Invisible Words: Dialogue Tags and Why You Don’t Need Them (Much)

You’ve probably heard this piece of advice before, “Don’t use descriptive dialogue tags. Use only said and ask.” And that’s good advice. It makes a lot of sense because it is really jarring to read something like this:

John quipped, “I know, let’s go to the movies!”

Sarah gasped, “But we’re not allowed. It’s against God’s law!”

“We never get to have any fun,” John grumbled.

“We could just go over to those bushes and have sex,” whispered Sarah.

John paused. He exclaimed, “Sure!”

Yeah, that’s terrible. So, how are we supposed to do it? Like this:

John said, “I know, let’s go to the movies!”

Sarah said, “But we’re not allowed. It’s against God’s law!”

“We never get to have any fun,” John said.

“We could just go over to those bushes and have sex,” said Sarah.

John paused. He said, “Sure!”

The reason why the second sample was better than the first is that the words said (and ask if used) are invisible to the reader, and it shifted the emotion in the dialogue for the reader to figure. However, sometimes this can be jarring. Why? Because examine all those times I used the names John and Sarah. If I keep writing, John, John, John, Sarah, Sarah, Sarah, guess what your brain is likely to tune out or keep stumbling over?

And that’s what this post is all about–provide you another tip on style by omitting said and ask as much as possible. Let’s redo the example.

John snapped his fingers. “I know, let’s go to the movies!”

Sarah lifted a hand to her mouth. “But we’re not allowed. It’s against God’s law!”

“We never get to have any fun.”

“We could just go over to those bushes and have sex.”

“Sure!”

In the last example, I’ve picked up the pacing on this and used a little body language to instead of a dialogue tag. Second, I eliminated the dialogue tags in the last three lines.

So how does this help you? Here’s how this stylistic approach can improve your writing.

It strengthens your showing, not telling. What did you think of when John snapped his fingers and then said, “I know, let’s go to the movies!”? He hit upon an idea is what most of you will say, but some of you will have a different opinion, and that’s fine.

Since our brains are trained to ignore the words said and ask, just get rid of them anyways. Use them sparingly, but for the most part, you don’t need them. Warning: you don’t want to get yourself into “talking-bubble-head-syndrome”. You do need to show who is talking. Here is an example:

Samdel patted his rider’s coat, lifted out the lapel, retrieving a cigar. “What were you saying, girl?”

“I hate it when you smoke those thrice-damn things around me!”

“Huh. A demon said that to me once.”

You know right off that Samdel is the first person who started this part of the conversation with the narrator telling he’s fishing out a cigar. Then, we know whomever he’s talking to responds, and then he says something back.

Now, when does this not work really well? When you have three or more people involved in conversation. Still, you can eliminate a great deal of said and ask by utilizing your prose to indicate actions from all your characters, but if you need to move rather quickly, you’re better served by using said and ask to ensure your reader doesn’t get confused or lost in the conversation. Another problem some writers have created when using this method is “floating heads” or “talking-bubble-head-syndrome”, and I covered that topic in an earlier post.

In short, here’s a tip on honing in a stylistic choice to remove mundane words and help your prose with more showing than telling.

Happy writing!

Demystifying Plotting Part 2 of 2

In the last post, I discuss how plotting is not as hard as it sounds so long as you don’t make it as hard. The whole point of it is to just jot down ideas and points of each part of the story. Don’t worry about cohesion, theme, or twists. Just write down each piece and then move on.

In this lengthy post, we’ll run through an example.

I write down my overall plot: A knight journeys across the lands to slay the dragon who has kidnapped the princess.

See? Already, you know how this story starts in the beginning and the end. At the beginning, the dragon comes, lays the smack down on the castle, snatches Princess Peach, and then absconds with her. The king sends the knight to go kill it and get his daughter back. At the ending, we know the knight is fighting the dragon, kills it, and takes Princess Peach back home to live happily ever after. But what’s in the middle? Umm … well, he journeys there, and that’s what we need to figure out. Second, let’s back up a little bit. Is there anything we can do to set the story up before the dragon attacks? For example, does the dragon have to be the be-all, end-all of villains?

Yes, we can!

Let’s have a dragon goddess unleash a terrible dragon upon the mortals. She does this because at one time, the lesser races worshipped her and the dragons. She desires those Ye Olde Tymes to return. Also, it comes at a moment when humanity, along with the other races are ready to war with one another.

Chapter 1. The Dragon Goddess summons the Black Dragon. Commands her most powerful minion to kidnap the princess.

