Milchtoast

Chronicles of a writer abroad


Leave a comment

Rhythm & Prose: Listening to Your Writing

by Kristen Coros

This article was first featured on the now-defunct Sowing the Seeds blog hosted by Vine Leaves Literary Journal

The poets among us understand the importance of rhythm in writing. Those of us who write prose, however, may give the issue little thought. This post aims to change that!

Let’s start by recognizing that in addition to creating images in the mind of our reader (a process aided by detail, discussed in our last entry) writing is also something we listen to. What we read not only activates the mind’s eye; it engages the mind’s ear. The rhythms of good writing can affect us like music, altering our mood or mental state.

For some writers, rhythm is easily sensed and played by ear. But if you’re among those who find it elusive, it may help to consider the following elements.

Sentence Length

In general, good prose is a mix of sentences of varying lengths. Too many short sentences can give writing a clipped quality; too many long ones can tire or frustrate a reader. But while we want to blend, the proportion of short and long sentences will vary depending on our style and subject. When a calm mood or sense of flow is desired, more long sentences are called for; when we’re aiming for urgency or sudden impact, we’ll rely more on short ones.

Tim O’Brien’s “The Things They Carried,” a story following a platoon of American soldiers in the Vietnam War, is often admired for its rhythm. The following excerpt shows the author’s use of different sentence lengths. Note the impact the final short sentences have when positioned after a long one:

When the dustoff arrived, they carried Lavender aboard. Afterward they burned Than Khe. They marched until dusk, then dug their holes, and that night Kiowa kept explaining how you had to be there, how fast it was, how the poor guy just dropped like so much concrete. Boom-down, he said. Like cement.

Another (tongue-in-cheek) illustration of the power of sentence length comes from one of Roald Dahl’s stories for adults:

I regard each sentence as a little wheel, and my ambition lately has been to gather several hundred of them together at once and to fit them all end to end, with the cogs interlocking, like gears, but each wheel a different size, turning at a different speed. Now and again I try to put a really big one next to a very small one in such a way that the big one, turning slowly, will make the small one spin so fast that it hums. Very tricky, that.

Adverbs

Tired of being warned against adverbs? Well, the truth is that they can (slowly, steadily, undeniably) make our writing clunky; they can mess with our rhythm. As Janet Burroway points out in her book Writing Fiction, we might be tempted to write, “They stopped abruptly,” but this line is less abrupt, in fact, than the line “They stopped.” We may, in other words, be able to cut the adverb and let sentence rhythm do the work for us.

Poetic devices

Techniques such as alliteration, assonance, and consonance, which involve echoing sounds, can lend a musical quality to prose. We can think of these as seasoning (bearing in mind that we wouldn’t eat a dish of only salt and oregano). When applied tastefully, the effect is rhythmic and beautiful, as in the opening lines of Nabokov’s Lolita:

Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta: the tip of my tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta.

Fragments

Good writers, even award-winning ones, break the rules of sentence structure in order to serve their rhythm. A standard grammar book wouldn’t condone these sentences:

“In the car. In tears. Shaking with sobs. I’d never seen him like that.” (Philip Roth, American Pastoral)

“I had my duties. Walk at night. In the morning dig my bed. Eat anything.” (Anne Michaels, Fugitive Pieces)

But in both cases fragments are useful: Roth’s staccato signals the impact on the narrator, while Michaels’ no-frills sentences mirror the straightforward aims of the boy fugitive.

Repetition

Accidental repetition is often undesirable: for this reason, an important part of revision involves cutting overused words. When deliberate, however, repeating images or words can be powerful. Here’s another excerpt from “The Things They Carried”:

Taking turns, they carried the big PRC-77 scrambler radio, which weighed 30 pounds with its battery. They shared the weight of memory. They took up what others could no longer bear. Often, they carried each other, the wounded and the weak. They carried infections. They carried chess sets, basketballs, Vietnamese-English dictionaries, insignia of rank, Bronze stars and Purple Hearts, plastic cards imprinted with the Code of Conduct. They carried diseases, among them malaria and dysentery. They carried lice and ringworm and leeches and paddy algae and various rots and molds. They carried the land itself—Vietnam, the place, the soil—a powdery orange-red dust that covered their boots and fatigues and faces. They carried the sky. The whole atmosphere, they carried it, the humidity, the monsoons, the stink of fungus and decay, all of it, they carried gravity.

