Tag Archives: the written conversation

The Quantum Mechanics of Conversation #amwriting

The supermassive black hole known as Sagittarius A Star gives the spiral shape to our galaxy and keeps it together. Gravity keeps what goes into it from flying out.

All around us, gravity works in less massive, unobtrusive ways. Here on Earth, gravity on a small scale keeps everything securely stuck to the surface.

In writing, punctuation serves the same function as gravity, keeping our sentences from flying apart.

Even if you aren’t writing science fiction, your work must obey certain fundamental rules, or it will be unreadable. But in this case, the physics that constrain the chaos are the laws of grammar and punctuation, the quantum mechanics of writing.

The one place where the fundamental laws of grammar are allowed to deviate from the norm is in conversation.

Creating memorable characters is the goal of all authors. After all, who would read a book if the characters are bland or uninteresting? But what is it that makes a character interesting? Is it only witty conversation and great scenery?

When you envision your characters in conversation, you must think about what the word natural means. People don’t only use their words to communicate. Bodies and faces tell us a great deal about a person’s mood and what they feel.

You want to convey those visual cues in small, unobtrusive ways by picturing your conversations and the characters who are having them.

Beats or actions serve to punctuate the dialogue, to give the scene movement, and to maintain a strong mental picture in the absence of description.

These small actions can show the mood of a character and are often best placed where there is a natural break in the dialogue. When done unobtrusively, beats allow the reader to experience the same pauses as the characters, without stopping the action. They’re an effective tool and are essential to good dialogue, but don’t overdo it.

Otherwise, just use a simple dialogue tag, like said, or replied.

Don’t make the mistake of getting rid of speech tags and attributions entirely. Even with only two characters in a scene, the verbal exchanges can become confusing. Use speech tags every third exchange or so to keep things clear for your reader. Nothing is worse than trying to figure out which character said what.

Even worse, the action takes over. The dialogue fades into the background, obscured by the visual noise of foot shuffling and paper rattling. For this reason, we don’t want to inject an excess of flushing, smirking, eye-rolling, or shrugging into the story. Each of those actions has a specific use in conveying the mood, but anything used too frequently becomes a crutch. We must be creative, the hardest part of being an author.

What about exclamations and verbal tics? We frequently speak this way  in real life, but we don’t want it in our work, so I recommend you avoid using them.

When an author employs exclamations and verbal tics to excess, it is exhausting for the reader to wade through. Paragraphs peppered with instance after instance of “Ahhhh…” “Ugh!” “Yuck!” and  “Blech!” are too distracting.

Have you ever met a person who habitually holds conversations hostage, not allowing others to speak? They open with a meaningless syllable, such as “Aaahhh…” and continue droning on that syllable while they gather their thoughts.

These are ‘thinking syllables.’ This is what is known as a ‘verbal tic’ and can be such an ingrained habit that the speaker is unaware of it. The guilty party may suffer hurt feelings if you try to hurry them along.

These are difficult speech behaviors to convey. They are supremely annoying in real life and are excruciating to read in a book. Therefore, we don’t want to read them in a story or novel. I recommend you don’t begin your sentences with thinking syllables like  “Ahh…” or “Hmmm….”

As a reader, I’ve come to feel your best bet when dealing with verbal tics is to give a brief instance of their speech pattern. After that, if it is important, occasionally mention the way their habits annoy other characters.

I don’t enjoy reading heavy accents and am leaning away from writing them into my dialogue.

More and more, I try to limit the use of misspellings, bad grammar, and vulgar accents, especially when trying to point out that the character is uneducated or from a rural background.

Writing their dialogue by using common words and employing a few vernaculars conveys the sense of who they are, where they are from, and allows the character dignity.

It’s far too easy to go over the top, and turn the character into a parody, a cartoon of a person, instead of someone who feels real.

Use only a few well-chosen words to convey the idea of the accent. Use those words in a consistent manner for that character in such a way that it isn’t incomprehensible.

I have discussed conversations at length before, so I won’t bore you with repeating myself. Instead, I will list the peeves I have with the work of even the most famous authors:

  1. The exposition dump: “Bob, remember how I told you (blah blah blah)?”
  2. Repetitively naming the characters being spoken to: “Bob, remember how I told you (blah blah blah)?”
  3. Bizarre speech tags such as ejaculated or spewed.
  4. Internal dialogues that are a wall of italics going on forever.
  5. Spelling out accents to the point they are visually incomprehensible. “Oive got a luverly bunch uv coconuts…”
  6. Leading off with verbal tics. “Aahhh…ummm…”
  7. Never resort to writing foreign languages by using Google Translate (or any other translation app). A single word used consistently here and there to convey the sense of foreignness is one thing, but in general, if you don’t speak the language, don’t write it.

