My Life In Neon

Sci Fi / Fantasy writer Autumn Nicole Bradley – Dream in digital, live in neon

Archive for the tag “Novel”

Being Emily by Rachel Gold – A young adult novel about a transgender girl

How often can you say that something made you uncomfortable and mean it as a compliment? After all, when I learned that Being Emily, the first young adult novel written in first person from the perspective of a transgender teen girl, was written by a cisgender lesbian, I was expecting something along the lines of another Transamerica. That was a film that accurately portrayed all of the worst stereotypes of trans women in a single 103-minute faceplant into the pavement. So when I say that movie made me “uncomfortable”, it was because it gave a dated, cisssexist outsider’s view of what our poor, pitiful lives must be like, all in the guise of being an ally.

Luckily I met Rachel Gold at a conference in the run up to the book’s release,  otherwise the bad taste still left in my mouth by that movie might have put me off even reading her book. It was there I realized she was someone who knew what the hell she was talking about, and most importantly I noticed how intently she was listening. So if there’s any fault for a cis person writing the first novel of its type, it’s on us for not beating her to the punch, because Being Emily hit the mark in every way Transamerica didn’t.

So this is where I say Being Emily was sublimely discomforting in the best way: rather than being a rehashing of tired tropes with no resemblance to actual experience, Emily’s story is instead too familiar to the journey so many of us embark upon to make for a comfortable read. Gold’s storytelling dances deftly along my rawest nerves, which tells me she took the time to really learn more than just the superficial fluff that often characterizes stories about trans people. If it were comfortable to read a story so eerily similar to my own, then I don’t think I could have enjoyed it as much as I did.

Being Emily tells the story of Emily, a high school student whose stable midwestern life is thrown into chaos when she begins the process of coming out as transsexual to her friends and family. When the rest of the world looks at Emily, they only see Chris, a sixteen year old boy on the swim team with a girlfriend, a little brother, and Catholic parents. But what Emily sees in the mirror is a body growing more visibly male each day, a body that she needs to save from the testosterone slowly poisoning her.

For Emily, puberty isn’t simply the more-or-less awkward time of waiting for one’s body to mature while worrying about test scores and crushes. What Being Emily captures so well is that for transsexual kids, puberty is the horrifying realization that no fairy godmother (or, in Emily’s case, Glinda the Good Witch) is going to come along and with a flick of a wand reverse the course her body is taking.

Emily differs from the typical LGB coming out tale because, like for so many trans youth, time is of the essence; when her parents react poorly, the message of “be patient, it gets better” is less than helpful advice. Her body isn’t waiting, and so neither can Emily.

Throughout the book, Gold remains mindful that her target audience is unlikely to be as familiar with concepts such as gender identity as her precociously educated protagonist. While some readers might find Emily’s knowledge distractingly improbable, I submit that yours truly knew more about sex going in to freshman sex ed than anyone coming out. (In fact, I would be in college before my Human Sexuality class caught up to my own autodidactism on the topic.) In short: when it is relevant to your life, you would be amazed by how quickly a person can consume all the available knowledge on a subject.

However, for the reader who is not personally affected by these issues, Gold weaves the necessary background information into the struggle of Emily’s girlfriend, Claire, to make sense of Emily’s transition. Some of these lessons feel slightly forced, but consider that whole books have been written to help explain the topic and still just barely scratch the surface. The few fact-heavy passages sprinkled in are easily forgiven in the face of Claire’s sincere realization that femininity isn’t a burden unfairly thrust upon Emily, but a truly welcome self-expression being denied to her. The idea that femininity is a gift and not a curse is a lesson that is rarely expressed with such clarity, even in the books in which it is a central theme.

What impressed me most was the way in which Gold captures the essence of the little, mundane aspects of life that take on a new, monstrous form when a person is a (closeted) trans girl: filtering thoughts to ensure sufficient masculinity before speaking them aloud, the need to pee forcing a person to choose between two wrong answers for which restroom to use, the way the choice of a character’s gender in a video game requires layers of justification to throw people off the scent. It was these moments in the story that rang most true, and the echoes of my own memories haunted me while I read each one. (Gold did miss one factoid that would not have escaped such an astute protagonist’s notice: spironolactone tastes like mint. It’s one of those pleasantly surprising discoveries we all make and no trans woman I know fails to mention it whenever spiro comes up. But I’ll let that one slide. 😉 )

While Gold does fall back on a few clichés, she goes to great length to dispel some of the more common ones (“X stuck in a Y body”, “just men in dresses”). The fact of the matter is, that is a battle she couldn’t have won to begin with. Many of these clichés exist not because they ring true for trans people, but because they’re the most about a trans experience that cis people can relate to. Beyond vague notions of “X stuck in a Y body”, or detailed neurobiological explanations of sexual dimorphism in the brain, there are precious few words to express with any success what it feels like. Because it doesn’t actually feel like being an “X stuck in a Y body”. I have no words to explain the physical discomfort I feel, or even how it differs from things like being dissatisfied with my weight. They’re absolutely different feelings, but when I try to put into words the way gender dysphoria feels, I know what cis people think because the next words out of their mouths are “Lots of us have issues with our weight/appearance/etc. Part of puberty is learning to accept it.” If that’s the dismissal, then speaking as someone who struggles with both weight and sex characteristics, I know for a fact you don’t realize I’m talking about something of a totally different nature. It truly is something that you can’t grasp unless you feel it, and if you do, you don’t need complex explanations or justifications to understand the difference.