In this 138-word passage, the words “they carried” are repeated ten times. The effect is a good one, because the author intends for the prose to pile up on itself so that the reader begins to experience the weight of these objects. It’s also satisfying because there is variation: the word “carried” acquires different meanings as physical, mental, and spiritual burdens are itemized. Repetition, in this case, becomes a tool that not only fits the story, but works to reveal different facets of it.

A similar effect is achieved in the opening of Stuart Dybek’s story “We Didn’t”:

We didn’t in the light; we didn’t in the darkness. We didn’t in the fresh-cut summer grass or in the mounds of autumn leaves or on the snow where moonlight threw down our shadows. We didn’t in your room on the canopy bed you slept in…

This kind of repetition is especially well-suited to certain subjects and themes, including love, grief, trauma, and obsession.

All Together, Now

Here’s one way to think about the issue of rhythm as a whole: if your piece were a song, what kind would it be? Quick and jaunty, or slow and somber? Would its beat be soothing, or driving? How do you want it to move your reader?

Try reading your writing aloud. If it sounds not quite right, experiment with the above tools and tricks, playing with the length of your sentences and the order of the words within them. You will find your rhythm!

Advertisements


1 Comment

Come Away With Me: Rooting Fiction in Place

by Kristen Coros

This article was first featured on the now-defunct Sowing the Seeds blog hosted by Vine Leaves Literary Journal

Every story we write takes place somewhere. In addition, good books, stories or vignettes tend to be immersive, drawing us irresistibly into the world in which they occur. This is why, as writers, we ought to pay attention to place—often called setting—in fiction.

An easy way to frustrate a reader is to give them no indication of where or when a story or scene is taking place. Conversely, an easy way to delight them is to ground fiction in an intriguing atmosphere, which is the combined result of setting and tone (which itself includes things like voice and rhythm).

In some stories and novels, setting is so dominant that it becomes a character in the story. Think of Stephen King’s snowed-in Overlook Hotel in The Shining, or J.K Rowling’s Harry Potter series, in which workings of the story’s world directly affect plot. Not every work will go this far to develop place, but every writer might consider the following ways in which setting can help to give fiction deep, vibrant life.

Setting is a way to incorporate concrete detail.

As discussed in this post, specific, concrete detail helps writing to come to life in the mind’s eye of the reader. This is an opportunity to avoid cliché or blandness, to give your story its own flavour. If I write a piece set in New York, as have so many before me, the setting can still feel fresh and unique if I describe the not the typical landmarks and places, but the unique and particular things my characters encounter and notice—the odd decor of a hole-in-the-wall restaurant, maybe, or the scents mingling in the air of a subway car on one particular morning.

Setting helps to shape and develop character.

Where do your people come from?

I’m asking about your characters. Each of them has grown up in one or more places that has shaped them, perhaps because they were so completely a part of these settings that they could conceive of no other way of life, or because they wished to leave or otherwise acted against the place in which they found themselves.

A contrast between person and setting can work to throw character into relief. A character might feel completely comfortable in a dangerous part of town at night, or distinctly uncomfortable in a place most of us might think of as innocuous (e.g., a library or pet store). As readers we tend to squirm with pleasurable anticipation when there is a clash between character and setting—a loudmouth about to enter a quiet and “respectful” environment, maybe—or when we can see that a character misperceives the environment in which they find themselves.

Furthermore, in describing the spaces a person inhabits, we sketch their character. What kind of things does (or doesn’t?) your character’s apartment contain—what have they chosen for their kitchen cupboards or their coffee table? This is a great opportunity to show instead of telling. I don’t need to explain that Anne is messy and disorganized if I show the week-old coffee mugs on her desk or the way her car’s interior is awash in takeaway wrappers.