The word-pond of Story is like a supermassive black hole.

Grammar and punctuation serve the same purpose as gravity, giving shape to the Story, forming it into a familiar, identifiable structure.

Conversations, both spoken and internal, light up and illuminate the individual corners of the story, bringing the immensity of the overall story arc down to a personal level.

Good conversations and mental dialogues bring characters to life and turn them into our  closest friends. The laws of grammar sometimes break down on the quantum level when our friends are speaking naturally.

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#amwriting: using foreign languages in your dialogue

Long Live Dead Languages

At my Tuesday morning therapy writing group, a friend was telling me about a post she had seen in an online writers’ forum. The question ran something like this:

Questioner: “I have a main character in a fantasy novel who speaks no English. She speaks several other languages, though. Should I put the translations for her dialogue in italics or in parentheses?”

My friend gave the answer I would have: The answer to BOTH options is NO!!!

Translations should not be necessary at all. Never give a large amount of dialogue to a character who doesn’t speak the native language the book is written in. We don’t put the reader through that kind of torture, wading through a language they don’t understand, and then giving them the translation in italics. (Or large chunks of whatever in parentheses.)

We all laughed, but afterward, I was still thinking about this issue. The author whose post had begun this was writing a fantasy novel, and there are certain conventions readers expect authors to adhere to in this genre. When writing genre fantasy it’s a generally accepted practice that thoughts are set off with italics, not parentheses (aka Virginia Woolf), and so brackets have no place in the fantasy narrative.

Let me be clear on this: too many brackets clutter up the narrative just as much as large blocks of italics. In fantasy, the use of the em dash or ellipses fills the function of setting portions of the narrative off for emphasis.

Italics, parentheses, and foreign dialogue are like cayenne—a little goes a long way.

If you are writing a character who speaks a foreign  language, consider how they are commonly portrayed in novels that are traditionally published. Take any spy novel with a plot that takes place in both Mexico and the US. It has American characters, including the protagonist, who is a CIA agent and is fluent in both Spanish and English, and it features a large cast of Mexican citizens who may or may not be bilingual.

Because the book is intended for an English-speaking audience, when the Spanish-speaking characters are talking to each other in their native tongue the dialogue is still in English. At times, a few, commonly recognized words in español may be sprinkled in to lend the flavor of Spanish.

You must clearly establish that the characters are speaking their native language, Spanish, in the narrative. This is particularly important if you have a character who switches between languages or in certain situations where Spanish is the only language spoken.

I happen to read and understand some Spanish, and it is a language spoken by many US citizens, but our readers in the US are, for the most part, English-centric.

It’s all right to include an occasional foreign word or phrase, as long as it is done in such a way that the reader who most likely does not speak that language is not completely thrown out of the book.

yoda gibberish memeNow, why would I say this? Because I find it  irritating as hell (sorry for the editor speak) to stop reading, and hunt down translations.

It is hard enough when authors like Alexander Chee  put large amounts of words in French with no translation. Chee is from Canada and is writing for Canadians. His main character is Canadian, and French is one of his two national languages. For that reason, his mingling of French and English is acceptable, as his work is clearly understood by his intended audience.

My next thought when I was told about this particular virtual exchange was, does the writer speak the languages she is writing, or is she getting her Russian (or Spanish or German) from Google Translate? If that is the case, this author has a hot mess on her hands.

Original sentence in English: “It appears as if my dog may have fleas.”

Google translation in French: “Il semble que si mon chien peut avoir des puces.”

Re-run that French phrase through Google translator: “It seems as if my dog can have fleas.”

MSClipArt MP900390083.JPG RF PDNote the slight change in the translation—one word, “may” or “can”—these words are not always interchangeable, as they don’t mean the same thing in English—so that slight switching out of the word “can” for “may” changes the meaning of the sentence. The first sentence with “may” suggests it is possible the dog has fleas. The second translation with “can” gives the dog permission to have fleas.

These are two entirely different concepts.

English originally developed from a set of Anglo-Frisian or North Sea Germanic dialects originally spoken by Germanic tribes traditionally known as the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes.

Therefore, modern English is an offshoot of Frisian, as is Dutch. But even though we share the same roots, we have widely different syntax as our English is heavily influenced by Latin, thanks to the Roman Conquest of Britain after it was settled by the Frisians. In linguistics, syntax is the set of rules, principles, and processes that govern the structure of sentences in a given language, specifically word order.

