Some thoughts on writing from the fiction trenches

Character development through dialogue and using POV to convey emotion

Many fiction writers fall victim to said-isms. What are said-isms? They are the attribution tags attached to lines of dialogue that identify who’s speaking. The least intrusive – and all are intrusive; they are, as the master Elmore Leonard wrote in 10 Rules of Writing, “…the writer sticking his nose in.” to tell the reader something about that dialogue the reader can’t figure out for herself – is said.  The best dialogue has no tag line and if well-written, in the context of the scene, often is not needed to identify the speaker. But sometimes an attribute tag is useful, even necessary especially if there are three or more speakers in the scene.

Using anything other than said is fraught with peril despite what you may have learned in English composition. If you’re smart you’ll burn that list of said-look-alikes your teacher gave you.  Worst of all; using an adverb in an attribution tag to convey emotion. Adverbs have their place in language but should be used sparingly in fiction and never, never in attribution tags. In fact, a good writer should count adverbs and maybe one every hundred words or so is acceptable… but as I said, and it bears repeating, never in an attribution tag. I comb through my writing during one of my editing passes looking for adverbs. I call it, what else: the adverb hunt, shoot to kill on sight.

(Full disclosure: three in the 227 words in the previous two paragraphs.)

Consider the following:

“You arrogant SOB… how dare you speak to me that way?” she shouted at him, menacingly.

“I’ll speak to you any damn way I please,” the man hissed, taken aback by the woman’s vehemence.

Disgusting isn’t it? Well, maybe disgusting is too harsh, since you see it all the time… but boring, right?  We’ll return to these lines, to re-write them, but first I want to talk about character development using dialogue and point-of-view (POV).

Using point of view in fiction

We want to know about the characters in the stories we read – their past, present and future. The protagonists, male and female, are most important but so are their antagonists. In fact, it may be more important to develop the antagonists, or at least as important, so that when the hero overcomes them, we are impressed that she was able to prevail over these vicious cretins. To grab us and hold our attention she has to defeat really bad people, so, we have to know something about them, not just that they are bad.

Certainly, we can do that with back-story. What is back-story? It’s that pause in the dialogue or the narrative when the writer tells us something he thinks we should know, to understand the scene, about something that happened to one of our characters in the past. Not the immediate past – the early part of the current scene – but in the distant past, which could be a previous scene or more often, the past before anything in the current story. Here is an example of the latter from Affirmative Action.

Catherine heard Anita Bellamy’s voice in her ear: Nothing good can come from dredging that up.  She stared at him for a long time, contempt obvious to Tyne in her eyes, and then she said, “What’s a VSM?”

The previous scene in this bit of back-story occurred perhaps thirty pages earlier and Anita’s words in that scene, the words in italics, are reminders to Catherine of what she ought not do. The POV is Tyne’s, not Catherine’s, so we don’t know what she has in mind. Since the scene is written in his POV, we learn what he thinks she might be thinking, not what she is actually thinking. The look of contempt is for him to see, not for me to ram down your throats with an attribute tag such as:

Catherine heard Anita Bellamy’s voice in her ear: Nothing good can come from dredging that up.  She stared at him for a long time and then she said, contemptuously, “What’s a VSM?”

If the scene were written in her POV, then we might learn that she feels contempt for Tyne but we could still convey that emotion without an adverb.

Catherine heard Anita Bellamy’s voice in her ear: Nothing good can come from dredging that up.  She knew she should heed Dr. Bellamy’s advice but the look on his face, that arrogant smirk she’d come to hate made her want to hurt him, so she said, “What’s a VSM?”

* * *

Remember I said we’d return to those two lines and have a go at rewriting them?

From the man’s POV:

“You arrogant SOB… how dare you speak to me that way?”

People at tables nearby were staring at them; she’d shouted in his face. He actually thought she might slap him.

“I’ll speak to you any damn way I please,” he said.  He wasn’t about to take any crap from her.

From the woman’s POV:

“You arrogant SOB… how dare you speak to me that way?” She’d had about as much of his bullshit as she could stand.  She didn’t care that people were beginning to stare. She could see she’d made him angry… tough.

“I’ll speak to you any damn way I please,” he said.