Chapter 2. The King argues with the Elven and Dwarven delegates about a potential treaty. The delegates angrily deride the King. They leave. The reader knows war is coming as already skirmishes have been fought.

Chapter 3. The Outlying Fortress that is guarding the Wastelands is destroyed by a flock of dragons. The Black Dragon flies toward the kingdom.

Chapter 4. The dragon attacks the castle, captures Princess Peach, kills the Queen trying to save her daughter.

Chapter 5. The Aftermath. The king mourns his wife, and summons the most fabled knight of all the lands to kill the dragon.

Chapter 6, 7, 8, 9 …. uhh …. stuff …

Chapter 25. The knight fights the dragon before the Gate to the Dragon Goddess’ realm is opened.

Chapter 26. The mortal races are united, treaties are signed, and the knight and the princess get married.

Okay, now we have an epic fantasy on our hands. Already, we have five chapters at the beginning and he haven’t introduced our hero yet! Some blogs will say that’s not a good idea. Right now, we don’t care. What we care about is just getting all twenty-six chapter ideas out. The fine-tuning comes later. The plot twists come later.

What do we do next? Well, we need to introduce the knight in the next chapter.

Chapter 6. The knight is at a tavern, drunk, mourning his dead wife and youngest child of six years from an orc raid while he was off seeking treasure. He argues with his surviving son, who leaves him to join the war against the elves and dwarves.

Chapter 7. A servant summons the knight to the king’s castle. The knight tells him to eff off. Dragonkin, along with other monsters, attack the village and end up killing his son and most of the village before being driven back by the knight’s awesome fighting skills. The knight resolves to fight.

Now, the knight has entered the arena and our story is shaping up. We know he has to go to the castle, get his quest from the king, then journey to the Dragon’s land for the final battle. We think about it a little more and realize the knight needs resources in order to fight. Let’s pull out all the stops—magic, people, treasure, everything. The knight needs it all and he needs allies in order to do it! Let’s start with an expression, “Sometimes, politics makes strange bedfellows.” So, we’re focusing on the knight building an army to fight the dragon.

Chapter 8. The knight receives his commission at the castle. He travels north into monster-infested lands and meets with the cabal of wizards. They will aid the knight on condition on getting the dragon parts solely for their research. He agrees.

Chapter 9. The Dragon Goddess comes to the elves, promises them they will be favored servants. They agree, but some in the Council do not like the idea. The Goddess goes to the dwarves, they rebuff her.

Chapter 10. The dragons attack en masse on the dwarven holds. They are wiped out, but the dragons are spent.

Chapter 11. The knight travels to the barbarian lands of the Bear People. They love battle and one bear is worth ten human men. However, they live in squalor in lands fouled by magic. The knight negotiates a deal for the Bear People to migrate south to better arable land. They armor up and march.

Chapter 12. The Dragon Goddess delivers an ultimatum to the King and the rest of humanity. Bow on bended knee or be wiped out starting with the princess. The king refuses. It’s on.

Chapter 13. The knight, Bear People, and wizards encounter their first major battle against the elves. The elves are defeated, but the knight is severely wounded and may not live.

Chapter 14. Some of the elves throw in their lot with the knight in exchange for assistance to usurp the existing Council. The knight agrees.

Chapter 15. The knight and his army is repelled by the dragonkin and some guardian dragons.

Chapter 16. The knight quests to find an ancient sword and shield to bolster the power of his army.

Chapter 17. The knight slays the lich guarding the powerful artifacts, but is betrayed by the wizards. He is rescued some Bear People and elves.

Chapter 18. The Dragon Goddess appears before the knight and offers a deal with him. Serve her and she will make him a king. He refuses.

Chapter 19. Battle at the Dragon Border Part 2. The knight wins.

Chapter 20. The elves begin to fight among themselves. A civil war erupts. Despite this, they start overrunning the human kingdom.

Chapter 21. The remnants of the dwarves come to the humanity’s defense. The elves are finally defeated and driven back.

Chapter 22. The surviving members of the wizards come to the Dragon Goddess’ defense and begin preparations to open the Gate to allow the goddess to come to the realm. If she does, nothing can oppose her as she will be a living god.

Chapter 23. The knight is captured and tortured. His closest friends come and rescue him.

Chapter 24. The knight and his army meets the dragons and dragonkin at the Great Castle. The Great Castle falls, and the knight storms his way to the deep dungeons below to fight the Black Dragon.

