Author Vs. Engineer

Me to Carl: I have about a million different thoughts all tangled together right now, and every time I try to pull one loose it gets all snagged in the others and everything gets knotted up worse. Basically my brain is one big messy ball of yarn.

Carl to me: Huh.

Me to Carl: Yeah, I know. Your brain is like an excel spreadsheet.

Carl to me: Well, pretty much.

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Dialogue Difficulties

I love writing dialogue.

I can write pages and pages of nothing but dialogue. Not even anything else interspersed between, just “…” he said. “…” she said. On and on, for miles. I took advantage of this with my first novel (which reads like a rip-off of every major fantasy novel ever written and therefore will never be seen in public): I wrote the first draft as though it were a play, just dialogue with occasional “stage cues.” For the second draft, I went through and added to the dialogue, filled in the pencil outline with colored ink, so to speak. It worked well enough for that story, because it was so unoriginal, but I’ve never been able to make it work since.

So now I strive very hard to add body language, scenery, scent, emotion, everything that one needs, in between the dialogue. Sometimes I still get carried away, though, and realize that I’ve completely ignored plot development for half a dozen pages while I let my characters have a marvelous meandering conversation. Which is lifelike, true, but most likely boring and frustrating for anyone but myself to read. Then I have to go back and prune it down, insert clues to the plot and/or character development into the dialogue so that it has a point.

Part of the difficulty for me is that it is through conversation we get to know people – how they think, how they feel, how they react in any situation. Since I write mostly character-driven stories, rather than strictly plot-driven, conversation seems the best way to show my characters, rather than just telling the audience what they are thinking, feeling, etc. However, it is the unspoken actions, as much as the spoken, that reveal a person, and that is where I struggle.

Compare:

“I don’t like being told what to do,” Maia said.
“I don’t particularly care whether you like it or not,” Aunt Amelia replied.
“You are being unreasonable,” Maia said.
“That is irrelevant,” said Aunt Amelia.

Or:

Maia folded her arms across her chest and tried to appear as stern and immovable as her tiny aunt. “I don’t like being told what to do.”
“I don’t particularly care whether you like it or not.” Aunt Amelia was superbly indifferent to Maia’s attempts at intimidation.
Maia uncrossed her arms and stamped her foot, forgetful of the dignity of her nineteen years. “You are being completely unreasonable!”
“That,” said Aunt Amelia, a smirk lurking at the corner of her mouth despite her best efforts, “is irrelevant.”

Well? Which one shows the characters better? Then add some scenery at the end:

The bees blundered drunkenly from flower to flower, unaware of the battle of wills that was raging in the center of the garden. The heady scent from the early roses tickled Maia’s nose and increased her irritation with her aunt. How dare she ruin a beautiful June day like this, with the sun shining and the fluffy clouds darting playfully across the azure sky, with her unreasonable demands? It was enough to make even a saint lose her temper – and Maia was no saint. Nor did she have the wisdom of Athena, despite the marble statue looming over her shoulder that suggested otherwise.

It’s not perfect, and I know many other writers could do far better – but it’s getting there. Another half-dozen novels, and maybe it will come more easily to me!

Do you prefer to write dialogue or scene settings? What are some of your pitfalls you have to combat in your writing? Have you ever written a novel that was cookie-cutter imitation of whatever is popular in your particular genre? If it was fantasy, did it have a character who was half-elven? (Mine did!)