Here’s our third checkpoint and discussion of the 2017 Sentinel Big Bang.
And I need to open with an apology. I let the ball drop last checkpoint – a family crisis – and I know I’ve been AWOL since then. I will do my best to be more present going forward. If you have contacted us and are still waiting please email mods (at) sentinelbigbang.com again and I promise a quick reply.
Check in time
Checking in is, as always, optional
The writing target for checkpoint #3 is 6,000 words or 3/5 of your project. This is just a soft target – something to aim for if “slow-and-steady” suits your way of writing. If you’re already ahead of that, you can pat yourself on the back. If you’re behind – don’t worry! There’s loads of time yet.
If you’re signed up as a writer, please comment to check in. Tell us about your progress and feel free to share a few details about what you’re writing and how it’s going. If you need help or if you have any questions for the mods, this is a good time to ask, too.
There’s no standard “form” for check-in this year, because we also have a writer’s discussion going on. If you don’t want to talk about your project, you can check in by joining in the discussion below.
Which leads me on to…
Each of our checkpoints this year will include a roundtable discussion on some aspect of writing. I’m offering my take on the subject, and I hope lots of you will join in with your own take on how to approach writing.
Open Discussion: Dialogue
Dialogue can make or break a story. I’ll never forget the first time a writer put words into a character’s mouth that were so wrong it made me laugh out loud…and it wasn’t in fanfic, it was an official tie-in novel. The fandom was Star Trek: The Next Generation and it was a brief conversation between Riker and Picard. In case anyone reading isn’t a fan, Picard, although supposedly French, is a very English character – played by Patrick Stewart, a classically-trained British actor, drinks Earl Grey tea and loves Shakespeare. And in this scene, when Riker asks why he has been summoned, the author gave Picard the following reply:
“Merely to touch base, Number One.”
Here’s the thing. I’m British, and I didn’t – then – even know what “touch base” means. But I knew it sounded all wrong. This was pre-Google, so it was a few years before I figured out it was a baseball reference, and then it became even more wrong. Because Picard just wouldn’t phrase it that way.
Of course, to the (American) author, the dialogue probably sounded as natural as Cockney rhyming slang did to my Dad who never referred to the newspaper as anything but “the linen” [linen draper = paper], called the staircase “the apples” [apples and pears = stairs] and money as “Nelsons” [Nelson’s eddy = “Ready” i.e. ready cash]. My point is that ridiculous baseball metaphor didn’t stike the author as wrong, but to me – and no doubt to many other Trekkers – it’s so wrong it’s comical.
Bad dialogue ruins a good story; similarly good dialogue, the kind that makes you feel like you’re really there with the characters, can turn an average story into one that stays with the reader for a long time – in a good way, I mean.
So how do we get it right?
For me, there are three principles.
First, I need a canon moment, a line or a speech, that for me encapsulates who the character is, and I keep that in mind as I write the dialogue for that character. Anthony Hopkins once said that it was a single line that brought Hannibal Lecter to life for him, and it wasn’t that silly one about fava beans and chianti. It was “I’ll help you catch him, Clarice.” Dig out the DVD of Silence of the Lambs and you can feel the intensity of that line when it comes. I try to find the same way in to a character. It doesn’t have to be a profound moment. Just something that for me, summons the character. “I am NOT cutting my hair!” – perfect example.
Second, I always, always read the dialogue aloud. Even if it’s 100,000 words and will take hours, read it aloud. If it sounds wrong out loud, work on it until it doesn’t. But equally, natural dialogue the way people really speak, is terrible when you read it. Real people insert lots of ums and ers, they skip over words or trail off sentences, they interrupt in ways that cut off important information, they ramble on about nonsense. The goal isn’t dialogue that’s realistic in that way, it’s dialogue that has the flavour of reality but is more concise, more to the point, than reality. Less is more (unless you have a character who in canon can’t shut up).
Third, take time out. It’s easy when writing to get so involved with a story that I miss its faults, sometimes pretty huge ones. When I’m close to being done, I set the work aside for as long as I can – ideally two weeks. During that time, I might think about it, but no writing and no re-reading at all. That way, when I come back to it, it’s with fresh eyes – and ears. Again, read aloud, check against what I recall of canon dialogue – are the words I’ve chosen the ones that the character would use? What I would call a “Chelsea tractor” Jim would call a truck and Simon would probably call an SUV, unless Jim already said truck, in which case Simon would tend to pick up on Jim’s word.
And fourth, though this isn’t really only about dialogue – trust a beta to check stuff like this. Because I am British and I’m sure I’ve done the equivalent of putting baseball metaphors in Picard’s mouth and I wouldn’t notice it myself.
So – over to you. How do you approach writing dialogue? What works well for you as a reader, and what doesn’t work?
Comment below to check in and join the discussion.