A Bear Won’t Eat What A Bear Can’t Smell: When Real Life Provides the Dialogue

 

(purchased from IStock)

I’m currently living in the limbo that inspires fear and loathing in many writers, and drives others to query random Magic 8 Balls with the seriousness of a sugar-drunk eight-year-old at a slumber party: I have a manuscript on submission. For the sake of my sanity, let’s step away from the constant checking of email, the extra glass of wine after dinner, and the cold-sweat certainty that there should have been One More Edit before it went out.

So, tell me things, please. Specifically, I want you to think about the sayings you have in your family. They might be well-known sayings, or something you and your siblings picked up from a long lost television episode that stuck with you for whatever reason. Or it might be a saying whose origins are lost to history, but you still use it. These sayings don’t necessarily have the gravitas or moral spin of an aphorism, but when you use colorful or shocking or sweet sayings occasionally and appropriately in your dialogue, they immediately give your reader important information about your characters.

I’ll start. Here are some that show up again and again in the Benedict family, or came from my childhood:

People in hell want ice water. (my dad)

Smooth move, Ex-Lax. (also my dad)

Sleep tight, don’t let the bedbugs bite. (my mom)

We like the moon, because it’s close to us. (this video is at least 10 years old)

Biggie fries, biggie drink. (no comment)

Pretty makes up for bad. (this showed up around the time my daughter was five)

Pretty is as pretty does. (this one gives me the same hives it gave me when was five)

Does a bear poop in the woods? (dad, again)

Is the Pope Catholic? (yep, dad)

A bear won’t eat what a bear can’t smell. (from a Saran Wrap commercial–could only find the ad with a tiger)

Measure head size before ordering. (appropriate whenever, well, ordering something–I picked it up from an Elmore Leonard novel)

Same poop, different flies. (from husband’s family)

Cam down, Linwood. (MIL’s family–she said she has no idea where it came from)

Hold ‘er, Newt. She’s headed for the barn! (also from MIL’s family–she doesn’t know where this is from either. but I did find versions online)

Scratch your ass and get happy. (heard this at a family reunion–acquired it immediately)

These three came from workshop students:

It’s a poor ass rabbit that only has one hole. (meaning is fairly obvious)

You can’t look up a hog’s ass and tell the price of lard. (heh)

She’s a real Corinthian. (wish I’d written down the origin of this one–so many possible interpretations)

Your turn!

2+

First Page Critique – Miss Bryson Loses Her Hat

Jordan Dane

@JordanDane

Image By Frode Inge Helland - Wikipedia Commons

Image By Frode Inge Helland – Wikipedia Commons

An anonymous author has submitted the first 400 words of a work-in-progress. Please enjoy Miss Bryson Loses Her Hat and I’ll have my two cents on the flip side. Share your constructive comments to assist the author in making this intro shine.

Scene one
Once a girl crashed to the floor with a bone-shaking thud before a thousand people, it gave her a clarity of mind she lacked prior to the event. In Lara Bryson’s case, it elucidated too late the hazards of satin slippers on a freshly polished floor, and illuminated, in a flash of searing insight, the vagaries of a God who, in blessing her with an angelic voice, tempered it with the less benevolent bestowal of two left feet.

Yes, He seemed to say, in a voice Lara imagined as a rolling thunderous crack rending the heavens, she could sing as gloriously as the seraphim, just never in company, and never anywhere requiring the use of her legs.

If only He’d bothered to tell her this before she sold every possession, expended every shilling, and endured sixteen perilous hours battened to the top of a London Mail Coach.

Even a hint five minutes earlier would’ve sufficed.

Instead, Lara lay crumpled and mortified. The roar of adulation that had provoked a warm tingling sensation to cascade like a waterfall through her limbs moments before replaced with the frenzied gasps of a mob titillated by the unexpected sight of a lady splayed out like a ragdoll.

Even more lowering, the dismal conviction that her promise to her dying mother to sing for the Queen would remain forever unfulfilled settled like a rock in Lara’s heart.

The clip, clip, clip of boots dashing across a wooden floor interrupted Lara’s fit of the blue devils. She guessed she had about thirty seconds to find a dignified way out of the Ballroom before the crowd reached her.

Or she could crawl.

The odds poor she’d get upright in a graceful manner, and stay there, slinking away on all fours seemed not only the best option, but a fitting end to her wretched evening. Her decision made, Lara clamped her eyes shut, and prayed silently; God, if you wish to keep alive what little trust I still have in You right now, then at least clear a path for me to slink out of here.

“Clear a path everyone, and give the lady some air.”

Lara gasped; never before had she received such a direct answer from above. The request for air an inspired touch. An exotic woody scent drifted over her. Sandalwood. Interesting; she’d thought myrrh.

