Hey there, ASFR-o-philes! Hopefully by now you've gandered over the first couple lessons in my Stream-O-Consciousness writing tutes, started to delve a little more deeply into your characters, and gotten a bit more on tap with cause and effect as it progresses in your story. Thus far, however, we've only touched on bits and pieces of the story, parts of a whole-- like a single tune that runs through an entire symphony. There's a lot more than just those two portions to the writing of a good story in my mind, needless to say, and that's where we pick up today.
So where to go from there? Well, there are lots of places to go on this little adventure of writing we're on, everything from pacing to description to voice and viewpoint... but for now, let's move from some of the less-encompassing and more tight-knit facets of fiction-writing to the more all-encompassing. This time out, we'll touch on two of the utter necessities in the realm of fiction: Plot and Dialogue.
I say 'touch on', because in truth the subjects of plot and dialogue can more than take up books in their own right, and for that matter, very likely should do so. People far more skilled than I have written entire books on both subjects, and they will likely have completely different criteria for you to keep an eye on than I will. But that doesn't mean that you should discard their suggestions because they're not ASFR writers. Oh, hell, no. In fact, if you can find books on plot and dialogue, snatch them up and read them like there's no tomorrow, because along with character and setting, these are two of the most important elements to your storytelling, and they should never be sold short. What I'll be doing here is giving you snippets of advice, bits and pieces that I've learned from those sources and on my own, as to how to help a little with plotting and dialogue... that's about the best I can do here, because I'm not a licensed writing instructor. However, they're not licensed petrifiers, so it's an even trade-off, I think.
Now that I have you worried for your writing life, let's begin. I'll try to be painless.
NO!!!! Give yourself a pat on the head and a petrified protagonist if you knew that already.
Plot makes the world go around in your story. It's the meat, the potatoes, and the Stove Top™ stuffing, all jumbled into goulash. Without plot you have no story, or worse, you have free-verse poetry. Eww! (Just kidding, all you poet-types out there) Actually, all kidding aside, plot is one of the most important things you can have in your story, right? Right! I mean, I said that before, didn't I? So it's got to be true!
However, before you get too smug with yourself, that is not to say that if you have a plot, you have a story. Some folks are inclined to think that plot is the story. And that's just not the case. Plot is the framework, the skeleton, and the superstructure of a story. But by itself it reads like the listings in TV Guide. Behold:
Dick walked into the department store and looked around. A salesperson asked him if he wanted to try on some jeans. Dick said yes, and went into the change room to strip out of his clothes. When he did that, a strange gas entered the changing room, and Dick found himself turning into a female. Then he realized he couldn't move, and a waxy sheen was starting to cover his skin. (Etc., Etc., you know how this sort thing goes. We see enough of it.)
Is this a story? Loosely and very liberally defined, yes it is. But it's lacking. Sure, any jokes that begin "A man walks into a bar..." are stories, too, but that doesn't mean I usually consider those to be particularly high entertainment, either. At any rate, suffice it to say that if it's a story, it's not a story I'd want my name attached to. This is, in my estimation, a plotline, not a story. And yet we see it put forward as a story every bit as often as more involved stories. That's just... that's just wrong, man! (Course, I shouldn't gripe. It gets me to writing tutorials, after all.)
What is a plotline? A plotline, at least as I define it, is the skeleton-- the bare bones-- of a story. It's the sort of thing I write before the first draft (on the occasions I'm inclined to plot out before I start writing) to remind me of my major plot points and to make sure I stay on target with the direction I'm trying to make a story go. But by itself, it's not a story.
A story moves, just like this plotline, yes. But it's got to be more involved than just this. This might as well be a capsule listing in TV Guide. X happens, then Y happens, and while those progress, Z happens. That sort of 'story' is lacking any emotion whatsoever. Dick is a flat character, walking through a flat setting, and undergoing a flat transformation. (Not literally, cartoon buffs... flat as in 'lacking depth and focus'.)
Why is that? Well, if you read earlier pieces in this series, you know that one of the things I myself try to do is to try to get people to care about the characters in the story, to care about what happens to them. We've already talked a bit about how to make the characters less flat, you need to know something about them. And in the above example, you just don't. We know dick about Dick in the above example; in fact, we know just as much about him at the end of the paragraph as we did when we started... namely, nothing. We don't get a taste for his likes, dislikes, or anything. We have no clue what he looks like, but moreover, we have no clue what he feels.