The most important lesson, though isn’t the actual internal feeling of dysphoria. And as such, Gold only touches lightly on those aspects of the story. Instead, what the reader sees is a character who has an otherwise typical teenage life with this layered on top. What come through loud and clear is the very palpable fear and urgency that accompanies trans youth, coupled with the inability to put off either high school or transition. Adopting a “wait until you’re older and see” attitude isn’t a neutral choice*, because puberty doesn’t wait, and neither does graduation. Gold captures that urgency perfectly in the way small successes alleviate the burden for a time, but even minor setbacks to a typical teen can quickly become catastrophic for a trans teen, because until a person is on the right track, just holding ground is losing ground.

In the end, it is what Being Emily gets right that makes it such an uncomfortable experience for me. While it can be easy for hardened activists to dismiss it as yet another story about a trans person’s transition, it has none of the typical “freak show” spectacle nor does it elicit any of the “that must be so hard” pitying by the reader that so many do.

With good reason, Being Emily is now among the list of two books I have read in a single sitting. I highly recommend picking it up.

[Amazon Affiliate Link] [Author’s Website]

* The World Professional Association for Transgender Health (WPATH) published in their 7th edition of their Standards of Care the following:

“Risks of Withholding Medical Treatment for Adolescents”, WPATH, Standards of Care V7, p21

Refusing timely medical interventions for adolescents might prolong gender dysphoria and contribute
to an appearance that could provoke abuse and stigmatization. As the level of gender-related abuse
is strongly associated with the degree of psychiatric distress during adolescence (Nuttbrock et al.,
2010), withholding puberty suppression and subsequent feminizing or masculinizing hormone
therapy is not a neutral option for adolescents.

Steampunk Worldbuilding – Lewis Mulligan

Or, How I Built A Steam-Powered Internet

When I set out to write Lewis Mulligan and the Pandemonium Engine I started by laying down some ground rules. These would be the cornerstones of my world, and any setting I created had to have a way to fit them in.

  1. Nicola Tesla is alive and well. I don’t think it is uncommon among steampunk fans to think Nicola Tesla was slighted by history. Those pads you put your phone on to charge it wirelessly? Yeah, he was doing that a hundred years ago. Even though most common appliances and electronics run on DC power, AC is a lot easier to transmit over long distances. Who do you think invented it? Radio? This has always been a touchy one, even in his day, but it’s safe to say that he and Marconi should at least share credit for certain aspects of it.

    Obvious consequence: If the Nicola Tesla was to play a role in the story, then it must be set in our world’s past. That alone brings with it tons of other baggage: real countries, real cities, real people, real historical events, and real scientific achievements.

    Vindication: Tesla “won” the War of the Currents with Edison, and thus had the capital he needed to develop his Colorado Springs and Wardenclyffe Tower projects sooner and to completion. The handwavium of this setting is that his projects worked so well that they now account for much of the world’s electrical transmission, along with transatlantic communication. One thing I tried very hard to keep faithful to was Tesla’s focus on the future and improving humanity’s lot; I do my best to keep him from becoming a mad scientist, or exploiting his technological development for personal gain.

  2. Charles Babbage finished the Difference Engine. The entire premise of the Pandemonium Engine is that it is a next-generation calculating engine. That means if we’re set in the period of 1890-1910 (due to Mr. Tesla) then the world has experienced at least 60 years of development of calculating engines in business and industry. Also, in more than just a nod to Ms. Lovelace, she lived beyond her premature death and became the foremost authority on the mechanisms.

    Obvious Consequence: 60 years is a long time to have computers. That’s the period between ENIAC and the DotCom bust. Adjust that for: 1) Cost of manufacture, 2) Physical limitations of the devices, 3) Lower global population, and suddenly you have a completely different flavor of information revolution.

    Not so obvious consequence: Combine this with the twist from above, (computing engines + wireless, transatlantic electrical transmission and communication) and you now have the stage set for a proto-Internet. What would an 1890’s world do with the Internet? This was an age of robber barons and titans of industry where they now control the means of production and the means of communication. I don’t delve too deeply into dystopia with this book, but I think I laid the groundwork for it unintentionally. I may explore that in the future. Instead, I take a different angle on it and explore the backlash against such an eruption of technology from the church who finds artificial intelligence to be an abomination.

  3. Zeppelins are pretty damn cool. Does anything else need to be said? Rather than generic aerostat dirigibles, I bump Zeppelin’s work up by a few years in light of all the rest of the industrial development.

    What if? The major limitations of aerostats is power supply and lift gas. Helium is safe, but it is expensive and (for the time period) extremely rare. However, electrolysis of water can provide a great deal of hydrogen in flight if you have water on board. But electrolysis takes a lot of power for the amount of hydrogen that needs to be liberated for an airship. Where can we get near-limitless power, anywhere in the world, even in flight? Mr. Tesla, I’m looking at you.

  4. One of the main characters is a creation of Dr. Frankenstein. The concept of the golem has always fascinated me, whether we’re talking the historic Kabbalah or modern androids. Some time ago I was in a stage performance of Frankenstein by Marty Duhatschek. It was an original reinterpretation where the monster named himself Adam upon reading the Bible and learning that Adam was the name of the Creator’s first creation. Likewise, Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein included a sapient “monster”. I couldn’t resist adding one of my own.

