Tag Archives: dialog

A Conversation about Present Tense, Action, Thought, and Dialog

The following is a conversation I had with someone who read the first chapter of my work-in-progress novel The Twelfth Hour. I provide it here for all you writers out there who like experimenting or who like writing dialog. These are some things to keep in mind. This is also for reviewers! Please, for the love of God, if you can’t provide examples from the thing you’re reviewing to explain why you liked/disliked it, at least tell people what in your personality/past makes you think the way you do! It’s helpful for understanding who is and who isn’t your target audience (and it’s interesting)! For context, you can read part of the chapter here.

They say you shouldn’t argue with people who review your writing. I agree. You probably shouldn’t do this! I had to because ever since I wrote my analysis/review of reviews of Final Fantasy VII: Advent Children, I can’t keep my mouth shut when I read/view a review that provides no evidence or reasoning to support its claims. In this case, I had no idea what I did wrong, how to improve, or what the reviewer wanted. This was also the second critique that I received, and I thought if I didn’t receive any more, I wanted them both to count. I tried to be diplomatic and genuinely wanted to understand what the reviewer was talking about.

It turned out I received three more reviews, and this critique was the oddball. Other reviewers, while intrigued, were thrown off by the short scenes and many perspectives, wanted to spend more time with Gene and Esarose, and wanted Seth to be less mysterious. This review hinted at the problems with the story’s opening and Seth’s introduction, but as far as I can tell (and correct me if I’m wrong), mostly the reviewer seemed to be looking for a classic, fantasy adventure rather than an experimental, psychological mystery.

I cannot say that I did not like it, as I never got into it.  The people and scenes did not connect with me.  I got confused as nothing seemed to be important, and finally rushed through it attempting to find a point of interest.  None came.

Let me start by saying that I did not feel the weight of the opening scene.  The conversation had no importance.  What was said was simply chatter. While I assume you were attempting to set up the accident, you never got me to feel anything to have me care.  They were simply stupid kids on a stupid ride who get into a stupid accident.  I know what I said sounds harsh, but you did nothing to make this opening scene have any more importance with me than that.

Present tense is annoying, and really does not work with the story you are attempting to tell. Laughing at some of the literary devices used, which do not work in present tense at all, kept me from any attempt to get involved in the characters.  I do recommend past tense.

I would suggest finding a way to have your readers connect with the psychic so they care about the visions, how they are obtained, and those involved.  The chatter really did not make sense to me, did not get me connected to the story, or have me understand how the opening scene related to this one.  Again the conversations appeared to be only chatter without any importance to the story at all.

Let me say that I find mood helps with a ghost story.  I might be wrong in calling this a ghost story, but from what I could make out that is what this is.  In any event, something to have me understand the importance of what is going on, who the characters are, and what the potential plot might be would help.

I am sorry that I could not be more help.

If you’d like to be more help, would you mind answering the following questions?

How far did you read into this exactly? Did you skim the rest of the manuscript or just part of it?

You said in a couple places that the opening conversation didn’t seem to advance the story. You also said present tense doesn’t work with the story I’m attempting to tell, and that “nothing seemed to be important.” What story do you expect me to tell, and what gave you that expectation?

What literary devices did you find humorous/ineffective? Why?

If you don’t feel like answering, that’s fine. Thank you for your comments!

I read until Seth is finally given the necklace only for that not to help. I guess about a third of the way through. When that happened I gave up attempting to understand what was going on. I skimmed from that point looking for something to catch my attention or interest.

You seem to enjoy chatter. While some is usually pleasant, and can relate things of the personalities, it gets old quick. As someone who has taught high school and raised children, I know first hand how silly those conversations can be. The same at my work. While it is fun engaging on some topic, I know the only useful thing that happens is some time passes. For a story, the chatter needs to be productive or you are just wasting your reader’s time.

Let me also the stress the use of description to clarify things. The change from the opening to the actual story is meant to have some shock value. Good, but the next thing after a shock is a desire to regain some dignity and a sense of one’s situation. You never provide that. You move on, into more chatter no less, which did not help me gain a sense of my circumstances.

I mostly write fantasy. I can use the word ‘goblin’ in a story, but there is no universal goblin. While I might use the word, I still need to inform my readers what I mean by goblin. This is also true for psychic powers. While these might be true, how they have been presented and with what authority has been in a multitude of styles. You need to let your readers know how they are intended in the novel (as it could well be different in another novel with another main character who has a differing mentality).

As for present tense, that can only be used for a story that stays moving in a constant manner with the intent to rush a reader along. As soon as you have moments of revelation, pauses for sleeping or other things, or other time demanding (or constraining) situation the illusion of a constant moment is lost. I read one novel with multiple point-of-views all in present tense with me constantly pointing out that not all PoVs could be simultaneously at this moment. If you are going to use most literary devices, past tense is demanded.

As for what story do I expect you to tell, well I expect you to be telling one. It is your job to establish your story. Simply expecting me to read along until something happens to provide a story is wishful thinking. A piece of wonderful advice is to start your story as close to the ending as possible. While the clues certainly will not come all of a sudden, providing some foundation for your readers to understand what type of story you are telling, the basic mentality of the main character, and a good understanding of the setting is required. You did none of that.

I provide this simply because it is becoming more and more common in what I am reading. I am not saying this applies to you, although I have a suspicion it might. Talking is not action. A story full of blather is not a good story. A movie full of conversation is not a good movie. Even in radio, they made certain something was happening other than the actors reading their lines. Focus on what is going on, who or what is doing it, and what results. Listening to them talk about it is no more interesting to your reader than walking through a building and listening to what people are talking about.

