Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Dialogue: Another Lesson from Arthur Conan Doyle

Yep, you read that right: A lesson in dialogue from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who dredged up Sherlock Holmes from the depths of a quiet, unassuming genius mind.

Dialogue brings life to your characters. When you're writing descriptives, or going into plot details, the reader is listening to you, the author, rather than the characters. The reader is watching the characters silently move about the scene, advancing the story, interacting with their world, but the reader cannot hear the character, or listen to the character. In these scenes, the reader interacts with you, the author, and not with the character.

It's only during the dialogue scenes that the reader hears the character's voice. The reader interacts with the character here. The reader listens to the character. The reader is a willing participant, now, being dragged into the story via dialogue!

And it's amazing how few authors master dialogue. Even successful authors prefer their own voice over that of their characters. The author launches into page after page of descriptives, often referred to as Purple Prose, hogging the reader's mind and time for their own selfish needs.

Even authors who are good at dialogue often interrupt the dialogue with a constant barrage of items such as these:

o "Oh, my," she said, moving through the door and out into the yard, which was ...
o "No, it's over here," said Doug. Then he picked up the ...
o ..., etc.

You see how the author nags the reader with descriptives?

And don't get me started on adverbs and creative dialogue tags. For example, if you want me to throw your book across the room, add in this fluff:

o "I'm not going!" she exclaimed. ** Redundant! Your exclamation point means she exclaimed. **

o "I'm so tired," he exasperated. ** Same thing. Redundant. Tired means you're exasperated. Stop it, please God in Heaven, stop it. **

o "You're what?" she asked quizzically. ** Again, redundant, and in this case, irritating. Drop the adverb. **

So, I've just highlighted two bad dialogue habits:

1) Too many descriptives interrupting your dialogue. Let the characters talk!
2) Creative dialogue tags. They are fine in small, small doses, but limit yourself to "asked" and "said" as much as possible, or better yet, drop the tags altogether!

But, back to Doyle. Why did I mention him?

Because he was a master of dialogue!

Here's a fine example from The Man with the Twisted Lip:

'Now Watson,' said Holmes, as a tall dog-cart dashed up through the gloom, throwing out two golden tunnels of yellow light from its side-lanterns, 'you'll come with me, won't you?'

'If I can be of use.'

'Oh, a trusty comrade is always of use. And a chronicler still more so. My room at the Cedars is a double-bedded one.'

'The Cedars?'

'Yes; that is Mr St Clair's house. I am staying there while I conduct the inquiry.'

'Where is it, then?'

'Near Lee, in Kent. We have a seven-mile drive before us.'

'But I am all in the dark.'

'Of course you are. You'll know all about it presently. Jump up here! All right, John, we shall not need you. Here's half-a-crown. Look out for me tomorrow about eleven. Give her her head! So long, then!'

He flicked the horse with his whip, and we dashed away...

Freaking GENIUS!

Do you see it? You, the reader, are standing next to Holmes and Watson, climbing into the horse carriage with them and dashing away!

Doyle didn't constantly repeat "..., said Holmes" and "..., said Watson" over and over.

Doyle didn't interrupt the dialogue to describe the setting. Instead, he set up the scene, ran his dialogue, and then concluded the scene.

He used the dialogue to do these things, specifically:

1) Determine where Holmes was lodged, and where it was located.
2) Determine the distance of the drive to his lodge.
3) Set up the next scene, which will be a description of the case.
4) Release the carriage driver, John.
5) Set the horses for the fast trip.

So not only did Doyle use dialogue to let the reader interact with the characters, but he used the same dialogue to advance the story, fill in the scene, and add a sense of urgency to the story.

When you're looking for a fine example of a master of dialogue, look to the Holmes series, and minimize your dialogue tags. Dialogue is a powerful tool. Learn to use it!

- Eric

Friday, December 25, 2009


Backstory should be felt, not heard.

Let me give you an example of one of the finest authors to ever tell a backstory: Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

I bet most of you haven't read Doyle. If you haven't read any Sherlock Holmes stories, do as I do, and with the movie coming out soon, take advantage of some of the re-prints of the Sherlock Holmes series.

In Sherlock Holmes, Dr Watson is constantly referring to outside cases, as well as his extensive list of notes on Holmes's cases. For example, here's the beginning of The Five Orange Pips:

When I glance over my notes and records of the Sherlock Holmes cases between the years '82 and '90, I am faced by so many which present strange and interesting features, that it is no easy matter to know which to choose and which to leave. Some, however, have already gained publicity through the papers...

And etc. See how he makes you feel the backstory, without telling it. Reading a little further along the same story, we see another volley of backstory:

Among my headings under this one twelve months, I find an account of the adventure of the Paradol Chamber, of the Amateur Mendicant Society, who held a luxurious club in the lower vault of a furniture warehouse, of the facts connected with the loss of the British barque Sophy Anderson, of the singular adventures of the Grice Patersons in the island of Uffa, and finally of the Camberwall poisoning case. In the latter, as may be remembered, Sherlock Holmes was able, by winding up the dead man's watch, to prove that it had been wound up two hours ago...

And again, etc. Do you see what Doyle did? Do you FEEL the backstory?

