Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Medieval Gems for Writers: Manners in the Middle Ages

One of the more common myths about the middle ages was that people had no manners.  To illustrate, several years ago my wife and I attended a medieval style banquet at The Excalibur, in Las Vegas.  We ate whole chickens with our hands.  For drink I had a large tankard of root-beer.  We were told to throw our garbage on the floor or leave it on the tables.  It was fun, but it left me wondering how much of it was true.

Did people in the middle ages really eat like pigs?

Well it turns out that they didn’t, and there’s ample proof, too.  The diligent scholar can find lists of manners and customs from many different ages.  Apparently books on courtesy were popular during the later middle ages (I can just imagine being invited to the prince’s ball, or somesuch, and having to read up on how to behave myself).

The first two quotes in this blog post come from a book I ran across several years ago, online.  Thanks to the magic of Google, I’ve managed to find it again.  The book’s title is fairly long.  It starts out: Early English Meals and Mananers: John Russell’s Boke of Nurture, etc, etc, etc.  It’s a compilation of several works from a much earlier date.

If you’re feeling bold, you can find the book here.

The first section that I’ll quote is titled, The Boke of Curtasye.  It was printed circa 1460, at the height of the high Middle Ages (this is the time-period that most fantasy writers are interested in).  Both Christopher Columbus and Leonardo da Vinci would have been alive.  

The whole thing was written in Middle English, in the form of a poem, and was typeset in black-letter making it very difficult to read for anyone but the serious scholar. The text that I’ve quoted below is from a modern English translation, which can be found in the margins. Here are the first few lines, roughly translated:
Who so will of courtesy learn
In this book he may it here!
If thou be gentleman, yeoman, or knave,
Thou needs nurture for to have.
Not sure what any of that means. Apparently people have struggled more than 500 years to come up with good rhymes. Here is the margin translation:
On reaching a Lord's gate, give the Porter your weapon, and ask leave to go in.
If the master is of low degree, he will come to you; if of high, the Porter will take you to him.
At the Hall-door, take off your hood and gloves.
If the first meal is beginning, greet the Steward, bow to the Gentlemen on each side of the hall, both right and left; notice the yeomen, than stand before the screen till the Marshal or Usher leads you to the table.
Be sedate and courteous if you are set with the gentleman.
Cut your loaf in two, the top from the bottom; cut the top crust in 4, and the bottom in 3.
Put your trencher before you, and don't eat or drink till your Mess is brought from the kitchen, lest you be thought starved or a glutton.
Have your nails clean.
Don't bite your bread, but break it.
Don't quarrel at table, or make grimaces.
Don't cram your cheeks out with food like an ape, for if any one should speak to you, you can't answer, but must wait.
Don't eat on both sides of your mouth.
Don't laugh with your mouth full, or sup up your potage noisily.
Don't leave your spoon in the dish or on its side, but clean your spoon.
Let no dirt off your fingers soil the cloth.
Don't put into the dish bread that you have once bitten.
Dry your mouth before you drink.
Don't call for a dish once removed, or spit on the table: that's rude.
Don't scratch your dog.
If you blow your nose, clean your hand; wipe it with your skirt or put it through your tippet.
Don't pick your teeth at meals, or drink with food in your mouth, as you may get choked, or killed, by its stopping your wind.
Tell no tale to harm or shame your companions.
Don't stroke the cat or dog.
Don't dirty the table cloth with your knife.
Don't blow on your food, or put your knife in your mouth, or wipe your teeth or eyes with the table cloth.
If you sit by a good man, don't put your knee under his thigh.
Don't hand your cup to any one with your back towards him.
Don't lean on your elbow, or dip your thumb into your drink, or your food into the salt cellar: Thant is a vice.
Don't spit in the basin you wash in or loosely(?) before a man of God.
This list is amazing. Don’t cram your mouth like an ape. Don’t double-dip. Don’t pick your teeth. Don’t get the table cloth dirty. You can’t even put your elbows on the table (makes sense if you’ve ever been crammed in next to someone who does). My favorite is, don’t put your knee under someone else’s thigh—that would make anyone uncomfortable.