Setting can help to express emotion.

Another opportunity to show instead of tell comes in how characters react to places. When setting evokes emotion, we can avoid having to report on it directly.

This applies to both variable and static aspects of setting. Consider weather: how your character responds to it can provide a clue to their emotions. To a person who is happy or in love, the summer sun may feel like a warm caress, whereas to someone who is depressed, it may feel overly bright and assaultive. Objects can also hold emotions: perhaps a familiar houseplant or painting on the wall takes on terrible features as a character processes bad news.

Setting shapes and echoes thematic concerns.

Theme is broadly defined as what a story or piece is “about”, and the place in which something occurs has some bearing on this. If the setting of your piece is a place of abject poverty, or fervent religiosity, or extreme racial tension, then most likely your work will end up saying something about these topics.

Putting it together, and an exercise

Given all of the above, here are some questions to ask about your setting:

  • How do the places in this work shape or describe my characters, and how do my characters harmonize or clash with these places?
  • Am I using concrete, specific details to evoke setting, and (especially if your piece is written in first-person) are these details the sort my character would notice?
  • How might my characters’ reactions to the setting reflect their emotions?

The following exercise, adapted from Janet Burroway’s Creating Fiction, might help you to focus on setting. It could result in a compelling vignette!

Describe a place where a character feels trapped. Instead of an obvious place, like a jail cell, dentist’s chair, or elevator, try to make your choice of setting less obvious—an RV, an amusement park, a wedding rehearsal, or a library. Use sensory details to suggest your character’s discomfort, claustrophobia, and dread.


Leave a comment

How to Read Like A Writer

by Kristen Coros

This article was first featured on the now-defunct Sowing the Seeds blog hosted by Vine Leaves Literary Journal

“If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have time (or the tools) to write.” – Stephen King

A significant part of a writer’s development involves reading: in order to be able to produce written works, we also need to be consuming them.

As with our writing, we ought to approach our reading endeavours with a measure of skill and intention. The following are some tips to help you achieve this. A number of them have been culled from Francine Prose’s 2006 book Reading Like A Writer, which we recommend for a more in-depth discussion of this topic.

Read closely. For writers, there are many things to make note of when reading, including but not limited to:

  • Point of view
  • Narrative voice
  • How plot is developed
  • How character is developed
  • How sentences, paragraphs, and chapters are structured
  • Word choice, and how this serves style and rhythm
  • When figurative language (metaphor and simile) is deployed, and to what effect

Read Repeatedly. In order to notice all of the above, you may have to read a text multiple times. This is especially true because we tend to get caught up in good fiction, becoming far more interested in the characters and their lives and what’s going to happen next than in how the story is constructed. We shouldn’t resist this effect, because we don’t want to jeopardize the pleasure of reading in our effort to make it a learning activity. A solution is to let a book wash over you first, and return to it later to study.

Read With a View of The Forest. Some of us have the combined gift/curse of being highly attuned to detail. We’ll remember all the tidbits in a story—exactly what the characters said, what they ate and wore—but we might flounder when asked what it was about. We should challenge ourselves, as readers, to pull back and see the whole (what Adler and Van Doren, in their meta-tome How to Read a Book, term “the unity”) by trying to express a work’s overall message or themes in a sentence or two.

Read Widely. Or as Francine Prose puts it, “omnivorously.” Regardless of what you write—literary fiction, historical, genre, nonfiction—aim to read in all of these areas. You can learn something from any piece of written material. In some cases you’ll learn what you want to avoid doing in your own writing, which is itself a valuable lesson.

Read in Other Languages. If you’re lucky enough to be fluent in a language other than your native tongue, you’ve probably noticed how languages inform and enrich each other, making you a more playful and flexible writer. If English is all you’ve got, you could still try translating sections of a foreign masterpiece in the original—an activity apt to be slow and painstaking, but enlightening.

