razieltwelve

Because writing should be fun

Dialogue Versus Actual Speech

Dialogue is one of the most important parts of writing good fiction. Good dialogue not only fleshes out the characters but also the world they live in. Consider something like a period romance novel. Exactly how people speak creates a lot of the atmosphere and allows the reader to identify what period the story is set in.

But dialogue is not always the same as actual speech. The next time you talk to someone, listen very closely to what they say. Apart from the words that actually convey what they want to say, there will usually be some amount of hedging and some idiosyncratic verbal tics.

Very, very few people speak perfectly in casual conversation. More often than not, the actual guts of a conversation are interspersed with varying levels of “um” and “ah” and “uh” because we don’t generally plan out what we want to say, right down to the last word. We also tend to have our little idiosyncrasies, little verbal tics that we use when we’re thinking or trying to buy time. Some people use phrases like “but, anyway” and “you know”, but there are a host of other phrases that people employ to fill out gaps in their speech.

Dialogue in fiction rarely reflects real speech. Characters do not stutter and stumble over their words anywhere near as often as they would in real life. There is a good reason for this. It can be absolutely excruciating to read through actual speech (try reading a completely accurate transcript of an interview, one that doesn’t cut out all the little verbal tics and hedging – it’s agonising). Furthermore, space is at a premium in a story. The longer something is, the harder it can be for it to hold a reader’s attention. Making dialogue exactly like actual speech distracts readers from what is being said and from what the dialogue says about the characters.

However, there are times when making dialogue more realistic can help. If everyone speaks cleanly (i.e., without breaks and stuttering), then characters who do not speak cleanly stand out. Someone can be made to appear very nervous by the simple act of actually having them use “um” and “uh” when they talk. Likewise, more realistic speech can also be used to convey shock.

At the same time, however, it is important for dialogue to be realistic in other ways. Take vocabulary. If a six-year-old starts talking like a physics professor without a very good reason, then their dialogue is going to come across as strange and jarring. It is also critical to take into consideration how long each passage of dialogue is. Conversation tends to be a two-way street. It would be odd if one character spent pages and pages talking without letting anyone else speak unless they were telling a story or something similar. Likewise, a real conversation has a certain flow to it, a give and take, which is also present in well-written dialogue (see e.g., humorous fiction, which tends to rely on this quite heavily).

Dialogue is an important part of writing fiction and although it is similar to actual speech in many ways, it is not always the same.

If you want to read more about my thoughts on writing, you can find those here.

I also write original fiction, which you can find here.

A Comment On How I Review Things

When I review a piece of media (e.g., a book or a film), I tend to approach it from two different angles:

  • From an audience-oriented view
  • From an author-oriented view

The audience-oriented part of the review should focus on whether or not the media under review provides the audience with a worthwhile experience. Depending on what the audience is looking for, this might mean that the media makes them laugh, think, or even cry.

When looking at media from the point of view of the audience, I think it is important to consider the characteristics of the target audience as well. For example, if a film is clearly aimed at children, it makes little sense to unduly criticise it for not appealing to adults. Likewise, it would be odd to mark an action movie down for not having enough romance.

That’s not to say that a piece of media cannot be judged against media aimed at a different audience. Although there are aspects of media that are subjective, there are also aspects that are much closer to objective. In films, this might include things like special effects, soundtrack, and cinematography. In books this might involve the quality of the prose (from a technical standpoint), the coherence of the plot, and the pacing.

It is because of the more objective factors that intense study of a particular form of media often results in the identification of several classics that are regarded as being superior. Consider fantasy and science fiction. Despite the enormous variation between writers, there are still several that are widely considered legends in the field (e.g., Tolkien).

In summary, the aim of the audience-oriented portion of any review that I write is designed to answer several questions:

  • What did I like/dislike about the piece of media?
  • Who would/wouldn’t enjoy the piece of media?

The author-oriented portion of any review that I write is aimed at providing the author with constructive feedback. In other words, what worked and why did it work? And what didn’t work and why didn’t it work?

