The Flâneur ~ the 4th POV

In a literary fiction seminar  I attended at a recent convention in Seattle, University of Washington  professor, Scott Driscoll, discussed  a fourth point of view I had heard of in college, that of the detached observer.  I had forgotten about it, and Driscoll gave it a name I’d never heard of: the Flâneur (idler, lounger, loiterer.) Many of you have heard of it as third-person objective or third-person dramatic. I see it as a completely separate way to show a story.

elegat wits and grand horizontalsWriting in 1962, Cornelia Otis Skinner said that there is no English equivalent of the term,  flâneur,  “just as there is no Anglo-Saxon counterpart of that essentially Gallic individual, the deliberately aimless pedestrian, unencumbered by any obligation or sense of urgency, who, being French and therefore frugal, wastes nothing, including his time which he spends with the leisurely discrimination of a gourmet, savoring the multiple flavors of his city”.

paris spleenThe French author, Charles  Baudelaire, characterized the flâneur as a “gentleman stroller of city streets.” He saw the flâneur as having a key role in understanding, participating in and portraying the city. Thus, in the narrative, a flâneur plays a double role by existing  as a present, but ignored, member of society who remains a detached observer of all that occurs within the story.

Having the option to use this point of view in the narrative of genre fiction opens up many possibilities for originality an author may not have considered:

  • he is NOT omniscient as in having complete or unlimited knowledge, awareness, or understanding of the fictional universe–he doesn’t know everything–but he does know what he sees.
  • he sees more than the individual characters do because his random travels take him all over town regularly, and he observes most of the tale as it unfolds.
  • Because he only knows what he sees, some information crucial to the resolution of the final events will be revealed to him at the last minute–a surprise to him too. When the last pieces of the puzzle are put together, his commentary summarizes the fall-out and final outcome of the characters involved.

Men without WomenIt is a POV used in classic french modernist literature to describe the story of certain social scenes in the city, but I can see this as a useful way to relate the events on a space-station, or indeed in many traditional genre fiction social settings.

Now for the downside of using the flâneur as your vehicle to convey your narrative:

  • He is not reliable—he has his own personality, offering subtle judgments and unconscious opinions on the behavior of the characters. Therefore, just as in a first-person narrative, the reader cannot be sure he is telling the unbiased truth.
  • The narrator  tells the story without describing any of the character’s thoughts, opinions, or feelings; so the reader can only guess at character motivations, and must assume the objective observer truly is objective and has told the truth in that regard.
  • It separates the reader from the intimacy of the action and slows the pace down.
  • It could become voyeuristic, if one writes graphic love scenes. {eeew.}

255px-On_PhotographyThe POV of a flâneur is also a vehicle used in in art, and in street photography.  Susan Sontag in her 1977 collection of essays, On Photographydescribes how, since the development of hand-held cameras in the early 20th century, the camera has become the tool of the flâneur:

The photographer is an armed version of the solitary walker reconnoitering, stalking, cruising the urban inferno, the voyeuristic stroller who discovers the city as a landscape of voluptuous extremes. Adept of the joys of watching, connoisseur of empathy, the flâneur finds the world “picturesque.”

Susan SontagOn Photography, pg. 55

I don’t see myself using this style of POV for an entire novel, but I can think of a thousand ways to use it in short-stories. Come November, when NaNoWriMo begins, I may give it a whirl, just for practice. Writing is a craft and I love finding different ways to express it. A fresh point of view to write from can only stretch my writing skills.

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Crafting the scene

I often sit and stare out the window at some point or another during the day–a habit perhaps from the old days of being an ADD kid imprisoned in the basement classrooms of the old Michael T. Simmons Elementary school in 1965. Although that building has been long ago torn down and a new one now serves the community, I still remember sitting in Mrs. White’s overcrowded classroom, staring up at the small window, unable to concentrate on anything but the blue sky outside.  She was my favorite teacher, because she knew I needed extra help with math, and in a class with 42 children, she found the time to give it to me.

Amaranthus and Savvy at the needles by haystack rock cannon beach 2012I still stare out my windows when I am rolling a plot point over in my mind, and I sometimes notice what is happening in the neighborhood.  The window is closed, so I can’t hear their words, but I often see the children.