Read With An Eye For What Works… It’s of course good to read with the ability to identify the shortcomings of a given text, but it may be even more useful to pinpoint its strengths. Did the book you just finished have beautiful descriptions, so clear and vivid that you could feel the hot wind, see the dew trembling in the flowers? Did the author pull off a 120-word sentence with aplomb, or did he or she make you care so deeply about the characters that you feel their absence now that the book’s ended? Was the dialogue pitch-perfect?

…Then Steal It. We don’t really mean that, do we? Well: yeah, we sort of do. We’re talking not about plagiarism, but about appropriate creative borrowing. For our purposes as readers and writers, you may find it helpful to do a patterning exercise. Take a passage that wowed you and try to write an equivalent-length section of your own in which you closely match the length of each sentence or the pattern of the dialogue or the style of exposition—whatever it is that you so admired—using different subject matter, characters, and words, of course. The resulting piece may not make it into your work in progress, but exercises of this sort do help hone the implements in your writer’s toolbox.

Lastly, Read for Courage. Writing can be demoralizing. Sometimes reading can too, if we become intimidated by what we read, and begin to despair of ever matching it. Prose offers the following advice:

There are writers who will stop you dead in your tracks by making you see your own work in the most unflattering light. Each of us will meet a different harbinger of personal failure… The only remedy to this I have found is to read another writer whose work is entirely different from the first, though not necessarily more like your own—a difference that will remind you of how many rooms there are in the house of art.

The best cure for our doubt, fear and frustration as writers may then be to head to the library or bookstore, where we can marvel at the number and variety of bold, original, funny and beautiful things that have been written.

So, be sure to crack a spine (or, you know, delicately unsheath that e-reader) on a regular basis!


Leave a comment

Shall I Compare Thee? Making Effective Use of Metaphor and Simile

by Kristen Coros

This article was first featured on the now-defunct Sowing the Seeds blog hosted by Vine Leaves Literary Journal

A waterfall of commuters plunging down the subway steps. Clouds appearing like wadded-up tissues after a rain. The jack-o’-lantern look of an apartment block by night.

Images are crucial to fiction—hence the importance of detail and of show, don’t tell. Another mode through which we can persuade and convince our reader using word-images is comparison, two main forms of which are metaphor and simile.

Quick review of what many of us learned in school: a simile is a comparison filtered through the words like or as (as in Nabokov’s “Elderly American ladies learning on their canes listed towards me like towers of Pisa”), while a metaphor is a suggestion that something is something else (from Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children: “After a winter’s gestation in its eggshell of ice, the valley had beaked its way out into the open, moist and yellow”).

Which one we choose to employ (should I write that his tangled curls were a bramble atop his head or like a bramble atop his head?) may depend on how big of a stretch the comparison is, but also on the tone of our writing. If, like Salman Rushdie’s, our writing generally demands more suspension of disbelief, we might be comfortable saying that a valley is a hatching bird, for example, whereas a more understated tone or piece might urge us to instead employ a simile in this case.

Whether you tend towards the audacious metaphor or the quietly apt simile, here are some further tips to help ensure your comparisons run like a Swiss watch, instead of stalling like the engine on your junky first car.

To begin with, we want to avoid clichés (like the plague!). This is often difficult to do, because clichés are words and images so often associated with each other that they tend to spring to mind like conjoined twins as we are composing. Janet Burroway, in Writing Fiction, offers this sage advice: “If you sense—and you may—that the moment calls for the special intensity of metaphor, you may have to sift through a whole stock of clichés that come readily to mind.”

While we love comparisons that feel fresh and surprising, that make us think, “Hm, I’d never considered that a mouthful of teeth could be like a graveyard, but now that you mention it…” caution is needed to avoid going too far in the name of originality, and offering an image that is too far-fetched to be easily imagined. However, if a comparison is complicated but truly apt (you’re determined that you can show the reader exactly how a love affair is like a lawnmower) the comparison may need to be developed further, becoming a conceit or extended metaphor.