Chapter 25. The knight fights the Black Dragon before the Gate to the Dragon Goddess’ realm is opened.

Chapter 26. The mortal races are united, treaties are signed, and the knight and the princess get married.

Epilogue: Several years later. The princess is in labor and gives birth to a dragon. The goddess’ plans are complete.

So, does any of this seem rushed? Of course. It’s a rough outline, but guess what? You now have the middle. Could any of this be more developed? Yes, definitely! Once you start getting into the chronology and pacing of the book, you’re going to find out that you’ll need to bring in more chapters, more subarcs, or maybe make cuts to the outline (like introducing the wizards is too much).

After that, you can think about twists and shoring up any story themes; however, you don’t have to do any of that, because with this outline now, you can actually start writing and let those components reveal themselves.

In conclusion, you now know how to plot without having to go crazy.

Happy writing!

Creating Good Female Villains

One thing I don’t like in fiction is female villains. A lot of their motivations tend to be cliche or at worst, misogynistic. It’s irritating that women villains cannot possess the same motivations of their male counterparts.

Here is a short post on helping you craft better female villains. I don’t say good because you still need to have good characterization as a skill, but if you get the motivation right, your villain will at least be better.

Cliche motivations for female villains are anything of the following:

  1. Anything related to “women’s issues.” The glass ceiling, relationships, unequal pay, domestic abuse, falling in love with a male Bad Boy, etc. Don’t use these issues as motivation to make the woman bad.
  2. “Amazon Women from Mars” or something along the lines of Women vs. Men in a misogynistic way.
  3. “Queen Bitch.” The female is a villain simply because she has power/money/magic, etc.

To have a motivation that doesn’t fall into these kind of traps, think of the tropes heroines are motivated to pursue and simply make the consequences of their actions bad. Despite this, they continue their goals.

For example: A super heroine pounds the living tar out of some bad guys who are trying to fire a laser at a nuclear plant thus making the Chernobyl disaster a walk in the park. Heroine saves the day. End of story. The villainess does the same thing. The bad guys die along with the support personnel who had no idea they were working on a laser to destroy a nuclear plant. This turns into a legal nightmare for the government who have a duty to enforce the law.

If this was a super heroine, she would probably hang up her cape and call it a day or mend her ways. The villainess won’t. The ends justify the means—after all, innocent lives were at stake. She does it again, this time to low-life bank robbers, then muggers, then to some teenagers vandalizing a beautiful park because she can’t control her strength (and doesn’t really care to). Sooner or later, the government has enough and puts resources to have her arrested.

The villainess now fights the government, the police, the National Guard, etc. She rationalizes they are nothing more than a system of control and the best way to deal with it is to destroy it.

One of the things that makes for a great villain is the ability to rationalize their actions in small steps, but it scales up. Real life crook Bernie Madoff didn’t wake up one morning and decided, “I’m going to create the biggest fraud in history today!” No, he altered a trade sheet here and there. He obtained and spent a $250k meant for investments here and there. He continued until he racked up billions in fraud. If he was caught in his very first year of defrauding investors, he would probably be out of prison by now. Change the gender and now you have a female villain whose primary motivation is greed, starts small, and then it builds up.

Happy Writing!

Demystifying Plotting Part 1 of 2

Let’s say you’re not a pantser; someone who just sits down, writes by the seat of their pants and then a few days later, they’ve finished their first draft of their latest novel. The reason why is that because every time you sit down and do it just that way, you’ve written up a cool beginning, belted out a few chapters, you have the ending in mind, and then you hit writer’s block. Literally run into it like you just ran into a brick wall.

However, when you Google up sites to help you plot or read blogs on plotting, you read, “First choose your theme, then write up a detailed plot, then outline your Three Act Structure, then take your Three Act Structure and break it out into the Ten Points, answering all these questions. After that, grab some notes cards, jot down every character in your book—what they look like, their motivations, flaws, their quirks, and the last time they went to the bathroom.”

Even I get intimidated if that was the process of plotting and I am a plotter.

While that is a very involved exercise, you don’t need to plot like that. Actually, you don’t need to put in a lot of effort into it at all. You just want a guide that will tell you, “Here’s the beginning, this is what happens, this is the middle, here’s the climax, and here’s the denouement. Done. Need to make changes? That is why the Tri-Headed Queen invented erasers.”

It’s the middle part that gets the writer every time!

You have this idea, this general plot, but you just need to get from A to Z by filling out all the other letters in between. Want to know my secret?

You jot down a bunch of crap.

Does it make sense? I don’t care.

