Monthly Archives: January 2011
by James Scott Bell
My neighbor John loves to work on his hot rod. He’s an automotive whiz and tells me he can hear when something is not quite right with the engine. He doesn’t hesitate to pop the hood, grab his bag of tools and start to tinker. He’ll keep at it until the engine sounds just the way he wants it to.
That’s not a bad way to think about dialogue. We can usually sense when it needs work. What fiction writers often lack, however, is a defined set of tools they can put to use on problem areas.
So here’s a set—my seven favorite dialogue tools. Stick them in your writer’s toolbox for those times you need to pop the hood and tinker with your characters’ words.
#1 LET IT FLOW.
When you write the first draft of a scene, let the dialogue flow. Pour it out like cheap champagne. You’ll make it sparkle later, but first you must get it down on paper. This technique will allow you to come up with lines you never would have thought of if you tried to get it right the first time.
In fact, you can often come up with a dynamic scene by writing the dialogue first. Record what your characters are arguing about, stewing over, revealing. Write it all as fast as you can. As you do, pay no attention to attributions (who said what). Just write the lines.
Once you get these on the page, you will have a good idea of what the scene is all about. And it may be something different than you anticipated, which is good. Now you can go back and write the narrative that goes with the scene, and the normal speaker attributions and tags.
I have found this technique to be a wonderful cure for writer’s fatigue. I do my best writing in the morning, but if I haven’t done my quota by the evening (when I’m usually tired), I’ll just write some dialogue. Fast and furious. It flows and gets me into a scene.
With the juices pumping, I find I’ll often write more than my quota. And even if I don’t use all the dialogue I write, at least I got in some practice.
#2 ACT IT OUT.
Before going into writing, I spent some time in New York, pounding the pavement as an actor. While there, I took an acting class that included improvisation. Another member of the class was a Pulitzer Prize–winning playwright. When I asked him what he was doing there, he said improvisational work was a tremendous exercise for learning to write dialogue.
I found this to be true. But you don’t have to join a class. You can improvise just as easily by doing a Woody Allen.
Remember the courtroom scene in Allen’s movie Bananas? Allen is representing himself at the trial. He takes the witness stand and begins to cross-examine by asking a question, running into the witness box to answer, then jumping out again to ask another question.
I am suggesting you do the same thing (in the privacy of your own home, of course). Make up a scene between two characters in conflict. Then start an argument. Go back and forth, changing your actual physical location. Allow a slight pause as you switch, giving yourself time to come up with a response in each character’s voice.
Another twist on this technique: Do a scene between two well-known actors. Use the entire history of movies and television. Pit Lucille Ball against Bela Lugosi, or have Oprah Winfrey argue with Bette Davis. Only you play all the parts. Let yourself go.
And if your local community college offers an improvisation course, give it a try. You might just meet a Pulitzer Prize winner.
#3 SIDESTEP THE OBVIOUS.
One of the most common mistakes aspiring writers make with dialogue is creating a simple back-and-forth exchange. Each line responds directly to the previous line, often repeating a word or phrase (an “echo”). It looks something like this:
“My, that’s a wonderful outfit you’re wearing.”
“Outfit? You mean this old thing?”
“Old thing! It looks practically new.”
“It’s not new, but thank you for saying so.”
This sort of dialogue is “on the nose.” There are no surprises, and the reader drifts along with little interest. While some direct response is fine, your dialogue will be stronger if you sidestep the obvious:
“Sylvia. I didn’t see you.”
“My, that’s a wonderful outfit you’re wearing.”
“I need a drink.”
I don’t really know what is going on in this scene (incidentally, I’ve written only these four lines of dialogue). But I think you’ll agree this exchange is immediately more interesting and suggestive of currents beneath the surface than the first example. I might even find the seeds of an entire story here.
You can also sidestep with a question:
“Sylvia. I didn’t see you.”
“My, that’s a wonderful outfit you’re wearing.”
“Where is he, Sylvia?”