At first it looks as if they are all happily playing.  Then two of them stand up and from their posture you can see a quarrel is brewing. Suddenly one of them  clouts the other on the head with a toy sword, and another child intervenes. The angry child leaves, and the others are left to console the sobbing child with the bump on his head.

We know that what we have witnessed is not the whole story–there is a whole novel surrounding that interaction. If what I witnessed from my window was a book, this event would read this way:

1. Deciding to meet and spending the day playing in the neighbor’s yard is a chapter in the much larger story of how a group of children in one neighborhood spent their summer

2. The quarrel and resulting bump on the head with the final moments of consolation are one complete scene within that chapter, setting the stage for the next scene–tattling on and achieving penalties for the aggressor, who then apologizes and seeks acceptance back into the group. These two separate scenes comprise the whole chapter, Playing at So-and-So’s Yard.

The Arc of the StoryMost authors understand that there is an arc to the overall novel–the Story Arc,  which  consists of :

  • a. Exposition, where we introduce our characters and their situation.
  • b. Rising Action, where we introduce complications for the protagonist
  • c. Climax, the high point of the action, the turning point of the narrative
  • d. Falling Action, the regrouping and unfolding of events that will lead to the conclusion
  • e. Resolution, in which the problems encountered by the protagonist are resolved, providing closure for the reader.

However, within the larger story there are many smaller stories, all scenes created with this same arc, that come together to create this all-encompassing drama. The way these scenes unfold is what keeps our readers interested and invested in the narrative until the end of the book.

The main difference in the arc of the scene vs the overall arc of the novel is this: the end of the scene is the platform from which your next scene launches. 

This means each scene begins at a slightly higher point on the novel’s Narrative Arc than the previous scene did, pushing the narrative toward the climax.

876MilanoDuomoWhen you are structuring your novel, think of the way Gothic Cathedrals are constructed–smaller arcs of stone support the larger arcs until you have a structure that can withstand the centuries.

Like a Gothic cathedral, each small arc of the scene  builds and strengthens the overall arc of the greater novel. By creating small arcs in each scene, we offer the reader the chance to experience the rise and fall of tension, a pulse which never completely falls but is always increasing toward the high point of the book, giving the reader small rewards of emotional satisfaction along the way to the big event, the grand climax.

Better You Go Home, Scott DriscollAt the Pacific Northwest Writers Association Conference this last weekend, I went to a presentation by University of Washington Professor Scott Driscoll, who is a highly acclaimed author of literary fiction. His book, Better You Go Home is a gripping tale of a man in search of his roots and something more. Scott spoke at length on the importance of creating an arc within each scene, small arcs that propel the plot forward and hook the interest of the reader. In Scott’s work, each scene sets that hook just a little bit deeper.

Some authors make each individual scene a chapter, and some group several scenes with a common theme together to create a chapter. It’s your book–do it however suits you best.

The important thing to remember is that each scene that comprises the framework of the overall narrative arc must have its own arc–the Arc of the Scene.

 

 

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Setting inspiration ablaze

225px-Author_james_rollins_2008Last Thursday I was privileged to hear James Rollins speak at the opening of the 2014 Pacific Northwest Writers association conference in Seattle, Washington. He’s quite hilarious, and down to earth. He is still actively working a s veterinarian, which is a profession that would keep anyone humble, I  think.

It was a wonderful speech, and I was completely entertained, laughing so hard I had tears at one point. Jim kicked it off, but over those four days of immersion in the craft, 4 presenters in particular impressed me and rekindled my drive to write good novels.  Over the next weeks I will be blogging on the elements of the craft that each of these four speakers were able to convey.

scott-driscoll1The first to pique my interest and steal my literary heart was Scott Driscoll,  whose  novel, Better You Go Home , has been receiving high praise. I am in the middle of reading it now, and it is compelling work. I’ll be blogging at length about all the books I purchased at this convention.

Anyway, Scott gave 2 talks and I attended both of them  The first was on the arc of the scene, developing a rhythm for each scene that grips the readers attention, takes him through all the emotional points you want him to experience, and then sets the platform for the next scene.   The second was on literary fiction, which is my secret addiction.

