I’ll tell you up front: this essay is really just a big pitch for putting some variety of tone in your fiction.
Imagine a smooth downward line, the kind of thing you’d see on an easy ski hill or a kiddie slide. If your main character starts out a little discontented on page one and their situation eases ever so slowly downhill as things get worse–and I do see novels like this–a book can get fairly tiresome to read. No matter how interesting the slide is, four hundred pages of prose can be wearing if they are mostly all the same flavor, if the story moves at the same speed.
(If the kiddie slide analogy doesn’t work for you, put on a favorite movie, close your eyes, and just focus on the soundtrack for a few minutes. Listen to the way the music changes from scene to scene and, when you’re thinking about the tone and pace of your work, imagine imbuing your writing with the same variation. Some writers even listen to soundtracks, or make up soundtracks for their books, just to ensure this.)
As with much writing advice, it’s sometimes easy to make a big proclamation: “Put variety in your writing style!” and harder to bring it off. But whether you have an outline or a finished manuscript in front of you, here are some concrete elements of the story you can examine to see if you’ve got a good mix of events, moods, and tones:
Mood: You can think about this, if you wish, in a very mechanical fashion. Look at each scene and jot down the main character’s primary emotional state. Use simple words: angry, happy, content, anxious, tired, confused, heartbroken, afraid, sad, surprised, delighted, blissful, etc.
Once you’ve got this list, go through again and just attach a number from 1-10, indicating the intensity of the emotion. How content are they? How angry? Ten sad? Two blissful?
Once you have this information, whether you’ve got a finished draft or are in the outline stage, it’s easier to assess what kind of balance you’ve achieved. If all the moods are upbeat, maybe there aren’t any big character lows. If the emotional intensity of every proposed scene is 9-10, you may be risking reader burnout.
A chart like this can also be handy for later reference. If something’s not working, you can go back and see: is the scene as intense as you meant for it to be? Are the emotions appropriate for what’s going on in the plot?
Over time, you should develop a sense of your project that will make this kind of charting unnecessary, but if you are inexperienced, overwhelmed or trying to get your book off to a great start, give it a try.
Action: The same principle that applies to character moods–change it up, in other words–can be applied to the ‘what happens?’ of the plot. And you can make a similar chart. This time, instead of mood, use simple verbs to describe what the characters are doing: walking, talking, driving, arguing, fighting, making love, giving birth, mourning, dying etc. Then use the numbers to describe how fast they’re moving, to assess the intensity of the action.
Lots of novels play out on a sort of contained level of intensity: they’re examinations of the human condition or relationships between a small group characters. Not every book has a car chase or a bank heist in every other chapter. But if you find yourself writing “Talking – 2” for every scene, consider how many books of this type you’d be willing to read. By the same token, if your action-adventure scene list boils down to “Fistfight – 10!” “Bomb blast – 10!” “Rescuing Kitty from the Train Tracks – 11.2!” … well, you know you’ve got something on your hands that may overstimulate us all.
Physical setting and sensory detail: Does every scene in your book take place in the same heavily curtained, dimly lit, cobweb-infested room? Give a little thought to how the mood and action of a given scene can be enhanced by the details: time of day, the quality (or lack) of light, interior versus exterior settings, the number of people around as the scene plays out, the degree of physical comfort offered by furnishings or terrain, and even tiny things like temperature.
Voice: do you have more than one point of view or point of view character? Can the sound of their narrative voices vary? Even if the overall narrative voice is consistent, a little nuance here and there within POV can add a lot of texture to a novel. The uneducated intern at your fictional hospital might perceive and relate things just a wee bit differently from the hospital director, the ten-year-old patient in room 3D and the nurse who immigrated to the big city from the West Indies three years ago.
By now you can probably see how all of these elements tie together. The ultimate goal isn’t just to collage a bunch of moods and tones together: it’s to unify your story elements to produce a specific emotional effect in each scene.