I hope this helps.

Thanks for your comments! Yes, my other readers also wanted Seth and his relationship to the opening scene and Monica explained a little sooner and better. I agree. I didn’t do a great job of that, but most of my readers ultimately got the essence of what was going on as the scene continued.

I think I know what you’re saying about dialog, but I still don’t see how it applies here. I’ve read stories where dialog describes a scene/person/object/ability where narration would be much more succinct and natural. I once read a book where multiple dull scenes were dedicated to the characters eating, getting ready for bed, and complimenting one another on their accomplishments. I’ve read stories with scenes that I found amusing for their comedic dialog but recognized that it was pointless. You’re right, I enjoy listening to people talk, but I hate rambling, redundancy, and shallow chatter.

The way you talk about conversations, it’s as if people only speak to waste time. Certainly, those conversations exist, but people also converse to convey information about themselves and the world. That’s how I use dialog. I suppose I could explain everything about Seth, psychic powers, and ghosts through narration, but I thought it would be more interesting to illustrate the characters and the world’s rules through action and dialog in a scene that also introduces the mystery that the rest of the book will solve. That is, what is the dark energy that Seth discovers in the necklace, and what does it have to do with the car crash from three years ago? The flashback is chatty, but it, including the dialog, also introduces some of the main characters and functions as an overview of the entire book, though the reader wouldn’t know that yet. Sure, I could shorten the dialog in places and move some information around so the reader sees it sooner, but I don’t know what else you’re looking for when you say the dialog is only chatter. I don’t know how my dialog could be more purposeful than it already is.

I don’t see why you would assume that all scenes from a multiple POV novel would occur at one moment just because they’re written in present tense. Movie scripts are written in third-person present tense, but viewers/readers typically don’t imagine every scene with a different character occurring at the same moment. I could just as easily imagine that all scenes in a book with multiple POVs written in the past tense occur at the same point in time, but I don’t. That would be ignoring the context of the story, which isn’t the point of reading a book. From what I’ve seen, the present tense, over the past tense, just has a tendency to discourage characters from sharing their thoughts or reminiscing about past events and, as you mentioned, to propel the reader forward. My other readers, while intrigued, actually found the pace of this chapter a little too fast. It has nothing to do with how many scene breaks or POVs you’re allowed to have.

The introduction’s a bit rough and the pace a bit off I’ll admit, but perhaps the rest is a matter of personal taste. I can’t do anything to make you or anyone like dialog or present tense if you just don’t like those storytelling methods. I didn’t exactly write a mainstream novel and expected it would throw some people off. If you feel you can elaborate on what you mean though, I’d like to hear it.

Comparing movies and books is a fun topic, although I believe one should quickly realize the two are separate mediums. The book and movie are never the same. One reason is the difference in mentality of the writer and producer. The other is just how the scenes are envisioned. One can accept that what is being watched are images from the moment something was happening. Believing that someone is writing away while the events are happening is however silly. No, you did not swing that sword, shoot that gun, or climb that tree while scribing the actions. What I am reading is the report AFTER the events happened, so past tense. While one can be okay with reading a work in present tense, if they actually thought about it they would laugh along with me.

Now, before I go any further, let me warn you that I do not come from a English/Literature background. I have always enjoyed reading, but I can be found reading a science text or speaking on a documentary more often than a modern work. In fact, I am often reading ancient novels as I prefer them to the pablum being generated today. My background is Math/Science (my degree is in Physics). I fully accept that I am not your target audience.

Let me also say that I am not a talkative person. Yes, there are productive reasons to talk. There are however many who talk instead of doing something. I want to read about people who are doing something. I want to watch movies where the characters are involved in some activity. I enjoy speaking with others who do things, as I find those conversations having some value (and the people themselves interesting).

Let me also add that I want to read about people with minds. Having nothing but conversation go on does not say anything about the thought process of the main character. I would hope you have a brain that is thinking while your mouth flaps away. That is what I present in my novels. My characters are not only speaking, but I am informing the reader of what is being observed, certain biases about the topic(s), and other details that help present the main character as being more than a mindless automaton going through a script. My characters are not simply swinging swords or shooting weapons, but choosing targets, adjusting tactics, and considering facts that are gained. If all your characters are doing is chatting, they really have no substance to make their lives (or deaths) of value.

I hope I said stuff that might be of help. At the worse, I hope that I have enabled you to see a different point of view. I wish you well.

Ah, I see.

Expressing character thoughts is something I’ve had trouble with in this book. It’s not as bad as it was, but judging by what you and my other readers have said, I still need to inject more thoughts into this. In previous drafts, I told this story almost entirely with dialog and action and left it to the reader to infer the character’s thoughts, as you would do if this book were a film. That’s kind of ignoring the unique strength writing has, however, which is expressing thoughts directly.

Hmm… I tend not to think of books or movies as artifacts that the characters themselves produced unless it’s explicitly stated. After all, characters in a book may not know how to write or books may not exist in their world. I think of books as… a window looking into the story, if that makes any sense, not as something that the characters literally wrote or are writing. Like how books excel at expressing thoughts and movies excel at showing actions and visuals, past and present tense just have different strengths and weaknesses that affect the window I see the story through.

Thanks for taking the time to share your reasoning. This was insightful, and I hope I didn’t bother you too much.