Thursday, August 15, 2013

On Writing Techniques, Motivation, and Context

Dialogue, setting, action, POV internals (motivations, thoughts, feelings, internal reactions, etc.), and character externals (body language, tone of voice, scent, external reactions, etc.)—all provide context to the reader. That context and how you use it will affect the resulting story.

Now, it's possible to skew a story in one direction or another. It's possible to write an all-dialogue story, for example, or all-setting and action, no internalization. But any such story will be missing part of the context, so it'll rely on the reader to supply the missing context.

For the readers who follow what the author intends, such an intentionally incomplete story can be powerful. But… specific actions don't necessarily indicate particular emotions. Particular situations also don't necessarily result in particular emotive responses.

Different people react differently in the same situation, or have different expressions of the same emotions. When I'm confused, my tone automatically gets sharp (unintentionally so). Someone else, for example, might get quiet and puzzle over it or might talk loudly over anyone who tries to explain.

So when authors omit some aspect of the context, they do so at the expense of the readers who either lack that context or who apply a different context.

Case in point: Book #2 in the Kate Daniels series (Magic Burns) has a particular scene from the first person narrator's perspective that they redid as a side release from the MMC's perspective, which gave another view. Turns out that the way the narrator acts when frustrated and about to cry is how I act when annoyed and holding back my temper, so I completely misread the mood of that scene when I read the novel (which made things a bit confusing)—and that was book 2 in the series, so I already had some pre-existing knowledge of the character. That knowledge was just insufficient to suffice as emotional telepathy to catch the character's emotions.

Now, every style will lose readers.

So the author needs to focus on "What fits my story?" and to go from there. Some readers accept everything that works for them. Some insist that some particular balance (or lack thereof) is the definition of "good writing"—and then the definition of "What is balance?" can depend on the reader.

But… there are limitations in that.

You can't just have all the characters say their motives outright, for example. First, more than half of communication is non-verbal. (Some estimates say it's 80%.)

Second, characters will have intentions, motivations, speech, and actions, which might not all line up. ("Oh, I shouldn't eat that cake" [speech], as your hand reaches for it [action], though you don't intend to [intention] and you're trying to lose weight [motivation].) Characters will have thoughts and reactions, internal and external, to what's around them and what they're thinking.

Third, some characters will lie, in speech or body language, and different characters will have different reactions to the same emotions, actions, situations, etc.

Fourth, narrators have five senses plus preconceptions, through which they perceive the world, which influences how things are conveyed. What actually happens does not necessarily equal what the narrator interprets, and if the author phrases such events properly, the reader will be able to pick up on such disconnects, if they're so inclined.

Example: If you've read A Fistful of Fire (AFoF) and A Fistful of Earth (AFoE)—both of which can be found on Wattpad—you know that Lallie as seen by Evonalé isn't the same as Lallie as seen by herself. If you read AFoF after having read AFoE, you might notice some things in Lallie's behavior that Evonalé doesn't understand the significance of. (For example, Lallie's major life-changing event, from which she's still suffering in AFoE, happened shortly before one scene in AFoF, which shows in how Lallie acts in that scene and in following ones.)

Those things can all be used to great effect without a drop of dialogue. But skewing something too much in any one direction—too much dialogue, too much internal thought, too much description, too much scent—will weaken your writing, unless that skewing particularly fits a particular situation/character/narrator/story.

For example, a musician narrator might pay more attention to sound than a seamstress narrator, who might pay attention to clothing—cuts, fabrics, colors, fit, etc. Ernest Hemingway is known for dialogue-heavy stories, which his fans love and find incredibly powerful, but others find confusing.

The key is to keep your goals in mind, as well as the limitations of what you're doing. The POV, tone, style, and intended audience will all affect the resultant proportion of dialogue to internalization, of setting to action. (Note that most conventional POVs in modern writing require the reader to be able to follow the narrator's thought processes—you can actually get away with a narrator who does the stupidest or cruellest things, as long as you can get the reader to understand the character's perspective, even if they disagree with it.)

If you write good dialogue, you can sometimes omit speech tags because the reader will be able to recognize who's speaking and will know the character well enough to know their mood. But even in that case, the dialogue and setting aren't what set the emotion—the reader's prior understanding of the character(s) is. I found Franny Billingsley's Chime a fantastic example of that, though the novel is probably best appreciated by fans of Robin McKinley.