The second list that I’ll quote comes from the same compilation. This section is titled, On Rising, Diet, and Going to Bed (from Sir John Darington’s ‘Schoole of Salerne,’ The Perserbation of Health, or a Dyet for the Healthfull Man). It is dated 1624, which places it in that grey area between the high middle ages and the renaissance.
On rising, empty your bladder and belly, nose and lungs.
Cleanse your whole body.
Say your Prayers.
Walk gently, go to stool.
Work in the forenoon.
Always wear a precious stone in a ring; hold a crystal in your mouth; for the virtue of precious stones is great.
Eat only twice a day.
Don't drink between dinner and supper.
Don't have one fixed hour for your meals.
In Winter eat in hot, well-aired places.
Fast for a day now and then.
Eat more at supper than dinner.
After meals, wash your face, and clean your teeth, chat and walk soberly.
Don't sit up late.
Before bed, rub your body gently.
Undress by a fire in Winter, and warm your garments well.
Put off your cares with your clothes, and take them up again in the morning.
Finally, I have to mention The Babees’ Book or A Little Report of How Young People Should Behave. This work dates to about 1475. It is several pages long, and written in a patronizing style as if the reader were a young child (a “babee”, as it were). I’ll include a portion of it here, so you get the idea:
Now must I tell you shortly what you shall do at noon when your lord goes to his meat. Be ready to fetch him clear water, and some of you hold the towel for him until he has done, and leave not until he be set down, and ye have heard grace said. Stand before him until he bids you sit, and be always ready to serve him with clean hands.
When ye be set, keep your own knife clean and sharp, that so ye may carve honestly your own meat.
Let courtesy and silence dwell with you, and tell no foul tales to another.
Cut your bread with your knife and break it not. Lay a clean trencher before you, and when your pottage is brought, take your spoon and eat quietly; and do not leave your spoon in the dish, I pray you.
Look ye be not caught leaning on the table, and keep clear of soiling the cloth.
Do not hang your head over your dish, or in any wise drink with full mouth.
Keep from picking your nose, your teeth, your nails at meal-time so we are taught.
Advise you against taking so much meat into your mouth but that ye may right well answer when men speak to you.
When ye shall drink, wipe your mouth clean with a cloth, and your hands also, so that you shall not in any way soil the cup, for then shall none of your companions be loath to drink with you.
Likewise, do not touch the salt in the salt-cellar with any meat; but lay salt honestly on your trencher, for that is courtesy.
Do not carry your knife to your mouth with food, or hold the meat with your hands in any wise; and also if divers good meats are brought to you, look that with all courtesy ye assay of each; and if your dish be taken away with its meat and another brought, courtesy demands that ye shall let it go and not ask for it back again.
And if strangers be set at table with you, and savoury meat be brought or sent to you, make them good cheer with part of it, for certainly it is not polite when others be present at meat with you, to keep all that is brought you, and like churls vouchsafe nothing to others.
Do not cut your meat like field-men who have such an appetite that they reck [sic] not in what wise, where or when or how ungoodly they hack at their meat; but, sweet children, have always your delight in courtesy and in gentleness, and eschew boisterousness with all your might.
When cheese is brought, have a clean trencher, on which with a clean knife ye may cut it; and in your feeding look ye appear goodly, and keep your tongue from jangling, for so indeed shall ye deserve a name for gentleness and good governance, and always advance yourself in virtue.
When the end of the meal is come, clean your knives, and look you put them up where they ought to be, and keep your seat until you have washed, for so wills honesty.
When ye have done, look then that ye rise up without laughter or joking or boisterous word, and go to your lord s table, and there stand, and pass not from him until grace be said and brought to an end.

Sunday, January 4, 2015

My Reading List For 2014

This year I tried to read A LOT, and I did.  Here’s what I read, in no particular order

Bud, Not Buddy
Christopher Paul Curtis
This book is an excellent example of narrative voice, and the main character has a lot of charisma.  It’s about a young black orphan named Bud Caldwell living in the early 1900s, who is trying to find his father.  It’s a children’s book, and a winner of the Newberry award and the Coretta Scott King award.  Five stars.

Zero Day
David Baldacci
When I heard that every book that Baldacci has ever written has hit #1 or #2 on the NYT bestseller list I figured I couldn’t lose.  Zero Day is cheeseburger writing at its best.  Everyone loves a cheeseburger, right?  It’s not gourmet food, but it goes down easy and you get a satisfying meal.  Reading Zero Day you can pick out all the tools and tropes of modern schlock, all tastefully served up.  There’s the super-short chapters that increment the plot (sometimes tediously so), the constant use of hooks to keep you going (and make you feel like you’re reading one long sales-pitch), the stakes that steadily mount until you’re certain the world is about to blow up, and the super-big pay-off at the end.  It was an enjoyable read, all in all.  If you like military spy thrillers, you’ll like this.  Four stars.

Howl’s Moving Castle
Diana Wynne Jones
This was one of the most creative books I’ve read in a long time.  I can’t say too much about it without giving a whole bunch of the plot away.  I had two gripes, although they were not fatal.  First, I thought the main character was too complacent with the fact that she got turned into an old lady.  Most girls (as in, just about every girl) I know would totally freak out.  That pulled me out of the story for a while, but it wasn’t enough to put the book down.  The other problem I had was that the writing in places felt kind of rough.  All that said, my overall impression is still rather fond.  Jones did a good job on this story.  Four stars.

The Long Goodbye
Raymond Chandler
Chandler is one of the definitive detective noir authors from the early 1900s, and his writing is really good, but in the case of this story I don’t think it lives up to his past work.  It’s tedious, there are no stakes, and there is no reason for the main character to stay involved, yet he does.  I give it two, maybe three stars.

