Jose F. Diaz's picture
Jose F. Diaz from Boston is reading Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel December 29, 2015 - 10:51am

I'm done reading the same advice on writing. Of course I should be reading. Of course I should be writing daily. Of course I should have a perfect little comfy spot all to myself without interruption. Those don't seem to have anything to do with the actual writing. It's all foreplay to the actual act. I don't care about foreplay, in this sense. How you prep yourself to do it doesn't concern me in the least. Let's actually discuss the writing.

But let's take it a step further. Show, don't tell. Got it. We know we should be writing using our sensory details, create impactful dialog, rich characters, pull on the heart strings, and get the reader involved. So, let's break these down and work with these more. Let's develop them past their outer coating. 

Let's work with getting the reader involved. Let's play with mental images.

Now, think of your scene as a picture. Zoom way out. That's where you start. Write that. Next, zoom in to the object you want to discuss and something else interacting with it. It can be a person with another person, a person with a banana, whatever. Write that. Next, zoom in closer. Get really close. Get really descriptive about the appearance, action, all the really good stuff. This is a good place to use the word "moist." The sweat on the brow rolling into black, bushy eyebrows, the stringy tapeworm looking stuff on bananas once you start peeling them. Write that. Paint that picture for your reader.

Now, have something external interrupt that closeness, and bring us back out to the scene at large. It can be a person entering the room, a phone call, a tea kettle screeching. However you want to keep the action moving. Mix in the varying sentence lengths and structures and it works really well. Just as much as it works in horror films when something jumps out at you, this should kind of do the same thing to your reader. It should keep them on their toes. It attempts to not allow them to get comfortable with knowing what is going on or what they're looking at.

Imagine seeing a room, people talking, closing your eyes for a minute only to discover nothing changed. Or look at a banana really close for three minutes. Bored yet. Keep it moving, have a plan of how to move it.

Wash rinse repeat. This helped me with scene development and how to move the action in a way that makes sense. It isn't just writing. It's writing with purpose. 

 I'm hoping we can start gaining better tools instead of regurgitating the same tired tropes. Think of it as Chuck's craft essays developed by us and for us. So, I've shown you one of mine. Let's see yours.

Thuggish's picture
Thuggish from Vegas is reading Day of the Jackal December 31, 2015 - 10:25am

I like this idea. Here's how I go about things. More or less.


I start with a character. The story is about the characers above all, anyway, so why start anywhere else? I have that character doing something interesting. If it's the first chapter, I start with something he wants and can't have. But he's trying to get it.

If I introduce another character, either he's doing something, or maybe something's happening to her. I make it enticing. You want empathy for this character? Make her suffer. You want intrigue? Don't yet reveal his intentions. Whatever. Keep it moving, moving, moving.

Cut every word you don't need, every sentence that slows it down, every comma that you wouldn't actually pause if saying out loud. Descriptions, settings, all that stuff can happen later in the next draft (or revision for you discovery writers). And be sparse with it. With my kind of pacing a little goes a long way, and your reader will fill it in for you when you don't. The action itself should simultaneously do description. If it isn't what's doing the description, I'm probably lingering too long.

Also, dialogue is key. It does so much at once. It develops characters and shows you who they are. It allows for quick info-dumping. It establishes back story and moves the plot forward. Make it like real people really talk, and sprinkle some movement with your conversations, and you might have the makings of an entire scene just with that.



Jose F. Diaz's picture
Jose F. Diaz from Boston is reading Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel December 30, 2015 - 5:55am

There was a thing I read about Craig Clevenger where he starts all stories with dialog and then after that is all done, he goes back and fills in the details. He said it made sure that his dialog moved the story forward. I really liked this idea, but for longer works, this seems like it would be a massive pain.

I guess the only reasonable thing to do is do this by scene, or chapter. It could act as a mapping, you know where you need to end up, and how the characters and setting should really all multiply the effect of the dialog.

The more I write about it, the more I really like the idea.

Time to play with it.