Hmm. Who is “he”? And why should Sylvia know? The point is there are innumerable directions in which the sidestep technique can go. Experiment to find a path that works best for you. Look at a section of your dialogue and change some direct responses into off-center retorts. Like the old magic trick ads used to say, “You’ll be pleased and amazed.”
#4 CULTIVATE SILENCE.
A powerful variation on the sidestep is silence. It is often the best choice, no matter what words you might come up with. Hemingway was a master at this. Consider this excerpt from his short story “Hills Like White Elephants.” A man and a woman are having a drink at a train station in Spain. The man speaks:
The warm wind blew the bead curtain against the table.
“The beer’s nice and cool,” the man said.
“It’s lovely,” the girl said.
“It’s really an awfully simple operation, Jig,” the man said. “It’s not really an operation at all.”
The girl looked at the ground the table legs rested on.
“I know you wouldn’t mind it, Jig. It’s really not anything. It’s just to let the air in.”
The girl did not say anything.
In this story, the man is trying to convince the girl to have an abortion (a word that does not appear anywhere in the text). Her silence is reaction enough.
By using a combination of sidestep, silence and action, Hemingway gets the point across through a brief, compelling exchange. He uses the same technique in this well-known scene between mother and son in the story “Soldier’s Home”:
“I’m not in His Kingdom,” Krebs said.
“We are all of us in His Kingdom.”
Krebs felt embarrassed and resentful as always.
“I’ve worried about you so much, Harold,” his mother went on. “I know the temptations you must have been exposed to. I know how weak men are. I know what your own dear grandfather, my own father, told us about the Civil War and I have prayed for you. I pray for you all day long, Harold.”
Krebs looked at the bacon fat hardening on the plate.
Silence and bacon fat hardening. We don’t need anything else to catch the mood of the scene. What are your characters feeling while exchanging dialogue? Try expressing it with the sound of silence.
#5 POLISH A GEM.
We’ve all had those moments when we wake up and have the perfect response for a conversation that took place the night before. Wouldn’t we all like to have those bon mots at a moment’s notice?
Your characters can. That’s part of the fun of being a fiction writer. I have a somewhat arbitrary rule—one gem per quarter. Divide your novel into fourths. When you polish your dialogue, find those opportunities in each quarter to polish a gem.
And how do you do that? Like a diamond cutter, you take what is rough and tap at it until it is perfect. In the movie The Godfather, Moe Greene is angry that a young Michael Corleone is telling him what to do. He might have said, “I made my bones when you were in high school!” Instead, screenwriter Mario Puzo penned, “I made my bones when you were going out with cheerleaders!” (In his novel, Puzo wrote something a little racier). The point is you can take almost any line and find a more sparkling alternative.
Just remember to use these gems sparingly. The perfect comeback grows tiresome if it happens all the time.
#6 EMPLOY CONFRONTATION.
Many writers struggle with exposition in their novels. Often they heap it on in large chunks of straight narrative. Backstory—what happens before the novel opens—is especially troublesome. How can we give the essentials and avoid a mere information drop?
Use dialogue. First, create a tension-filled scene, usually between two characters. Get them arguing, confronting each other. Then have the information appear in the natural course of things. Here is the clunky way to do it:
Instead, place this backstory in a scene in which John is confronted by a patient who is aware of the doctor’s past:
“You know nothing,” John said.
“You’re that doctor.”
“If you don’t mind I—”
“From Hopkins. You killed a woman because you were soused. Yeah, that’s it.”
And so forth. This is a much underused method, but it not only gives weight to your dialogue, it increases the pace of your story.
#7 DROP WORDS.
This is a favorite technique of dialogue master Elmore Leonard. By excising a single word here and there, he creates a feeling of verisimilitude in his dialogue. It sounds like real speech, though it is really nothing of the sort. All of Leonard’s dialogue contributes to characterization and story.
Here is a standard exchange:
“Yes, run over by a car.”
“What did you call it?”
“It was a she. I called her Tuffy.”
This is the way Leonard did it in Out of Sight:
“Got run over by a car.”
“What did you call it?”
“Was a she, name Tuffy.”