The voice spoke again, “Are you hurt?”

Feedback:

The intro is reminiscent of the beginning to a fairy tale as it starts with, “Once a girl…” The tag line Scene One reminded me of a script. I’m not sure why it’s there. But overall, I enjoyed the proper British tone of the author voice and the way the girl’s plight was detailed–it’s like Downton Abbey meets Bridget Jones–with an undertone of controlled humor. I sense a Cinderella story coming, although I can’t be sure in this short intro.

Here are a few things for the author to think about:

1.) Add More Mystery – Who are the 1,000 people? In the first sentence, we hear of the girl’s fall. The audience is not emphasized much until we get a hint at the promise she made to her dying mother, to sing for the Queen. If this is indeed a performance for the Queen, why not play that up more? Or at the very least, hint at the once in a lifetime opportunity, the titillation of the crowd, the tension as she builds to the moment where she walks out. The fall is put into the first sentence, very anti-climactic, because the author chose to focus on her mortification in great detail.

2.) Flip the Scene – Imagine this scene starting another way. As the girl’s mind prepares for her big moment (a moment the author holds back but only hints at), she’s haunted by the promise she made her mother on her deathbed. Tension builds. Her palms sweat. Every movement in her routine replays in her head as she waits in the wings of the stage or outside the ballroom, but the crowd noise and her mother’s face haunt her. She is introduced and the music starts. When she walks out under a glaring spotlight, she sees the silhouette of the Queen in the shadows. Everything is the way she visualized it and her mother’s voice fades in her mind. The stage is set for perfection, but that doesn’t happen. The end of the intro comes when she falls. Every reader will want to know – what comes next?

3.) Use of Humor – There is definitely charming humor written into this piece. It appeals to me, very much. But keep in mind that humor can diminish intrigue or lessen the danger in a scene or shift the focus if it’s used too much. (As an example, a smart mouthed detective can appear too confident and invincible if he doesn’t act afraid when a gun is pointed at him. Over time and as the pages turn, the reader becomes insulated to any danger and never fears for the protag’s life.) In this case, we are drawn into Lara’s cynical, self-deprecating humor about the wreck of her life and her big fall when she may resonate more with the reader if there’s a focus on the action, rather than her internal monologue. A sparing use of her humor could be used after the fall, but let the reader feel her anticipation of a promise fulfilled before we know what happens. I get the feeling this author is quite funny, but less can be more to make Lara endearing. Let her think big before reality sets in. It will make the punch line better.

4.) Who is her Prince? – I know this is only 400 words, but I am really intrigued by who this person is at the end. Her savior. This is a tribute to the author’s writing and the set up. There is a lot of internal monologue as the scene progresses, when what I really wanted to know is mentioned above and who this person is at the end.

5.) Scenes are Mini-Stories – I think of each scene in a book like a mini-story. There’s a beginning, middle and end. Each scene should progress the story forward with at least 1-3 plot points. If an author does this, the writing will be tight and each scene serves a purpose. There’s also a character journey within the scene where the protagonist will grow, learn something to advance the plot, or raise more questions to foreshadow what might be coming. With this in mind, I like the intro to a scene to have a strong opener, a tight middle with mystery elements to intrigue the reader, and a foreshadowing of things to come that will keep the reader turning the page. In Miss Bryson Loses Her Hat, this mini-story can be accomplished by sticking with the action building to her fall, with only a hint of how important this is to her and who she is dancing for. The big conclusion of the fall and who comes to her aid can be the foreshadowing and make a great page turner. (Another trick to make a page turner is to split a scene and carry it over into the next chapter. It’ll keep readers up late and you may get an email in the early hours saying, “I can’t stop reading.”)

Conclusion:

I really want to turn the page and read on. Kudos to the author. Overall, I love this author’s voice, but even with that talent, there is still a need for how to create and build on an introduction. Elements of mystery are very important, no matter what the genre. I like to tease the reader with questions as they read on, then build on the suspense to answer those questions as the reader finishes each paragraph. Add more mystery elements as the scene progresses and you’ll hook them deeper and in multiple ways.

Discussion:

1.) What feedback would you give this brave author, TKZers?

2.) Would you keep reading?

3.) Can you imagine this premise starting differently?

3+

Five Key Ways to Create a Character’s Distinct Voice

Jordan Dane
@JordanDane
 
Inspired by Joe Moore’s excellent post yesterday on Narrative Voice, I thought about my process for making characters distinct in the worlds I build in a novel. We are all influenced by where we grew up or where we live now, our race, social class,  jobs, friends, religious beliefs, and other factors. Any character an author creates is no different. It’s not enough to picture their outward appearance. Give them a background and sphere of influence. Sometimes it helps for me to hear their voices in my head. (Yes, that’s allowed without taking medication. Special dispensation for authors.)
 
