Floating Heads and Writing Desks

floating heads.jpgHave you ever heard of floating head syndrome?  I’ve heard it called talking head syndrome too.  It’s when the characters in a book are exchanging dialogue, but the author rarely mentions where the speakers are or what they are doing.  Without these little descriptive beats sprinkled in it feels like the characters are floating in the void while having conversations.

It’s a tap dance we do with the reader.  Give too many beats and the dialogue doesn’t flow, don’t give enough, and the reader doesn’t have a clue what the characters are doing while they are talking.  There’s a few ways to tackle the problem.

First, read the dialogue aloud and see how it flows. Next, you could also open some of your favorite books and look at how the pro’s did it.  If you are still undecided, ask someone to read a chapter or section. Once they finish, ask them what the characters were doing in the chapter.  If they’ll oblige you, ask them where the characters were as well. If the reader just shrugs their shoulders in response—it might be time to tweak those beats.

While this is good to know, it’s not why I’m writing today.  Sometimes I feel like we are all floating heads when I read blogs.  Even my own.  “Who is this writer?  Where are they writing from?  Is this blog written by a person or a futuristic artificial intelligence?” Corey wondered as he swiveled in his black office chair.

writers desk

So today I thought I would share where this blog gets written from—my writing desk.  It’s a normal desk, in a normal house, manned by a normal adult male.  However, it has the ability to let me reach out and touch the other side of the planet with my words.  It’s also the place where I create worlds, and if I want to, destroy them.  Pretty neat.

[Editor’s Update]

Writing Desk.jpgI wrote this post months ago and things have moved about in my study.  I didn’t like the cramped feeling of being surrounded.  The photo below is my new setup. It lets me spin about in my chair like a madman without bashing my legs. I also like how much it opened up the room. I wrote a post about how a writing environment can alter your productivity a while back.  This shift really bolstered my own process.

Whats your writing desk look like?  Do you have one?  Or are you a mobile master taking your work with you wherever you go?  Until tomorrow.  Keep reading, keep writing, and as always – stay sharp!

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Writing Dialogue: Exercises

Read Your DialogueThe best explanation of dialogue I’ve heard, and I’m paraphrasing here, is that dialogue is an extension of action (Howard Lawson, Theory and Technique of Playwriting).  What Lawson is driving at is that speech in fiction, for it to be effective, intensifies character action, motivation, and emotion.

With that being said, most people will agree with the idea that stories are driven by characters and conflict.  If this is true, and dialogue is in fact an extension of action, then we can begin to see how vital it is to our stories.  In essence, dialogue bolsters vital aspects of the story because it enhances character and conflict at the same time.  It’s a two-fer!

Writing good dialogue doesn’t usually just happen.  For many writers, it takes time and practice.  More seasoned writers will begin to look at every exchange of dialogue as a glorious opportunity.  It’s not just page filler, it’s a chance for verbal sparring matches.


From Wiki-Commons

To spar effectively, it takes some exercise.  So let’s cue the obligatory 80s montage music and talk about some training methods (hopefully that last sentence conjured visions of Rocky and not Richard Simmons in bright spandex…).

[Side Note] Most of these exercises I pulled from the pages of, How to Write Dazzling Dialogue, by James Scott Bell.  I wrote about this book before when we talked about how dialogue can be used to drive and reveal agenda.

Abandon organization and freewrite the dialogue for a chapter or scene.  Dialogue action beats, attribution, punctuation…to heck with it!  Cut it all out and focus on the spoken words being exchanged back and forth.  A tendency for some writers is to lean on attribution/action tags to drive the meaning of what is being said.  Strong dialogue should be able to exist without props to support it.  What you’ll end up with is a very long string of exchanges.cat hungry.jpg

Go get me some treats!
Get them yourself.
I don’t have opposable thumbs so I can’t open the drawer.
Sounds like a cat problem to me.
I do have these claws.
Okay, I’ll get you some treats.