Thuggish's picture
Thuggish from Vegas is reading Day of the Jackal December 30, 2015 - 11:03am

I think I see it as the opposite. Dialogue fills in the story. How could you do a long work without it? Unless they're fighting or humping, odds are character interaction equals talking. 

Come to think of it, other than action (meaning movement), I don't know what would fill in a narrative other than dialogue. 

Anyway, I love having two people just converse to get to know them and their history, even if I never put it in the book.

I'm going to take a guess that you're a big outliner?

Jose F. Diaz's picture
Jose F. Diaz from Boston is reading Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel December 30, 2015 - 11:22am

Actually no. I'm very much a discovery writer. But, well mostly what this post is about, is how I can kind of curb my discovery style and bring it back toward something more middle of the road. toward something more planned. I do what all discovery writers do, I start off strong, get some really good stuff in, build up everything, and then I don't have a clue how to close it out. It's the crux of my life. Even in chess, I'm good at the beginning, great in the middle, and can't find a check mate to save my life.

If you haven't read Sunset Limited by Cormac McCarthy, you absolutely must. It's one of the best "plays" I've ever read. It's seriously good stuff.

But I see what you and Craig are saying. I'm not sure where I stand. I think anyone who says it should be one way or another is full of shit. You're both right for both of those reasons. I guess it's just a matter of knowing when it can be filler and where it is absolutely vital.

So that is the question then, when is dialog vital and when can it be filler? And let's stay away from the "it depends" bullshit answers. I'd like to move forward in a way that there are answers, we just need to find them, rather than the bullshit subjectivist crap.

Thuggish's picture
Thuggish from Vegas is reading Day of the Jackal December 30, 2015 - 12:18pm

First of all, PM me because we should play chess.

Second, I'm a big discovery writer (which is why I wonder why you don't have dialogue coming out the wazoo if you are too) and I have the same issues. How to wrap this shit up? That's when I turn to outlining, even if it's outlining what I already wrote. Brainstorming with friends helps me a TON, and then forcing even a loose structure for what happens next. (Points on a map, bullet points, that kind of thing). 

And then there's revision, which discovery people like anyway, right? My first draft looks so different from my second, and my third is almost a new story. I went back and added a stronger mystery thread, totally changed up the relationship plot... you know what I mean. And that was before settling on and ending. But I once heard that if something's wrong with your Act 3, it's actually wrong in your Act 1. 

So, I'm just floating ideas here... Maybe consider what promises you made to your reader in Act 1, and then decide how best to fullfill them? 


I say dialogue is filler when it could be taken out without affecting the story. If there's no way the characters wouldn't say what you have them saying, it belongs. An argument is a great example. If something happens and two characters have different, strong views about it, they have it out with one another. What I like to do is write it out then have all the good lines, the things that have to be said, stay, and cut the redundant stuff. (This is actually not like real life, but no one cares.) Next thing you know you have increased tension, maybe someone will betray the other, and so on.

Thuggish's picture
Thuggish from Vegas is reading Day of the Jackal December 30, 2015 - 12:22pm

Let me put it better: I say if the dialogue moves the plot forward, it's absolutely necessary. If it doesn't, it should be really strong (and appropriately timed) character development. And brief. 

jyh's picture
jyh from VA is reading whatever he feels like December 30, 2015 - 2:14pm

@JD --- Book I'm reading now (The Crimson Petal and the White by Michel Faber) does something like what you describe in your first post. It's constantly shifting around, into, away from, scanning about. Internal, external. Lots of dialog, lots of description, but never lingering too long. I guess it's sort of a Dickensian novel (which isn't really my thing) though modern in its attitude.

I mention this because, as you say, you wish to stay away from "It depends." It does depend, of course, but what's the use in pointing this out? Likewise, talking about technique without examples is abstract. I don't even know if the book I've mentioned would feel to you like an example of what you're talking about; nevertheless, that's what came to my mind. Have you read it? If not, what have you read that appears to do what you described?

