Cora guest-blogs elsewhere – and some thoughts on dialogue as characterisation

First of all, I have a guest post in the “Nobody Knew She Was There” series about female SFF writers over on Sarah Ash’s blog today. I talk about the challenges of being a woman from a non-anglophone country who writes SFF, so head over there and check out it.

And also read some of the other great posts in the series by writers such as Kari Sperring, Juliet E. McKenna, Stephanie Burgis, Jessica Rydill, Freda Warrington, Jenny Barber, Jan Edwards and others, while you’re at it.

In other news, today I came across this Storify of a Tweetstorm (i.e. a whole lot of Tweets) by Chuck Wendig about writing dialogue, which resonated with me a whole lot.

Now anybody who has ever read any of my stories probably knows that I write a lot of dialogue. For example, the Helen Shepherd Mysteries are about eighty percent dialogue, since Helen solves her cases primarily by talking to witnesses, suspects and of course the members of her own team. Yes, there are all sorts of clues and red herrings, but even those are usually presented in dialogue.

The late Jay Lake once said that all writers begin with different skill sets, aspects of writing they are naturally good at (basically what came in the box) and others they need more time to learn. For me, dialogue was something I was really good at from my very first attempts at writing on. I’m not sure why, though I suspect having spent years holding conversations with imaginary characters and sometimes writing them down helped a lot. Cause by the time I started writing in earnest, I had already spent a lot of time practicing how to write dialogue.

There is a school of thought that believes that any “fluff” in a story should be cut. And any dialogue that does not directly impact the plot is often considered “fluff” and gets cut, often leading to very formulaic stories.

As I wrote back in 2013:

And indeed the fact that we can no longer have any fluff is one of the reasons why TV shows are so damned predictable these days. Because every line, every single word has to serve a purpose, you automatically know that the throwaway line of the police chief about a wave of burglaries on XXX Street or the prison guard’s phone call to his wife in the background will inevitably turn out to be a vital clue to solving the case. Because in a modern crime drama, there never are any throwaway lines anymore. No one ever has a conversation that does not directly pertain to the plot. Fluff must be cut, everything must serve a purpose. Coincidentally, this is also why so many works these days fail the Bechdel test. Because any character and any sort of conversation that has no direct impact on the plot is cut.

Now Chuck Wendig does come out against throwaway lines and agrees that dialogue should move the story forward (so do I BTW). But there is more than one way of moving a story forward. And even dialogue that doesn’t do much to progress the plot can still reveal a whole lot about the characters and their relationship to each other. And it’s these character moments that are often lost when cutting all the fluff and the chit chat.

When Helen Shepherd interviews a witness and/or suspect, Helen and through her the reader not only learns facts as what did the witness/suspect see and do they have an alibi, but she and the reader also learns a lot about what sort of people these characters are and what their relationship is to the victim and to each other. Indeed, in an upcoming Helen Shepherd Mystery called Chamber Play, I have the stereotypical “all the suspects gathered in one room” scene so beloved of traditional and cozy mystery writers. And once I started writing that scene, I also realised why they are so popular to the point of cliché. Because the various suspects immediately started arguing and accusing each other so that Helen didn’t even have to ask any questions, she only had to listen. It was like magic.

In fact, most of my stories – and I go into that in my guest post over at Sarah Ash’s blog as well, since that’s not how “real” SFF writers are supposed to write – start with a character or two. I put these characters together, let them talk and see what happens. New York City’s Finest started out this way. I used a prompt from the They Fight Crime generator (which is awesome for these things), put Detective Ray McCormick into Jo’s taxi and let them talk. And lo and behold, this little conversation blossomed into a novelette with series potential (I’ll revisit Jo and Ray eventually, since I really like them).

Of course, it helps that plot is another thing for me that “came in the box” to quote the late and much missed Jay Lake. I’ve always been good at telling stories – probably due to consuming a whole lot of them – to the point that I even imposed a plot and dialogue on plotless vignettes I was supposed to write for creative writing class, since vignettes with lots of evocative description is one of the things I did not get in the box, but a skill I had to acquire. So when I put two character together in a room and let them talk, they usually generate a plot.

Though there are also exceptions. History Lesson, part 3 in the Shattered Empire series, basically has no external plot. All that happens is that Holly and Ethan sit in a room, get drunk, eat mint candies and talk. And indeed the fact that I write a lot of food scenes is largely due to the fact that I write a lot of dialogue, because eating and drinking are ideal for breaking up dialogue. Just take care not to give your characters alcohol poisoning by accident.

Now all Shattered Empire stories are dialogue heavy, but History Lesson really takes the crown here, because it’s almost all dialogue – for 13000 words. However, I have never had a single complaint about that story – even though nothing external happens – because all that dialogue serves a purpose and we learn a whole lot about Ethan and Holly (and a bit about Carlotta who shows up near the end), about the illustrious Summerton family and about the universe they live in, including the history of the Fifth Human Empire as narrated by Ethan (which bears some uncanny similarities to the history of postwar (West) Germany and I’m still waiting for someone to call me out on that). The upcoming Shattered Empire prequel novella Conspirators is mostly dialogue as well – with a fight scene against blaster-toting robot waiters in the middle.

To quote Chuck Wendig again:

I completely agree. When you let the characters follow the plot, you get those weirdly formulaic TV crime dramas, where sometimes even established characters are distorted just to make the plot work. So I vastly prefer just letting the characters take the lead – never mind that mine tend to balk when I try to make them do something they don’t want to. And dialogue is of course excellent for revealing character.

I’ll finish with talking about a new project I’m working on, also a space opera with a strong romance subplot, but not set in the Shattered Empire universe, because it wouldn’t have worked. Now space opera is a very action-oriented subgenre – particularly the Nutty Nuggets fraction wants its manly space marines doing manly things in space and heaven help an author, if there’s too much talk or introspection or – gasp – romance. Don’t you know that you’ll never get in the Amazon top 100, if you write that sort of thing?

Now the protagonists of the upcoming series are two soldiers, which should assure plenty of Nutty Nuggetty action. Only that these soldiers don’t meet on the battlefield, but while on leave on a tropical pleasure planet, i.e. not exactly the most action-packed environment. And yes, there is action. There is a fight and there will eventually be a second one, once I get around to writing it. There is also an interlude, where our heroes go sailing and get caught in a storm. But most of story – and I suspect it will be around 60000 to 70000 words when done, i.e. short novel length – the protagonists eat, drink, dance and talk a lot. They talk and get to know each other and are heavily attracted to each other, which is going to be a problem, because one of them is not what they claim to be. And indeed this is why I deliberately went for so much dialogue – or rather overrode my own objections of “You can’t do this. No one will want to read it.” – because I want the reader to get to know these characters and eventually fall in love with them, just as they fall for each other. Because that will make the inevitable betrayal at the end hurt so much more.

Meanwhile, in the sequel – and since the first book will end on something of a cliffhanger, there needs to be a sequel – there’ll be some action in the form of interrogations, escape attempts, fights and even a space battle. But again, a lot of the story will involve the protagonists talking (and mean author that I am, I of course dump them in a situation where they have a lot of time to talk), gradually getting to know each other again and trying to figure out how much of their previous encounter was lie and how much was truth. What is more, one of the protagonists has some massive atonements to make, while both have to do some soulsearching.

Will this appeal to the Nutty Nuggets crowd? Probably not. But as I said over at Sarah Ash’s blog, I can only tell my own stories, not somebody else’s. And my stories tend to have a lot of dialogue.

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