Neither do we know anything about the Department Store, the shopkeeper, or anything else in this 'tale'. Is it a swanky department store? What sort of displays are out there? What's the clientele like? What about the salesperson? Is he short, tall, balding, insecure, devious-looking? Is he really a salesperson-- maybe he's a pawn in a bigger game, or a being of higher power, or a collector, or a patriot whose wife and mother are being held for ransom until he collects X number of mannequins, maybe? Hell, is he actually even a he?
Get busy. Don't leave the reader guessing for some detail of the story that you as an author know. I don't mean, say, at the end, when you've devised a "Lady or the Tiger" ending for our hero. I mean before then. Take the mannequin bit above. Is the department store located in a bustling metropolis? Is it a boutique or a streetfront store, or located in some gargantuan mall? Is the store clerk genuinely helpful, in on the scheme, or does he or she have a good poker face? Then show it. Don't make the reader guess!
How often are these department stores curiously empty except for the few persons who are actually affected by the story? How often is our nubile young victim and our store employees the ones ever shown? Are we honestly expected to believe that this store makes enough money to continue in business when the only customer shown throughout the entire story gets turned into a display? What about these little art communes that attract still-life artists and their soon-to-be victims? How do they pay for their light bills? It's little jumps in logic like this that can make your story more complete.
Of course, we're all about the fantasy. You don't have to show that the mayor, a budding agalmatophiliac, siphons a small portion of the city's revenues for the year to the underhanded artists' colony, or that Stheno sells old Drachmas to conservation and archaeological societies to keep up her palatial home. You don't have to show that Mr. Warbucks
I once made a joke that all ASFR stories at their essence seem to boil down to the same basic thread: PATD. Protagonist, Antagonist, Transformation, Denouement. Intro the victim, intro the transformer, transform the victim, and slap on an ending, and you have your basic ASFR story. A simple ASFR story goes: Mary went shopping. John, the clerk, took her into a change room, and turned her into a mannequin... The End. Granted, I was being facetious at the time, but you'd be surprised how many stories fit this mold, and that's what I'm trying to get away from with these tutorials. Be more complete than just that. That's what I mean. I've been told that real stories aren't about their length. And I agree. Length does not a story make. Fullness does make or break a story, however. And it separates a story from a plotline. Check out Dick below, and how just a little more repleteness can make for a completely different tone and quality in just that single line of dialogue and description:
Each of those examples have a particular tone and should give you at least a marginally different take on Dick, even though the original wording is fairly well unchanged from the first example. Example #2 has a bit more of a nervous Dick, and the wording should suggest to you a bit of a horror overtone. Example #3 has a bit more of a hardboiled detective feel to it; I wouldn't be a bit surprised to find that Dick is the undercover PI working a missing Nita case. Example #4 gives us a little more of a pushover Dick, probably the sort of guy who doesn't step on too many toes, and in many of my stories would likely end up a victim. All of this is what we call fleshing out, and it's one of the main things that separate a story from a simple plotline.
Fleshing out is what takes an ordinary transformation ("And then she turned to stone") and turns it into something more extraordinary and memorable. It's what takes a flat, humdrum setting ("the department store") into something more unique and trailblazing. It helps to turn boring cardboard characters into people that your readers will care about and want to read about.
THE DANGERS OF SIMPLE EXPOSITION
So how do we flesh out? There are several ways. You can give a character distinctive dialogue, or add dialogue that isn't necessarily plot-driven, but does not detract from your story. You can make characters different and bolder in the manners I discussed earlier in the Characters tutorial. You can give more in-depth description to your settings, or find something unique about your setting to focus on. You can vary your word choice and sentence structure in your descriptions of simple objects. You can interject a different viewpoint from the main one your narrative uses. But one way you should be careful of, when it comes to fleshing out, is simple exposition. Exposition is defined as writing or speech that gives information. (Webster's New World Dictionary) It's often times used as sort of filler-material to talk about the scenery around the characters, and a lot of times is used to describe characters, as well. But you'll see that exposition is almost by definition flat and lifeless:
Dick was a handsome man in his teens with dark hair and a smooth goatee on the underside of his chin.
The shopkeeper was svelte, sexy and looked like she'd be able to show Dick a thing or two in the bedroom.
The gas was green in color, and it smelled like rotten rasberries.