The goal of this feedback is to help the author improve. Sometimes, this is relatively straightforward. For example, if a writer has very poor punctuation and spelling, then the solution is obvious: they should improve their punctuation and spelling. However, there are times when it is more complicated. For instance, if a video game has major flaws in key elements of its gameplay, simply stating that the gameplay is broken does not help. I need to identify exactly which elements are broken and then offer suggestions as to how they might be fixed.

Author-oriented feedback can be very complicated, especially if the flaws in the piece of media are in the less objective areas. Take humour. Even if I find something incredibly funny, there is no telling if someone else will find it funny too. Likewise, I might not find something humorous at all and say exactly that to the writer, only to find that everyone else finds what they’ve written hilarious. Similar situations can occur in film. There is no perfect way to depict combat on screen. The filmmaker may have a good reason to adopt more stylised combat, but I might want to make an argument that more realistic combat would be more compelling. But what one person finds compelling may be different from someone else. My feedback is likely to involve some subjectivity on my part.

As a final set of remarks, I want to say a few words about how reviews are written, particularly acerbic reviews. A cutting wit can be very entertaining. Indeed, tearing into a particularly poor piece of media can result in a review that is much more entertaining than the media itself. As a result, I may not always find it particularly tasteful for an audience-oriented review to rip into something, but I can at least understand why that happens. If the goal is to warn the audience away from something particularly bad, then a truly cutting review works well enough. The audience is forewarned and thus forearmed. They are also entertained.

However, when a review is author-oriented, then I feel that things change somewhat. It is true that makers of media require the ability to accept criticism. But if the goal is to help the author improve, simply heaping scorn and criticism upon them is unlikely to succeed. To be fair, there are authors for whom that works very well (and some may need a firmer hand than others). But the vast majority will simply bear the review as best they can before scuttling off to lick their wounds, more concerned with the cruelty of the review than with its message. Again, one could say that such authors simply need to develop a thicker skin, but the question could also be turned the other way: was the reviewer more interested in forcing the author to develop a thicker skin or did they actually want to help the author improve?

Reviewing is not easy, especially when the goal is to help the author. And there are certainly authors that are oversensitive, for whom even the merest whiff of criticism is enough to induce an apoplectic rage. Such authors truly do need to develop thicker skin, lest they find themselves breaking in a manner not unlike Humpty Dumpty. Nevertheless, I do believe that maintaining a certain level of civility is much more likely to produce results.

In closing, I think it is important to consider what you are trying to do when your review something. A review can vary quite a lot depending on whom you are trying to help: the audience or the author. The latter wishes to improve whilst the former wishes to know if they are likely to enjoy themselves.

If you want to read more about my thoughts on writing, you can find those here.

I also write original fiction, which you can find here.

Despair… Thy Names Is Spurs

I seriously don’t know what to make of the team at the moment. This game against the Clippers was a big one. We could have moved from the 7th seed all the way up to the 5th seed. Instead, we had the lead and, as usual, blew it in the third quarter. At one point the Spurs were up nine. Seriously…

What was troubling to me was Leonard’s play. The problem has always been that of the four best players on the team (Duncan, Parker, Ginobili, and Leonard), we need at least three playing pretty well. Parker and especially Duncan played well today. Manu was… interesting. He had some good plays, but he had some really, really frustrating plays too (e.g., the bit near the end where I swear he had an open lay up and then decided to pass… which became a turn over). But Leonard was well below his usual standards.

It’s like the team can’t get all of its cylinders to fire. I just don’t know what to think. When we play well, we look almost invincible, but we play well so rarely. I still think that we’ll be okay if we can just sneak into the play offs. I doubt there’s a team that wants to face the Spurs in the first round. But now we threw away a game we should have won (if only we didn’t perpetually play badly during third quarters this season) and have to go up against Golden State on the second night of a back-to-back, which is pretty much a scheduled loss unless Kerr decides that maybe he doesn’t want to play Curry and Thompson (unlikely).

Gah.

I just…

Just…

Gah.

The way things are going I fully expect Australia to lose at the Cricket World Cup now. I already miss last season’s Spurs. And I really miss the Australian cricket team with Gilly and the others.

