Words Left Unspoken Leave the Strongest Impact

One important aspect of compelling storytelling is putting meaningful words in the mouths of your characters, also known as dialogue by some professionals. Good dialogue conveys what the characters say to each other with purpose and direction, in addition to non-verbal communication, and even small talk if conveyed correctly. But today we’re talking about a more subtle level of character interaction much deeper than meaningful words and actions: the lack thereof.


It’s What You Don’t Say That Matters

Dialogue may move the plot forward and reveal who the characters are through their communication style and vocabulary, but sometimes it’s what they do not say that creates the most interesting of conflicts. When characters hold secrets from each other, how they feel about those secrets cause their interactions to be strained because withholding information from either their loved ones, or enemies who could use the secret against them, can change their relationships forever.

The most common feeling accompanied by a secret is shame because as human we are fundamentally flawed, and knowing this we strive to be better than we are, thus having a tough time admitting or even acknowledging having any flaws. After all, it’s these flaws and mistakes we make that degrade our self perception in the eyes of our better potential selves, and how we’re perceived by others.

Our self image is important to us because having an identity is comforting, and identifying ourselves as good virtuous people is how we navigate the strange and difficult canals of life. Rocky waters are just part of life, but secrets can be deadly waves that drown us all.

But amidst all the watery turmoil we may face in our lives, perhaps learning how to weather the storm is how we come to discover strong we truly are, assuming we have the strength to survive.

So if anyone ever comes close to exposing our secrets and insecurities, whether they mean to or not, it can cause us to becoming defensive and deflect the topic. Unless you willingly go to therapy to talk about your problems and share your secrets, chances are, you would much rather keep your secrets to yourself and not let anybody catch wind of them.

You could either be protecting others from something you perceive as dangerous to them, or something that is dangerous to your public and/or personal perception. A secret that if word got out could potentially hurt several others, or hurt your ability to deserve any trust from others.


A Happy Accident For a Set Up

Let’s take Bob, for instance, who gets so drunk at his best friend’s bachelor party that he ends up cheating on his wife with the “hired entertainment.”

(I’m talking about a stripper, of course, not a party clown. Though hiring a party clown instead of a stripper would make for a good best man prank. Even better if the party clown turns out to be the stripper’s character gimmick, but anyways! Let’s actually roll with that for this example.)

Imagine how awkward it will be for Bob to wake up to his wife Jane the next morning, knowing what he had just done the night prior. She could ask how the bachelor party was and he could admit that he got down and dirty with a clown stripper named Trixie, but where would the drama be in that?

No, instead, he would do anything to avoid the topic because of the guilt eating him up inside. He’s questioning if he’s a horrible husband and if the drinks were laced with something strong because there’s no way he could have cheated on Jane. Maybe it was a drug induced hallucination? Or maybe the Clown Stripper took advantage of him? In either case he perceives himself as weak and unworthy to called himself a married man.


Bob and the Clown Stripper

“How was the party?” Jane asks.

“F-fine,” Bob stammers. He swiftly sits up in bed, causing his head to spin from the heavy hangover induced from one too many whiskey shots and using beer and wine as chasers.

“Hey, be careful.” Jane caresses Bob’s bed head from behind him and smooths out his hair. “Just fine? But you spent weeks setting up this prank. Did it back fire? Did Jim end up hating it?”

Thoughts of last night’s shenanigans flood Bob’s memories, and the fact that they are hazy is not the part that troubles him. It is the image of Trixie sitting on his lap and possibly kissing his neck, which is where the dirty deed may have began. He gasps and snaps out of the memory and tugs at his black polo shirt’s collar to see traces of white make up and cherry red lipstick.

Bob leaps out of bed, unbuttons his shirt and rushes to take it off to hide any evidence of his misdoings from Jane. He immediately regrets it because it comes off as suspicious.

“Thank God because you reek,” Jane says. “I was going to take your shirt off for you when you climbed into bed last night, but I didn’t want to wake you.”

Jane knows how much of a light sleeper Bob is, even when he’s punched out drunk. Bob feels ever guiltier considering how much Jane knows and loves him so much. Despite his shirt being off, he begins to sweat.