The bad part of exposition is this: look at the verbs. Dick was. The shopkeeper was. The gas was. These are verbs that stagnate. The descriptions don't provide action, they don't provide tension or a feeling of urgency that latches onto the reader. They just... well, they just lie there. There's no real emotional focus for the reader to relate to. When you look at it closely, the above 'story' is nothing more than exposition, basically. It's flat, lifeless, and reads like the ingredients of Corn Flakes. And what's worse, is when you take time out to say 'this girl is like this', that's another stop sign thrown into your story, in which you're not going forward. Imagine this:
Kelly went downstairs into the art gallery, glancing around at the exhibits. Nouveau's was on the bottom floor of a three level office building, which was a little odd, but Kelly had seen worse places to display art. She stepped into the main hall, breathless, and the few patrons she saw looked twice at her. She was, after all, a beautiful girl, with long red hair and a tight one-piece dress that showed off her bountiful cleavage and long slender legs. She smiled and gave them a each a charming smile in return: she was always a bit of a flirt like that.
For your assistance, I've gone ahead and colored the exposition in the previous storylet. That color's pretty appropriate, because it stands out like a stop sign, and the story has to screech to a halt to give you this information to digest before it can continue on its way. Of the three stop signs there, you can get away with the third, because it's such a short bit of information and fits in pretty seamlessly.
When I was starting to write with a few friends of mine in a writer's group in the midwest, we came up with a term we called a 'choker'. That was reserved for stories or scenes that so engrossed you as a reader that it was as though they leapt off the page, grabbed you around the throat and demanded to be read. Exposition doesn't often lead to chokers, sad to say.
I'm not saying don't use exposition. In some degrees, you have to. But when you have to use it, do it in bits and pieces, spread throughout the story, rather than all at once. A friend of mine once had a great ear for dialogue and prose, but when he offered me pieces to read, I couldn't get past the fact that he wanted me to know everything about a character up front, when you first met him or her in the story. It wasn't that it didn't read well, but within the first few paragraphs of a piece, I inevitably knew all about a characters physical aspects, sometimes in block form. Height, weight, eye color, and the works. It wasn't that the description was dull-- in fact, he still gives some of the best physical character descriptions I've read in the non-published field-- it was that I was being inundated with a load of information all at once at the very beginning of the story, and it made those paragraphs of the story always seem to plod, like a lazy elephant. Think of a story that begins like this:
Jennifer was a twenty-eight year old model. She'd graduated first in her class at Laretha Modeling College in Austin, Texas, and had modeled in magazines almost ever since. She had beautiful luminous blue eyes, offsetting her creamy complexion and fair skin, as well as her golden-blonde hair. She still lived in Texas, although it was Houston now, with her boyfriend Mike and her two cats, Buster and Mahatma-Gandhi. Buster was a calico tabby, a troublesome little squirt when he got the mind to be, but he was Mike's favorite. Mahi, as she called the other, was a Siamese, and he loved to rip holes in the curtains of their lavish, two bedroom home when he was on the prowl, because Jennifer had never had the heart to declaw or neuter him.
My friend's stuff was a lot better than this utter drivel I just wrote. But this is the pitfall that exposition can get you into. If this is one of the opening paragraphs of your story, your readers are going to be sitting there getting nauseous, waiting for something to actually happen, rather than the narrator of the story droning on endlessly about Jennifer's travails in the Girl Scouts or whatever. And yet, we see it endlessly in stories, people trying to get out as much information about their characters as they can, and it bogs the story down, because there's no forward motion. So be warned, as far as exposition goes, use it sparingly, and not in paragraphs upon paragraphs of backstory.
Now, wait a second, I hear you say. First you said flesh out. But then you said try not to use as much exposition, or information writing. So how am I supposed to provide information without causing my story to stagnate?
You have your characters interact with the scene. You don't tell, you show, to use one of those old chestnuts writers fall back upon. Rather than having an impartial third party see Jeanette's long lashes, have her bat them. Rather than have some ghostly viewer see her long, athletic legs, have her use them. Look at the difference:
Stagnant: She was, after all, a beautiful girl, with long red hair and a tight one-piece dress that showed off her bountiful cleavage and long slender legs.
Moving: She brushed aside her long red hair and looked at the latest piece with discerning green eyes before letting her hand trail to the tight one-piece dress. She'd considered wearing the green, but her boyfriend goggled at the amount of cleavage this one showed, and it freed up her legs more than the grey business skirt she'd wore yesterday.
You can say that this one still doesn't really do a lot of moving. But at least the protagonist is doing something, not just being a model to be viewed from every conceivable angle-- and even if that's how she'll eventually turn out, she needs to interact before she becomes static, or she's wooden from the very start.