While this example is ridiculous, it illustrates the basic premise.  Simply let the dialogue bounce back and forth.  If done right, you’ll end up with a large chunks of dialogue to play with.  Then you can select the more solid pieces, polish them up, add the proper punctuation, and wrangle it all together.

Assign roles to speakers from scene to scene.  You’re going through during rewrites and notice a section of dialogue that is lacking substance, or simply meanders about.  One reason could be that the dialogue is mimicking normal speech.  While on the surface this seems okay, when writing fiction, dialogue is a stylized version of normal speech.  In essence, it’s speech with purpose.  Here’s an exercise to employ.

This exercise comes from Bell, and he snagged the idea from Jack Bickham’s Writing Novels That Sell.  It’s called the parent, adult, and child exercise.

  • Parent: Authority driven. Lays down the law.
  • Adult: Even-minded and even-tempered.  Looks for objectivity.
  • Child: Emotional, irrational, impulsive, trusting, etc…

The premise is simple.  Assign one of these roles to each character speaking and let them duke it out.  What this ensures is that dialogue is driving conflict and agenda.  It’s also a great tool because it allows for dynamic characters.  A single character can take on any one of these roles depending on the circumstance.  As a rule, try to ensure character motivations run opposite of each other.  Characters can be united in purpose, but often go about achieving goals in different ways.

Dialogue in History

Think about the last time you participated in a group project (school, work, video game co-op, D&D).  While you all had the same end-goal (supposedly), there were likely conflicting opinions as how to best achieve it.  This is assuming you weren’t surrounded by sheeple — and let’s face it — sheeple are boring to write about.

Don’t just listen to the voices in your head, embody them.  This is perhaps my favorite exercise to improve creativity when it comes to writing dialogue.  During your day (hopefully while you are mostly alone), narrate your life.  But do it from different perspectives.  This is especially enjoyable for me with baby Thor, because I get to talk in silly accents and just be generally goofy.

So changing a diaper goes from being a silent lamentation to:

  • Movie Narratorwrite dazzling dialogue:  “In a world gone mad, one baby dares to fill his diaper to the point of explosion.  Will daddy survive this changed diaper, or will he be destroyed by it?”
  • Mad Scientist:  “Yes…the addition of five percent dry cereal to decrease the fluidity of puree has revealed a drastic increase in poop production.  Eureka!”
  • Sherlock Holmes: “It’s simple really.  I first observed you tugging on your diaper.  It was a subtle gesture, but I also noticed the caked food around your mouth.  Pair this with the blue line on your diaper and the conclusion became clear.”

Other concepts to play with (these come from Bell): action hero, alien invader, bad boy/girl, boy/girl next door, cat lady, hardboiled detective, martial arts master (a favorite of mine), gentle giant (which I feel like when I’m around Thor), thief, geek, jock, outlaw, Southern Belle, pirate, bully, drunk, wise old man, rat pack, and the list goes on.

You can focus on specific aspects of your story, or you can simply add this element to daily life.  If you are anything like me, every now and then you are going to say something golden and run off to your writing cave to write it down for potential use down the road.

question markThat’s it for today.  I’ve only written a couple posts on dialogue, so this is an area we can look forward to more discussion on in the future.  Do you use any of these exercises?  Do you have some you would add to the list?  I’d love to hear about and bolster my own knowledge and understanding.  Until tomorrow, keep reading, keep writing, and as always – stay sharp!

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Writing Dialogue: Agenda

cat hungry.jpg“Writing about dialogue is such a pain,” Corey said.  It was a futile thing to say as he was alone in his office.  Corey’s cat Niblet heard his lonely rambling and jumped up onto his desk to console him.