Point of view and how it can work with dialogue

When we interact with people we watch their faces, especially their eyes and their body language for clues to what they’re thinking. We can’t know what they’re thinking – we can’t read their minds – but we try to infer what they are thinking from what we see and hear. In film the camera sees both character’s faces and if the actors have expressive faces – think of Jack Nicholson – we can usually tell what they’re thinking. In fiction we can write in third-person omniscient and get into the heads of every character. It’s a technique some writers use to tell rather than to show. I think it’s a bad technique and leads to uninspired writing. Plays hell with suspense too. Destroys the power of the scene to surprise.

I never use TPO; instead, I write each scene in the point of view of one of the characters. That way, I can get inside his or her head, interpret what that character sees and hears and how she reacts to it, much the way we do in real-life conversations. I use it to tell what one, and only one, character is thinking, what one character feels about what she sees and hears and let you figure out for yourselves what the other characters are up to. In that sense, my writing is not at all like film, more like real-world conversations between real people.  I emphasize dialogue, play-like, rather than screenplay-like which emphasizes visuals.

Point of view can change, though never within a scene. Within a chapter there can be several scenes, each written in a different character’s point of view. A fairly standard way in print to signal a point of view change, the one I use, is to insert one blank line and not indent the first paragraph of the new POV’s prose. (Author’s note: in HTML indenting every paragraph, every line of dialogue when there is a speaker change is a pain without CSS, so in posts such as this I forgo indention in favor of double-space.)  Some writers use small graphics to signal POV change, for example: three asterisks centered on the page. Pick your poison and use it consistently is my motto. I like my technique because it is unobtrusive. Some readers may not even notice the transition, which is not a bad effect. However, never, never disclose what a character is thinking if the scene is not written in that character’s POV… unless of course you’re writing in TPO.

And lest you think choosing a scene POV and adhering to it solves all dialogue problems, ever see an author write a scene in which two people are arguing, speaking at the same time? Writing that ping-pong back and forth with separate indented instances of speech, even with the use of ellipses, …, to indicate interruption doesn’t work because they aren’t interrupting each other. They are speaking without listening. Sorry to say, we do that more often than you might think. Granted, in a novel it doesn’t happen very often; for dramatic effect only when two important characters are arguing almost to the point of blows, but when it does, here’s how I handle that conundrum, and always, from the POV of one of them.

The argument was getting heated. Tyne could see Catherine wasn’t listening. She was riding her usual hobbyhorse and nothing he said seemed to be getting through to her. He was saying, “… you know that isn’t what I said. You are so fucking stubborn. Can you please stop talking long enough for me say something?” while she was saying; “… you promised me… you promised… that you wouldn’t interfere. When we started working together you agreed that I would make all of the decisions about content, and you would do it my way. Now, just like every other fucking man I’ve worked with, you want to take control. Well, I won’t have it.” Neither was listening to the other. Finally, Tyne did the only thing he could do. He stopped speaking and let Catherine rant on until she ran out of breadth. Then he said, “Are you done? Can I say something?”

Whoa now, that scene is written in Tyne’s POV. Don’t assume I’m a chauvinist, that the man is always right and the woman always wrong just because I wrote that scene that way. If I had written it in Catherine’s POV, she would have been the reasonable one who managed to bring the argument under control, before it got out of hand. Note how carefully that paragraph is constructed, to not include any of Catherine’s thoughts. Correct use of POV asserts we can only get inside the head of one of these characters. Also, the use of ellipses at the beginning of each speaker’s speech implies more of their argument preceded these fragments. The point is not to focus on their exact words, since neither was listening to the other, but to depict a shouting match getting out of hand. They get to say the important parts again and when they do, then and only then will we learn what the argument is all about. Character development most certainly includes how the important characters relate to each other, and if they fight, we need to know that… and how they fight… and about what.

Here’s another author’s take on that problem: from James Jones’ Whistle, pg 142, the third book in his monumental World War II trilogy that includes From Here to Eternity and The Thin Red Line. It’s written without dialogue in Winch’s POV.

They both started to talk at once. Then Landers shut up, and Strange went on alone. But Winch held up a hand and stopped him. He already knew all the background, he told them. The last he’d heard, this Col Baker had requested authority to take off the leg. Col Stevens had not yet given the okay. The other doctors all seemed to agree with Baker.