It sounds so natural, yet is lean and meaningful. Notice it’s all a matter of a few words dropped, leaving the feeling of real speech.
As with any technique, there’s always a danger of overdoing it. Pick your spots and your characters with careful precision and focus, and your dialogue will thank you for it later.
Using tools is fun when you know what to do with them. I guess that’s why John, my neighbor, is always whistling when he works on his car. You’ll see results in your fiction—and have fun, too—by using these tools to make your dialogue sound just right.
Most of us keep first aid kits handy for emergency use in our cars, campers, homes, etc. Have you considered adding a companion kit filled with natural remedies? Here are some essentials for filling a holistic health kit.
- Kit: Purchase or sew a heavy cotton drawstring bag to store your healing supplies inside. Keeping everything in a ready-to-go satchel is a must for those occasional impromptu outings.
- Trauma Help: flower essences (Bach Rescue Remedy or FES Five Flower Formula), green fluorite and/or clear quartz crystal
- Immune Booster: echinacea, vitamin C tablets
- Purification: sage wand for smudging (matchbook), tea tree oil
- Dehydration: bottled water, fruit juices
- Injuries: aloe vera gel (for burns, cuts, abrasions, etc.)
- Allergies: arsenicum album (homeopathic)
- Sprains: epsom salt (also great for soaking tired and sore feet after a day of traveling)
- Calming Agents: herbal teas (chamomile, lemon balm, ginger, peppermint, etc.), lavender essential oil.
- Energy Food Stuffs: almonds, granola bars, dried fruits, etc.
- Emergency Phone Numbers: Cell phone (or address book) with the contact phone numbers for your local hospital and health care providers.
- Routinely replace any perishable items in your kit.
- Personalize your kit by including your own proven remedies.
Herbal remedies can be made from fresh herbs in six to eight weeks. Grow your own herbs or purchase them fresh from a reputable local grower. Although dried herbs and barks can be made into herbal tinctures, it is best to use fresh plant matter (leaves, stems, roots).
- It is best to pick your herbs early in the morning shortly after the morning dew has dried.
- Do not wash the plants, but remove any loose dirt or damaged parts from them.
- Coarsely chop the leaves, stems, and root material. If the plant was in bloom when you harvested it include whole blossoms in with the chopped parts. Place blossoms and chopped plant materials into a clean glass jar.
- Fill the jar with liquid preservative of your choice (brandy, vodka, vegetable glycerine, or apple cider vinegar).
- Seal jar with a tight-fitting lid.
- Label the jar with name of herb and date of preparation.
- Store prepared herb jars in a dark cabinet for six to eight weeks.
- Each week visit your preparations and give them a good shake.
- After the storage period strain out the herbs and pour the liquid into clean and dried tincture bottles.
Typical dosage is 15-20 drops from an herbal tincture. However, dosages of herbal remedies will vary depending on the potency of the herb being used, what the healing purpose it is being applied, and the recipient’s tolerance to the herb.