    Don’t cross the streams! I realize there’s some uncertainty about introducing fictional characters alongside fictionalized characters. Why care about the verisimilitude of the other elements of this list (such as the plausible technologies of Tesla) if I’m just going to introduce plainly fictional elements? Well, let’s think about this a little more closely. We can already revive people through defibrillators. Medical science has already achieved a head transplant (even though nervous system control is questionable). Cryonics. Part of the horror of Shelly’s story for modern audiences is that it has actually become more plausible since it’s initial publication.

    (Geek note: whenever I play D&D, I always play a class capable of creating constructs. It’s never about pets, its about creating.)

  5. This is still for young adults. One of the advantages of setting this in the real world is that I can take advantage of the narrative to introduce younger audiences to some of the really cool stuff history missed out on by taking a different course: Gurney cars, Tesla’s world electrical grid, Babbage’s engines, and so on. I do my best to keep faithful to the original design and intent of these things so as to minimize any misunderstanding between the real thing and my fictionalized account.

What can you take away from all this

  1. Each setting choice has a consequence.
  2. Self-consistency is crucial to making things believable. If the world has readily available electricity without the need to plug in to a grid, all kinds of free standing devices become possible.
  3. Steampunk is alternate history, or an alternate world altogether. Things don’t need 100% historical accuracy.
  4. Technology brings social change, even if it is subtle. Without the need to run cables, home electricity in rural areas becomes feasible decades earlier. What kind of change would that cause?
  5. Things are allowed to be different, just remember 1-3. If you introduce the luminiferous aether, then Einstein’s theory falls apart and you’re dealing with a variable speed of light. That is bound to introduce some very, very strange things, so consider the consequences carefully (If your sky isn’t rainbow colored, why?), but don’t be afraid of it.
  6. Just remember the Rule of Cool. (Warning: Contains a link to TV Tropes. Do not click unless you have an abundance of time on your hands.)

How To Write Better Dialog 3: Subtext

Or: What-the-Scene-Is-Really-About

Subtext is all the information about a scene that is communicated indirectly in the hopes that the audience will understand it without it being stated outright. It’s the stuff that’s on the characters’ minds when they speak. It motivates their word choices and their actions. By these choices, we can then infer a great deal about what is really going on in the head of a character.

In books, there is an additional layer to subtext. There’s the subtext of the scene, and there’s the subtext of the dialogue. The subtext of the scene is anything that never appears on the page at all. The subtext of the dialogue is whatever is not spoken by the characters (but which can appear in the accompanying narrative). There is a place for both and there must be a balance.

Subtext is tied directly to motivations and premises. In other words, you need to answer these questions:

  1. What does the character want that the other characters in the scene can provide?
  2. What does the character believe is true about the world and their situation?
  3. What status transactions are at play?

Concerning the first, this isn’t about what the character wants in the Big Picture Narrative Arc of your story. It is about what the character wants right now, and from that person. It could be as major as getting a general to agree to drop a nuclear bomb to as trivial as seeking validation from a friend that the main character is doing the right thing. They may not even be conscious of their desire, particularly in the case where a scene is driven by status interaction rather than objectives.

The second is about premises, which I dealt with here.

In other words, what is the scene really about? And what is each conversation in the scene really about?

Dialogue Subtext

To reiterate, dialogue subtext includes anything that the characters don’t come out and say directly. But this information can appear in the narrative around it. This includes dialogue tags, italicized thought passages, omniscient narrator explanations, footnotes, or whatever other conventions you are employing in your work.

Typically, subtext of this sort is filtered in some fashion through an unreliable narrator. If it is an omniscient third person, it may be the point of view of a historian documenting the events and it may be shaped by their ignorance. If the book is first person, or limited third person, it is colored by the bias of the point of view character for that scene.

“Are you going to the beach this afternoon?” Toby asked.

The asshole knew very well where Caitlin was going; he was just trying to trap her into admitting it. So she shocked him into silence by giving him exactly what he was asking for: “Yes. With your brother.”

You can see where understanding Caitlin’s thoughts gives us some hint about what Toby’s motivation is. As the scene continues, we may find out that Caitlin was wrong in her assumption, or we may find out she was exactly right. What’s important is that we know why Caitlin came out and admitted the truth: it was a defiant expression based on the belief that it would work out in her favor.

It’s sometimes thought that omniscient narrators can’t use this because it becomes “telling” instead of “showing.” However, omniscient narrators certainly can employ this to create dramatic irony. With the reader having access to the thoughts and motivations of both characters, the drama of the scene is driven by the audience knowing that the characters are just misunderstanding one another.

In a certain variety of first person and limited third person where the narrator is narrating from far in the future, they may have attained a degree of omniscience. You may see passages such as: “I found out later that Patricia was lying to me from the start, but at the moment, I was taking her at her word.” This is another way of introducing dramatic irony where the narrator comes out and states that the character is about to make a mistake in judgment.

Another important element of dialogue subtext is using dialogue tags. This isn’t about using tags to spruce it up and add variety in place of the word “said,” though. When building subtext, the dialogue tag should be there in order to tell us something that is not readily apparent based upon the words used in dialogue.