The Sound…

I was up late one night thanks to another bout of insomnia when I heard the most peculiar sound at my window. It was the sound of something scraping back and forth across the window, and it happened every now and then. At first, I ignored it, but it continued to happen just often enough to make it impossible to ignore.

I got up to check what was making the sound. There is a tree in front of my window, but none of the leaves or branches were touching the window. I thought it might be the wind since it was quite windy. But even with the wind, nothing was touching the window.

Resolving to ignore it and do something productive, I tried to work. But I kept hearing the sound. I went to the window again and stared out into the darkness. There was nothing there, nothing at all.

It was only as my frustration reached a high point and I was about to go outside that I noticed something on the corner of the window. It was a snail. Somehow, a snail had gotten onto my window. The sound I’d been hearing was the sound of the snail dragging itself over the glass.

Going outside, I plucked the snail off my window and put it down on the ground. Problem solved.

Or so I thought.

I’d no sooner gone back inside than I heard the hideous warbling of a bush turkey.

Damn it.

Video Games As A Form Of Self-Expression

Imagine that you’re playing a fighting game for the very first time. You’re not very familiar with it at all although you have seen a few people play it before. How do you choose which character to play? I suspect that most people would simply choose whichever character seemed the most interesting.

But what makes one character more interesting than the others? The answer is likely to vary from person to person. Some people might pick a character based solely on appearance while others might gravitate toward a character that requires a particular style of play. One of the most important things for a fighting game to do is to provide a sufficiently diverse selection of characters and gameplay, thereby ensuring that as many people as possible find something about the game interesting.

Consider a series like Street Fighter. Some of its characters excel at controlling distance, relying on projectiles and other moves to maintain the space between characters (e.g., Guile). Other characters excel at close range and will attempt to close the distance between characters whenever possible (e.g., Zangief).

One of the reasons that Street Fighter has had such enduring appeal is that it offers a wide variety of characters and playing styles. If someone enjoys doing long, elaborate combos that require skilful execution, there is a character for that (Evil Ryu). Likewise, if someone prefers a character with less strenuous execution requirements, well, there’s a character for that too (e.g., Cammy).

Offering players the chance to choose a character and play style that matches their preferences will make a game much more enjoyable. Imagine that you’re someone who likes to play defence, but you discover that the game you’re playing has no character that can play defensively. You’re going to be disappointed. You may even become frustrated if you’re forced to play a character and style that you don’t like. Assuming that a game is reasonably well balanced, people will generally pick the character and playing style that best suits their personal preferences.

This idea – that games can be a form of self-expression – extends beyond fighting games. It can be applied to strategy games as well. In Starcraft 2, there are three different races, each of which features different mechanics and strategies. This variation is not only intended to produce exciting gameplay but also to give people the chance to choose how they play the game – to express themselves.

Terran, for example, can be played in a highly aggressive fashion, relying primarily on bio units to attack multiple places on the map while applying constant pressure. However, Terran can also be played in a much slower, more deliberate, and defensive fashion by relying on mechanical units, which offer much greater cost efficiency and power at the expense of mobility and the ability to pressure the opponent in the early game.

It is interesting to note that most of the periods in which complaints became common in Starcraft 2 (e.g., the Brood Lord/Infestor era at the end of Wings of Liberty and the Four Gate Era at the start of Wings of Liberty) occurred as a result of both imbalance (i.e., one race being superior to the others) and a lack of diversity in the meta-game (i.e., a meta-game in which only a small set of strategies are considered viable). People got sick of playing the game the same way, over and over. Even the people who were winning got sick of it because they were only able to play in one way.

But nowhere is the ability for games to serve as a mode of self-expression clearer than in the increasing trend toward customisation in RPGs. More games now allow players to customise almost everything: from the abilities their characters have to the appearance, gender, and even affiliation that their characters have. People still enjoy games in which there is a set storyline and cast of characters, but they also enjoy games in which they can express themselves, choosing not only how their characters looks but also how their character acts (see e.g., Mass Effect, Dragon Age, etc.).

It is only natural for people to express themselves. This happens in writing, in art, and even in sport, so it should not be surprising that people also enjoy expressing themselves when they play video games. Giving people the opportunity to express themselves is one way that a game can help catch and maintain the interest of its audience.