He didn't tell you all that happened. He didn't detail each case, nor did he dwell on any case in particular. Dr Doyle -- he was a doctor, like Dr Watson, who originally wrote his Holmes stories while waiting for patients to arrive -- touched his pen on the backstory of Holmes, building a huge and wonderful past for the detective and his loyal secretary, Dr Watson, all without ever telling the reader about the backstory.

JRR Tolkein did this in his series, constantly poking the reader with a backstory that was never fully revealed.

JK Rawlings does this with the Harry Potter series. Her backstory is a feather tickling the back of your neck, just below the brain stem, touching you in places so primal you don't even realize you're being backstoried.

You turn the page, feeling the history, unraveling the past, wrapped in a backstory you didn't even realize you'd read.

Remember these authors when you write. Let the reader feel the backstory. Don't cram it down their throat. Don't dwell on the backstory.


Let it be felt, not heard.

Study Doyle. There's a reason Dr Doyle was knighted into Sir Doyle for his writing. It is because of his wonderful instinct for backstory that Holmes is one of the most beloved and well-developed characters in all of literature.

And he did it all without telling you a damned thing about Holmes! You just felt it.

See how that works?

- Eric

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Percy Freebottom: From Novel to Short Story

So I've been working on this story about a guy named Percy Freebottom. The story's been brewing since May of 2009, when I finished my last book.

Originally, Percy was just a scene. A scene is fine for short story, but it's not enough for a full-on novel, which needs a storyline, plotting, more characters, tons of scenes, deeper descriptions, and so forth.

But all I had was this scene.

I described the scene to people, and they loved it. "I want to read that!" they said.

Which got me to thinking: Cool fucking scene! That'll make a cool fucking novel.

And for the past six months, now, I've been trying to stretch out the scene into a novel. You ever try to stretch out a scene into a novel?

Ever tried to stretch a turtle? Same thing, only people don't think you're insane for trying to stretch a turtle.

So the other morning I woke up at 4AM -- that's when I write, 4AM -- brewed some coffee, and sat on the couch and banged out Percy. I got to 2100 words and stopped, and this afternoon, I polished it off with another 2100 words, making it a decent little short story.

And it's just the scene! Jump in. Describe some shit. Jump out. It's the perfect short story!

But the point of all this ranting is that I tried to make a large something out of a small something. Stretching that short story into a full-length novel consumed a ton of my mental capital, stalled me out, and frustrated me.

I mean, do you know how many times I started the novel! I must've written 50k words just trying to get ~started~ on Percy Freebottom. Plots. Characters. Research. Talking to people, getting their opinions, proof-reading, test-reading... and I threw it all away!

So the lesson is this: If it's short story, make it a short story. If it's a novel, make it a novel. If it's a novelette, or a poem, or a haiku, or a blog post, or an email, leave it as such!

Don't fuck with the worms! They know what's best. Trust em.

Let em dig, and don't question why they only dig a few feet, or why they want to wiggle their slimy little bellies all the way to the core of the Earth.

It's just what they do.

Let em dig. Dig dig dig!

- Eric

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Some Pet Peeves

Every author, writer, storyteller has pet peeves. So does every reader, for that matter.

For instance, the simple things peeve me, such as its v. it's, and your v. you're. Compliment v. complement, and so forth, you get the picture. Usually a simple edit will take care of these sorts of errors, but you run into them in emails and blogs quite often.

Also, quit and quite and quiet. Gotta be careful with those boogers!

For writing, one of the most common peeves is the "had" placement. When the author needs to flashback, place a few "hads" in the beginning, and then drop the rest.

He had gone, he had run, he had bought, he had left, etc. Drop the had. After the first couple, I get it, we're in flashback.

Another peeve is the "like" analogies.

"She had hair like a bird's nest."

Ugh. Come on, let's do better than that!

How about, "Her hair was a bird's nest!"

Or, "Her hair looked better suited for holding bird eggs than a hat."

Or so forth. Some "like" analogies are okay, but some authors use them far too many times. A general rule, for me, is no more than one "like" per page, and I try to avoid them altogether, unless I'm feeling lazy, or it just sounds better that way.

In any case, "like" is sloppy and lazy. Drop it when you can. I do.

But, then again, who am I to judge anyone's writing but my own!

- Eric

Monday, December 14, 2009

Music and Writing

Someone said to me, "Music speaks to your soul."

Maybe it does. I guess it does, on some level. Music can hypnotize you, inspire you, put you to sleep or rile you up. Music can be soothing, irritating, loud or soft.

Music can be anything your mind imagines. Sing. Whistle. Tap. It's all music.

And your soul listens.

Now, what the hell does this have to do with writing? I'll tell you: Writing is the soul speaking.

That's right. When I write, I'm responding to the music.

Do you hear it?

- Eric

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Vote and Buy!

All right, the book is here!

It's got a lot of fun short stories, some from first-time authors, others from veteran storymakers.

WEB SITE: http://ahlvol1vote.debrincase.com/

I've been stuck on my novel "Who the Hell is Percy Freebottom," working title, and can't seem to dislodge myself from that point where I'm wedged. I've plotted, written, chunked, re-plotted, re-written, chunked, and re-re-plotted until I'm nauseous.

So I'm going back and writing some new short stories, and finishing up some shorts that were previously unfinished. One of them is called "Melvin Gee's Short Trip to Hell." Lemme know if you want to read it! I'm almost finished editing it, and clinching the finishing scene.

Now go vote for me!

- Eric