“I hate you,” she said with a smile.

“I’m proud of you,” Joe said, but it was a toss-off comment. He hoped Riley would be satisfied with the praise and leave.

“They’re destroying the city!” he shouted gleefully.

Scenic Subtext

Scenic subtext is the tricky one, but if you’ve been following the prior two articles, it should come as no surprise when I say that status transactions, and premises and biases are your hammer and screwdriver when building in subtext. Once you understand what a scene is really about, what the characters believe is true, and how the characters relate to one another, you shouldn’t need to have characters explaining themselves to one another. If you understand those aspects, then it will flow naturally.

Some writers prefer to save subtext for its own separate revision pass. The thought is, writing scenes without subtext lets them get to the point sooner so they themselves know what the book’s “roadmap” is. Then they go back and scrub the scenes of the “telling” dialogue and let the audience infer more. I happen to like this method myself because it frees you up to just write the damn scene, without getting hung up on crafting a Checkov play on every page in the rough draft. Once you know what the scene is really about (possibly because a character has come out and said it), you can hold that thought in your mind as you break it down and build it back up in revision.

If you are doing it by revision passes, the simplest way to add scenic subtext is by removing unnecessary dialogue subtext. Unnecessary dialogue subtext can be seen as an attempt to explain scenic subtext. Contrast that with necessary dialogue subtext cues which, if removed, meaningfully change the nature of the scene. This is particularly apparent in the case of dialogue tags and dramatic irony. Don’t remove necessary subtext cues.

If you’re building from scratch, don’t just have characters answer questions directly, or respond to provocation for the sake of it. Each time you put a ” ” on the page, consider why that character is speaking and what they hope to accomplish with their speech.

How To Write Better Dialog 2: Premises

When people come together to discuss a topic, they bring with them all kinds of assumptions and biases about the topic. If I say the words “labor union,” it instantly conjures up all of your feelings on the matter. Some of you will be predisposed to be hostile toward any discussion that does not involve dismantling them. Some of you will be equally biased in favor of them. And at no point can a constructive discussion take place unless we have some common ground or room to negotiate.

Our characters have the same kinds of predispositions and biases. If you are writing a fantasy story that involves magic and monsters, then it’s a sure bet that every single person in that world has an opinion about magicians, or a personal story. Even if they are as rare as a two-toothed narwhal, people have probably at least heard of them. If they haven’t heard of them, then they probably are disinclined to believe magicians even exist!

However, more often than not, I come across dialogue in novels and movies where a topic is introduced (about which characters of different backgrounds would likely have divergent views) yet everyone is on the same page about it. You end up with a group of people who stand around agreeing with each other, or even when they disagree, they are bickering over the details.

This happens when everyone in a discussion accepts the premise of the conversation.

Premises

Premises are the assumptions that are built into a conversation. They are based upon word choice, which is informed by biases. We are not always conscious of these built in assumptions, even when we are the ones asking the questions.

For example, if a character asks the question “Why do labor unions deserve legal protection for their collective bargaining rights?” then there are certain assumptions buried in the question:

  1. The belief that rescinding collective bargaining rights is a legitimate option. Without this premise, any answer given would be irrelevant.
  2. By raising the question at all, it implies that the person asking it believes it should be done. Otherwise, they’d have never raised the issue.
  3. Use of the word “deserve” implies that it is a privilege that must be earned.

How does this relate to dialogue in fiction?

I picked something politically charged and divisive on purpose. The confrontational nature of the question makes us want to respond to it. Whether we agree or disagree, it is demanding a reaction. When we write, it is easy to slip into the trap of making characters respond to provocation because we would respond to provocation.

But let’s say you wanted to show that your character is not just some author avatar spouting your personal morality, so you put them on the opposite side of the debate. You dislike unions, so you write a character that defends them.

Now, the trap is that even if the character answers the question by saying workers deserve protection, they have still accepted the premises of the question. In other words, if the character says: “Unions deserve legal protection because without it, management’s right to take legal action would be an unfair advantage because management has the financial means that individual workers do not,” then they have still unintentionally agreed that it is a valid topic for debate, and that workers must prove they deserve the additional protection.

The character’s act of disagreeing is unimportant because they have already validated the central premise, and revealed an underlying bias on the part of the author that has crept into the work. Whatever heated debate is taking place on the page is no longer drama, but sock puppet theatre.

Some other situations:

  • If your characters are building a wood shed and get into a protracted debate about what color the shed is, they have already agreed to the premise that the shed ought to be built in the first place.
  • If your characters are arguing about the morality of using demonic magic to stop an even more powerful demon, they have already agreed to the premise that demons are evil and the use of magic must be justified.
  • If your characters are sailing a ship and they argue about whether three point sails are better in a storm than four point sails, they have already forgotten the obvious advice to bring the sails down during a storm.

Rejecting the Premise

It is a time honored tradition in public relations, advertising, and politics to attempt to establish a premise ahead of time. It’s also referred to as “framing the debate.” Less experienced rhetoriticians often fall into the trap outlined above where they react to the provocative statements of the other side without questioning the assumptions inherent in the statement or question. Over time, however, people learn to reject the premise before responding.