How do you know that the Google translator understands syntax? The answer is: it doesn’t.

Your character from Amsterdam has bent a spoke on his bicycle wheel. He speaks Dutch. Filtered through the translator, it goes like this:

Dutch: “Oh nee. Ik heb een gebogen sprak op mijn fietswiel. Hoe kan ik het vast?”

English translation: “Oh no. I spoke bent on my bicycle wheel. How can I fix it?”

Note the misplaced words: In English, this implies he was speaking while bent over his bicycle wheel.

If you do use the occasional foreign word or phrase, it’s no big deal as long as it is used appropriately and in a context that will be understandable. It lends a certain realism, when done with a deft and sparing hand.

Just remember, forcing your reader to stop reading and check too many translations is suicide, especially for an indie. Never give your reader a reason to put the book down!

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#amwriting: tips for writing clear dialogue

gibberish quoteDialogue can be tricky. Often, in our rush to get the ideas on paper, we have left off quotes, misplaced punctuation, and written interrupted dialogue with inconsistency.

While a certain amount of literary license in dialogue can enrich our work, our dialogue may be too rich with run-on sentences, and not in a good way.

Also, while everyone has read books that inspire them to become writers, some authors never learned how to write the kind of dialogue they envision. They don’t understand the fundamentals and don’t realize how their lack of understanding ruins their work.

Always begin what is actually spoken (dialogue) with a capitalized word, no matter where in the sentence it begins.

  • Mary glanced over her shoulder and said, “I’m sorry. I can’t go with you.” 

However, interrupted dialogue, when it resumes, is not capped, although the rules of punctuation and quotation marks still apply.

  • “I’m sorry to tell you,” said Mary, “but I can’t go with you.”

Direct dialogue is someone speaking to you or someone else and requires quotation marks.

  • I’m sorry. I can’t go with you,” said Mary.

I’m a US author, so I used double quotes, also called closed quotes. The UK usage is different and often uses apostrophes, or what they call inverted commas. Either way, be consistent and make sure ALL punctuation goes inside the quote marks.

Yes, I did say All punctuation. How does one set off a quote from someone else within dialogue? Set it apart with single quotes (apostrophes, inverted commas) and keep it inside the closed quotes.

George said, “When I asked her, Mary replied ‘I can’t go.’ But I’m sure she was lying.”

George said, “When I asked, Mary replied ‘I can’t go.'” Note there are 3 apostrophes there: 1 apostrophe and 1 double (closed) quote mark. This is in keeping with the rule that all punctuation in dialogue goes inside the quotation marks.

Indirect dialogue is a recapping of dialogue that someone previously spoke.

  • When asked, George said Mary couldn’t go.

Note there are no quotes used in indirect dialogue. Also in this sentence, the word that is implied between said and Mary.

Dialogue tags, or attributions, can come before the dialogue, especially if you want the dialogue tag to be noticed. To make them less noticeable put them in the middle or at the end of sentences. In my own work, I want the dialogue and not the attribution to stand out. However, when more than two people are involved in a conversation, I move the dialogue tags further to the front so the reader isn’t left wondering who is speaking.

DialogueI’ve mentioned before that I prefer simple attributions such as said, replied, and answered because they are not as likely to stop the reader’s eye. People don’t snort, smirk, smile, or frown dialogue as it is physically impossible. They can say it with a smile, but the smile is a facial expression and does not speak.

Avoid verbal tics like “hmmm…” and “ahhh…” as they just take up space and add fluff to your narrative. When people in real life preface all of their sentences with drawn-out ahs and hmms it can be aggravating to listen to them. Consider how irritating it would be to read it.

Sometimes we have two ideas in a sentence that we think are one, and we connect them with commas.  But closer examination shows they are not.

  • “Hello, sir, we bathed your dog,” she said.

The above dialogue contains a run-on sentence, despite its shortness. We may actually speak it in this fashion, words run together, but for a reader, punctuation clarifies ideas.

The dialogue contains two separate ideas. “Hello, sir,” is an acknowledgment and a greeting. “We bathed your dog,” indicates an action was taken in regard to his dog. It should be:

  • “Hello, sir. We bathed your dog,” she said.
  • When we write our conversation using proper punctuation, it looks natural, and the reader will hear it the way it was intended.

When it’s done right, dialogue is, in my opinion, the best part of the story. It’s where we discover who the characters are, and how the larger events affect them. Conversations show the world as the protagonist sees it. We can take some style and voice liberties with dialogue, and indeed, we should, but adhering to industry standard rules of punctuation ensures your reader can remain immersed in the story, and forget they are reading.

And THAT is what we all hope for.

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