Mixed metaphors should also be avoided. These are comparisons that confuse different images or elements, as in “She turned a blind eye to everything he was saying.” (If the metaphors being mixed are both clichés, you might end up with something like “Wake up and smell the coffee on the wall.”) Another thing to watch out for is the jarring effect created by putting two contradicting comparisons next to each other: if in one sentence a woman is compared to a flower and in the next, a she-wolf, the reader’s mental image of her is apt to become muddled.

What comparisons ideally should do is resonate in some abstract sense. While they often start with our observation that two things look or feel alike, the best metaphors and similes suggest some abstract quality shared by the two things. For example, when Alice Munro writes in “The Bear Came Over The Mountain” that an elderly female character’s hair was “light as milkweed fluff,” we not only get some sense of what she looks like, but we begin to imagine this person as delicate-seeming, ethereal. Conversely, when David Foster Wallace tells us, in Infinite Jest, “the sun is a hammer,” we understand that the sunshine does not feel gentle and life-giving, but pounding, brutal, assaultive. In this way, metaphor and simile can echo thematic concerns.

A good practice for generating unique and striking comparisons—which, like all writing devices, are best used in moderation—is to make a list. If you know you want to highlight something by comparing it to something else, it can be helpful to brainstorm (pretending, if it helps, that Don Draper is in his office awaiting your best ideas). Images will spawn other images. Once you’ve come up with as many candidates as possible, eliminate those that are clichéd, then select one that feels surprising and convincing, as well as accurate, like an arrow shot straight into the bull’s eye of your story.


2 Comments

Using Detail to Bring Writing to Life

by Kristen Coros

This article was first featured on the now-defunct Sowing the Seeds blog hosted by Vine Leaves Literary Journal

“If those who have studied the art of writing are in accord on any one point, it is on this: the surest way to arouse and hold the attention of the reader is by being specific, definite, and concrete.” – William Strunk, Jr., The Elements of Style

Writing vignettes or other short pieces of fiction typically means that we have a limited number of words to work with, and accordingly, a great need to make each one count. We aim, with this kind of writing, to bring people, places or things to vibrant life within a relatively small space.

Great—but how do we do it?

One powerful tool at our disposal is specific, concrete detail.

Details are the building blocks of good description; they are persuasive, helping to convince us of what we’re being told. They also help us to accomplish a main aim of fiction, which is to give our reader sensory access to our writing—things to focus the (mind’s) eye on, things to imagine hearing, smelling, or touching. The following is an excerpt from Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch:

Along Park Avenue, ranks of red tulips stood at attention as we sped by. Bollywood pop—turned down to a low, almost subliminal whine—spiraled and sparkled hypnotically, just at the threshold of my hearing. The leaves were just coming out on the trees. Delivery boys from D’Agostino’s and Gristede’s pushed carts laden with groceries; harried executive women in heels plunged down the sidewalk, dragging reluctant kindergartners behind them; a uniformed worker swept debris from the gutter into a dustpan on a stick; lawyers and stockbrockers held their palms out and knit their brows as they looked up at the sky.

Tartt’s sentences transport us to New York in spring, inviting us to see the bustle of people and the pops of colour provided by the flowers and the budding trees, to (just barely) hear a very specific kind of music, to feel the motion of a cab as it travels through the streets, and to sense that it might, at any moment, begin to rain.

Well-chosen details about the way a person moves, smells, talks, dresses, or habitually behaves also help to develop character. An example from Miriam Toews’ A Complicated Kindness:

Every single night around ten o’clock Ray tells me that he’s hitting the hay. Along the way to his bedroom he’ll stop in the front hallway and place notes on top of his shoes to remind him of the things he has to do the next day.

With these two sentences, containing two key details—the same routine each night, the notes on the shoes—Toews sketches a man who is conscientious, habit-bound, and possibly forgetful.

Detail can also give form to concepts that we consider abstract, things like love or wealth or prejudice. The way a person speaks to a waiter can be revealing, as can whom he chooses to sit next to on a train, or whose eyes he avoids meeting en route. Consider the moment in Jhumpa Lahiri’s “Interpreter of Maladies” when a tourist asks his driver to stop for a photo:

Mr. Kapasi pulled over to the side of the road as Mr. Das took a picture of a barefoot man, his head wrapped in a dirty turban, seated on top of a cart of grain sacks pulled by a pair of bullocks. Both the man and the bullocks were emaciated.