To use the prior example, “Why do labor unions deserve legal protection for their collective bargaining rights?” some responses might be:

  • “Why are we discussing hard working citizens when it is a corrupt political structure that is causing the problem?”
  • “How many jobs should a person have to work in order to support their family?”
  • “No one in management is having trouble making ends meet, so why is this a problem?”

All of these responses share one thing in common: they brush aside the premises of the original question before dropping in a new set of premises of their own.

Rejecting the Premise for comedic and dramatic effect

Let’s face it. Tit-for-tat arguing can get the blood flowing but we only watch it as a spectator sport to either root for our side, or to listen to what nonsense the other side spouts. As writers, we are aiming to craft characters and scenes with greater depth than a Facebook argument.

Rejecting the premise can be the source of immense drama, and it tells us much more about a character than an argument does. Let’s re-examine the scene from the previous article, and this time we will examine the premises rather than the status transactions.

Julie pushed open the doors to the board room. The meeting of her fellow directors was already in progress.

“It’s about time you got here,” Seth said. He threw the copy of the report on the table and shoved toward Julie’s seat.

Julie picked it up to read without sitting down. She skimmed to the report’s conclusion. Seth started speaking but Julie held up a hand to silence him until she finished. “Change of plans,” she said. “We’ll be going with David’s proposal.”

“What?” Seth shouted. “David’s never even seen Denver!”

“It’s the continental U.S. How different can it be, really?” David asked.

“Plenty. Do you remember—”

“That’s enough, you two,” Julie said. “Seth, I understand your concerns, but Taiwan just isn’t feasible right now. You understand why, right?”

Seth opened his mouth to protest, but instead he nodded and took his seat.

When Seth calls out Julie for being late, he is trying to establish a dominant position. His choice of words and his defiant act of shoving the report across the table rather than handing it to her indicates he is operating from a particular set of assumptions:

  1. Julie’s tardiness deserves commenting on.
  2. He expects her to justify her tardiness.
  3. His time is more valuable than hers.

Julie doesn’t take the bait. In effect, she refutes Seth’s premise by not responding to a deliberate attempt to provoke her. She is saying, “Your comments on my behavior are not legitimate enough to merit justification.” That reaction (or non-reaction) creates more dramatic tension than if they had broken down into bickering.

Tit-for-tat bickering is a way to release dramatic tension, not build it! When characters argue, they are laying their cards on the table. To build tension in the scene and in the reader, you want to do the opposite: hold things in reserve until the last possible moment.

We see her put this into practice in the following sentence when she cuts off Seth before he can press matters. She has now established new boundaries for the discussion: they will be discussing what is important to her, and on her time.

Now, we have conflict. Seth wants one thing, Julie wants another. More importantly, they are doing all of this in front of an audience. The implicit conflict becomes explicit when Julie makes the statement that they will not be going with Seth’s plan, but with David’s.

Seth lays out that David has never been to Denver. Implied in his statement is the underlying assumption that: “Unless David has seen Denver, he does not have the expertise or the authority to speak about the plan.”

Now we have an example where a character unintentionally accepts the premise. David directly responds to Seth’s statement, hoping to convince Julie that Seth is wrong, and that he knows what he is talking about. But, in accepting the premise, he has already slipped into Seth’s trap: any justification he makes will be weaker than Seth’s statement.

Julie rescues him (and the scene) by cutting off the bickering before it goes too far. In effect, she rejects Seth’s premise that David must have seen Denver in order to have sufficient knowledge. Once again, we build dramatic tension because the characters do not accept one anothers’ premises. That dramatic tension is resolved with Seth conceding.

Comedy

We can use the same technique for comedic effect. I won’t break it down as much here because the structure of refuting the premise is the same for comedy as it is for drama. The only difference is the tone of the scene. Any dramatic event can be played for laughs by changing the tone.

Joss Wheadon is a master of building comedic scenes upon characters holding divergent assumptions about the world. Any scene between Mal Reynolds and Jayne Cobb in Firefly would serve.

As a simple example, think back to any of the old Looney Toons cartoons where a character runs off a cliff but doesn’t fall. The dramatic tension is built on challenging the audience’s assumptions, namely the assumption that gravity works. The character holds a mistaken belief that they are immune to gravity (or a mistaken belief that there is still ground underneath them). The longer the character defies gravity, the more tension is built on the part of the audience because they are having their belief directly challenged by the fact that the character is not yet falling. To resolve the tension, the character falls, complete with the stoic “Uh oh” face. (Then, once audiences started to accept the premise that characters could defy gravity, they played with it further by having the characters sometimes scurry back to the cliff successfully only to throw some other sort of reversal at them.)

Conclusion

Give your characters the ability to reject the premise of discussions. It builds greater dramatic tension and reveals more about the character’s own beliefs and biases. In short, it gives them greater depth.

How To Write Better Dialog 1.5: Additional Example

I posted yesterday’s article over at the AbsoluteWrite forums and got some questions about the three tips I laid out at the start. Specifically, I addressed this:

Douglass

I’m curious about your number one rule:

“Dialogue is the last resort of the desperate storyteller.”

It seems in conflict with two trend of novels: 1) more and more dialogue with each passing generation. 2) the more popular the novel, the more dialogue it contains.

