I’ve mentioned before that you can get a stronger identification between the reader and the point-of-view character if you describe setting and events from within the character’s sensorium – i.e., how things feel to the character’s sense of sight, hearing, touch, taste, and smell.
A lot of beginners write from outside the character, standing back and describing everything as if they were seeing it on a screen, relying almost exclusively on how things look, with occasional sound cues. It’s an easy way to get lots of words down. It can also be a hard habit to break.
So here’s an exercise: have your point-of-view character awaken in complete darkness, with no idea of where he/she is. Then have him/her explore that environment with the other senses. Don’t put down any descriptor that involves sight or that the character does not experience directly.
Something like this:
At first, I wasn’t sure I was awake. Blackness was absolute. I could see nothing but splashes and dots of color thrown up by my own optic nerves.
I was lying face down on something cold and hard. I levered myself up, felt grit rub against my knees. I groped around me with both hands, my fingertips finding a rough level surface. Concrete, I thought. I reached as far as I could in all directions without moving, found nothing but more floor.
I rested on my heels and listened. Nothing but the high-pitched whine of silence. But I felt a cold stir on the back of my neck, a whisper of air moving the fine hairs. I shivered. I wet a finger and held it above my head, felt a chill on one side. The movement of air was from my left. I listened for a fan, but heard nothing.
While my hand was elevated, I felt for a ceiling. For all I knew, I might be in some low crawl space, with more concrete to bruise my head if I stood up. Hands aloft, I slowly rose from my knees, but there was nothing above me but more cold air.
I faced the direction that the air current was coming from. Could be a vent, could be an ill-fitting door, a cracked window. Slowly, arms out in front of me, I took a step, then another, and a third. I stopped and listened again, heard nothing. But I could feel the current of air cooling my face.
I took three more steps, putting the ball of my foot down first, then the heel – less chance of slipping that way. Then a fourth step and my foot came down on something small and hard. I stooped and felt for it, my fingers encountering an irregular shape, though flat on one side. I rolled it between my fingers, lifted it to my nose but smelled only dust.
I took another step, the moving air a little stronger now. There was an odor I associated with dank, dark places. I was deciding that the object I’d picked up was a piece of broken concrete. Useful, I thought. I could throw it ahead of me and listen for it to hit something, even if it was only the floor.
I cocked my arm and threw the chunk of concrete as hard as I could. I heard it strike something a fair distance ahead, then more small sounds as it rolled and bumped. Big floor, I thought. I walked more quickly now, hands still out in front of me, moving from side to side. Just because the pebble hadn’t hit a wall didn’t mean I couldn’t walk right into a post or a pillar.
A few more steps, and my foot landed on something else. It turned out to be a bigger piece of concrete, the size of my palm. I threw it forward, too, and heard it strike the floor and skitter like the pebble, before it struck something with a hard click.
Wall, I thought. And the air flow was stronger now, along with the odor I associated with tombs and root cellars. A wall with a gap in it, letting in the smell of damp earth.
I groped forward, eager now, walking heel and toe. My feet encountered more debris. I kicked it aside. I wanted the wall. I took two more steps then a third. But on the last one, my heel came down on nothing. As I pitched forward, it came to me in a sudden useless insight: the moving air, the dank smell, the pieces of concrete scattered around; they all added up to a hole in the floor. And I was falling into it.
As with character, so with dialogue — it is not actual speech. You edit out the nonessentials — the you knows, the likes, the ers and ums.
It’s also not a matter of lengthy set piece speeches — convert lengthy stuff to indirect dialogue (ie, narrative paraphrasing). Especially if you want to convey something about the character that he would not blurt out about himself. When a character can’t say what he wants to say, you’ve got a nice bit of conflictedness.
Cut away from the dialogue to show detail of action, setting, character.
Stylize your characters’ ways of speaking — a character may speak in short bursts, or may repeat certain catch phrases, or use fanciful constructions, or rhetorical questions — you pick what fits the character.
Dialogue is always part of a scene, and what is at the heart of every scene? Conflict. Every dialogue is a conflict, overt or subtle, inner or outer.
Dialogue tags —
Simple: he said, she asked, he told her, she wanted to know. Don’t use grumbled, hissed, stated, expostulated, purred.
Adverbial — he said, sadly. Don’t do this. The emotional tone of the line should be clear from the words themselves and the situation of the characters.
Accompanying action — “Give me that,” he said, his hand closing around the barrel of the gun.
Cueing action. She closed her eyes, and said, “I can’t bear this.”
Contradicting action. “You want a drink?” he said, but he didn’t move the bottle more than an inch toward me.
Every novel has a point where the hero(ine) embarks upon the main conflict at the heart of the story. It’s when Dumbo wakes up in a tree; it’s when a Louis L’Amour cowboy dives for cover as a shot rings out.
That’s the place to begin your manuscript. Why not first establish the character and setting? Because you may have only a few lines to hook that most crucial of readers — an agent.
Major New York agent Don Maass tells this story: one Friday afternoon each month, he and his associates gather around a table that holds a stack of sample chapters they have asked to see, after winnowing through several hundred query letters. Now they decide which chapters to read over the weekend.
Each manuscript is passed around. Agents read the first page. If the ms grabs someone’s attention, it goes in a briefcase. If it doesn’t grab anybody, it’s gone.
If that was the opening of a novel you spent years writing, that Friday peek was your only shot. Your story catches fire on page three? Too bad; page one didn’t hook anybody.
So put your main plot point in the first para of page one. Get your story started, and then layer in the back story as you keep going. Your chances of landing an agent will take a quantum leap, and that is the first step into the big leagues.
Besides, once you’ve sold the book, you and your editor can always rewrite the opening.