These uses of detail—making our writing a sensory experience, revealing aspects of character, bringing abstract concepts to life—also fit with the “show don’t tell” axiom we hold dear as writers of fiction. We don’t have to say that a character is anxious if we show her digging half-moons into her palm; we don’t have to explain that she enjoys casual dress if we mention her polka-dotted Crocs tan.

While there’s fun to be had in figuring out detail, a word of caution is needed: as with any piece of writing advice, it’s possible to carry this one too far. Detail can be overwhelming if it wanders into clinical territory, or if there is simply too much of it. The writer Flannery O’Connor once noted: “To say that fiction proceeds by the use of details does not mean the simple, mechanical piling-up of detail. Detail has to be controlled by some overall purpose, and every detail has to be put to work for you.” Stephen King echoes this point in his book On Writing, calling it “not just a question of how-to…it’s a question of how much to.” He advocates for “a few well-chosen details that will stand for everything else,” advice that is well taken by the writer attempting to portray a person, place or thing using a modicum of words.

So we’re wise to be selective, and show those details that lend insight into the subject of our writing. Are there cobwebs on the old woman’s telephone? Do shingles on the roof of the formerly grand house now stick up like cowlicks? Did a visitor enter the living room without removing her mud-covered shoes? Sparing use of specific, concrete, and significant details like these can help our writing to make an indelible impression on the mind of a reader.


Leave a comment

Dialogue in Fiction – Where Talk isn’t Cheap

by Kristen Coros

This article was first featured on the now-defunct Sowing the Seeds blog hosted by Vine Leaves Literary Journal

Like setting, dialogue is an indispensable and multitasking tool of fiction that helps us accomplish multiple aims at once. It illuminates aspects of character, because the way someone speaks provides clues about origin, social status, mood, and so on. It is a way in which we create voice. It also advances plot while allowing us to show things happening instead of merely telling about them.

Types of Dialogue

Fictional dialogue comes in three main forms (not counting interior self-talk/monologue, which deserves a separate post):

  • Summarized speech, whereby we learn through narration that some discussion has taken place: When he came home that night, she told him the dog had run away.
  • Indirect speech, in which quotation marks are not used, but we still get a sense of the exchange. She didn’t seem too sad about this turn of events, he noted. What was wrong with her: why was she so goddamned heartless?
  • Direct speech, which is what we most readily associate with the term “dialogue”. It appears between quotation marks that suggest we’re hearing exactly what was said. “That’s convenient, Marge. You’ve never liked the dog, and now he goes missing.

Stylistic and practical considerations help us decide which type to use when. Summarized speech is an efficient way to condense conversations and information that we don’t want to dwell on. Indirect speech also helps cut to the heart of the matter, but it does so while imparting more flavour. And generally when there is important action occurring as a result of dialogue, we’ll want to use quotation marks (this is only a guideline, though!). The three types of dialogue can also be blended together within paragraphs or scenes. Consider this excerpt from Alice Munro’s story “Five Points”:

“That’s all just tourist shit,” Neil says. “About half the place is nothing but tourist shit. That’s not where I’m talking about.”

He is talking about Five Points, which was—is—a section, or maybe just a corner, of the city, where there was a school and a drugstore and a Chinese grocery and a candy store. When Neil was in public school, the candy store was run by a grouchy old woman with painted on eyebrows…after she died, some new people, Europeans, not Poles or Czechs but from some smaller country—Croatia; is that a country?—took over the candy store and changed it.

Note how the passage contains words quoted directly from Neil’s mouth, a summary of his subject by the narrator, as well as indirect dialogue capturing his way of speaking (“Croatia; is that a country?”).