I touched on that in the paragraph that followed:

The first one mainly applies to screen and stage, since they are visual media and you have someone’s performance and action on screen to carry the scene when there is no speaking. On a page, the text is there whether it is dialogue or narrative, so the rule isn’t as hard and fast as it is for the screen, but in general, if you are falling back on dialogue to do the storytelling, then you need to re-examine your plot structure.

I got my start in screenwriting and I had gone to school for theatrical and film direction. That’s a guideline that exists for visual media.

That said, it’s easy to fall into the exposition trap, even when writing novels:

“Did you hear? Jacob, your brother, will be coming up from his home in Kansas to lecture at our son Chris’s college. I’d like to offer the guest bedroom to him while he’s here, but I don’t want to hear you two playing Madden 2012 until 4AM like last time he came, at Christmas,” Alice said.

It’s clunky, and unnecessary. Most importantly, it doesn’t flow. That text is going to be on the page either way, but compare it to this:

“Jacob is coming to town,” Alice said. Brad held his tongue. The last thing he needed was a lecture about staying up until 4AM playing Madden 2012 with his brother at Christmas. “Chris is looking forward to his lecture.”

“Why would a math major be attending a lecture on paleontology?” Brad asked.

“‘Because it’s his uncle and he never sees him’ isn’t good enough?” Alice poured a cup of coffee and passed it to Brad.

Brad sipped his coffee. “I’ll clean the guest room,” Brad said. Alice looked at Brad sharply. “And we won’t play Madden. Not much. At least not past 2.”

The word count is a little higher, but this is just off the top of my head (so, in the strictest sense I am breaking my own rule, but the spirit of the rule remains in that I’m not using the dialogue to convey everything). The dialogue communicates more about their relationship and how they relate to one another, rather than conveys the raw facts. The dialogue is pulling double duty in parts like: “Why would a math major be attending a lecture on paleontology?” We learn that Brad is attentive enough to know what his son is studying but doesn’t understand why he would be interested. In fact, the facts learned (Chris studies math, Jacob is a paleontologist) are actually the least interesting parts of that comment.

When Brad jumps to “I’ll clean the guest room” without explicit prompting, we understand that the subtext of Alice’s entire half of the exchange was: “I want Jacob to stay here.” When we look back at the things she says, they all lean in that direction without her coming out and saying it, which is another clue about what kind of relationship Alice has with Brad.

If it’s crucial to cut word counts, the important bits of the conversation can be boiled down to: “Jacob is coming to town.” followed by, “I’ll clean the guest room.”

“Jacob is coming to town,” Alice said.

Brad sipped his coffee. The last thing he needed was another lecture about how he and his brother had played Madden 2012 until 4AM at Christmas, so he decided to nip the discussion in the bud. “I’ll get the guest room cleaned.”

The essentials are still there, and we keep the big clue about their relationship: Brad understands Alice enough to know why she is bringing up Jacob’s visit without her needing to say it.

How To Write Better Dialog 1: High and Low Status Players

Raise your hand if you’ve never struggled with dialogue. First, you’re lying, and second, if you’re not lying then you aren’t pushing yourself to improve as a writer.

Well, there are a few pieces of advice I picked up from my screenwriting and acting days:

  1. Dialogue is the last resort of the desperate storyteller.
  2. People are always pursuing objectives; understand what your characters want from one another and you’ll know why they are saying what they do.
  3. You can only have two people sitting on a park bench talking about the nature of art if one of them knows there is a bomb underneath the bench. (This last one is paraphrased from another source but it’s been a long time since I heard it; I no longer remember where it was.)

The first one mainly applies to screen and stage, since they are visual media and you have someone’s performance and action on screen to carry the scene when there is no speaking. On a page, the text is there whether it is dialogue or narrative, so the rule isn’t as hard and fast as it is for the screen, but in general, if you are falling back on dialogue to do the storytelling, then you need to re-examine your plot structure.

There’s a perennial piece of advice for writers which states: Show, don’t tell. Put simply (actually, how can it be put simpler than that?) your objective should be to have your characters take actions that demonstrate their desires and personality, rather than describing them on the page. You may have also heard this as Direct Characterization and Indirect Characterization. We should know that the villain loves dogs by the fact that he has a bronze statue cast of every dog he’s owned on display in the front hall of his downtown Metropolis office tower, and that their pedigree is lovingly etched into their plaques. In addition to being a unique quirk, it reveals more about the character than just: “he liked dogs.”

It is the second two that I will be focusing on in this series of articles. Number 2 relates primarily to Status Transactions and Premises, while number 3 can be summed up as Subtext.

Status Transactions

Keith Johnstone introduced the world to the concept of “status transactions” in his book on improvisational acting, Impro: Improvisation and the Theatre I was introduced to Keith Johnstone’s work during my screenwriting class with Doug Heil while at UW-Oshkosh. (You can find Doug’s own book on screenwriting, Prime-Time Authorship, at Amazon.com) Impro is a book for actors and directors, but in it he posits that human interaction can be described in terms of relative social status. The way we interact with one another on a status level says more about who we are than the actual content of our speech or actions.

In other words, the difference in relative social status of two characters and how they react to that difference is more important than what they say or do.