“Bob?” She asks, but he doesn’t hear her. He feels guilty considering how she had to sleep next to him stinking of alcohol.

“Sorry,” Bob says steadying himself against the dresser. “I am so sorry, Jane, I really am. And thanks.”

“It’s no big deal. Everything okay?” Jane shuffles over to the edge of the bed. “You should lie down, I’ll go make you some breakfast.”

“It’s okay,” Bob says, feeling undeserving of her affection.

Jane goes to pick up Bob’s shirt off the floor, and he tries to grab for it, but grabs for air instead. As she heads to the hamper, he hopes that she just tosses it in so he can grab it and wash off Trixie’s make up off his shirt while Jane cooks breakfast. Just as Bob is about to let out a sigh of relief when Jane takes the lid off the hamper, she pauses and turns around clearly staring at the clown’s make up smeared on Bob’s shirt.

“Bob?” Jane asks.

“It’s not what it looks like,” he says.

“Did you cheat on me with a clown stripper?” Jane giggles.

“N-no, of course not.”

“Gosh, I sure hope she took her foam nose off before you whisked her off to the circus.”

Bob is frozen, slowly realizing that Jane is obviously joking, but doesn’t know how to shake off his guilt exuding demeanour. Jane’s grin slowly fades into a questioning frown and Bob licks his lips after realizing how dry his mouth has become from the laboured breathing.


Less is More

As you can see from my morbid example that less is more. The dialogue is for the most part short with a few actions, thoughts, and exposition to provide context to why the seemingly innocuous conversation between Bob and Jane is more tense that it would seem at face value.

Though when it comes to a character trying to hide a secret from another, they don’t always have to be sparse for words. They could even over compensate by spinning lies rather than simply avoiding the truth. Bob doesn’t have to say anything, his entire avoidant responses imply that he’s hiding something, but poor Jane is non-the-wiser, even when she jokingly asks if he cheated on her with a clown stripper.

On top of hiding the truth from Jane, Bob apologized profusely for something his wife didn’t take as that big of a deal when it came to coming home drunk and falling asleep reeking of alcohol. That itself is a subtle tell that the reader could pick up on to gauge Bob’s guilt over possibly betraying his loving trusting wife.

It is implied that cheating is unusual and unexpected of Bob, and that he and Jane have a solid marriage with how she’s joking around with him with the idea of…well…the possible truth of what happened. I will leave it up to interpretation whether he actually she cheated on her, and whether she figured it out after where the examples off from.

That is it for today’s Workshop Wednesday! I hope this helps you make good use of a valuable tension building tool.

What are your favourite unspoken words from fiction?

Do you have any thoughts, questions, and criticisms about this post?

Was the example too out of left field and not very family friendly when it could have been?

Whatever the case, let me know in the comments below!

 

Why Subtitles Improve Your Writing

“Marriage?” He scoffed. “We can barely afford this house.”

“But we’ve been together for 10 years,” she whimpered.

He sighed and leaned back with his chair creaking beneath him. “You’re right, but–“

Have you ever come across these kinds of expressions while reading a book and wondered what they meant? Or maybe your mind filled in the gaps based on the context of the scene? Whichever was the case for you, I highly suggest that whenever you watch a TV show or a movie, that you put on the subtitles, even if the characters speak your native language.

Here’s why:

lily 0lily 1lily table clatterlily 3lily 4

Watching TV shows and movies with subtitles on allow you to learn three fundamental things:

  1. How dialogue is written
  2. What sound effects and expressions sound like
  3. Rhythm and beats of a scene

1. Dialogue

The most obvious reason why you should try watching TV shows and movies with subtitles on is to see how punctuation works, and maybe even expanding your vocabulary with new sophisticated words characters may speak.

If the characters are also incredibly nuanced in the way they all speak, seeing the phonetically written versions of their speech along with listening to how they deliver their lines, will also help you get a sense of certain word patterns different characters use. Do they speak in long bursts with little to no breaks in between words? Do they seldomly speak? What kinds of words do they often use?

For extra measure, having a notepad ready to jot down your observerations can help inform the kind of unique dialogue your story may benefit from.

