Everything is for a Reason (Like Dialogue Tags and Sentence Construction)
You might think this part will be a watery parable about how all my failures and triumphs made me a better person. They might or might not have, but that isn’t what I’m talking about. I don’t usually like to write about craft: there are enough craft articles out there, and I have no desire to contribute to the heap.
However, craft was a part of what brought Dark Neon from being a thing that sat on my hard disk to being a novel that people could buy.
I wrote Dark Neon in a blur of desperation. Afterewards, I had it stuck in my head that the manuscript was worthy for the simple reason of just being a certain length: it was book-length, therefore it was a publishable book.
In the event that I did learn a new writing rule, I would go through the manuscript with a scythe, mercilessly and masochistically applying it without fear of favour. If I was going to ruin my work with all these artificial rules, I was going to ruin it totally!
Let’s Enter a Dialogue
However, all writing rules are for a reason. A sad number of drafts of my novel were full of adverb-riddled dialogue scenes. People didn’t say or ask, they explained, elucidated, threatened, growled, groaned, laughed, shouted, and whispered.
It’s really distracting. That’s the biggest reason against using them: it’s a reminder that the person isn’t really standing in an alleyway on a lightless, distant planet (or wherever else). They’re reading a book.
The word said, though, is invisible. You can write ‘Jane said’ five times a page, and nobody will mind. Likewise, ‘Jane asked.’
That’s if you even use dialogue tags. You certainly should sometimes, but you can also use action. Sam can look down the corridor, fasten his jacket, and then tell his friends about what he saw in the tunnels. He can laugh a clipped, bleak laugh, and then launch into his description of the horrors of war:
The cold cut through Sam’s jacket; he fastened it a little tighter, for all the good it did. “What’s the biggest animal you’ve ever seen?”
Sam laughed. “Glory? Go home, kid.”
The key is that generally, context and tone should usually give the reader an idea of how things are being said, but there are times when we want our characters to do something that isn’t obvious. Sometimes characters whisper when they could also speak at a normal volume:
Tim couldn’t help staring. “What in Sam Hell is wrong with you? I just spent the last week trying to get you to go and all you wanted to do is stay, and now you’ve convinced me to stay all you want to do is go?”
“I saw into the kitchen last night,” she whispered. “They’re all in on it. Cannibals.”
Although, there are stronger ways to do the same thing:
“I saw into the kitchen last night.” She put her arms around him, lowering her voice to a whisper. “They’re all in on it. Cannibals.”
Sometimes, though, it just isn’t important enough to spend the words to have a character’s action painstakingly described. Take the barker in this scene:
“Hoopla! Hoopla! Three for a penny!”
Laura realised she was alone. For a moment, she stood with the crowd of fairgoers swirling around her. He was laughing with the girl from the merry-go-round.
Just like the little dark-haired maid, or the woman from the dairy.
“Three for a penny! Prizes to be won!”
He’d say it was a joke, of course. She was overreacting. How could he have married someone who watched his every move?
“Who will play? Who will win? Just a penny!”
But she knew what she’d seen. Pearly white flesh. Sounds like he’d never made for her.
“Oh, bad luck, sir! Play again? Just a penny!”
We can see here that the barker has a purpose in the scene, but what’s going on in Laura’s head is much more important. If I was writing this as a serious piece of fiction, I would work on some things: the crowds, the smells and sounds, Laura’s memories. The barker, though, is an example of pathetic fallacy. We don’t need to know he has a mouthful of yellow teeth, or a blush of red-purple broken veins on his cheeks.
The Sentence was Written by Jon
The same goes for the common hatred of passive sentence construction: ‘John punched the dog’ is more direct and immediate than ‘The dog was punched by John.’
Just as with dialogue tags, both have their place, although the ‘place’ of passive sentence construction is largely in fiction written before 1930. When I first wrote Dark Neon I wanted it to have the feel of a novel translated from French. I read a number of novels translated into English, some poetry and non-fiction. It involved a lot of passive voice and odd sentence constructions.
In the end, I decided I wasn’t as in love with the conceit as I was with people being able to read the book.
Still, here are times when you want to put a bit of distance between your characters and what’s going on. If they’re especially shocked or out of it, you can use the passive voice as a tool to show how remote they are from the action. If you want to portray a character doing something terrible in a dissociative state, or numbly stumbling through horror, you can certainly use description, but the passive voice would also be an effective way of reinforcing the remoteness:
Tim’s throat was easily crushed. A moment of fear and confusion, then nothing. Trudy was the same. Martha. John. Farm work had made her hands strong.
She put each of the children to bed, or so it looked. It was better this way. She knew what was coming.
You could write that scene in a more active voice, but it’s already a fairly extreme scene, and our nameless woman isn’t a gleeful and deliberate killer. She’s devastated, seeing herself as if from the outside.
Likewise, where the actor is either unknown or unimportant the passive voice is the appropriate technique: when your characters come to find the ropes have been cut or that the radio has been smashed an active construction isn’t necessarily appropriate. You might even want the reader to concentrate on the object rather than the actor:
Lovelock’s shoulder exploded with pain. Blood, and the bright hilt of a dagger, were blossoming from his shirt.
Within sentences, we would likely find who threw the dagger, but for that moment in time the most important thing is his pain and shock.
These rules are still rules: in general, active voice is better for conveying an immediacy of action. Going for a long period without attributing dialogue can be confusing, and if characters are continually whispering, shouting, laughing or growling their words the reader will get fatigued (or it’ll sound like a room full of actors doing their vocal exercises).
There’s even some great fiction that does break the rules: Mary Gentle uses adverbs to describe dialogue all the time. If you read the superb and poetic work of some 19th and early 20th century writers you’ll encounter ample examples of the passive voice. The key in my fiction was to not only understand why things were done, but to understand how often (or how rarely) those rules were to be broken.
A Dark Neon Dying is available in ebook format directly from The Other Side Books, and will soon be available for direct download from Amazon (although the direct edition will always be cheaper, and DRM-free.) A print edition is scheduled for later this year.