I’ll break down the part that’s most important for writers concerned with dialogue:

  1. High status roles and low status roles are determined relative to one another. A parent has higher status than a child in that a child is expected to defer to an adult’s authority, and outsiders will most likely think the child is being disobedient rather than that the parent is being unreasonable. An older child has higher status than a younger. A well-respected grad student may have more recognized status than a tenured professor due to past circumstances. (Already you can see how status can drive dramatic tension!)
  2. When interacting with others, people will attempt to raise and lower their perceived status, either to achieve an objective or to return to their comfort zone. In Johnstone’s own words:

    A person who plays high status is saying, “Don’t come near me, I bite.” Someone who plays low status is saying, “Don’t bite me, I’m not worth the trouble.” In either case the status played is a defense and it’ll usually work.

  3. People have a status they are most comfortable with. Some people are not comfortable being deferred to. Some people reject any efforts to overrule their opinions. We all have a preferred state we wish to be in, and sometimes circumstances force us outside that state.

    [When a status play works] It’s very likely that you will be increasingly conditioned into playing the status . . . You become a status specialist, very good at playing one status but not very happy or competent at playing the other.

  4. Drama comes from either a disagreement over relative status, a reversal of expected status, or characters forced outside of their preferred status. Just think of how much character drama is based upon conflict between lovers or coworkers who cannot get along, or the classic fish-out-of-water scenario where a character is suddenly invested with a great deal of authority, or has an empire they have built taken away from them. (Brewster’s Millions is a brilliant example of this.)

Example

Let’s play with this a bit. We will be using Julie, Seth, and David as our sample characters.

Julie pushed open the doors to the board room. The meeting of her fellow directors was already in progress.

“It’s about time you got here,” Seth said. He threw the copy of the report on the table and shoved toward Julie’s seat.

Julie picked it up to read without sitting down. She skimmed to the report’s conclusion. Seth started speaking but Julie held up a hand to silence him until she finished. “Change of plans,” she said. “We’ll be going with David’s proposal.”

“What?” Seth shouted. “David’s never even seen Denver!”

“It’s the continental U.S. How different can it be, really?” David asked.

“Plenty. Do you remember—”

“That’s enough, you two,” Julie said. “Seth, I understand your concerns, but Taiwan just isn’t feasible right now. You understand why, right?”

Seth opened his mouth to protest, but instead he nodded and took his seat.

Let’s break this down.

The first thing that happens: Julie walks into a meeting already in progress. We aren’t certain of Julie’s actual status relative to these people yet, and Seth immediately takes her to task for being late. He is deliberately trying to lower her status and raise his own. With that one sentence he is saying, “You are late and deserve less respect,” and, “I should be the respected authority here because I am allowed to pass judgment upon you.”

Next, Julie ignores his criticism. She could dispute him, but that would involve accepting the premise of his statements. If she argued with him at all, she would be acknowledging that he has the right to pass judgment upon her. (More on premises next time!) As soon as she does that, she is demonstrating that he was correct that his status was higher than hers. By ignoring him completely, she rejects his status claim as being beneath notice.

Then she silences him with a gesture. She has now turned the tables entirely: she no longer needs to speak to make him respect her authority. By his silence we know that Julie is the real authority here, and that Seth’s power play has failed.

When she announces her decision, it rekindle’s Seth’s desire to spar with her for control. Now he has not just his prestige among the board at risk, but his position in the company: if David’s idea is chosen, David’s status rises and he misses an opportunity. So he needs to reassert himself and make Julie back down.

Since he already accepted the lowering of himself a moment earlier, he then tries to drag David down to his level by calling him ignorant.

David, not as disciplined as Julie, disputes his claim by observing that he has all the knowledge he needs. It is a weak claim, and Seth has successfully dragged David down with him. As we see in the next moment, Julie separates them like bickering children: she now sees both of them as being so far beneath her that she can address them in an infantilizing manner.

Her final question to him, “You understand why, right?” is a direct challenge. But it is also a trap, because if he disagrees he is saying he does not understand. (Again, more on premises later) Instead, he lowers himself further by allowing her to speak to him in a parent-and-child manner reminiscent of “You understand why it’s wrong to steal from the cookie jar, right?” The poor treatment may leave lasting damage to their relationship going forward, but it may also stave off future status struggles long enough for them to put their “plan” into action in Denver.

Conclusion

Next time, I will be examining conversational premises in greater detail and addressing how accepting and rejecting premises plays into dramatic dialogue.

Sometimes An Idea Strikes

Sometimes this happens:

monkey_steals_the_peach

When an idea strikes, will you be ready?

An idea just grabs you and won’t let go. Sometimes you are just struck by an idea and you need to write it down (or else a ninja will rip your balls off). It burns its way out of your skull and there’s nothing you can do about it except close your eyes and let your fingers be guided by the inspiration alone.

And then sometimes inspiration takes a break before crossing the finish line.

A few weeks ago I was hit by an awesome idea for a short story. Miraculously, I got it finished over the course of a long weekend. “My Brother’s Keeper” is a sci-fi story about relativistic weaponry and interstellar war, except it’s not really about that, those are just the parts that make it sci-fi.

Then on Valentine’s Day I was hit by an idea that had absolutely nothing to do with Valentine’s Day, except that it is a love story. It’s about 93% coincidence that it was Valentine’s Day. I’ll grant 7% for the fact that the last puzzle piece for the idea fell into place while on a movie date.