In some ways I already understood the arc of the scene, but he was able to really get it across in an entertaining and concise way, and emailed me a wonderful handout to tape next to my computer. In his literary fiction seminar Scott Driscoll also discussed  a fourth point of view I had heard of in college, but forgotten about,and gave it a name I’d never heard of: the Flâneur (idler, lounger, loiterer,) which we will be discussing next week. Charles  Baudelaire characterized the flâneur as a “gentleman stroller of city streets,” he saw the flâneur as having a key role in understanding, participating in and portraying the city. Thus, a flâneur plays a double role by existing  as a present, but ignored, member of society who remains a detached observer of all that occurs within the story.

jason blackThe second speaker to really grab my interest was Jason Black. A well-known structural editor, Jason also writes middle-grade novels.  His discussion on steering your story where you want it to go was really pertinent to a problem I’ve been wresting with in one of my current works in progress. I will be writing on his suggestions and putting them to work  for me.

One of the things that Jason jarred loose in my head is how I need to proceed with deploying information about a certain evil character while not revealing too much at the outset. He reminded me of the the concept of asymmetric information–A situation in which one party in a transaction has more or superior information compared to another. This often happens in business and stock transactions where the seller knows more than the buyer, although the reverse can happen as well. Potentially, this could be a harmful situation because one party can take advantage of the other party’s lack of knowledge.

In novels, not everyone in the scene knows everything, and those plot points are driven by the those characters who do have the critical knowledge. Applying this to my current plothole will be key to resolving it.

Lindsay Schopfer book signing PNWA 2014Then I was assisted by fantasy author, Lindsay Schopfer, in identifying character motivation. Sometimes it’s hard to understand why characters do the things they do–and Lindsay boiled how to identify it down to simple manageable chunks. Now I think my problems with the one evil character I am trying to flesh out will be resolved, because he now has clear motivations for his actions. I will be writing like a banshee for a week, anyway!

Lindsay’s characters leap off the page, and that is what we all want for our own work.   I really enjoyed The Beast Hunter and Lost Under Two Moons, and have reviewed both of them on Best in Fantasy.

Terry PersunAnother seminar I went to that really pushed my current work into focus was given by Terry Persun,  the award winning science fiction and fantasy author.  He was discussing point of view, the ubiquitous POV we sometimes struggle with, should we be omniscient, 3rd person, or first person? And what do they mean? Of course, I have a grip on that, but it was his side comments and sense of humor that jump-started my my brain. He managed to help me bring into focus the way to end the final bit of misery that is my current work in progress.

He made the point that the only POV a reader can really trust is the ‘omniscient’ as it is not told from any one character’s point of view and is therefore unlikely to be a lie. However, that said, he’s  written novels in every POV, because it’s more interesting for him as an author. I bought 4 of his books–just sayin’.  Can’t wait to get into Doublesight. I can smell a book blog review!

And while I was there, I finally met Janet Oakley in person. She is a long-time friend, an author I have known for several years, and whom I met through the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Awards Contest–but we only have known each other through the on-line community. She is an awesome person and her books, Timber Rose and Tree Soldier  have been winning awards right and left!

Janet and I met up with local author Don Harkcom, who writes thrillers, and who is now being courted by several agents. Don actually lives not far from me, and we spent a lot of time discussing everything from gaming to politics. All in all, it was a great conference and I am already looking forward to next year!

Me, Don Harkom, J.L. Oakley -Janet - PNWA 2014

Me, Don Harkcom, & J.L. Oakley at PNWA 2014

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Kicking off the annual PNWA writers conference

300px-DocsavageWell it’s that time of the year again–today is the first day of the Pacific Northwest Writers Association Conference, held in Seattle, Washington. I’m a proud member of PNWA, and find incredible inspiration at these conventions. This year’s keynote speaker is James Rollins, the well-known master of magic, mayhem, and monsters.  According to Wikipedia, the fount of all knowledge,  “Rollins found the authors of the Doc Savage series inspirational as a youth and acquired an extensive collection of the popular 1930′s and 1940′s pulp magazine stories.”

Quite frankly, I too adored Doc Savage, and discovering that another author was influenced by that wonderful, lurid, misogynistic series is quite a treat.  I’m looking forward to hearing him speak tonight.

Another person whose seminar I am looking forward to will be given by Lindsay Schopfer, author of The Beast Hunter. He will be talking on the subject of unlocking character motivation, and I am quite interested in hearing what he has to say on the subject, as he is an accomplished author, and his characters leap off the page.

