lists are lengthening, and I am gradually polishing my work and sending it out. I'm starting small, fishing for minnows, while the bigger fish continue to circle the boat, demanding attention.

The Edgartown Lighthouse on my calendar reminds me to take it easy, do what I can, and most importantly of all, be patient. The rejections will come and tear at the hull, but until then, I'm enjoying the scenery.

[Rejections this year: One. The postie returned a submission for lack of postage. What really hurts is almost certainly knowing that he or she didn't even bother to read it.
Non-Rejections: One. 9th place in the 13th Annual Writer's Digest Short Short Story Competition. Thanks WD people.]