And if simple description isn't your forte, there's no reason to go into despair-mode, and figure you'll never write an ASFR story. There are other things that can make your story jump out and grab someone, and still keep the story moving, which is what you really want to do, anyway. Lots of things, really. Riveting scenes. Out of the ordinary settings, well thought-out prose. Good pacing. All that and more. And that's the sort of thing that will make your story much different than just a humdrum TV Guide capsule.
DIALOGUE: EXPRESS YOURSELF!
On top of all that, though, having a character we can relate to can help us overlook a lot of small inconsistencies or shortcomings. We've talked a little bit about this in our earlier character piece. But there are more techniques to making your characters real, gripping, and very relatable, and for that matter, your story, too. And a lot of that has to do with how he or she views things, and how they act and react.
I know, it seems like I'm carping on this a lot. But I live and die with the rule of thumb that it doesn't matter if you have the best damned story in the world if you don't have likeable characters to drive it. Does that mean that the characters you write have to be fluffy and perfect and admirable in every way possible? Oh, hell, no. You think $tar War$ would have made money if kids didn't like Darth Vader? Or Silence of the Lambs would have been as good with a beat cop in place of Hannibal Lecter? Nah. So when I say you need to make characters your audience can be sympathetic with, that doesn't necessarily mean that you make your characters all poor victim ingenues or ultra-heroic leads. Good examples of this are Othello and Hamlet. Paranoid, vengeful and gullible are probably three of the better terms that describe the namesake lead character in Shakespeare's play Othello. And yet, he is the one of the primary characters, along with Iago and Desdemona, who drive the play and make us care what happens. And Hamlet? He spends a quarter of the play being hopelessly indecisive, and when he finally does concoct a plan, it ends up killing three quarters of the Danish royal house, including his own lady-fair, whom he tells to get to a nunnery and for whom sheds no tears at her passing. Both these characters have less-than-desirable traits, but are among the most memorable characters around.
Do you need to go to that extreme? Not likely. But you can still make your own characters less flat, more relatable, and yet still move your story forward. And the thing is, more than likely, how a character will express him- or herself is going to do a lot for that. See, Dialogue is another way for a character to show to his or her audience 'this is how I am' without necessarily falling into the trap of using exposition. There are some rules that you should keep in mind, first and foremost, when it comes to using dialogue, before we get a bit more in-depth with it.
When it comes to dialogue, each new speaker rates a new paragraph.
"Hi," said Julie. "Hi," remarked Bill. "Do you think we're going to get turned into statues this story?" Julie asked. "I don't know," Bill admitted.
PATHETIC, BUT AT LEAST RIGHT:
"Hi," said Julie.
"Hi," remarked Bill.
"Do you think we're going to get turned into statues this story?" Julie asked.
"I don't know," Bill admitted.
You've read it here first. No more excuses. In HTML, the paragraph mark is <P>. Add that to the end of any paragraph of your story that has a new speaker. If your story is being done in Word, or in some other editor and you have no interest in HTML, then start a new paragraph with the enter key and a tab space. But keep this <P> in mind, because HTML is used damn near everywhere now days (I should note, the Medusa Chronicles DOES use HTML, as do most shared fiction places and some online message boards... so be warned, and quit using "I don't know HTML" as an excuse). There are caveats to this rule, granted, but for the most part, it's not just grammatically correct to start a new paragraph, it keeps people from going "Huh?" when they read your stories, trying to figure out who spoke, or when.
Dialogue is speaking, and reflects a character's upbringing/environment. As such, it should read like the character would talk, not like the author would talk.
Believe it or not, very few people have hundred thousand word vocabularies, talk in the same timbre and tone, don't use some form of slanguage or contractions, or never stumble over their words. But we seem to see it a lot. If there's any question as to whether a character sounds ridiculous, say the lines of dialogue aloud when you read them over. Which sounds more correct for someone in a story that we've already said was a cheerleader, middle of the class of her high school and now works in a strip bar, and has just stepped in front of the mad scientist's Petr-O-Fier?
"Aff! What is this wicked beam striking me? I feel so cold all over! I can barely move my extremities, and I can feel every cell in my curvaceous boooodddddyyyy--"
"Aff! Hey! What the hell is... so cooolllddd--"
(If you didn't say the second, shame on you. You damned well better have a good reason for your former cheerleader even knows what extremities are.)
It's a point of fact (and don't ask me why) that people equate intelligence in dialogue to villainy. I don't know why that is, but it's true. Heroes tend to be more ingenious, more point of fact with their dialogue. Think Indiana Jones. Yes, he's an archaeology professor. How often do we actually see him being didactic? Professorial? Not often.