Trouble is My Business (anthology)
Raymond Chandler
Chandler is the author of 1,000 one-liners.  One of my favorites has to be from Farewell, My Lovely: “It was a blonde.  A blonde to make a bishop kick a hole in a stained-glass window.”  I read short stories because they give a lot of insights to the craft of writing, and they can be difficult to pull off.  I thought that the cleverest story from this book, was Goldfish.  The title doesn’t sound like much, but the plot was clever. I also liked Trouble is My Business.  I can’t remember anything about the other two, which says enough.  Three Stars.

Matthew J. Kirby
I really, really liked Icefall.  It’s advertised as a juvenile mystery, but I’d definitely classify it as early medieval fiction.  This is the kind of thing that I really love.  I’m really tired of epic fantasy, and the way it all feels the same.  Icefall was so different and refreshing.  The characters are Scandinavian, the children of a war-lord who’ve been sent away by their father to be hidden for their protection.  I love the way Kirby brings out the early medieval lifestyle and mindset, it’s nothing like the high fantasy schlock that you see so much of these days.  Five stars.

The Lost Kingdom
Matthew J. Kirby
After reading Icefall, I was jazzed for something else by this author, but I found it kind of hard to get into this story.  Maybe it was a little too young for me, or maybe it was the way I found all of Kirby’s science way too much of a stretch.  Meh.  Did not finish.

The Graveyard Book
Neil Gaiman
This was a really good find.  I love the opening hook: “There was a hand in the darkness, and it held a knife.”  I read that to my writer’s group, and they were all impressed.  Then I said, did you notice the blatant use of passive voice?  That got us into a nice little argument about why passive voice works in some cases but not others.  I still don’t think it’s nearly as evil or taboo as people say (I’ll get off my soap-box, now).  This story was a case-study in milieu.  An evil man has killed everyone in a family except for the toddler, who wandered out of the house and into an ancient graveyard a couple blocks down the street.  The ghosts in the graveyard take responsibility for the baby and raise him.  I could write a whole blog-post about how this book puts you into a place.  The graveyard is filled with different types of ghosts, and forbidden places.  Add this one to your list.  Five stars.

Different Seasons (anthology)
Stephen King
I don’t read Stephen King, so much as I study Stephen King.  Again, short stories are a really great way to see how authors put together plot, characters, concepts, setting, and narrative voice.  The best way to learn how to write like a great author is to read stuff that they write.  The best two stories in this book are Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption, and The Body.  I could go on and on about these two (Shawshank Redemption was made into a movie).  I also liked Apt Pupil.  Stories about children becoming corrupted and turning evil are always disturbing.  Five stars.

The Fifth Element
Terry Pratchett
This is one of Pratchett’s better stories.  It started humorous, then it got kind of serious and sentimental and I-don’t-know-what in the middle, then it became humorous again at the end.  Even still, it was a good read.  Five stars.

Brandon Sanderson
My only gripe about this one is that it was so short.  It’s just 80 pages.  The concept is brilliant, but it’s kind of like an amusement park ride: a thrilling rush, and over way too soon.  Sanderson could spin a whole series on this one.  If you’re looking for a nice snack to take the edge of your reader’s hunger, give this one a try.  Four stars.

The Last Kingdom
Bernard Cornwell
This was a re-read.  Again, I study my favorite authors.  Cornwell really understands the warrior’s mindset…not that I’ve actually been in the military…but he does really put you into the action.  He writes absolutely the best battle scenes, and for the most part his stories are historically accurate.  So, you are entertained for 300 pages—and—you learn a bit of history, too!  Can’t lose there.  My copy of this book is so heavily underlined it looks like I’ve studied for a college course.  I gotta put in a quote here:

Tears were blurring my sight, and perhaps the battle madness came onto me because, despite my panic, I rode at the long-haired Dane and struck at him with my small sword, and his sword parried mine, and my feeble blade bent like a herring’s spine.  It just bent and he drew back his own sword for the killing stroke, saw my pathetic bent blade, and began to laugh.  I was pissing myself, he was laughing, and I beat at him again with the useless sword and still he laughed, and then he leaned over, plucked the weapon from my hand, and threw it away.  He picked me up then.  I was screaming and hitting at him, but he thought it all so very funny, and he draped me belly down on the saddle in front of him and then he spurred into the chaos to continue the killing. 
And that was how I met Ragnar, Ragnar the Fearless, my brother’s killer, and the man whose head was supposed to grace a pole on Bebbanburg’s ramparts, Earl Ragnar.

ooh-ho-ho! (insert nasal French laugh, here)  Il est si bon!!  It’s like a Swedish massage with words.  Five stars—no, this one gets a five-plus!

Leviathan Wakes
James S. A. Corey
This was okay.  It was pretty good as far as hard sci-fi goes.  I thought Corey did a good job portraying the unforgiving reality of space.  Still, I’m not sure what I thought of it, overall.  It had some good stuff.  3 to 4 stars.