Here’s what I should be doing:

  • Editing Root of the First‘s first 50 pages again.
  • Editing “My Brother’s Keeper” and “The Last Warband.”
  • Preparing for another round of agent submissions.
  • Preparing for WisCon35
  • Revising Lewis Mulligan and the Pandemonium Engine*
*Note, I’m intentionally letting Lewis Mulligan wait until March before I begin editing.

Here’s what I am doing:

  • Working on a yet-untitled new paranormal literary fiction novel.

The idea for it hit me, and it’s still a little underdeveloped. I know where I want to start, and where I want to end. The paranormal aspects of it were just too cool not to build a story around because it flows so perfectly with the driving theme of the story. It’s incredibly rare that life gives you a high-concept, easy-to-interpret metaphor that is attached at the hip to the plot, all wrapped up in a neat little box.

All that’s missing right now is the big, empty middle. There’s a whole “middle” to this story that just isn’t there yet. And I have no idea what to put there. I haven’t even settled on a time period that this is set in. As I’ve worked on it this week, I have become increasingly enamored of the idea of leaving it deliberately vague. But I don’t know how long that will last.

Creativity Without Discipline

There’s a notion I’ve encountered in my time as  both a gamer, a writer, and even as an actor that states that any rules or discipline or direction “stifle creativity.” The reasoning goes something like: “Maximum creativity is achieved when you are allowed to express any idea, no matter what. Anything that constrains that amounts to censorship.” And usually, the use of the word censorship, with all its Big Brother connotations ends the debate almost as quickly as calling the other person a Nazi results in an invocation of Godwin’s Law.

But censorship is an integral part of the creative process. For example, last night, I had a dream about being an FBI agent tracking a child sex trafficking ring. We had traced it to a warehouse, and we were undercover, but the cover was blown when I refused to have sex with an underage kidnapping victim. So the sting gets foiled, and we need to escape, so we pile into the cars and drive off. While trying to get away, we go off the road and the only path to take is through a marina. Rows and rows of boat trailers were in our path, so the guy driving the car drove right over the top of them, and by the magic of Dream Logic, this worked. Around that time, the cat woke me up.

Now, be honest: How many skipped to this paragraph the moment you read the words “Last night, I had a dream. . .?” And how many went back to read it when they noticed the word sex? (And how many just went back to read it because they missed the word sex the first time?)

Point is, dreams are uncensored, undisciplined creativity. Lots of writers (and non-writers) keep a dream journal for all those ideas, but as anyone who has ever experienced someone else telling you their dreams knows: 95% of the time they are boring, uninteresting crap that doesn’t make sense, is not a coherent narrative, and at best can hope to be mildly humorous. (Yet, most people would never share the genuinely funny ones because they’re embarrassing. ) Therefore, we’ve learned to tune it out as soon as someone starts talking about them.

Granted, it can be useful to journal dreams for idea fragments that can later be developed into full-fledged ideas and stories. For instance, the car chase I experienced could make for some pretty interesting cinema if it were ever attempted,  and the “commit statutory rape or your cover is blown” creates a pretty fantastic dramatic intensifier for a real plot, but it isn’t a plot by itself.

Creating a film, a video game, a novel, or anything, really, requires artistic discipline. It requires working on it even on days when you don’t feel inspiration, and it requires self-censorship of some genuinely good ideas that just don’t work for this project. If you’re a dungeon master running a D&D game in a fantasy world, the crazy awesome idea you had for a spaceship encounter modeled after the movie Alien just doesn’t fit no matter how cool it is. I used to run into this a lot with DMs in our Neverwinter Nights server. They’d have a great idea, but refused to accept the flaws in using that idea unaltered in a setting that it was not appropriate for. It was probably the #1 conflict on staff: “Cool idea, but not appropriate,” vs “You’re stifling my creativity.”

Now, for NaNo I’m facing the same conundrum: lots of great ideas that just won’t fit into 50000 words. But they’re all near misses; I’d need to create a setting that is similar but not quite the same in order to use them since they couldn’t be used for a completely different setting. And that’s just not going to happen. I’m keeping a  record of them in my story binder, but I have a feeling some of them just won’t see the light of day.

Steam Engines GO!

A few days ago, I was debating which of two ideas I wanted to pursue for NaNoWriMo. Well, I have decided:

Lewis Mulligan and the Pandemonium Engine

One day, Lewis Mulligan was a scrapper in a textile mill, and the next day he was the cabin boy and apprentice navigator on the TRA Nevermore, a second-hand airship just leeward of ruin. But while transporting a clockwork contraption known as the “Pandemonium Engine,” the crew runs afoul of Church inquisitors, a secret society of alchemists, and a member of the Royal Irish Constabulary. Now, it’s up to Lewis to steer the Nevermore to freedom, or at least go down with style!

My goal for the crew of the Nevermore is a steampunk Firefly. Granted: different medium, one story arc vs 14 episode arcs + 1 movie, and I’m not Joss Whedon. But still, if I can get halfway there, I’ve achieved all I wanted for NaNo.

I’ll be posting Crew Profiles for the ship in the next few days.

Fallout: New Vegas comes out a week from tomorrow. Now, if I had done it right, I’d have made my planning schedule end on October 18th, and reserved the 19th-31st for Fallout, and called it “story research.” Instead, I still have benchmarks and milestones sprinkled throughout the rest of October.

Post Navigation