But if you attempt some of those techniques like an all-dialogue story, and a beta reader comments, "Um, I have no clue in which tone of voice this was said," that is true for the reader. You might not see how it could be said in any way other than the one you intend—but, obviously, it can, so your options are to adjust it to make the mood clear, or to check with another reader to see if that the commenter was just outside your intended readership.

Anything can be said in any tone of voice or intention. Even something like "That dress does make you look fat" could be said cruelly, thoughtfully, absentmindedly, helpfully, etc.

Action and dialogue tags are tools, just as dialogue and setting are themselves tools. Each tool performs its own tasks, and each tool can be used, overused, or misused/abused. You can sometimes get by using one tool to substitute for another—but again, it's not the same.

To demonstrate, here's an all-dialogue situation:

"I said, I'm hungry."

"Just a minute."

"Not a minute. Now."

"I need to finish this e-mail in the next ten minutes. After that, I'll—"


The complaining party could be whining or threatening. The other party could be annoyed or scared. Speech doesn't tell you. Setting wouldn't, either. Action might help, but people act differently in the same situations, so it wouldn't be certain. An author could use those tools to convey emotion, but then the writing would only make sense to people who react the selfsame way in those moods. You'd lose readers who respond differently.

See, when you don't give the motivations (or other details), the reader makes assumptions, when they can. (Sometimes, they're just bewildered.) But a reader who makes assumptions is fine with your story only if those assumptions fit. If those reader-assigned motivations/emotions/etc. end up not fitting as the story continues, you'll lose many of those readers, because your characters are seeming inconsistent, even though they may actually only be misinterpreted.

Now, let's add a bit of action (which puts us into Sylvia's POV):

He tapped her on the shoulder. "I said, I'm hungry."

She pursed her lips and kept typing. "Just a minute."

His scowl reflected in her too-old monitor. "Not a minute. Now."

She frowned. "I need to finish this e-mail in the next ten minutes. After that, I'll—"

He yanked the arm of her rolling office chair. "Now!"

That gives a little more of the situation—he's probably angry; she's probably annoyed or at least isn't acting as if she feels threatened.

Now, let's try again, defining the characters a bit more—and adding some motivations.

Her eight-year-old son tapped her on the shoulder. "I said, I'm hungry."

The doctor'd told Mick to stop going on tiptoe, if he ever wanted his toes to stop breaking—though the boy would break them against the tub, when he wanted sympathy. Sylvia pursed her lips and kept typing. "Just a minute."

Mick's scowl reflected in her too-old monitor. "Not a minute. Now."

She frowned, managing not to shiver, not to let him know he was getting to her. "I need to finish this e-mail in the next ten minutes. After that, I'll—"

He yanked the arm of her rolling office chair. "Now!"

Or how about this?

Joe tapped her on the shoulder. "I said, I'm hungry."

Cy pursed her lips and kept typing, wishing her boyfriend could make his own lunch, for once. "Just a minute."

Joe's scowl reflected in her too-old monitor. "Not a minute. Now."

She frowned, tired of his attitude. He was one tantrum from being kicked to the curb, and she wasn't about to warn him. "I need to finish this e-mail in the next ten minutes. After that, I'll—"

He yanked the arm of her rolling office chair. "Now!"

The dialogue and action are completely the same, but for who the characters are to each other. The major difference? The motivation.

As a line editor, I sometimes have clients who attempt to rely entirely on dialogue and setting and therefore are entirely unclear about emotions, motivations, intentions, etc. that the POV would know and the reader should therefore understand.

Now, I am female. I've noticed, as an editor, that while both male and female authors can have trouble getting motivation on the page, females are more likely to equate thoughts or emotions with motivation, and males are more likely to equate action or setting with motivation. That internal/external distinction actually fits some psychology delineations.

As an author, I tend to write very "close" first person, which has interesting effects with narrators like the aforementioned Evonalé and Lallie. Both of them could be in the selfsame situation and pull completely different details and tones out of it. (Someday, I may write an Aleyi short story with multiple narrators that shows an event from different points of view.)

I mention that to point out that there's an extent to which all techniques are ambiguous. Some are just more so than others—and the extent to which each one is ambiguous depends on what you're going for.

Generally speaking, authors of genre novels want a balance among the different features of a scene, to provide sufficent context to be comprehended by as wide an audience as possible. That balance may look different between two different authors, and it may even look different between two different stories by the same author.

That's fine.

But the various ways to balance motivation and the other things = techniques, not definitions of "good writing". If you're going to skew that balance one way or another, at least be aware of the context you're sacrificing to do so.

What are your thoughts on motivation and the (in)ability of dialogue and action to convey it?


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