I recently binged on Sherlock (a la Benedict Cumberbatch) and Sleepy Hollow (British star Tom Mison’s reinvented Icabod Crane). I loved the notion of Sherlock’s brilliant mind leaps and I also loved the idea of a more stilted proper speech of an educated scholarly man similar to the Oxford professor of Icabod Crane, but I wanted my character to be American with a brash punch to him when he wanted to make a point. Those rare moments of punch give him a sense of gravitas and unexpected depth of personality. Being familiar with these TV characters, it became a fun challenge to meld their distinct voices and mannerisms into my American FBI profiler haunted by visions of crime scenes when he sleeps.
 
It’s amazing fun when you can hear the character voice in your head and write with a good pace, without filtering the words you type on the page. I call this “free association” where you channel the voice of your character without having to think about it. Over the years I’ve gotten better at this, which also comes with a cautionary warning born of experience. Often if you THINK in free association without filter, you will SPEAK that way too. Not always good in a social setting. #FilteringSavesLives
 
Five Key Ways to Give Your Character a Distinct Voice
 
1.) Word Choices:

  • What is your character’s vocabulary?

 
  • How educated is he/she?

 
  • How much does race/culture play into his/her narrative?

 
  • Are there regional influences on his/her speech? (I feel most comfortable writing in Midwest, TX, OK, and Alaska, places I’ve lived and worked.)

 
  • Is slang or pop culture references a part of his/her speech patterns? (A secondary character can use slang as a way to distinguish that character’s voice from the protagonist. Fewer tag lines necessary.)

 
  • How old is your character? (Don’t force a more youthful influence if you aren’t comfortable, but be aware of generation gaps.)

 
  • Is your character from another country? (Word choices and even spellings can indicate where a character is from. I wouldn’t take any short cuts here. If your character is British, but YOU as the writer aren’t as familiar with nuances of a particular region in the UK, get help from a native speaker or build a backstory where your character has other influences that will temper their voice into more of a melting pot.)

 
  • What gender is your character? (Gender can play a big part in making narrative distinctive. Avoid the cliché, but men and women are fun to contrast, no matter what your vision is for unique individuals.)

 
2.) Confidence Level:

  • If your character is an assertive cop or from a military background, he or she would expressive themselves in a more direct and decisive fashion.

 
  • How forceful or passive is your character? (A deliberate use of the passive voice can be an indicator of a submissive character. Use of “Uh” or “Um” can indicate hesitation and lack of self-confidence.)

 
  • Does he or she take charge and have a no nonsense approach to dealing with conflict or do they only react and let others take over? (Even their clothes choices can indicate how confident they are.)

 
3.) Quirks/Mannerisms:

  • Does your character have distinctive habits or mannerisms? (Sometimes a facial tic can be fun to exploit at key times.)


  • Does your character have a unique hobby or interest that affects how they speak? (Someone into sailing could infuse nautical words, for example.)


  • What humor do they have, if any? (Characters can have humor play out cynically in their internal monologue, yet their dialogue lines don’t reflect humor at all. This can be great for comic relief. Also characters can have distinctive sense of humor from very dry to crass bathroom humor.)

 
4.) Internal/External Voice:

  • Your character might have a day job, but at night they come home to a family with small children or a demanding pet. How does their internal voice change when they let their guard down? Do their internal thoughts show a more tender vulnerability? This duality can bring depth and complexity to your character.

 
5.) Metaphors/Similes/Comparisons:

  • I love imagery, but let’s face it, some characters will never think in terms of elaborate metaphors. It would not make sense to force it. In the case of my educated professor type, for example, his narrative could be infused with imagery/metaphors or perhaps literary influences because that’s how his mind works. He sees reality of the world around him yet he longs for the fictional world of his favorite book. If my character is a street kid without much education, he might be more influenced by rap music lyrics or the daily hustle on the street where he fast talks to survive everyday. No matter who your character is, they would have their own frame of reference for making comparisons.

 
FOR GRINS & GIGGLES: I took a little New York Times Online Test of 25 questions that analyzed how I spoke to determine where I live. (Best suited for residents of the U.S.) The test came back with a result that I lived in Rockford Illinois, New Orleans, and Rochester NY. Totally wrong since I live and grew up in Texas, but my mother was a Yankee and I’ve lived all over the country, so apparently that has also influenced me.) Take the test and see what your results are. Did they get it right? Let us know.
 
For TKZ Discussion:
How do you infuse a unique voice to your character? What are your key influences? If you’ve written characters outside your comfort zone, what tricks can you share about how to make that work?

1+