2. Sound Effects and Expressions

With that opening sample scene I came up with, despite the lack of detail, I’m sure you can get a sense of how the situation might feel like for both the man and woman. Even if you don’t know what a scoff is, you can sense that it is something he is passive aggressively dismissing based on his following dialogue.

While you can get away with knowing what special words like scoff and whimper mean, you might run the risk of misusing them in either having them used in the wrong context, or simply breaking a certain character’s personality.

The man in this sample scene is anxious about marriage due to finances, and it doesn’t sound he really loves his girlfriend. If he did, maybe his sigh would come earlier because marraige is something he does want, but his financial woes get in the way.

Furthermore, the creaking of his chair can add to that scene to convey that he and his girlfriend are indeed in financial trouble, so much so that they are sitting at a table with low quality wooden chairs that creak.

Watching something with subtitles on can often help you hear what all these non-verbal expressions and environmental sound effects may sound like. It wasn’t until watching some TV shows and movies with subtitles on did I truly understand the difference between laughing, cackling, and chuckling.

3. Rhythm and Reason

Referring back to those screenshots of the scene from How I Met Your Mother, I originally wanted to only post pictures two, three, and four, but then realized I would be depriving you guys of this fundamental lesson. Watching with subtitles on can also help you understand the rhythm of a scene.

The first shot is silent, with Lily and Marshall sitting next to each other minding their own business. Marshall calls Lily’s name and she nearly jumps out of her skin because by screenshot number three, she is startled and hits her legs against the table causing it to clatter. She asks Marshall how long he’s been sitting there and in the final screenshot, she curses having the eye patch for obstructing her vision.

Had I not put the first and last screenshots, this scene would have no set up and no pay off. It would be devoid of context and the impact of Lily’s fright wouldn’t feel as full without that silent moment between herself and fiancee. Furthermore, without the final screenshot, the scene wouldn’t be as funny without her cursing the eye patch.

Learning how subtitles are spaced out between a scene, as well as how sound effects and expressions interject between what the characters are saying, can help you establish in your own work the rhythm and pace to which your characters interact.

I will definitely write more later on this concept of rhythm and beats in a scene, but for now, what I would like to emphasize is how helpful it is to get a sense of how that all feels on your own terms.

So give it a try; watch your favourite TV show and movies with subtitles on, specifically your favourite scenes in each story to see why they move you the way you do. You will be surprised by how the spacing between lines drastically affect the feel of the scene, as well as the new vocabulary you might come across in terms of non-verbal expressions and environmental sound effects.

Did you find this unorthadox writing tip helpful?

What has been your experience with subtitles?

Do you have your own piece of unorthadox writing tips? Feel to share all this and more in the comments below!

 

 

The Four Pillars of Fiction Part 4: Dialogue

So you got your plot, your characters, and the setting?

All that’s left to do is make these people talk, and following in the principle provided in this blog series, what they think and say needs to serve a purpose.

RM_05.15_ff_riskdialogue

Why Don’t You Say it to My Face?

When characters speak in fiction, it is meant to resemble a more concise version of human interaction. It subtracts the filler pleasantries and zooms in on the most important aspects of a conversation, and so any small talk topics like the weather and sports should be exempt from dialogue.

Unless, of course, weather and sports are important aspects of the story…

Otherwise we love experiencing fiction because we get to eavesdrop on people’s most vulnerable conversations.

Sound creepy? It kinda does, but these characters aren’t real!

Or are they?

Well, they are only as real as you can portray them in terms of their emotional reactions to their interactions with each other and the world you created for them.

Dialogue should reveal four things:

  • Plot
  • Setting
  • Character
  • Relationship

To reveal plot, characters need to talk about the central theme and objective in a way that lets you in on the most crucial concern in their world. Perhaps it’s poverty in a post-apocalyptic world, and so the characters will talk a lot about how there’s a shortage of food and shelter after some devastating event that destroyed their world.

Everything they talk about should be about survival and rebuilding their society. In doing so, they also get to reveal the setting since it serves as a backdrop for the plot.

Along with exposition and narrative, talking about the place they live in is another way to help describe the setting. As a viewer, we will see their world in a certain way, but it’s interesting to see when a character’s views contradicts ours.