I prefer to include bits of dialogue in such a scene. Using dialogue and scene POV we see how the two characters relate to one another. In the Jones’ example we learn nothing about the relationships between the three men. Furthermore, Jones wrote that scene in TPO so we learn in previous and subsequent paragraphs what each man is thinking. Well, Jones is published and I’m not so of the two of us, his approach would seem to be more appropriate… except I’m not convinced. What do you think?

So, now that we know what scene POV is all about, here’s an extended example of how to use it in dialogue – much more effective than using adverbs to convey emotion. The POV is Tyne’s and we see how he reacts, what he’s thinking while being interrogated.  We never see what any of the cops are thinking because the scene was not written in any of their POVs.  We, and Tyne, have to infer what they are thinking from what they say and do.  What Tyne is thinking or what he observes is in red.

* * *

They held him in the cage without food or water all that night and part of the next day… until almost noon, then he was ordered to stand with his back to the door while they handcuffed him again, and shackled his ankles, after which he was frog-marched by two officers to an interrogation room.  The room had a metal table with metal chairs on two sides.  The only objects on the table were a standard black desk telephone sitting on a thick phonebook.  They directed him to sit and the handcuff on his right wrist was removed and locked to a ring on the left side of the chair.  Tyne noticed that the table and the chair he was sitting on were screwed to the floor.  A heavyset plain-clothes officer in his shirtsleeves placed a yellow legal pad and a ballpoint pen in front of him and read to Tyne from a plastic coated card his constitutional right to remain silent and to have an attorney present during questioning.  He asked Tyne whether he understood his rights and wished to waive his right to remain silent.  Tyne nodded and said, “Am I being charged with a crime?”

“That depends on you.”

“What does that mean?”

“Tell us what you did in the restaurant.”

“I already have.”

“Tell it again.”

Tell it again?  How many times am I going to have to tell these assholes what happened?  Isn’t what happened obvious… unless…?  “How about some coffee, or at least some water?  I haven’t had anything to drink since late last night.”

Harris, who was leaning on the wall near the door stepped outside briefly and returned with a Styrofoam cup of coffee and handed it to Tyne.

Tyne was sitting with his right elbow on the table, his chin resting on his knuckles and he made no move to take the cup.  He stared at the cop who stared back and after a brief standoff Harris set the cup down in front of him.

Tyne smiled slightly and took several swallows.  The hot coffee burned his lips but it was fresh and aromatic.  “Hot, hot, hot, but not bad, thanks.  My friend Robert Ames and I were having dinner at Pietro’s…”

“What time did you arrive at the restaurant?”

Tyne smiled to himself and shook his head.  Games… they’re gonna play head games and they aren’t very good at them.  They want me to tell it but they won’t let me tell it my way.

“I didn’t look at my watch but about 8:15 I think.  Bob picked me up at the Ordway Building at eight and it takes about that long to drive to Pietro’s.”

“You two queens?” said the cop who had read Tyne his rights.

Tyne studied the fat cop’s face.  Deadpan… no emotion… not even the hint of a smirk, he thought.  Was it a serious question…?  Maybe, or maybe he was just trying to get a rise out of me, get me pissed off like he does every dumb schmuck he interrogates?  And the city actually pays these people to catch the bad guys…?

“No, asshole, he’s… was my boss as well as my friend.”

“You watch your fuckin’ mouth or I’ll…” he lunged at Tyne but another officer grabbed his arm.

“You were saying?” said Harris.

So, now we know, he thought; the fat cop is the bad cop and this other one’s the good cop… what a pair of dorks to draw to.  Tyne had been about to throw the hot coffee at the cop’s face had he come over the table.  He counted to twenty to himself, slowly, breathing deeply, and then said:

“We were discussing a new project he wanted me to take on when three guys wearing stocking masks dragged these two other guys inside, sat them at a table, pushed their heads down and shot them both in the back of the head.  Very business-like… very efficient, two shots each.  I doubt it took them more than thirty seconds.  One of them had a quiet pistol.  The other one… well, the reports scared the shit out of everyone… well, maybe not literally but they got everyone’s attention.  There were two others in the room at the time – Pietro D’Agostino, the owner and his granddaughter… her name is Anna Pryor…”

“You’re sure one of the shooters used a silenced pistol?”

“I believe the correct term is suppressed… and yes, I’m sure.”

“You know what one looks like?”