Think of all the times you’ve been reading so fast you’re almost breathless, because you have to know what’s going to happen to a given character next. You might have been scared for them, or excited, or hopeful, or upset–the point is, you felt really invested–there was a lot of suspense.
Then whatever immediate conflict you were reading about would have peaked. Ahhhh! I bet the next scene considerably calmer.
We’re in this to give the reader a bit of a ride. Some of us want to take them on a pleasant, thought-provoking and thoroughly engaging sail through the undusted corners of the human heart. Some of us want the full-on upside-down rollercoaster ride of emotion. Whatever effect you’re trying to achieve, give us some ups and downs. The result will be a book that’s not only fun to read.
Because, I promise, it’ll be more fun to write too.
Let’s start at the top, shall we, with Dialog concept the first: Have people in your fiction. Get them talking.
When people first start writing stories and novels, they sometimes feel a certain reluctance to get their characters together, onstage, to just talk.
There are reasons for this. Dialog gives fiction immediacy, and that can be scary. It feels more like speaking directly to the reader. There’s intimacy there… and a greater chance, too, that if the speeches you write are off, in any way–if they’re wooden, or clunky, or preachy, or melodramatic–that it’ll be obvious. If you don’t have a particularly good grip on your characters, that becomes evident very fast.
Since it is possible to tell a story with only narrative (especially if it’s simple: few characters, a close point of view, a straightforward plot) the temptation to avoidance beckons. It even works sometimes, when the piece is short and well-served by a distanced, once-upon-a-time voice.
Generally, though, hiding from dialog is like walking to the edge of the ocean and refusing to jump into the water. It denies the reader a major component of the fictional experience they are seeking. So wade in; get wet. It’s the only way to learn to swim.
Concept the second: Not everyone has the same voice.
When we’re drafting dialog, it’s easy to just put in the information necessary to the scene, and to forget how wildly we all vary in our way of expression.
What characters say is deeply revealing of character. The only thing more telling is what they do (and of course the two, do and say, overlap.)
Do they lie, for example? Are they good at it?
Age, experience, expertise, a person’s understanding of the situation in any given scene, whether they’re tired or sick. . . a million little influences can change how we express something.
When you’re starting out, just focus on your character’s personality. Who are they, and how do they usually talk? Are they terse? Informal? Longwinded? Preachy? Babbly? Tactless? Given to rants? Snide?
Concept the third: Dialog is situational.
In my day to day life, among my nearest and dearest, I’m a relatively earthy person. But for the most part, I try not to say words like fuck when I’m teaching, or around my four year old niece. In fiction, paying attention to this kind of detail–yes, she’d say this, but would she say it here?–can add nice nuance to a character.
Where we are and who we’re with affect how we say what we say: differences in social class, education. . . even whether we’re speaking our birth language. I sound clever and decently educated in English. In French or my smattering of Italian, I come off as not-so-quick.
Four: Characters are in relationships which are ever-evolving.
It’s not uncommon in a novel for two characters to start out strangers and become close by the end of the book. This will change how they talk to each other. Consider a simple element like formal versus informal address: in an early encounter, you might have two scientists addressing each other as Doctor Jones and Professor Smith. By the time they’ve fought a couple monsters (real or metaphorical) and fallen in love, maybe they’re Rocky and Doris.
Think about this as you bring characters together: where are they at? Where are they going? Can you plan to change the way they relate to each other, verbally, to illuminate the changes in their relationship?
Five: Dialog shouldn’t sound like actual human conversation
Go sit someplace with a laptop or a notebook and eavesdrop on other people. Try writing down what you hear. You’ll find that what you get is full of pauses and ums and physical gestures and sighs and inspeak and facial expressions.
Hi, how are you?
Okay. Um, how are you?
Good. At work, you know.
Oh yeah, how’s work?
It’s that thing again. Only more so.
I understand completely.