The Meaning Of A Book

I haven’t been posting as much as I usually do and that’s something I’ll talk about a bit later, but I want to take some time here to relate an interesting anecdote. I grew up around books. In fact, as a child. I can’t actually remember a time when I couldn’t read or didn’t have a book close at hand.

Recently, I was speaking with my father about how his life was growing up. My father did not grow up especially well off, and his parents were not well educated. But he was a smart guy, and he liked to read. The only problem was that books were expensive, and whenever his family did get a book, he and his sibling has to share it (he had ten siblings).

Growing up, and even into high school and university, books were a luxury for him. When we moved to Australia, one of the things that he loved the most was being able to get a library card and then walking into a library to choose from thousands of books to borrow. He finally had a chance to read all the books that he wanted. Instead of reading just one or two books from the authors he liked, he could read all the books of a particular author.

These are the authors that my father introduced me to (as a kid, I read anything I could get my hands on):

  • Tom Clancy
  • Colin Forbes
  • John Grisham
  • Robert Ludlum

Much of what I know about military history and strategy I also picked up from things my father talked about. He was a marine before he moved to Australia, and he spent a lot of time telling me about the ethos and history that the marines prized.

Growing up, I didn’t think of books as something special. It was normal to have them around, and it never occurred to me that books were something to treasure. But maybe the reason that books were always around was because to my father and my mother, books were special, something to be treasured.

Lettuce Is Evil

As I mentioned in my previous post, I am not good at identifying fruits and vegetables. Today, I had to buy some things to make dinner. Amongst those things were lettuce, tomatoes, and carrots.

I thought to myself that surely this couldn’t be too hard. All three were on my list of things that I was fairly sure I could identify. It is, after all, hard to confuse a carrot with anything else, and tomatoes are fairly unique in their appearance too.

Of course, it wasn’t going to be that easy.

I went to the supermarket on my way home, and I swiftly acquired the tomatoes and carrots that I needed. Then I went to get the lettuce, and that’s when things began to go wrong.

The problem is that the recipe for dinner calls for lettuce. However, it doesn’t say what kind of lettuce, and there are different kinds of lettuce that all look fairly similar.

Confronted with this problem, I turned all of my considerable intellect to determining what the best kind of lettuce for the recipe was… and came up with nothing. So, swallowing my pride, I got on the phone. After a brief discussion, I finally knew which kind of lettuce to buy.

But wait… it didn’t seem to be there. Cue another phone call which resulted in reassurance that the kind of lettuce I needed really was there and that if I kept looking I would find it.

Ten minutes later, I finally found the correct kind of lettuce. It was a good thing too since I’d begun to have vision of wandering the fruit and vegetable section until I died of old age and my bones became part of the supermarket’s decor.

I was tempted to hold it up like a trophy but refrained because of all the school children around that would probably be terrified by that kind of behaviour. Nevertheless, I couldn’t help but wonder why the lettuce I needed wasn’t next to all the other kinds of lettuce. To me, it makes no sense to have five different kinds of lettuce next to each other and then one other kind on the opposite side of the fruit and vegetable section. I can only conclude that the supermarket people are out to get me.

But I digress.

In the end, I procured the things I needed to make dinner.

Go me.

I Am An Idiot About Fruits, Vegetables, and Flowers

Despite ample evidence to the contrary (see below), most people who meet me seem to quickly come to the conclusion that I’m reasonably intelligent. I suppose it has something to do with the fact that I am conversant with a fairly diverse range of topics. I am just as likely to rant about the most recent happenings in the NBA as I am to bluster about economic policy and history.

But there are gaps in my knowledge, gaps big enough to sail an aircraft carrier through. In particular, I am really, really bad at identifying fruits, vegetables, and flowers.

It’s something that my mother and sister find inordinately funny. In fact, whenever we go to the supermarket, they’ll usually find an excuse to hold up some random fruit/vegetable and ask me what it is. Nine times out of ten, I have absolutely no idea. I am not joking when I say that I once mistook broccoli for cabbage despite the fact that the only thing they have in common is being green.

