Wednesday, February 10, 2010

The character driven novel, limiting speech tags and stage directions

Character led novels - this phrase refers to those novels where the story is told by and through, the characters.  There is limited description and what there is is woven in and seen/heard/felt through the character.

The dialogue is key to this type of novel.  It should not be wasted on mundane everyday chores or actions, eg:  'Do you want a cup of tea?'  'Yes, please'  'How many sugars'  etc...  But should carry the story forward, give insight to character, give information and set the scene and the mood.

Many authors feel they need to give the actions of every speaker either before they speak or after as a speech tag, this isn't necessary, but, you ask, how can I get something over without telling it? 

You have to make sure that what is said paints a picture in the readers mind.  This isn't as difficult as it sounds.  Eg:

In this scene there is Grace and Andy.  They are having an argument about money.  Andy hasn't told Grace  he has lost his job.

  The first take is with stage directions and speech tags.

Grace opened the catologue and flicked the pages.  'I want to show you something, darling,' She patted the seat next to her.

Andy put down his paper, 'I'm not interested, we're not buying anything, so why bother looking?'  He said in a voice that seemed final.  He lifted his paper. 

Grace felt a shock at his words and how he so rudely dismissed her, 'And since when did it become your decision what we buy or not?'  She angrily slammed the catlogue down as she glared at the newspaper.

'I didn't say it was my decision,'  Andy tried to keep his voice even.  He didn't want a row, didn't want her delving, he wasn't ready to tell her, yet.

Grace became more annoyed, he still held his paper in front of him, 'What else can I deduct from you saying, "we are not buying anything?"  You have been a pig, lately, what's wrong with you?'

Andy slammed his paper down, 'Nothing, for Godsake, do we have to have this out now?  I just don't think we should be spending money we don't need to.' Andy said, trying to bring reason into his voice.


The author of work like this does not have the confidence in their reader.  How to get confidence?  Read.  Yes, it is as simple as that.  Read a good book.  After a time stop and analyse what you have been doing.  Have you just sat there and read?  Or has there been pictures in your mind?  Look at the work again.  Did the author tell you everything you have experienced?  Or did your own imagination see what was happening?  You will be shocked to find that all you have been through whilst you read isn't on the page at all.  If the author is a good author, the pictures will have been painted, not told.  You have been drawn into the scene.

Let's re-write the above.

Grace picked up the catalogue and flicked through the pages,  'Andy, darling come and sit next to me, I want to show you something...'
'I'm not interested.  We're not buying anything so what's the point?'
'Oh, and, since when did you decide whether we're buying anything or not?'
'I didn't say it was my decision, I... Well, times are difficult, I just think we should be careful that's all.'
'Don't talk to me from behind a bloody newspaper!  And besides, what do you expect me to think?  You've been a pig lately, you won't discuss anything, what's wrong with you?'
'Oh, for Godsake!  Do we have to have this out now?'
'Well, at least you have condescended to look at me, that's something...'
'Look, if you must know, I've lost my fucking job...'
'What... No... Andy, no...  Oh, God...'
'I'm sorry, Grace, I'm sorry...'

Okay, not the most riviting stuff, but for the purpose of the demonstration, what did you feel and see?  Did you feel the atmosphere?  A couple sitting in a room, one eager to show something she wanted to buy the other afraid.  Did you feel the anger rise and the indignation?  Did you discern the reasonableness Andy tried to bring into the conversation?  The petulance of Grace, then the crisis moment when the truth is told?  Did you picture the paper?  Did you sense Andy's despair and Grace's shock?

And all without being told one stage direction or how everything is being said or who said what.   Practice this yourselves. 
He said/she said.... Is it necessary to have these tags every time?

No, if two people are talking, once the conversation is established, just let it flow with each person taking their turn to speak as above.  But, if there are more than two people it maybe, though I would still thrive not to.  How?  Read what follows:

'Sorry, Sir, I didn't hear you come in, I...'
'That's okay, Constable, as you were.'
'This is Mr Perrin, Sir, he has something very interesting...'
'I just thought you Coppers should know that's all, it might not be nothing.'
'Well, we'll be the judge of that, obviously my Constable finds it has some substance, now from the beginning.'
'I were just walking along the road, it were early on, like...


Now, there were three people involved, did you know who was speaking when?  And not a: Mr Perrin said, The Constable said or Sir said in there at all.  Nothing to slow the pace.  Sir was introduced by coming into the room.  The Constable by Sir.   Mr Perrin by the Constable and then what they said and how they said it took over.  A lot more interesting than;

'Sorry, Sir, I didn't see you come into the room,'  The Constable said.
'Okay, as you were,' The Detective Superintendent said.
'This is Mr Perrin, Sir, he has something very interesting to say.'  The Constable indicated the man standing in the corner of the room.
Mr Perrin stood and said...etc...etc..


Will my reader know how my character spoke?  Eg: Angrily, with a smile, haughtily, distressed, pointedly etc etc....  Yes.

What is the mood of these sentences:

1) 'How dare, you?  Who the bloody hell do you think you are?'

2) 'Huh, see if I care, you are not the be all and end all of my life.'

3) 'Oh, no...No, please, I can explain.  Please give me another chance.'

4) 'A wife!  You're no proper wife.  You're off out of here the moment my back is turned and there's never a meal waiting for me.  And as for what you're meant to provide in bed, you give that grudgingly, an all.'

5) 'Ha, whose being an idiot now?  Come on, Joe, I think that is touche, don't you?

Look at the sentences in your own work where you have added a direction as to how something is being said.  Take away the direction and ask someone to read it.  Then ask them what the mood of the person is whiltst they are saying it and what expression they imagined on the face of the character.  If they are bob on, then so are you.  If they get it wrong, then you have - rework it. 

Email me with any questions regarding this or any of the other Creative Writing Tips.  I am here to help.
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