Perhaps the post-apocalytpic world might seem bleak and hopeless to us, but the inhabitants and the way they speak can reveal how much hope they have in their own survival. Furthermore, it can reveal what kinds of bonds are created in such hardship.

As Long as We’ve Got Each Other

conversationSo on top revealing plot and setting, dialogue must also reveal character. When people talk, they are always revealing what they think and how they feel, whether they intend to or not. It’s inescapable. Each person is equipped with their own unique way of expressing themselves in terms of what they value and what they want.

Now it’s tricky because you don’t want your characters blatantly saying “we live in an apocalytpic world and starve every day.” You have to find a way that makes it sound natural, much like every day conversation, but of course remembering to always keep it concise and in relevance to the plot.

Life would be much easier if people were more direct and honest about how they feel and why they have those feelings, but we usually end up expressing all that in different ways that can be interpreted in different ways since we all have our own subjective experiences and opinions.

Because we all have such differing preferences and opinions, we often end up in arguments revealing what we all expect of each other and the world, thus revealing how we relate to each other. Where we differ and where we have commonalities is the bridge between two people, and there’s a push and pull dynamic that occurs in fiction and in real life.

We often want people to like the same stuff as us, but without the difference of opinion we would not have the privilege of being challenged to re-evaluate our values, feelings, and beliefs.

And that is the very point of fiction; to allow us to safely and passively experience a manifestation of our inner clash of values played out to us in another real with its own metaphysical and epistemological laws. With characters who represent different sides of ourselves and we get the chance to pick and choose, based on the consequences of their actions and interactions, what values and beliefs we must keep or discard–all done in a way that entertains us while informing us.

Semi-Final Words

Thus concludes The Four Pillars of Fiction series, thank you for your time. Let me know if these posts have been helpful and if you have any feedback or criticisms on how to possibly improve future and current writing tips, let me know! I’m always more than happy to hear your thoughts whether they’re simple kudos, questions, or criticisms.

Stay tuned for The Four Pillars of Fiction BONUS Post, where I will be using my own novels as examples for each aspect of fiction covered in this series…

 

The Four Pillars of Fiction: Introduction

The Four Pillars of Fiction need to be structurally sound in order to maintain your story’s integrity. Each pillar needs to be of equal height and width of the other pillars, or you may end up with a lopsided surface.

But with every rule comes an exception, and there are times where uneven pillars can either work for or against the story. We shall explore the convention of an even structure, and the possibility of leaving one intentionally short within good reason.

4 pillars

Welcome to a four part series where I will be detailing the fundamentals of writing fiction!

Together we will go into great on crafting solid blueprints that will help you develop a firm foundation for your story. Each pillar should seamlessly compliment each other and ultimately deliver a rivetting and captivating experience for your readers.

Part 1: PLOT

The plot is the pillar built from the events in your story. Every scene has a purpose, and every significant plot point must simutaneously ask new questions and reveal vital information about the world and its inhabitants.

Part 2: Characters

Without any characters, there is no story. We need some form of a sentient being in which to experience the world through, as well as relate to in terms of emotionality and intellectual stimulation. I’ve already made several posts about characters, and that very fact alone is reason enough to prove just how important it is to have solid characters in your story.

Part 3: Setting

Likewise with characters, a physical setting is required for a story or your characters will just be interacting in an empty vacuum. The world in which they inhabit needs to exist within the metaphysical laws of your story in terms of its relation to reality.

Magic? Technology? Or just plain contemporary? Whatever your setting is, it must serve as a logical physical playground for your characters to act out their particular drama.

Part 4: Dialogue

We relate and reveal through conversation. What do your characters have to say about the world, themselves, and their situations? To each other? Every character is equipped with their own unique way of speaking that expresses their desires and inner turmoil.

And of course, conversation is not just limited to verbal communication. We will also take a look at how non-verbal communication can serve as a solid substitute for conventional dialogue.

Pack Your Bags For an Adventure

And that is all for a quick overview of what I will be covering in the next couple of weeks.

I hope you are as excited as I am right now to delve into The Four Pillars of Fiction!

Bring your existing tools and be ready to sharpen them, as well as craft several new ones along the way. Together we will build the most structurally sound stories.