The Alchemist: The Secrets of the Immortal Nicholas Flamel
Michael Scott
Juvenile urban fantasy cheeseburger writing.  This had some interesting ideas, but I didn’t get all that into it.  Not sure why.  I wished there was a little more character development, for one.  3 stars.

The Hound / The Colour Out of Space
H. P. Lovecraft
My wife picked up a book of Lovecraft’s stories.  I’m not sure why, she’s really not into horror, but from time to time she’ll check out an anthology from the library and then pick out the stuff worth looking at, and give me a list.  I was interested in The Hound, because it was another black-dog story, like Hound of the Baskervilles.  I’m keenly interested in black-dog stories, because the sequel to Mage’s Craft (the novel I wrote) is going to be kind of about this.  Not sure what to rate these.  3.5 stars.

Something Wicked This Way Comes
Ray Bradbury
I had really mixed feelings on this one.  On the one hand, the story is brilliant.  This is worthy of a Stephen King award for horror / speculative fiction, or something.  It’s that good.  On the other hand I’m not sure about Bradbury’s writing, per se.  Bradbury is a master of metaphor, but sometimes he overdoes it to the point where you really can’t tell what’s going on.  There was quite a bit of that in this novel.  I had to re-read several scenes, and some of them I just had to shrug and move on.  And on top of that, the main character’s father (the librarian) talks with the same heavily metaphorical voice as the narrator, which makes me wonder who’s narrating, and who’s speaking in dialog.  Anyway, I’m probably a heretic for saying this because Bradbury is so well respected, but 3 stars.

Dan Wells
This was really well done. I’ll probably pick up the sequel.  Someday.  I’d be more excited about it if there weren’t so many post-apocalyptic novels out there.  Even still, four stars.  Go read it.

John Scalzi
I have mixed feelings about Scalzi.  On the one hand I don’t appreciate the way he uses his fame and his clout in the Sci-Fi community to push his heavily liberal agenda and shame other authors who don’t follow his beliefs…and on the other hand, his writing is just so gawl-dang good!  Scalzi isn’t Stephen King, and he’s not Bernard Cornwell.  He’s not that kind of good.  He’s more like…hilariously entertaining Terry Pratchett kind of good.  He fancies himself as a comical sci-fi writer, like Douglas Adams (Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy), but I don’t agree with that so much, either.  I never took Adams seriously—and I was never meant to—but I do take Scalzi seriously.  He has a way of being able to spin a serious plot, weave in a social issue (sometimes a little in your face), and pull it off in a way that feels really entertaining.  I can zip through 30 pages like it’s nothing.  Something else about Scalzi’s writing, too, is that he never describes his characters, and he never describes scenery.  His stories are always page after page of witty, tight, charming, serious-yet-funny, repartee.  Yum!  Five stars.  Oh, wait…the book is about a bunch of crewmen on a space-ship—er…never mind, that will totally give it away.  Just read it!

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest
Ken Kesey
I read this because I’m looking for character sketches for the sequel to my novel, Mage’s Craft.  Nurse Ratched is at the top of everyone’s top-ten list of all-time villains.  When I heard that the movie was made from a book, I checked it out from the library.  The writing is super-good.  It’s Stephen King good.  You literary snobby types will love it, too.  Five big-ones.

The Host
Stephanie Meyer
I think I grew half a uterus reading this.  Tedious, tedious, tedious.  There’s a lot of emotional working-it-out kind of internal struggle, which as I guy made me want to slap the main character and tell her to pull her crap together.  That said, I DID finish it.  Am I made into a better person?  A more caring sort of man, in touch with his feminine side?  Not really sure.  That said, I think the book merits some serious praise.  You’ll like it.  Even if you’re a guy.  It’s worth it.  3.5 to 4 stars (depending on how many X-chromosomes you have).

Partial credit

Everything’s Eventual
Stephen King
This is another anthology.  It’s got a nice mix of stuff in it, and all of it short.  I read short story anthologies when I’m between books and looking for a snack.  Something light.  I’m still working my way through it, but currently I’m stuck in the middle of Fuzzy Nation (another Scalzi book), and after that I’ve got something else that I grabbed off the library shelf at random.

So…that’s nineteen books, and some spare change if you count the Lovecraft stories.  Wow, a record for me.  It’s been a very full year.

So what have you read this year?  I’m always looking for something new.  Leave a comment below.

Monday, December 8, 2014

Plain Talk on Using Said

Let’s talk about dialog in writing.  More to the point, let’s talk about how to skillfully use (or not use) the word ‘said’.

I started reading Stephen King’s book, On Writing, looking for sage pearls of wisdom.  Perhaps it was the ADD, or perhaps it was impatience on my part, but I got half-way through the book and decided that the best way to study Stephen King was to read Stephen king.  The one pearl of wisdom that stuck with me (a commandment which King admitted to breaking again and again) was that when writing dialogue, you should always use ‘said’ as your speech tag.