What we talk about when we talk about subtext

“Subtext” is a term often associated with dialogue in fiction. It can seem a confusing and nebulous matter, but what it boils down to is this: fiction often aims to mirror real life, and in real life people have all kinds of discussions that aren’t actually about what they seem to be about. In other words, people often don’t say what they mean, but approach subjects indirectly. Imagine, for instance, two elderly characters having a conversation. One of them is terminally ill, but instead of being able to confront and discuss this fact, they instead have an agonized exchange about purging a storage closet.

Further things to consider

Should fictional dialogue mirror its real-world counterpart to the greatest extent possible? Some writers believe so, and pepper their dialogue with lots of “ums”, “uhs” and ellipses. This is a valid stylistic choice, but one caveat is that it may be tiring to read. Typically, in much of the fiction we consume, we’re used to having speech tidied up to some extent. Fictional characters usually don’t pause, stumble, or ramble quite as much as in real life, unless these tendencies are being used to illustrate something meaningful about their character. We might also want to give their speech rhythm (ADD LINK).

A few more suggestions to keep in mind:

  • Dialogue, like fiction in general, is compelling when it contains conflict, when characters are at odds or something is getting in the way of someone’s desire. It’s fun to read about people trying to convince, deceive or seduce each other.
  • Specific dialogue containing concrete details tends to be more interesting than that which is broad or vague. Think of the times that you’ve been unable to stop yourself from eavesdropping on strangers. Likely the conversational fodder was “juicy,” which is to say colourful and rich in detail.
  • To avoid breaking the flow of a conversation, in most cases dialogue tags should be kept simple. While it can be tempting to add flavour and specificity with tags like “Bette whined,” “Jake gasped,” or “Amy snarled,” these descriptors may become stumbling blocks for the reader, whereas the standard “said” tends to become invisible. It’s also a fine choice to omit dialogue tags altogether in cases where it would be clear who is speaking without them.
  • Try to avoid adverbs in tagging dialogue: adding “she said angrily” after the line “I never want to see your face again!” is unnecessary. In general, it’s good to let characters’ words do the talking. If it’s not obvious how a character is feeling, it’s better to show an action than to use a modifier.
  • It’s best to keep exposition out of dialogue: when characters reveal information to each other that they already know for the benefit of the reader, they begin to sound like authorial puppets.

As an exercise…

Try to record some real-life dialogue verbatim, and think about how you would alter it for fiction. Where would the dialogue tags go? Does it contain enough conflict and interesting detail, or can these be jazzed up? Then experiment with rendering the conversation, or various parts of it, as direct, indirect and summarized speech.


2 Comments

Award for best metro chime goes to Budapest

Yesterday I was talking with my mom about how riding local forms of transit is a very enjoyable part of travelling to new cities and countries. Last week Stelian and I visited Budapest, a truly fascinating city. But I was disappointed to find, after our arrival, that I’d brought my camera but neglected to bring its battery, which I’d left in the charger at home. One of the things I most regretted not being able to document during the trip was the city’s metro system.

I was tipped off by a Zürich friend before going that the Budapest metro was great, and it did not disappoint. The stations are far underground, with escalators so high they bring on vertigo, and fixed to the ceilings above them are giant fans whose blades look like they could propel bomber planes, which force air to circulate down below.

The platforms are wonderfully old-timey — most we saw were identical, white tile trimmed with magenta, and a wooden booth that probably used to be for selling tickets (now, as in most places, you can get them from a machine). They evoked an earlier razzle-dazzle era so powerfully that I expected a man with a striped jacket, straw hat, and a cane to do a shuffle-dance onto the scene each time our train pulled into one.

Perhaps the tones that accompanied the arrival at each station helped to foster this illusion. The subway cars, while not the most modern, played the jauntiest, most cheerful metro chime I’ve ever heard, and I laughed each time I heard it. It was disappointing not to be able to record it. Then today I remembered, in a facepalm moment, that it’s possible to find absolutely anything on the internet. So in the video below is Budapest’s metro chime, courtesy of a random youtuber.  Tell me: have you ever heard a better one, or have you been to other places with interesting/amusing transit systems?