The Beast Hunter, Lindsay SchopferIt’s one thing to understand the mechanics of writing, the nuts and bolts of how to put together a coherent sentence and join it together with other sentences to make paragraphs. Most writers can do that. It’s quite another thing to write paragraphs that become stories other people will want to read.  Attending writers conferences and seminars gives me insight into how successful authors whom I’ve admired over the years think, and helps me stay fired up about my own work.

I will reconnect with many local northwest authors who I’ve become friends with over the years, and of course I’ll be connecting with agents and editors from all over the country.  This is a huge opportunity for me to absorb the mojo that happens whenever writers gather to talk shop. My next blog post will cover the events and hilarity of this one.

Jake RansomLast year I did learn one important thing–even the Hilton doesn’t have a clue when it comes to providing decent vegan entrees, no matter how the conference organizers claim they will offer them. Rather than starve as I did last year, this year I am commuting from home and bringing my own sack-lunch with plenty of snacks. It’s a bit of a drive, a little over 1 hour each way, but if the dinners provided are less than adequate, I’ll survive.

Today’s lunch will be an avocado, lettuce and tomato sandwich on whole-wheat. ♥  It doesn’t get any better than that!

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Pareidolia

Martian_face_vikingSo I was reading a rather badly crafted novel last night–one that was entirely forgettable other than this one word: pareidolia.  I tried to get my kindle to find the meaning, and it was unable to answer that question too.  But  Wikipedia, the fount of all knowledge, came to the rescue:

Pareidolia (/pærɨˈdliə/ parr-i-doh-lee-ə) is a psychological phenomenon involving a vague and random stimulus (often an image or sound) being perceived as significant, a form of apophenia. Common examples include seeing images of animals or faces in clouds, the man in the moon or the Moon rabbit, and hearing hidden messages on records when played in reverse.

The word comes from the Greek words para (παρά, “beside, alongside, instead”) in this context meaning something faulty, wrong, instead of; and the noun eidōlon (εἴδωλον “image, form, shape”) the diminutive of eidos. Pareidolia is a type of apophenia, seeing patterns in random data.

Sir Paul McCartney, image from Rolling Stone MagazineHuh. Who knew? Apparently people have been suffering from pareidolia  for thousands of years: seeing patterns in the stars and calling them constellations,  faces and images in clouds, and seeing the face of the Virgin Mary in the patterns on their french toast. They also hear the Beatles implying “Paul is dead” when you play their songs backwards.   The Rorschach inkblot test uses pareidolia in an attempt to gain insight into a person’s mental state.

330px-Francesco_Melzi_-_Portrait_of_Leonardo_-_WGA14795You aren’t crazy–you are extremely creative and able to visualize it pretty clearly. Even Leonardo Da Vinci understood the phenomenon–apparently he wrote of pareidolia as a device for painters, writing “if you look at any walls spotted with various stains or with a mixture of different kinds of stones, if you are about to invent some scene you will be able to see in it a resemblance to various different landscapes adorned with mountains, rivers, rocks, trees, plains, wide valleys, and various groups of hills. You will also be able to see divers combats and figures in quick movement, and strange expressions of faces, and outlandish costumes, and an infinite number of things which you can then reduce into separate and well conceived forms.”

Well, it’s a word I most likely won’t use, but there it is — pareidolia — a new word in my vocabulary.

 

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Analog, I revile thee, or how The Martian redeemed my faith in science fiction

The MArtian Andy WeirI’m a book addict. Each time I crack open a book, whether in hard copy or on my Kindle, I’m hoping to be blown away by the imagery the author presents, hoping for that amazing high that comes from living a true classic. Lately I have been reading wide of my usual slot, not abandoning fantasy, but going back and seeing what I loved the most about the genre that was my first introduction to reading for pleasure. I recently had the experience of being completely and utterly blown away by a science fiction novel, The Martian, by Andy Weir.

It’s one of the best science fiction stories to come out of the last 20 years.  A real adventure story from the get-go, this story of an astronaut inadvertently left behind is gripping from page one. As a main character, Mark Watney is hilarious. He is the sort of man who gets through life by finding something positive in every disaster, and mocking the hell out of everything that is negative.