Villains tend more toward being showingly intelligent, have a bigger vocabulary, and tend to use more proper diction. It's the strangest thing, because intelligence is always considered great asset. But it's a quirk of readers; they want their heroes, usually, to have it, not necessarily to display it. Heroes are quick-thinking. Villains are methodical. It shows in their dialogue, just like their intelligence.
Hero: "You won't get away with this."
Villain: "Ah, do you think I will not? And who, pray tell, do you think will stop me?"
Hero: "The cops are on their way. I called them with the pay phone in chapter twenty."
Villain: "The police? Those pathetic charlatans? My dear hero, do you honestly think that I would extrapolate on the details of my ingenious plan, like a villain in an Ian Fleming novella, if I considered the police an insurmountable obstacle? Please."
See what I mean? This Villain obviously went to Oxford, if not Cambridge; while the Hero was scoring low 60's on his chemistry tests in high school. You can almost hear the Villain trilling his R's and fingering his waxed mustache. He uses proper diction, doesn't speak like anyone I know, and spouts off three syllable words like a junior-high spelling bee champ. 'Ah, do you think I will not?' Someone feed this guy a contraction. Hell, even when he calls on pop culture, he doesn't refer to Bond, but his author.
That's not to say you can't be intelligent with your characters' modes of speech. Look at a random grab-bag of some of the heroes of the fictional world that are not just intelligent, but vocally so: Sherlock Holmes, Reed Richards, Jean-Luc Picard. You can have an intelligent protagonist or supporting character who is not a hero. But just be warned. They should talk like the characters would talk, not like you would, and not like the thesaurus would.
Tag lines are not always necessary, nor is it always necessary to find different ways to say 'he said' or 'she said'. But both can add flavor to your dialogue, and can extrapolate more upon your characters, their mode of speech, and their mannerisms.
A tag line is, very simply, the qualifier to the dialogue that states who says the line of dialogue, and how it is said, if applicable. In the simple phrase, "Hi," she said, "Hi" is the actual dialogue and she said is the tag line.
Now tag lines are great things. Aside from the standard said, there are several other ways to show who speaks in simple verb forms. Replied, whispered, murmured, disclosed, admitted, yelled, screeched, whimpered, stated, growled, mumbled and demurred are all other ways of replacing the old standard 'said'. And there are something like a hundred more, just in the way of verbs, let alone using other qualifying forms, like he said helpfully, or he said with a smile. And that's not even including preceding or following sentences that allow for more action and don't even use a form of the word said. They're all considered tag lines when they couch dialogue.
None of them are totally necessary; in fact, in long back-and-forths between two people, after your first change-up of tags, you can tend to skip off using them unless there is a notable change of emotion or something else happening, like a bit of action. Suppose the two characters below, Diane and Luke, are talking.
Diane crunched on a bright red apple and smiled as she swallowed. "Hey, the fruit here is good. Why shouldn't this be a Garden of Eden?"
"You don't read much Bible, do you?" Luke asked, raising an eyebrow. "The apple was the bad fruit."
"I have read it. Scholars say it was really a pear, though."
"Yep. Apples don't naturally occur in the Fertile Crescent." She said, looking for a wastebasket. Finding none, she dropped the core to the grass.
"Oh nice. Littering in the Garden of Eden too."
"Like Adam and Eve had recycle bins," Diane hissed, rolling her eyes.
See, tags are all helpful in describing how a character speaks a line of dialogue. It shows the difference between hissing words and yelling them. It shows the difference between smirked sarcasm and genuine anxiety.
Now, a caveat: If there's dialogue between more than two characters, they're almost necessary to show the readers whom exactly is speaking. Imagine lines of dialogue like so:
John looked at Betty and Diane. "So what are we going to do?"
"We could try running."
"I'm not sure if running will help."
So who's speaking? Is John speaking to Betty and then speaking again? Is John speaking to Diane and then Betty responds? Or is that last line of dialogue someone else entirely? In these sort of cases, tag lines, or at least some sort of qualifier, is needed to distinguish.
Well, in order to make sure that you don't fall asleep just reading it, I figure I'm just going to leave you with those little rules, to give you an idea what's going on with the differences between a plot and a story, and to help you a bit with some fairly simple rules about dialogue. We'll see if we can get into a little bit more into it soon. Until then, keep writing, and see if any of what I've told you here helps.