Well, we don’t! Yes, we have little exchanges like this all the time in real life. But transcribed faithfully, they’re not only somewhat incomprehensible, they’re deadly dull to read.
What you’re aiming for when you write a scene is something that sounds, to the reader’s ear, like human speech. What it actually is is a cleaned up, idealized form of that speech. It’s the difference between the mean thing you actually said to the guy who rear-ended you (Which probably came out: “You! You! Oh you potatohead! That’s my caaaarrr!” and the articulate, cutting monologue you rehearsed in your head and then told, first haltingly to the tow-truck guy and then–with increased verve, confidence and hilarity–to your mother, sister, landlady, dog-walker and finally your boss. It has verisimilitude. It sounds like speech, but it’s not exactly what you said; it’s not quite reality.
The above exchange about work, you know, is also flat because of something that relates to…
Concept the sixth: there should be an undercurrent of conflict.
A little hum of electricity that is generated by the characters not quite being on the same page.
Think of any murder-of-the-week cop show. How many times have you seen a scene where primary characters go ask their lieutenant for permission to try something, or they approach a judge for a warrant. Hundreds? How dull would it be if the scene always went this way:
“Hey, boss, we need an protective detail for Eyeballs McWitness.”
“Okay! I’ll give you someone good! And hey, I found a promotion in my cereal box today–you want it?”
Even if this is a scene that’s going to end in Yes, there’s ten or fifteen lines of getting there. Always. Lieutenant complains about the budget, or says Eyeball’s not in danger, or points out that McWitness got his name by collecting human… well, never mind that now, it’s icky. But the point is he doesn’t deserve protection.
The cops, in their turn, argue passionately that Justice cannot be Served! unless Eyeballs gets his bodyguard.
Why do that? Why waste the space? Why does this scene play out again and again, night after night, creating employment for crusty Hollywood authority figures whose mission in life is to serve as a minor adversaries for their fictional cop underlings?
Because going straight for the Yes (or the No, for that matter) is boring and it doesn’t tell you anything about the characters.
We don’t get into fiction to read “Once upon a time Sherlock Holmes wanted to solve a crime, and then he did. The end.” We don’t get into scenes to see characters sail along in sweet accord with each other. Who wants what? Why do the others disagree? Who wins? How do they convince or fail to convince the other person to give it to them? How do they feel about each other afterward? This is the stuff we want.
Concept the seventh: people multitask.
Very occasionally humans sit down facing each other, pay each other their full attention, and just talk. But mostly we yakk while we’re doing other things: eating, drinking, building cribs, driving, shopping, harvesting wheat (okay, probably not that often) playing video games, completing our homework, fishing, making love, attending a wedding, rolling cigarettes… you get the idea.
A little bit of attention to what the characters in a scene are doing will give you options to show some action, spotlight other things about the characters–he’s making a baby crib! What a great dad he’ll make!–and create necessary pauses in the flow of dialog so that you don’t find yourself writing:
“I have to tell you something really important.” She paused. “Really important.”
He looked at her. “Okay. I’m listening.”
“Great. Thank you. This is it.” She took a long breath… “I’m moving to Finland without you.”
And so did we, right? There’s more on this particular aspect of dialog-writing in my essay Eye Bookisms.
Finally: Practice, practice, practice.
Like most aspects of fiction-writing, dialog is something you get better at by writing more and more of it. So do practice, as much as you can. It is said that when a reader gets thrown out of your story–they’re bored by a descriptive passage, or they wonder exactly why a given detail of yours is what it is, or maybe their phone just rings–they will scan ahead to the next set of quotation marks, often without even realizing it, to see what the characters are saying to each other. Keep this in mind, and don’t make them flip through ten pages to find that next speech–they’ll miss so much!
“I believe in you,” she said, wrapping up at last. “Now get out there and make your characters talk!”