“It’s time to go,” Julie said.

This rule is pretty much Gospel canon throughout the writing community, and it’s sound advice.

The problem is, nearly all published authors ignore this rule from time to time.  So what gives?

Well, I’ve done research on the topic, and I think I’ve uncovered the secret.  What I’ve come up with are eight rules for writing dialog that won’t make you sound like a rank beginner.

Rule #1
Always use said. 

There is a time and a place for creativity, but this is not one of them.  Please.  If you feel that urge to have your character opine, articulate, relate, tell, or vocalize—just stop.  Stand up, take a breath, then count to ten.  Now sit back down and type, ‘said’.
Ok, that’s out of the way.

Rule #2
When a character asks a question, you can (and probably should) use ‘asked’ instead of ‘said’.

Don’t use any other synonym.  This includes queried, inquired, requested, interrogated, etc.  Again, there is a time and a place for creativity; this is not it, either.
Here is an example:

“What time is it?” John asked.

Very good. 

Rule #3
When answering a question, you may use one of the following: said, answered, replied, or responded. 

You have a little bit of freedom here, but don’t be tempted to go overboard.  Stick to these four verbs, and you’ll be safe.

“It’s time to go,” Julie said.
“What time is it?” John asked.
“Nearly half past ten,” Julie answered.  “My mother is waiting up.  She’s gonna kill me.”

See how that just rolls off the page? 
Now for a little creativity.  If you’re tired of an endless page full of ‘he said’, and ‘she said’, try this next rule.

Rule #4
If you put a short action sentence before a line of dialogue, you can omit the speech tag altogether.  The sentence should mention the character who is speaking, and it should include an action that the character does.

Ok, this one is going to take an example. 

John closed his math textbook and scooped his notes into a pile.  “Is it that late?  I completely lost track of time.”

You can also put the action sentence between two lines of dialogue by the same character.

“I’ll send a text.”  Julie fished her phone out of her backpack and started punching keys on the screen.  “She won’t flip out if she thinks I’m on my way.”

This one can get a little awkward, and it might take some practice to get it right.  Try to keep the subject for both lines of dialogue the same.  In the previous the example, both dialogue lines refer to Julie’s mother: “I’ll send her a text,” and “She won’t flip out…”  

Rule #5
You almost never need an adverb after said. 

I said almost never, because as a general rule you should avoid it like the plague.  If you’ve done your job well as a writer, the reader should hear your adverb in the character’s voice.   Consider this bad example:

“Julie hasn’t called, and it’s after ten,” Martha said worriedly.

Just reading this sentence you know that Martha is worried.  The reader already gets it, so you don’t need to spell it out for them further.  In this case you ought to fall back to Rule #1.

Here is an example of when an adverb does work:

Mary sidled into the crowded lecture hall and eased into the seat beside her friend.
Jenna covered her mouth with her hand and leaned close.  “Rough morning?”
“My alarm didn’t go off.  I ran here as fast as I could,” Martha answered quietly.

In this case, if I omitted the adverb ‘quietly’, the reader would be left to wonder if Martha is speaking in a normal loud voice, or if she is whispering.  

Again, the key is to try Rule #1 first, and read sentence aloud without the adverb.  If ‘said’ still feels a little out of tune then you can add the adverb.

That said, you can still avoid the adverb if you apply Rule #6.

Rule #6
In situations where a character is not speaking with a normal voice (e.g., strong emotion, loud volume, or whispering), you may use any verb that can be construed as a vocal utterance.

‘Said’ implies that the character is speaking in a normal conversational tone, at a normal conversational volume. 

What happens if the character is yelling?  Or whispering?

Here is where things can get a little creative—but be conservative.  What you’re looking for is a snug fit.  If you start getting too colorful the effect becomes noticeable and your dialog will start to sound cheesy.

Some examples are in order.  A good place to look for where you might apply this rule would be whenever a character uses an exclamation point. 

“Over here!” john said.

I’ve followed Rule #1 like you should always try to do, but in this case it just doesn’t fit.  John is clearly not using his inside voice. 

Let’s try something more creative.

“Over here!” john called.
“Over here!” john hollered.

Rule #6 can be applied in other ways.  Consider a situation where John is responding sarcastically, or if John is very angry.

“I’m having the best day of my life,” John growled.

The key is to look for moments when the scene is emotionally tense, or situationally ironic.
Use this rule sparingly.  It’s like cooking with celery seed or garlic.  A little bit makes a huge difference, but a little more is way too much.  My rule of thumb is no more than once every page, and save it for the times when the tension in your scene is at its climax.  This isn’t for everyday use. 

Rule #7
As a corollary to rule #6, you must never use a verb that is not a vocal utterance, or would in any way be confusing in the reader’s mind.

Here’s an example:

“I’m having the best day of my life,” John smiled.