Corey’s eyes widened as Niblet brushed past his hands and went for the computer keyboard.  The furry fiend began smashing the buttons with her paws.  The following words stretched across the empty white blog expanse: “Human.  Why you sit and stare at this glowing window?  Fetch me treats human.  Then talk about the new book I saw you reading while squatting over the strange, water-filled litter box.”

write dazzling dialogue.jpgThe new book Niblet was referencing is, How to Write Dazzling Dialogue, by James Scott Bell.  Oddly, I don’t have a lot of books on the mechanics of dialogue.  At 135 pages this one is absolutely packed with information.  I do have a few books written by Bell, and he seems to deliver consistently.  I’ll likely give the book its own spotlight later, but today I wanted to share a tool I found in it’s pages.

When we talk in real life there is often an agenda behind our exchanges.  Sometimes the agenda is transparent.  Other times it’s hidden beneath layers.  Let’s play with a random example I’m about to pull out of my creative whirlpool.

“Hello.  What do you want?”
“A caramel frappe latte with extra whip, chocolate sprinkles, and four pumps of chocolate syrup!  If there are five pumps, I’ll send it back.”

Thanks creative whirlpool!

Perks of Super Villainy

We know from those couple lines of hastily written dialogue we have two people: a customer and a server of some type.  We can also make some basic assumptions from what is said by the two.  The server doesn’t seem very friendly, and the person ordering the coffee seems like a level 27 control freak.

Dialogue Guy.jpgWe can also make some assumptions about agenda here as well.  The servers agenda is likely related to getting this person in and out as quickly as possible.  The person ordering the drink has a different agenda: to get what they want how they want it.

Grab whatever book you are reading or writing and go to some dialogue.  Take a moment to familiarize yourself with the scene, and read a couple lines.  After you are done, ask  yourself this question: What are the speakers goals?  Put another way, what are their agendas?

Dialogue, if it is going to be effective, should be building the readers understanding of the character.  Yes the words are important, but how the reflect on the speaker is just as important.  On a side-note, your agenda and the characters agenda should not be the same.  If you look at a string of dialogue and say, “That’s there because I needed to explain who, what, where, or when this was happening,” you might want to reappraise.

Consider the following example Bell offers from his book, How to Write Dazzling Dialogue:

“I simply will not have it!” Robert Massingale expostulated.  “Not while I am the head of this family of five.  Goodness knows it is hard enough to run an estate during the reign of Her Majesty, Queen Victoria.  But having a servant from Hungary come into this house without the proper references, and with a scar across his left cheek to boot, which he no doubt got in a waterfront bar somewhere during his thirty years on this earth, I tell you, I simply will not have it” (p. 7).

Writing Dialogue.jpg

Before you say, “That Bell doesn’t know anything about dialogue,” understand the above passage was a example he provided of what NOT to do.  It may seem obvious, but normal people don’t talk like this.  Those bizarre snippets of backstory tossed haphazardly into normal dialogue are jarring.  It’s easier to notice it in other peoples work.  If a character begins feeling more like a ventriloquist’s puppet, and less like a real person, this might be the issue.

The Editor_1.jpgMany times, while in the grips of creation, we begin smashing information into dialogue that shouldn’t be there.  Now don’t get me wrong, dialogue is an outstanding method of delivering information to your reader.  You just have to do it in a way that is believable, and also ties into their agenda.  It shouldn’t be dialogue for the sake of information dump.

Bell recommends to break down each scene, look at what characters are saying, and write down (or at least consider) what their agendas were.  What were they trying to accomplish with their words?

I like this tip.  I think it’s a pretty solid way of measuring the worth of dialogue.  My only addition point would be to consider that an agenda doesn’t have to be a giant thing.  An agenda can be as simple as getting under someones skin (annoying them).

That’s it for today.  Oddly enough, this is the first dialogue specific posting I have offered.  Do you have a method of evaluating dialogue?  Or do you simply give a it a read (hopefully aloud) and see how it feels?  Are there aspects of dialogue you are curious about and would like addressed in a future post?  Let me know!  I’d love to talk about it.  Until tomorrow, keep reading, keep writing, and as always – stay sharp!

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