I have been teaching for long enough now that I’ve seen certain patterns recur in the work of new writers. One that pops up frequently is a valiant attempt to make a book’s main character something other than a lily-livered, virtuous bore. This is entirely worthwhile, but in the process some of us make those characters entirely unlikable, right there in the early chapters of the book, just when we readers are deciding whether we want to spend 300+ pages in their company.
Sometimes they’re just plain whiny.
I’ll grant that your average protagonist has a lot to whine about. They’ve always got a midlife crisis on, or a dying parent, or some post-apocalyptic dystopia to survive. But whining, as we all know, is hardly ever attractive.
In other books, we meet characters so alienated from everyone else on earth that they come across as entirely misanthropic, utter people-haters. In still others, the attempt to establish a character as a legitimate action-adventure badass is so successful that the writer creates what comes across as a remorseless killing machine. The result? A casual approach to violence, a character who does terrible things for seemingly little reason. It’s stunningly easy to make an action hero, a tough character whom you as the writer like a lot, seem sociopathic to attentive readers who are just making their acquaintance.
In attempting to give their hero or heroine dimensions (she said, belaboring) some authors create a first impression of that protagonist that is almost wholly off-putting.
When I see this in a class, I’ll mention that I’m not feeling the love. The author will reply, reasonably enough, by stating a truth: not all books have sweethearts for protagonists.
This is absolutely true.
I’m not saying that every novel should open with a scene where its recently-bathed and perfectly turned out main character engages in a spontaneous, heartwarming puppy rescue while on their way home from choir practice. But by the same token, I don’t necessarily want to join a fictional stranger midway through their epic Friday night drinking fest, wherein they nastily humiliate the pregnant barkeeper and steal her tips before heading home, spitting on the homeless all the way and then kicking out their spouse. I’ll probably give up on someone like this long before they get to having a big drunken pity-inducing sigh over the fact that the old folks’ home is forcing them to take in both demented, elderly parents. And plus, they got fired.
Look for just a wisp of middle ground, in other words. Give some thought to letting readers like some teeny little thing about your main character. Intrigue us, early on in the book, even if they’re not all that cuddly. Give us just a glimmer of a hint of their underlying merit, their intellect or humanity.
Introducing your main character to your readers is, in a sense, asking them to embark on a new relationship. You’re making this person as real to them as you can. Once someone’s real, there’s room to maneuver. How many of you have forgiven a friend or relative some behavior you simply wouldn’t accept from a stranger?
We all do it. We forgive because we have bonded. We cut our loved ones slack because they are our loved ones. We give them the benefit of the doubt, even when they’re at their worst, because we have a history with them, one that has made us fully aware of their good qualities. We know them, and we know there’s more to them.
This is the same thing we’re looking to create with our characters in fiction. Readers will make allowances for their flaws and mistakes if you’ve created some little tie that either interests them or makes them care.
Have your MC make a striking first impression, buy just a little reader patience, and ramp up the character flaws once everyone’s hooked.
Okay, some of you may argue, but my character’s just not nice! They’re cool, or edgy, or a hard-bitten soldier, or bent on conquering Europe.
We don’t want our characters to be Pollyanna. Flawless martyrs are boring; flawless polymaths get derided for being Mary Sues.
This brings us to the title of this essay: Funny, Smart or Nice. (Or, perhaps, Funny, Smart, or Nice.) FSN is the idea that readers will usually form that first thread of a tie to a fictional person if they have at least one of the above qualities.
Nice, this thing many of us shy away from, probably seems self explanatory. But let’s glance through it: often the main character of your book *is* a reasonably good person. Think of Bridget Jones. Captain Aubrey, Elizabeth Bennett, and Atticus Finch. In this case, if we don’t like them, it’s perhaps just a matter of trotting out their demonstrable generosity of spirit earlier in the story. You don’t say John Smith is a supremely nice person, honest! You do show the puppy rescue. Having done that, you can probably introduce a bit of whine or pettiness in the next scene. Or even within the interior monologue as they’re handing Mitzi back to her grateful owner.