Thuggish's picture
Thuggish from Vegas is reading Day of the Jackal December 30, 2015 - 2:35pm


So, what techniques woudl you say that author uses? How does he do it?


Jose F. Diaz's picture
Jose F. Diaz from Boston is reading Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel December 30, 2015 - 5:04pm

@JYH: Palahniuk does it in Haunted, specifically in Guts. You'll notice how he starts with a far out idea, external, and then brings it to the character, the character does something with it, uses it, the scene gets closer and closer, it starts to slow down, the sentences kind of get longer, and then bam! external distraction is introduced. 

Specifics: Guys brother is in the military, learns this thing, tells his brother, brother takes that far off external idea and plays with it. We see him prep for masturbation, then it moves in a bit, then it moves it a bit more, the kids mind wanders. We are that close, we're in his head, then bam, external. Parents, Next part, the old and the new mix, and we see the story move forward to the next character. We take with us the idea of masturbation is dangerous, this kid is going to masturbate, oh no, don't do it, and then he does. And then Chuck slowly moves us in for the kill.

Thuggish's picture
Thuggish from Vegas is reading Day of the Jackal December 30, 2015 - 6:28pm

Okay, now I get why you're not dialogue heavy. It sounds like you do that transgressive sort of thing, where you're probably talking directly to the reader, yeah?

Jose F. Diaz's picture
Jose F. Diaz from Boston is reading Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel December 30, 2015 - 7:05pm

I do, do that. But it's more like Portnoy's Complaint, where I do have a person I'm talking to, and can come off as the reader, but there is a silent someone there. 

Since I write about depression and war and suicide, it's usually a therapist of some sort. But ever so often, I use a Spanish speaker that can't understand what my protagonist is saying. It's my way of showing how my life was growing up as the only non-Spanish speaker in my entire family. 

Thuggish's picture
Thuggish from Vegas is reading Day of the Jackal December 30, 2015 - 7:36pm

Why does the protag have to be talking to anyone at all? Or, not just the reader? Chuck totally did it in Damned and it was awesome.

Jose F. Diaz's picture
Jose F. Diaz from Boston is reading Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel December 30, 2015 - 8:58pm

Well, that is the great thing. It kind of is no one. I may talk to the person like they're a doctor, but there actually is, in no shit real life, no one there. I'm talking to myself. I'm working through my own shit to a silent key board that transcribes my pain. The person never speaks back. Never interacts. 

Dammit man, it's metaphorical!

It's Jungian. Each and every character in the story, the setting, the plot, are all aspects of your mind. There is a part of you that wants to accomplish something, and there is a part of you stopping yourself, and there is the part trying to make sense of it, and you smell things and they flash you back in time, you see someone and you remember a scar...

And I'm just ranting right now. I'll stop....

But you're right, the protag does not need to communicate with anyone. I always liked that hybrid of protagonist speaking in the 1st person to the audience, but the story is told in 3rd limited, with the occasional 2nd person mixed in. It just makes sense in my mind. I'm not sure how it translates. I'll need to write a story where I allow myself to just go. To often now I'm putting blocks up to keep me on point.

Right, still ranting.

Thuggish's picture
Thuggish from Vegas is reading Day of the Jackal December 31, 2015 - 9:22am

I don't think it's 2nd mixed in so much as 1st that almost comes off as second. For technicality's sake. 

Anyway, your technique, aims, end product, etc., is far different from mine, but it is really cool to hear about.

(Kind of hoping other people will chime in on their techniques...)

Jose F. Diaz's picture
Jose F. Diaz from Boston is reading Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel December 31, 2015 - 10:05am

^ Yep.

L.W. Flouisa's picture
L.W. Flouisa from Tennessee is reading More Murakami January 2, 2016 - 10:11am

If it's any consolation, I'm not dialogue heavy myself. Of course given I write in first person these days, it just seems to make more sense to cut to the important points in the dialogue. Though often it inevitable makes the work shorter these days.

My work tends to be psuedo-memoir fiction hybrids with (at first) supernatural fiction, though these days it's more like magic realism with horror elements.