Flowers are even worse. The range of flowers that I can reliably identify on sight is fairly limited: roses, sunflowers, jacarandas, lotuses, and a handful of others. This is despite the fact that I spend a lot of time gardening and have read multiple books on the symbolism and meaning behind different flowers. Yes, I can tell you what different flowers mean, but I have absolutely no idea what a lot of them look like. Oops.

On the upside, this whole thing is really good at keeping me humble. I might be able to discuss the causes for the fall of the Roman Empire and provide reasons for why the Chinese real estate market is currently under pressure, but I still can’t tell the difference between a radish and a turnip without resorting to google.

My secret fear is going on one of those quiz shows and getting all the way to the end, only to be confronted by a question about vegetables. It would, I imagine, make for a somewhat hilarious, if tragic, end.

My sister probably put it best when we were watching an action movie while cooking something. She thought it was odd (and perhaps even a little disturbing) that I could correctly identify the weapons the characters were using (even down to how much ammunition each weapon could hold and which armed forces used it), but I couldn’t pick out the right ingredients from the fridge without her me telling which vegetable was which.

I can only assume that during my formative years, the part of my brain that was supposed to be learning about fruits, vegetables, and flowers decided to take several years off. Oh well, nobody is perfect. And, besides, that’s what family is for: to tell you which one is lettuce and which one is celery.

Public Speaking Can Be Hard

When I was a university student, I remember being part of a group that had to deliver a presentation. Each member of the group (there were three of us) would have to talk for at least five minutes. We would get two scores: one for our group as a whole and another for our individual performance. I can only assume that the group grade was there to encourage us to help each other instead of focusing only on our part of the presentation.

One of the members of my group was a boisterous, outgoing Australian. During our group discussions, he was always happy to contribute, and he was full of good ideas. However, before our presentation, he mentioned that he wasn’t very good at public speaking. I wasn’t sure if he was just being modest or not, but I told him not to worry too much about it. We were allowed to bring in cue cards if we wanted, and I knew how much preparation he’d already done.

It was only during the presentation that I understood why he was so worried. Despite normally being an outgoing and fairly loud person, he completely shut down during the presentation. He was so nervous that he ended up hiding behind the piece of paper he’d written his notes on. That is, he held up the piece of paper in front of his face and read it out word for word because he was too nervous to remember what he wanted to say.

I was stunned, as was the other member of our group. We couldn’t believe how different he seemed from our group discussions. But it made sense, in a twisted sort of way. In the group he wasn’t in public. He was amongst people that were, at least sort of, his friends, people who weren’t going to be grading him. But now that we were giving our presentation, he was going to be graded and that terrified him.

Public speaking can be scary. What makes it even scarier is that people aren’t usually taught how to do it properly. I received most of my schooling in Australia, and public speaking isn’t something that is covered well. If I added up all of the education I got about public speaking in school over the years, I think the sum total would add up to less than an hour. Everything I’ve learned about public speaking, I either learned myself (e.g., trial and error or reading about it), asking someone who was better than me, or at a public speaking club.

I find it odd, even bizarre, that schools and universities put so much emphasis on public speaking but do so little to teach it. It’s like asking people to do calculus without teaching them how and then wondering why they fail. Even more hilarious is that we have no problems telling people what they did wrong when they gave their speech, but we don’t give them any idea of what a good speech actually sounds like.

The sad thing is that teaching solid public speaking skills isn’t especially hard. It’s repetition and practice that are the key. Give even a bad speaker a few weeks of thorough training, and they will likely become an average or better speaker.

The Importance of Internal Consistency

In psychological testing, internal consistency refers to how well items on a particular test measure the same construct. In principle, items that purport to measure the same construct should strongly correlate to each other. We can make use of a similar idea when writing fiction.

A story is made up of multiple components, and it has internal consistency when all of these components operate and abide by the rules and logic that govern the world the story is set in. In other words, internal consistency in a story refers to how closely the components of a story adhere to the rules and logic set out by the story itself.

But why does the internal consistency of a story matter?