Can you see how ‘Smiled’ is not a sound? 

You can fix this sentence two ways.  Either you can apply rule #4:

John smiled.  “I’m having the best day of my life.”

Or you can fall back to rule #1:

“I’m having the best day of my life,” John said with a smile.

Let’s look at another example. 

“I’m having the best day of my life,” John laughed.

Is John speaking, or is he laughing?  You really can’t do both.  In this case, you might use rule #4:

John laughed.  “I’m having the best day of my life.”

Rule #8.
If two (and only two) people are speaking in a quick exchange, you can omit the speech tags altogether.

This works if there are just two characters in the scene.  Any more than that, and the exchange becomes confusing.  Here is an example adapted from Monty Python:

Michael knocked on the office door.
A man called from inside.  “Come in!”
Michael opened the door and stepped inside.  Mr. Barnard sat behind his desk, his hands folded in his lap.
“Is this the right room for an argument?” Michael asked.
Mr. Barnard sat forward.  “I’ve told you once.”
Michael frowned.  “No you haven’t.”
“Yes I have.”
“Just now.”
“No you didn’t.”
“Yes I did.”

Keep in mind that the reader can quickly lose track of which character is speaking, so after five or six lines you might want to add a conversational beat and a speech tag.

Hopes this helps.  If you disagree, feel free to sound off and let me know what you think.

And keep writing!

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Making it Quotable

My wife and I were talking about the Star Wars movies the other night, and I made the off-hand comment that no one has ever quoted episodes I, II, or III.

And my next thought was, why?

Well, it might have something to do with Jar-Jar Binks.  It also might have something to do with the fact that all three stories were forgettable.  Do you even remember what the main plot was in Episode I?  (Hint, it had nothing to do with pod-races or Darth Maul)  What about Episode II?  I remember that Episode II had lots of light-saber fights.

So, what is it that makes a book or a movie quotable?

I don’t know the answer, but I’ve noticed that all the quotable story lines have four strong elements.

Quotes are always tied to a character with a strong personality and charisma.  When the quote is re-used, it is usually (but not always) delivered with a specific speech inflection as well as an accent (if there is one), and can also be accompanied by a pantomimed action.  Who remembers Ben Stein's deadpan: "Bueller?  Bueller?  Bueller?"  I've used that one in meetings when a question is met with a lengthy silence.  For another example remember The Princess Bride: "Hello, my name is Inigo Montoya.  You keeeeeeled my father.  Prepare to die!" 

Iconic moments:
Scenes that are heavy with emotional tension such as irony, fear, anger, frustration, love, etc.  These are moments that capture the essence of life.  Who remembers the first time they accidentally swore in front of their parents?  Anyone who remembers the scene where Ralphy spills the lugnuts while helping his father change the flat tire will instantly identify.

All quotable stories have a strong sense of time and place.  If a story is set in the real world will be stuffed to the gills with contemporary culture-references, like Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, or A Christmas Story.  If it’s set in another time or place it will have a rich sense of presence, like The Princess Bride, Star Wars, or Lord of the Rings.

Pithy lines. 
They’re all sound-bites.  They’re very short and to the point, and they’re oddly metaphorical / applicable in other areas of life.  How often have you heard someone get a bump or a scratch and say, “It’s just a flesh-wound!”  Once, when my computer was giving me fits, a co-worker leaned out of his cube and asked, "Having trouble with your droid?"

It is very common for lines to get shortened, or to become mis-quoted.  For instance, Dirty Harry never said, “Are you feeling lucky, punk?”  But that’s what everyone quotes.  The actual line of dialog was much, much, much longer:

Uh uh. I know what you're thinking. "Did he fire six shots or only five?" Well to tell you the truth in all this excitement I kinda lost track myself. But being this is a .44 Magnum, the most powerful handgun in the world and would blow you head clean off, you've gotta ask yourself one question: "Do I feel lucky?" Well, do ya, punk?

Exercise for the reader

Ok, so here’s some famous movies that are highly quotable.  As you read through these, ask yourself three questions:

  1. who is speaking? What is noteworthy about that character's personality?
  2. What is the setting for this story?
  3. What is the moment / scene where this quote was spoken?  What was going on, and what was the focus of conflict in that very moment?
  4. What about this situation and this line was metaphorical for life?  HINT: Think about how you’ve heard people apply this quote.

Monty Python

  1. “What is the average air-speed of an un-laden swallow?”
  2. “It’s just a flesh wound!”
  3. “We are the Knights who say “Ni!””
  4. “This is an ex-parrot!”
  5. Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition!
  6. Spam, spam, spam, spam…

A Christmas Story

  1. You’ll shoot your eye out!
  2. Oh, fuuuuuudge!
  3. “Fra Geee Lay!  That must be Italian!  I think that says Fragile, honey.
  4. I double-dog dare ya!