“That big can hanging off the end of the barrel was unmistakable.”

“Did he screw it on before he fired or was it already attached?”

“The latter.”

“Then what happened?”

* * *

You may be wondering why Tyne isn’t terrified of being questioned by police?  Besides believing he is innocent of any crime, until the cops tell him otherwise, I’ve already dropped several hints in back-story that Tyne isn’t your ordinary Joe Six-pack.  Later in the story we will learn that during the Vietnam War he was a naval intelligence officer.  He was trained to beat the box and is better at interrogating prisoners than these guys will be on their best day… but that is yet to come.  Notice I mix first and third person in rendering what Tyne is thinking.  I think this enhances authenticity in POV.  It’s what we do when we have mental conversations with ourselves.

Thomas Docheri’s rules of writing fiction

To recap, here are the rules I use when I write fiction:

  • Write every scene in the point of view of a single character, typically, that scene’s most important character.  It may not be a protagonist.  That’s why for me writing women is so challenging.
  • Never use any verb other than said in attribution tags and then only when not using said would confuse the reader as to who is speaking.  And never, never, never, on pain of being drummed out of the IFWC (International Fiction Writers’ Conference), use an adverb in an attribution tag to add emotion.  Instead, use POV.
  • Use adverbs sparingly in other parts of the story.  My rule, granted, perfectly arbitrary, is no more than one adverb every 100 words of narrative.
  • Write in the active voice unless there is a good reason to use the passive voice.  When you discover, during editing, that you slipped into the passive voice inadvertently, try the sentence using an active verb.  If you still think the passive voice is correct in context, well… at least you will have thought about it and made a conscious decision to use the passive voice.
  • Minimize the use of the verb to be.  I count verbs and try for a ratio of eight to one… no more than one instance of any form of to be for every eight active verbs.  Thank you Constance Hale for this suggestion.
  • Sprinkle back-story throughout the narrative rather than in one big dump.  A little of that goes a long way and too much is just TMI.  And rather than just dropping narrative back-story anywhere – which is okay but less than optimal – put the back-story in dialogue.  People love to talk about themselves and when we meet someone new; we want to learn everything we can about that person… so, we ask questions.  Let each character tell as much or as little about herself as she wishes, in dialogue.
  • Read dialogue out loud, to hear the rhythm and sound of speech. You’ll be amazed at how different it sounds in your ear from the way you think it sounds when you see it in print. Remember too, English speakers, regardless which regional dialect they speak, speak in contractions. Few have the time, or think they have the time to say he is rather the he’s or they are instead of they’re.
  • The story is not finished until the publisher’s final galley, so… edit, edit, edit.
  • Finally, rules were meant to be broken. I break mine when I think there is a good reason to do so. I rely for this on the Fiction Writer’s Bill of Rights.

Let’s analyze this passage from Affirmative Action. I’ll annotate in red the different literary techniques I’ve used, based on my rules, to develop character.  The scene is written in Tyne’s POV.

* * *

Jonathan Tyne was packing when the landline phone in his room rang.  He glanced at the clock radio; it was 11:33 P.M.  It must be a wrong number, he mused.  He hadn’t given his room number to anyone; in fact, he could not remember telling anyone where he was staying.  He decided to ignore it but it kept ringing; five, six, seven times.  He finally picked up the handset and said, “Yes?”

Said #1.  It’s the first piece of dialogue in the scene so it’s necessary.

“We should talk?”

He recognized Catherine’s voice as she must have recognized his.  “The only thing I have to say to you is best of luck in Seattle.”

His POV: he recognized her voice and assumes she must have recognized his.

“Okay, I’ll talk and you listen?”

“I’m listening.”

“What I have to say would be best said in private?”

“Where are you?”

“In the lobby.  They wouldn’t tell me your room number so I had to call you on the house phone.”

“Room 233.  Directly across the parking lot and take the stairs on your right.”

Tyne was wearing cargo shorts, a T-shirt and flip-flops.  He decided he was dressed well enough to receive company so he stepped out on the balcony.  He leaned on the railing and watched Catherine cross the parking lot: wondered what she wanted to talk about; wondered if what she really wanted was sex, probably not; wondered if she was going to pitch him to come with her to Seattle.  Unlikely, if she intended to hook up with her ex.  He waved and pointed to the stairs and a moment later she was standing beside him.