A horrendous storm destroys much of their base, and his team is forced to abort their mission.  During the emergency evacuation of the Ares 3 landing site, he is severely injured in an accident that appears to have killed him. His body is unretrievable, and unaware that he is still alive, he is left behind. His companions begin the long journey back to Earth, grief-stricken at his sudden death. THIS is an awesome, gripping, and hilarious story.

300px-Astound5006I’ve been a subscriber to a well-known science fiction magazine, Analog,  for many years. I am actually considering letting my subscription lapse, because for the last five years or so I have struggled to find something enjoyable in their magazine.  I no longer enjoy the work they are publishing and they no longer seem to care. While there are occasional nuggets, the majority of work they publish is frequently harsh, lifeless, depressing, and incomprehensible. The fact is, perhaps they have forgotten what real science fiction is about, what the average reader wants. Perhaps I am no longer smart enough for their publication–and I hate paying to be sneered at.

Despite the efforts of the publishing community, the genre of science fiction is not dead. Andy Weir ‘s brilliant work on The Martian proves that there are writers out there with exactly the sort of stories I am looking for.  And guess what–he published it in 2012 AS AN INDIE.  This is a really telling thing, that the watershed books are no longer being put out there by the Big Six, until they have proven their worth in the Indie market. Hugh Howey, A.G.Riddle, Rachel Thompson–INDIES, all of them.

In my sci-fi, I want human frailties, drama, adventure, intense life and survival against great odds, set against a backdrop of understandable and realistic science.

I want a Space Opera.  Andy Weir gave that to me.

It is that high drama that made the Star Trek empire what it is. High drama set in exotic places made George Lucas’s Star Wars series of movies the poster child for space operas. Those two series translated the intensity of feeling that the great authors of science fiction all brought to their work.

Over the years, I have written many short space operas for my own consumption. However, this fall I am embarking on the real test–putting my writing skill where my mouth is.  It just so happens that off and on for the last  3 years, I’ve been outlining a science fiction story.  Originally, I began this project  in preparation for NaNoWriMo 2013, but this will be the year to implement it, so in November this will be my work.

As a devoted fangirl of many well-known physicists, I’ve been doing  research for the last three years, and feel sure my science will hold up, which, in sci-fi, is key to the longevity of a tale. I have great characters, and a really plausible plot. I just have to spend 30 days stream-of-conscious writing to the prompts I have set forth and…well, that is the trick, isn’t it? But even if I fail to write anything worth publishing, I will have had a good time, and that is what this gig is all about: enjoying the ride.

 

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How dining in Bedlam taught me to write dialogue

Days of Wine and Roses quote copyThe family I grew up in is a loud, all-talk-at-once kind of a family, with a lot of talkative members. Family gatherings are absolute bedlam–large, loud, full of life and great food, and long on opinions and ideas. We are comprised of musicians, artists, and authors, along with engineers and software developers.

Above all, we are avid gamers of all kinds, from old-school Super Mario, to Grid Autosport, to Final Fantasy X/X-2, to Halo, to Assassin’s Creed, to  Dark Souls 2, to Minecraft–and we love to talk, loudly and all at once, about everything we love. Somehow, we all manage to have our say and allow the others have theirs, but it’s like living in a blender at times.

We, and our friends, are loud and passionate and most people love it, but every now and then a visitor can’t handle the hullabaloo.  Sometimes, less outgoing girlfriends or boyfriends don’t get it, and the general din intimidates them.

In fact most people carry on conversations, where one person says something, and the  other one answers, and this goes on like a tennis match until everything has been said.

Huh. Who knew?

So, that is how we want to write our dialogue. We want it to sound natural.

Writers need to keep in mind that when people talk, they rarely follow any grammatical rules. Any English class that writers have taken will have stressed the importance of using proper grammar and punctuation in their writing. However, when we attempt to write dialogue, those same rules should be thrown out of the window. Many times people speak in broken sentences, with pauses, and even use incorrect words.