The Princess Bride

  1. Hello. My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die
  2. Inconceivable!!  You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.
  3. Good night, Westley. Good work. Sleep well. I'll most likely kill you in the morning.
  4. As…you…wish!

William Shakespeare

  1. To be or not to be, that is the question!
  2. O Romeo, Romeo! wherefore art thou Romeo?
  3. Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears

Star Wars

  1. May the Force be with you.
  2. Help me Obi-Wan Kenobi.  You’re my only hope.
  3. These are not the droids you’re looking for.
  4. Use the Force, Luke!
  5. No, I am your father.  That’s not true!  That’s impossible!

Lord of the Rings

  1. One ring to rule them all, one ring to find them.  One ring to bring them all, and in the darkness bind them.
  2. You shall not pass!
  3. One does not simply walk into Mordor
  4. My precioussss!
  5. All that is gold does not glitter

Sherlock Holmes

  1. Elementary
  2. The game is afoot!

Ferris Beuler’s Day Off

  1. Life moves pretty fast. If you don't stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.
  2. The question isn't what are we going to do. The question is what aren't we going to do.
  3. Cameron is so tight, that is you stuck a lump of coal up his ass, and twisted, you'd have a diamond.
  4. Bueller? Bueller? Bueller?

Gone with the Wind

  1. Frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn!
  2. As God is my witness, I'll never be hungry again.
  3. After all, tomorrow is another day!

The Ten Commandments

  1. So let it be written.  So let it be done.
  2. Let my people go!

Star Trek

  1. Set phasers on stun.
  2. He’s dead, Jim.
  3. I’m a doctor, not a ___
  4. I'm giving her all she's got, Captain! 

Star Trek TNG

  1. Engage!
  2. Make it so!
  3. Resistance is Futile
  4. Belay that order!

Napoleon Dynamyte

  1. Sweet!  Lucky!  Yessss!
  2. Tina, you fat lard, come get some dinner!
  3. Napoleon, don't be jealous that I've been chatting online with babes all day. Besides, we both know that I'm training to be a cage fighter.
  4. I see you’re drinking 1%.  Is that ‘cause you think you’re fat?  ‘Cause you’re not.  You could be drinking whole, if you wanted to.

Monday, October 27, 2014

Goblin Accounting Office

The following is a transcript of a recording taken at Aragorn Air Force Reserve station, by Ssgt Joe Robinson, at the Goblin Accounting Office, August 15, 2010. 