Standing erect, relaxed, hands in front pockets, gazing at her face giving her his full attention, his face expressionless: “How did you find me?  I told no one where I’m staying.”

More POV.  He wondered… three instances of wondered.  We’re inside his head, big time.

“That figures.  I certainly wouldn’t tell anyone I was staying here.”

“Why’s that?”

She held her arms out, palms up, looked from side to side as if to say look at this place; “It’s a dump.  I called around.  It’s the last place I called.  I was just about to give up and then I thought, what the hell.  You sure look like you can afford better.”

As if to say… This is an implicit observation made in Tyne’s POV, something he sees.

“Not up to your standard?”

“This place has a standard?”

“The desk clerk made you call on the house phone.  I approve of that.  What do you want?”

“That’s not very friendly.”

“We’re not friends.  You said so yourself.”

She ignored this.  Instead, she tapped her glasses and said, “I see you wear glasses too.”  He’d removed his contact lenses and was wearing metal-framed bifocals.  Hers were metal-framed too but more oval than his, softer and less severe, and as a concession to vanity, were no-line progressives.

She ignored this… and, said #2.  She ignored Tyne’s sarcastic remark.  He’s having a dig at something she said in a previous scene.  He can only surmise why she didn’t react.

“And contacts,” he said.

Said #3, well into the scene with only three.

“Me too.”

“You have such beautiful eyes.  Does the color come from the lenses or is it you?”

“My lenses have a very slight bluish tint so I can see them if I drop them.”

“Mine too, only the tint is green.”

“Why did you rush off without a word?”

“I hate crowds.  You were being mauled and I got tired of waiting.  I told you I’d give you my best and then we’d go our separate ways.  Did I fail to live up to that promise?”

“No, you were magnificent.”

“So, what’s on your mind?”

He noted her red and white McGill hoodie, faded jeans, her red-painted toes peeping out from some sort of high-heeled sandals.  The red toenails made him suddenly remember another woman’s feet.  Small feet, he thought, like Madeleine’s.  Pretty feet, he’d called them.  She’d liked the way he’d massaged them… and the way he’d sucked her toes and other interesting parts of her anatomy, after dinner, making her swoon, almost always making her unbuckle his pants.  He wondered whether this woman liked having her feet rubbed too.

Narrative back-story, and POV.

“Is there something about my shoes?  You seem fascinated by them.”  She tugged her jeans so the fabric was taut showing her ankles.

“Your nail polish brought back fond memories of something my ex and I did almost every night, especially on nights I cooked.   She loved it when I rubbed her feet and she has such pretty feet, and when I sucked her toes.  And I think I may have told you, she was a ten-minute girl… well, maybe eleven towards the end.  Anyway, to get our engines revving I’d play ‘Alfie’on her…”

Dialogue back-story.  Back-story can work either way.

“It’s chilly out here.”

She interrupts him.  That’s what three dots, the ellipses, means.

So, that’s what this is about; she wants me to fuck her.  Well, why not, one time, bon voyage Seattle?  Make her toes curl; give her something to remember me by.  “It gets cold in the desert at night even in summer.”  With a sly, mischievous look on his face he held the door to his room open and gestured for her to enter.

It’s chilly out here.  Is that a hint or what?  More of Tyne’s POV; a woman Tyne desires – he hit on her, in fact, several times – comes to his motel room at midnight.  What else other than sex could she have in mind?

She shook her head and said, “Let’s go for a ride?”

Said #4.  Have you had any difficulty knowing who’s speaking?

He stared at her, tried to read what she was thinking.  She’s too old to fuck in the back seat of a car, so, not sex.  He looked down at his clothes and said, “I could use some coffee.  Perhaps that Starbucks on Greenwood is still open?”

Said #5; only five in 36 discrete pieces of dialogue.  He still doesn’t know what she really wants, nor do we.

“We can check.  It’s on the way to where I want to go.”

“It is chilly.  Let me put on some sweats.”

She nodded and he went back inside.  He opened the zippered pistol case and slipped his 9-millimeter into its IWB holster, stuffed it inside his shorts over his appendix, threaded his belt through the loop and buckled it.  He then pulled on a set of sweats, socks and running shoes.  He left the lights on and made sure the door was locked and then followed Catherine to her car.

As always, your comments are most welcome.

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