  1. Don’t overuse character names in dialogue. People don’t use each other’s names in every sentence they speak, because it sounds silly. (“Helen, your hair is lovely.” “Thank you, Ralph.” “Do you want to watch a movie, Helen? “Sure, Ralph, but stop touching my hair.”) When you do use character names in dialogue, use them early in order to indicate to whom the speaker is talking, and after that, be sparing with the monikers.
  2. Avoid writing dialogue that’s really an excuse for “speechifying” (I love that word ♥.)  Avoid giving your characters long paragraphs with lines and lines and lines of dialogue that is uninterrupted.  In real-life conversations, people usually alternate in conversation, and like my family, they often interrupt each other. It is your job to capture the rhythm of real speech–but don’t make it choppy.
  3. The dialogue of one character shouldn’t repeat what was said by the other, unless it is for emphasis in that one instance. “So Helen, what you are saying is, ‘don’t be repetitive.'” “Yes, Ralph, don’t repeat my every word.” “Don’t repeat your sentences.”
  4. DON’T explain your dialogue by adding too many descriptors, such as: John shouted angrily, or Garran commented sulkily. If the meaning is effectively conveyed in what your characters are doing as well as saying, adding these descriptors undermines the dialogue and disengages the reader. Try removing the explanation and see if the meaning is still clear. If it isn’t clear, it’s time to rewrite. By letting the dialogue speak for itself, by describing it less and showing it more, you make it more compelling.
  5. DON’T get creative with your attributions, or ‘dialogue tags’ as we call them: stick to John said (not said John, which sounds archaic in modern literature.) Unless you absolutely need a John screamed or Edwin uttered (which you pretty much never do) just say it and let the reader do the rest. Fancy synonyms for ‘said’ are usually unnecessary and distracting.
  6. And now for my pet peeve:  people do not smile, snort or smirk dialogue. I mean really–“That’s a lovely dress,” snorted Clara. (eeew. )  In fact, it is often best to do away with attributions altogether for a few exchanges every now and then, if:  A. you have only 2 speakers, and B. you have established who is speaking.
  7. Most readers hope authors will avoid trying to convey accent by altering spelling. It gets tiresome to read an author’s attempt to rewrite the dictionary to fit a cockney or an Irish accent, so use colloquialisms and speech patterns instead. That said, if the character is making a MINOR appearance, using an accent will give the reader feeling that they know that character, without resorting to an info dump.
  8. Feel free to break the rules of grammar if your character shows a blatant disregard for what’s correct. If he wants to say, “I seen that movie last week. It were a real dud,” let him.  That is a way to show the description of your characters.
  9. Miss a few beats. Beats are little bits of physical action inserted into dialogue: John fell quiet and stared out the window. Marta turned and walked out the door. Used sparingly, these pauses serve to punctuate the dialogue, to give the scene movement, and to maintain a strong mental picture in the absence of description. They’re best placed where there is a natural break in the dialogue, because they allow the reader to experience the same pause as the characters. Pauses are essential to good dialogue, but don’t overdo it. If your characters are rattling pans, slicing apples or staring out the window between every line of dialogue, the scene becomes about the action and not the dialogue, and the impact of the conversation can be lost entirely.
  10. Once in a while, it is okay to have your characters tell a story within the story, but do it as naturally as possible. Speaking as an older person, I admit that some older character will be just dying to tell the younger ones how it really was. Please don’t use that plot twist as a crutch to dump a chunk of boring background. No one in real life wants to hear an old duffer go on about the good old days at Bob’s Fish Cannery, even if Skyler Webbley did lose a finger that was never found and didn’t notice it until his shift was over when he discovered his driving gloves didn’t fit right. (Just sayin’.)

In regard to proper use of punctuation: it is important to follow the rules in the general narrative but punctuation has a different role in dialogue. There are times when it is used to create pauses in dialogue.

Oh, dear. What have I done? Breathe, Irene, breathe! Inhale…exhale…it will be fine–it’s dialogue, for the love of  Chatty Cathy…we want it to sound normal, not necessarily literate. (Oh, dear, she’s turning blue… . Line editor down! Quick! Someone fan her with the Chicago Manual of Style!)

Or you can properly punctuate your dialogue to your heart’s content.  It’s your book, and your style–you make the decision.

Anyway, to write natural dialogue, observe others around you, see how they talk, what they do with their bodies, and where they pause. These are what you know of them as people, and are what you want to convey in your writing.  What we want our dialogue to do is  give the reader a clear visual of the scene, the characters and their environment. A truly great book is clearly visualized in the mind of reader, so give those clues and hints, but let the reader see for themselves the beauty or horror you are describing though good dialogue and properly setting the scene.

VOS QUOTE

 

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