Does it flow? I don’t care.

Does it stick to the theme? Theme? I’m sorry, but I really don’t care.

For now, I’m just writing down whatever random scene pops into my head as to what comes after A, what comes after B, and what comes after C. If you ever played table-top role playing games such as Dungeons and Dragons, you may have heard the expression, “Bumbling from one random encounter to the next.” Because that’s all your chapters are: one encounter that leads to the next. When you have good characterization, consistent pacing, good tension, a theme that pops up here and there, a twist, guess what? You’ve written a concise story.

“Talk is cheap,” you say.

You’re right. Let’s work through an actual example in Part 2.

Pitfalls to Avoid: Mary Sue Characters

You: “Oh man, people are going to love my female MC. She’s a total badass!”

Friend: “Why?”

You: “Because she has all sorts of magic at her disposal, she can fight with swords, she’s got a genius-level IQ, and she’s beautiful. Guys just swoon for her, but she’s a virgin, saving herself for her True Love.”

Friend: Rolls eyes. “Of course. What does she do?”

You: “I’ve got a whole series of books planned. She’s from a fantasy world, but she’s transported to our world in the 21st Century. She then learns about guns while wielding magic. She has to fight Neo-Nazis, werewolves, evil corporations, and gives a speech at the U.N. on women’s rights. She doesn’t need a man to save her.”

Friend: Sighs…loudly. “That’s it? What’s her flaw?”

You: “Umm…flaw? Oh yeah, she was abused a lot by her parents. She doesn’t know how to love. She can’t decide from the six men who are chasing after her, but she can’t let a man in her life though she did have some girlfriends with some buxom elves and hot shifters. She–“

Friend: “Stop! Just…stop. I have a major headache now and I need a drink.”

What did I describe to you? If you guessed that the author had created a Mary Sue character, you’re right. What is a Mary Sue? I won’t get into the origins of such a character (but you can read about it here), but they are a very powerful, virtually flawless character who overcomes any obstacle in the story. Ultimately, they are boring characters because they will plow through every scene by their sheer will alone.

I write this post because if you’re an indie author or an amateur writer who is looking to publish, this is a very common mistake to create a main character who can do everything. Trust me, as I write this, I’m not writing this from a pedestal looking down upon you. I’m guilty as charged as well and this post is also for me as well (I have a few characters in my Rise of Evil Series that I need to take a hard look at and pare them down a bit).

So, let’s get back to the boring part and what you can do to fix them or at least create believable MC’s the reader can get behind. Remember, these are guides, not hard rules.

  1. Outline all the challenges a character has to face in your story. Hand them some failure that sets them back and if you want to make it impressionable to your reader, make those failures debilitating. Say, for example, you have a master swordsman. He is awesome. No one can beat him even in twenty-to-one odds. Now, get him in a fight with a wizard where he loses his sword arm–chop that thing right off. He has to learn how to fight all over again. On top of that, he now has to weigh his battles carefully.
  2. Flaws in the backstory are meaningless unless they come into play in an actual scene. You want to “humanize” your MC with some trauma from their childhood? That’s an overused cliche in amateur writing as well, but that’s another post for later. That trauma is boring if it doesn’t come into play. For example, you have a young man who is sorcerer attempting to overthrow the evil king, but past abuse from his father causes him to freeze up. The evil king casts a spell to look just like his father, and the sorcerer is powerless, just stands there, and is captured, tortured, and sentenced to death.
  3. Make your character rely on others to achieve victory, and make that an endeavor as well. I’m not talking about him leading troops. I’m talking about he needs others to help him overcome a particular challenge. Bob from Accounting can’t see Sue the VP to convince her to fund Project Z; however, Jack, who … umm … works closely with Sue, can slide that proposal on her desk. But as life would play, Jack likes to play both teams and desires Bob too, so Bob has to figure out how to get Jack to agree to meet with Sue while not having to cave into Jack’s unbridled lust (and irritate his constant bickering wife).
  4. Bring the power level down. If you play Dungeons and Dragons or similar table-top role-playing games, you’ll know that your characters have a level assigned to them which measures their power and abilities. A 1st level wizard is no match for a 20th level wizard. In your story, you don’t want your character start right off as a 20th level wizard because if you do, your character won’t grow and achieve a pinnacle of power if you have a whole series of books planned out.

In summary, ensure your characters have flaws purposely created to give your story tension and drama. Your readers will appreciate your MC’s efforts to try to overcome or circumvent those obstacles.

Happy writing!