Reference: The Healing Sourcebook, Herbal Tinctures, David Vennells, O-Books
Alterative – Producing a healthful change without perception
Anodyne – Relieves pain
Anthelmintic – A medicine that expels worms
Aperient – Gently laxative without purging
Aromatic – A stimulant, spicy
Astringent – Causes contraction and arrests discharges
Antibilious – Acts on the bile, relieving bilousness
Antiemetic – Stops vomiting
Antileptic – Relieves siesures
Antiperiodic – Arrests morbid periodic movements
Anthilic – Prevents formation of stones in urinary organs
Antirheumatic – Relieves rheumatism
Antiscorbutic – Cures or prevents scurvy
Antiseptic – aims at stopping putrification
Antispasmodic – Relieves or prevents spasms
Antisyphilitic – Having affect or curing STD
Carminative – Expels gas in the bowels
Carthatic – Evacuating from the bowels
Cephalic – Remedies used in diseases of the head
Cholagogue – Increases flow of bile
Condiment – Improves flavor of food
Demulcent – Soothing, relieves inflammation
Deobstruent – Removes obstruction
Depurative – Purifies the blood
Detergent – Cleansing to boils, ulcers, wounds etc
Diaphoretic – Produces perspiration
Discutient – Dissolves and heals tumors
Diuretic – Increases flow of urine
Emetic – Produces vomiting
Emmenagogue – Promotes menstruation
Emollient – Softens and soothes inflamation
Esculent – Eatable as food
Expectorant – Facilitates espectoration
Febrifuge – Abates and reduces fever
Hepatic – For diseases of the liver
Herpatic – Remedy for skin diseases of all types
Laxative – Promotes bowel action
Lithontryptic – Dissolves calculi in urinary organs
Maturating – Ripens or brings boils to a head
Mucilaginous – Soothing to all inflammations
Nauseant – Produces vomiting
Nervine – Acts specifically on nervous system, stops nervous excitment
Opthalmicum – For eye diseases
Parturient – Induces and promotes labor at childbirth
Pectoral – For chest infections
Refrigerant – Cooling
Resolvent – Dissolves boils and tumors
Rubifacient – Increases circulation and produces red skin
Sedative – Nerve tonic, promotes sleep
Sialogogue – Increases secretion of saliva
Stomachic – Strengthen stomach, relieves indigestion
Styptic – Stops bleeding
Sudorfic – Produces profuse perspiration
Tonic – Remedy which is invigorating and strengthing
Vermifuge – Expels worms from the system
Is it a case of bad luck, or just bad decor? Feng shui, or the ancient art of placement, isn’t just a matter of positioning particular objects in certain areas. It also involves ridding your space of items that create toxic energy. If you want to create a home that is warm, comfortable, and joyous, rid it of the following items. You’ll notice an immediate improvement.
Dried flowers – including potpourri – create bad feng shui. That’s because they represent stagnant energy. When you display dried flowers, it becomes difficult to live in the moment. You may find yourself pining for your childhood or former lovers. You might even feel like you’re past your prime. So ditch the prom corsage and invest in a fresh bouquet. Keep a thriving, flowering plant near the front entrance to your home, where it will energize and uplift you on a daily basis.
For feng shui practitioners, electronic objects represent strength and power. Broken machinery/appliances will eventually manifest in your life as a health problem, failed relationship, or toxic work situation. Either take the equipment to be fixed or throw it out. It’s better to leave a space empty than fill it with a faulty television, toaster, or stereo.
Plants symbolize growth in feng shui, but only if they are thriving. If your houseplants are drooping or dead, they’ll create problems. You may find it difficult to wake up refreshed. Alternately, you could fight the urge to sleep at work. It’s even possible you will be too tired for sex. If your plants have suffered because of your own neglect, throw them out and get healthy ones, and vow to turn over a new leaf with regard to their care. If you have a black thumb, don’t despair. Replace your live plants with realistic looking silk ones. Aim an oscillating fan at their leaves so they will mimic the moment of plants in the breeze.
Drugs Past the Expiration Date
Keeping medicines and cosmetics past their expiration dates is not only dangerous to your health if you take them, but it’s also bad for your home. Such items contain toxic energy that can make it difficult for you to release, relax, and rejuvenate. Go through your medicine and bathroom cabinets and discard any medicines and toiletries that are past their prime. It will become much easier to let go of anxieties and enjoy more leisure time.
Old Food in the Refrigerator
Feng shui views food as symbolic of your ability to give and receive love. Therefore, having a refrigerator full of old food can really compromise your relationships. Go through your refrigerator on a weekly basis, checking your drawers, containers, and condiment racks for food that has turned into science experiments. Toss anything that’s no longer edible. When you get into the habit of doing this, you’ll be more mindful about eating leftovers in a prompt fashion. You’ll also notice it becomes much easier to express love freely, and receive the kind of nurturing you need to thrive.
Photographs of Former Lovers
Even if you’re on good terms with your ex, it’s not healthy to display photos of him or her in prominent places. Photographs contain intense energy. They have a powerful impact on your subconscious. If you want to make room in your life for a lasting, healthy romantic relationship, stow pictures of your former lover in a photo album. This will symbolize your desire for a new relationship, making it easier for attract admirers.