[Scraping noises as I slide my recorder across the desk toward the subjects.]
G1:   “Get that thing away from me.”
ME:   “It’s just a recorder.”
G1:   [pause] “What the hell for?”
ME:   “I’m Joe Robinson.  I’m a reporter from the Stars and Stripes.  I called you yesterday.  We’re interviewing participants in the new military de-segregation program.  I cleared all this with Lienutnant Jones and Chief Gurg.”
[long pause]
ME:   “Do you still want to do this interview?”
G1:   [sigh]  Yuh-yuh.  Long as chief know.”
ME:   “Okay, so start off by telling me your name.”
G1:   “Shigrit.”
ME:   “Shigrit?”
SHIGRIT: “You got problem with that?  You make some kind of joke, pink-face?”
ME:   “No, I just want to make sure I’m saying it right.  How do you spell that?”
SHIGRIT: “Like it sounds.  You know how to spell, yuh?”
ME:   “Do you have a last name?”
SHIGRIT: “Shigrit Blood-Vole.”
ME:   “Blood-Vole?  Is that your clan name?”
SHIGRIT: “Yeah.”
ME:   “Ok, tell us about what you do.”
SHIGRIT: “Uuh…this is Goblin Accounting Office.  We keep track of treasury.  Everything you want, from paperclip to stealth drone…it come through us.  All of it.”
ME:   “Sounds interesting.”
SHIGRIT: “Nyeh, nyeh.  I mean, don’t get me wrong, it is job.  It is good job, but I signed on with military so I pay for college.”
ME:   “But you’re getting job experience.”
SHIGRIT: “Sure, sure.”
ME:   “What kinds of challenges do you face being a goblin in today’s military?”
SHIGRIT: “Uh, you know.”  [snorrt]  “Sorry, I got cold.”  [snooooorrrrt]
ME:   “Would you like a Kleenex?”
SHIGRIT: “What?”
ME:   “To blow your nose?  There’s a box on the desk there.”
SHIGRIT: “Nyeh, don’t worry.”  [snoorrrt-snort]  “I never use those.  What was question?”
ME:   “What kinds of challenges—”
SHIGRIT: “Oh yeah!  Well, you know.  Usual stuff.  Why would goblin go to college?  I get that a lot.  I mean just because you are goblin they expect you to be lazy, cowardly…that sort of thing.  I have dreams, too, you know.”
ME:   “What do you want to study?”
SHIGRIT: [pause] “Goblin stuff.”
ME:   “Goblin stuff?  What’s that?”
SHIGRIT: “It is mind your own damn business, that is what.”
ME:   “Hang on.  The point of this interview was to get to know the goblins.  We’re trying to break down walls, not build them up.”
SHIGRIT:  “Meh.”
ME:   “Do you want to continue?”
SHIGRIT: “Yuh-yuh, as long as chief says.  Beats working.”
ME:   “So what do you want to study in college?”
SHIGRIT: “Why you keep asking that question?  What does college have to do with military?  Ask me question about work.  This work, the work that I do.”
ME:   “I’m just trying to keep it real.  I mean, we’re not all gung-ho, GI Joe, are we?  We all have dreams—aspirations, if you will—outside of military life.”
SHIGRIT: “Ask different question.”
ME:   “Um, okay…”
[a second goblin voice butts in (loud) close to the mic]
G2:   “He wants to study dance!”  [snigger]
SHIGRIT: “Shut it, pig face!” [A chair scrapes across the floor.  Something falls over with a crash.]
G2:   [voice echoes from across the room] “He tell me!  He got drunk last weekend, he tell me!”
SHIGRIT: “Va gala hootu!  I said shut it!”
G2:   [sniggering]
ME:   “Is this true?”
SHIGRIT: “You going to clean that up, fart-eater.  When chief sees that, it is your ass—not mine.”
[Long argument in Goblin-speek between Shigrit and the other goblin.]
ME:   “Shigrit?”
G2:   [Sounds like swearing.]
SHIGRIT: “That’s right, I tell Chief!  Then we see who is laughing.”
ME:   “Shigrit?”
SHIGRIT: “What?”
ME:   “Can we continue?”
SHIGRIT: [sigh] “Yeah.”  [The chair scrapes across the floor again.]
ME:   “Well that’s cool, man.  You’re studying dance, I’m cool with that.  What kind of dance?”
G2:   “Ballet!  Woooo-oooooo!”
SHIGRIT: “You wanna eat your teeth?  Shut it!
G2:   [singing]  “Wooo-ooooo-hooooo.”
ME:   “Are you going to study ballet?”
[long pause]
SHIGRIT: “I tell you something I never tell anybody, eh?  You don’t put this on your web-page-whatever-thing, panyes?”
ME:   “Hey, man, I won’t tell.  Scout’s honor.”
SHIGRIT: “What is that—what is…scout’s honor?”
ME:   “It’s a…it’s just something that we say.  It means that I promise not to tell.”
SHIGRIT: “You better not.  If you tell, I have Chief Gurg come an’ he find you, and he break your kneecaps, panyes?  Both of them!”
ME:   “Sure, I understand.  This is strictly off the record.”  [Scraping sound as I slide the recorder away from the subject.]
SHIGRIT: “I take modern jazz.”
ME:   “That’s awesome.  I have two daugh—er, I know two people who are into that.  I think it’s great stuff.”
G2:   [huffs] “You’re a pyosset.”
SHIGRIT: “Your father is a pyosset, and your mother rides on top.  Shut up, or by Urok I flatten your nose!”
ME:   “Look, if he likes dance I can respect that, whether it’s jazz or ballet or hip-hop.”
SHIGRIT: “Gah!  My friends, they do hip-hop.  Break-dance.  They look like…like cloonz…how you say it?”
ME:   “Clowns?”
SHIGRIT: “Yeah, clowns.  They think they bad-ass.”
ME:   “Well, that’s cool.  If you like modern jazz, I’m cool with that.  Do you plan on becoming a dancer?”
SHIGRIT: “I don’t know.  I take classes, I see where it goes.  Maybe I try out for play, and get part.”
G2:   [sniggering]
ME:   “I know someone who can get you an audition with Tops in Blue, you ever heard of them?”
ME:   “They’re an entertainment showcase sponsored by the Air Force.  They do all kinds of musical numbers, dancing, too.  They tour all over the world.  Would you like that?”
SHIGRIT: “You do that for me?”
ME:   “Sure, man.”
SHIGRIT: “You all right.  You all right.”
G2:   Skeelgah.”
ME:   “Hey, can I ask your friend some questions?”
SHIGRIT: “Pish!  Go right ahead.”
ME:   “Hey, you mind if I ask you a few questions?”
G2:   “Sure, pink-face.  Ask away.”
ME:   “Well, for our readers why don’t you tell us a little about yourself.  Start with your name.”
G2:   “Bugger!”
ME:   “Bugger?”
SHIGRIT: “That is not name.  Don’t listen to him.  He is being rude.”
ME:   “I can call you Bugger if that’s what you want.  You want me to call you Bugger?”
G2:   “My name is Greenskin, pink-face.”
ME:   “Greenskin, that’s better.  So, Greenskin, how do you like the military?  Do you think this new integration program is working?”
G2:   Ack!  Thptptptpht!  That is what I think!”
SHIGRIT: “He has got farts for brains.  Do not listen to him.”
ME:   “Okay, well that’s—” 
[end transcription]