One bonus of nice is that it usually involves interacting with someone else. This gives you a chance to introduce us to a second character.
But enough of nice for now! We’re tired of nice, right? That’s what got us into this. So, next, there’s smart.
They key to understanding smart is knowing that expertise is sexy, plain and simple. A character who’s really good at something, and who is passionately engaged in doing that something, will have an attraction that will engage a reader even if they are maybe not so supernice. Consider the enduring appeal of Sherlock Holmes. He’s bad with people, but he cares desperately about the puzzles he’s solving… and there’s nobody better. Or going back to our hypothetical killing machine. We’re likely to feel a certain grudging respect if what they’re doing is tactically difficult, something much harder than just spraying a city block with machine-gun fire.
Another useful story element built into smart is it it involves doing something. Your character is active and there’s at least a chance that they’ll fail. This question–will they pull it off?–creates suspense. Think of any dysfunctional TV cop. They’re an expert at solving crimes, we as audience members want to see them succeed, and we’re willing to cut them a lot of slack on oft-enormous flaws.
Finally, and often most difficult, is funny. Even an out and out bastard can get us on their side, sometimes, if they keep us laughing. The hypothetical Friday night binger I mention above might keep us reading if his or her ‘humiliate the bartender’ monologue is hilarious. If you really want a mean character and you can pull it off in a funny way, we’ll stay for the laughs. We may hate ourselves a little for it, but before we know it we’ll be a hundred pages into your book and begging for more. Chuck Palaniuk is masterful at this, creating stomach-turning situations with characters who, at least on the face of it, seem quite distasteful… but who get us laughing and involve us in their stories. Or consider Oscar Wilde’s Lady Bracknell, from The Importance of Being Earnest. She’s hilarious. We love it when she’s onstage. And yet, really, she’s something of a hag.
Humor can be hard, but you can slide a lot of not-so-great behavior past a reader’s early-novel radar when you pull off this particular kind of charm.
And once you’ve earned that little bit of slack from readers, once they’ve opened the door on liking your characters a little, you can trot out some balancing weakness or wickedness. This is a constant dance… one nice act won’t buy a character a cold-blooded murder. Think of it as an emotional economy for your novel. You earn the Funny, Smart, Nice coupons and your protagonist spends them on reader patience.
The worse they behave, the more you’ll probably need to earn.
Thomas Harris, for example, gets his evil coupons by having Hannibal Lecter be both smart and funny. He’s really good at being a serial killer. He’s got a creepy, thoroughly unnerving and undeniable wit. The sales figures show that readers love him, with or without Clarice Starling.
A few other things that can draw reader sympathy.
–Your characters’ choices aren’t truly their own. They’re slaves, prisoners, victims of blackmail, or kids whose parents have total control over their lives. How many children’s stories start with a depiction of a child’s hellish life at home with abusive guardians?
–The character is a victim of undeserved misfortune. In a similar vein, we can usually be led to feel bad for a fictional person who’s taking a beating for something that’s obviously not their fault.
–The character has a really tough and important task to accomplish. Maybe they’re unpleasant, but they are trying to save the world here.
–The character believes sincerely they are doing the right thing, even if the reader disagrees.
–Perhaps most importantly, the character should have some realistic emotional responses to all their behaviors and its consequences. The good character who behaves badly feels remorse. The funny character who tends to be a little (or a lot) mean is holding people away as a self-protective measure, because of some previous hurt. Maybe they even feel a teeny twinge of guilt when they make that bartender cry. The messed-up TV detective whose romances inevitably end badly has their head too far in the world of murder… but they’re so damned lonely they keep trying again.
As you develop a novel and begin to think about its characters, in all their multi-dimensional and perhaps messed-up glory, consider what facet you’re going to show readers first. If you can offer some glimmer of one of these qualities, be it super-competence, a hilarious voice or yes, even a rare-for-them instance of kindness, you will get that reader-hero relationship off on the right foot.
Which route will you go, with the next project?