“If I stayed angry at other people, I would miss finding friends among those I was angry with.”
–Rosa Parks, from an interview in “Positive Energy“
As a psychiatrist, I feel strongly that letting go of resentments, a point I emphasize in my recent book “Emotional Freedom,” is essential to free yourself from negativity. The main person the resentment hurts is you.
A resentment is a grudge that you harbor after you’ve felt mistreated. It’s easy to hold on to all the incidents that angered you, from a gossiping hairdresser to a two-timing ex-husband. And, if you took a poll, you’d probably get a lot of people on your side about your right to stay resentful. According to such logic, as time passes, you have “the right” to get angrier, becoming a broken record of complaints. But is that the sour person you want to be? Instead, for emotional freedom, try to release resentments and let compassion purify them. One friend, in the midst of that process, likened uncovering resentments to “dragging dead bodies out of a well.” You don’t want moldering negativity rotting your psyche.
Forgiveness is a state of grace, nothing you can force or pretend. I guide patients toward the large-heartedness to forgive both injuries others have caused and those they’ve self-inflicted. Forgiveness penetrates the impenetrable — the obstinacy that stifles love, the tenacious pain that dams our energy reserves. A Stanford research study showed that forgiveness significantly decreases stress, rage and psychosomatic symptoms. I’m not saying that betrayal is ever justified, that you aren’t entitled to be upset if someone wrongs you, or that you shouldn’t try to improve or else leave a destructive situation. Forgiveness, though, ensures that resentments don’t feed on your energy. Finally, remember forgiveness refers to the actor, not the act — not the offense but the woundedness of the offender.
Strategies to Let Resentments Go
- Set Your Intention to Release the Resentment
- Cultivate Forgiveness
- Take a Reality Check
The purpose of releasing resentments is to increase your energy and to feel better. Select a target: a critical mother, a controlling boyfriend, a cutthroat colleague. Perhaps you’ve tried to discuss the grievance with no results. (Always attempt to work things out if the person is the slightest bit receptive.) Or your target may truly be unapproachable. In either case, away from the person, air your resentments without sugarcoating them. Do this in a journal, or with a therapist or friend. For example, say, “I despise the double-crossing conniver because…” Frankly, expressing your feelings is necessary to forgive.
In a quiet moment, really reach to find compassion for the person’s shortcomings, not the deed itself. This may be very hard work. What insecurities or fears motivated him or her? Why is the person’s heart so closed? What caused his or her moral blindness? Try to discern the context of the person’s actions. At this point, you may be inwardly able to ask yourself to start to forgive. Perhaps you’re not there yet — that’s okay. The request itself sets off a stream of compassion, a cleansing of your system. Repeat the exercise once a day for at least a week. See if your energy improves. I’ll bet you’ll feel a burden lift.
As part of forgiveness, take this reality check: People bring a lifetime of wounds to your relationship, which may make their behavior more about them than you. You might justifiably say, as one of my patients did, “I’m hurt and furious my spouse left me and refused to even talk about it. Isn’t it reasonable to want that?” Naturally it is. But your need doesn’t take into consideration your spouse’s terror of intimacy, or that he or she would do anything to escape it in your relationship or any other. Unfortunately, your spouse’s fears and inadequacies won out over your needs. To find forgiveness while endeavoring to heal anger, you must evaluate whom you’re dealing with, the good and the bad. Often, people are just doing the best they can, which may not amount to a hill of beans where you’re concerned, but it does represent the sad truth of the situation. Accepting that truth of someone’s limitations will help you to forgive.
Compassion opens a hidden door to a secret world that exists beyond anger. Notwithstanding, the feelings of anger or forgiveness aren’t mutually exclusive. You can simultaneously experience varying degrees of both. Perhaps, at first, you’re a little forgiving and very angry. But when you progress, the scales increasingly tip toward forgiveness as your attachment to anger recedes.