Let us begin by considering a fantasy story in which the characters possess magical powers. Magic, almost by definition, allows people to do things that would otherwise be impossible (e.g., create and control fire). But magic is not random – it cannot be if the story is to make any sense.

Try to imagine what a fight between two characters with magical powers would be like if there are no rules about how magic works and what it can do. It would be utterly ridiculous. So much of the tension in a fight scene derives from the combatants pitting their strengths and weaknesses against each other. But without rules or logic, there are no strengths or weaknesses. Characters could simply do whatever they please without any limitations whatsoever.

If there are no rules, could characters even run out of magic? No. Being able to run out of magic is one of the most common rules in fantasy fiction. Would there be different types of magic? No. It would be impossible to distinguish between different types of magic without rules or some kind of logical classification system. Could characters simply alter reality on a titanic scale and simply will themselves to victory? Quite possibly. Rules and logic are what set the limits on what magic can achieve. Without them, there is no reason to limit what characters with magic can do (which would make for a thoroughly boring story and fight scene).

Internal consistency is also vital because it allows the readers to engage with the story. Readers typically enjoy thinking about the characters, plot, settings, and ideas of a story. But thinking about these things in a meaningful manner involves trying to understand and even predict them, and understanding and prediction are impossible without rules and logic.

Think about the plots for all of the stories that you’ve read. How many of them involved twists and surprises? At least a few of them probably did. What made those twists and surprises good? It wasn’t just that they caught you off guard. It was almost certainly because those plot twists and surprises made sense in retrospect.

Consider the film The Sixth Sense. What made the twist at the end so enjoyable was the fact that all the evidence was there – everything that the viewer needed to reach the correct conclusion was given to them before the twist was revealed. As a result, the viewer did not feel cheated by the twist. On the contrary, there was a sort of “eureka!” moment when everything made sense. That feeling would have been impossible if the movie had not explained the rules and logic related to the child’s power.

We can also see the importance of internal consistency in science fiction.

It is not unusual for science fiction to be set hundreds, even thousands, of years into the future. As a result, highly advanced technology (e.g., faster-than-light travel) is quite common in science fiction. One of the keys to making science fiction enjoyable is to provide firm rules and sound logic about how all of the advanced science works.

Think about the classics of science fiction (e.g., the work of Arthur C. Clarke and Isaac Asmiov). The wonders they describe are not simply thrown out into the open for the reader’s consumption. Instead, they are contextualised. For example, Asmiov’s robots and psychohistory all obey clearly defined rules and logic, which makes understanding and enjoying his stories much easier.

The importance of internal consistency can also be applied in a less genre-specific sense.

How characters behave is another area in which internal consistency is important. In general, human behaviour is not random. People behave the way they do for a reason. Readers can become disenchanted with a story when the characters begin to behave in ways that do not make sense. For example, if a character has behaved rashly for 99% of a story, it would be very odd if they suddenly became thoughtful and considerate without a good reason. How a character behaves throughout a story establishes the rules and logic that govern their future behaviour. This isn’t to say that a character must always act the same. Instead, it means that large variations in behaviour need an explanation. Otherwise, readers can be left feeling puzzled and confused.

The plot likewise needs to operate according to sound rules and logic. One of the reasons that all of the plotting and scheming in A Song of Ice and Fire is so entertaining is because it makes sense. The readers may not always agree with the direction the plot takes or even like the direction the plot takes, but they can agree that it is believable. And why is it believable? It is believable because the plot operates according to rules and logic that have been set out earlier and which take into account the characters, the culture, and the themes of the story.

Even the setting of a story needs to have internal consistency. Consider a story set in a world that has adopted a completely authoritarian style of government. That alone provides a set of rules that define the limits of what characters can and cannot do without attracting attention. Likewise, if a political thriller is set in the present day Middle East, then the setting itself needs to be commensurate with what we know about the Middle East, with that knowledge also having implications for the plot and characters.

Summary

Internal consistency is about ensuring that a story makes sense. When a story makes sense, it is far more likely to engage and entertain the reader. This is particularly important in fantasy and science fiction, which already require suspension of disbelief. Asking readers to suspend their reasoning and logic is a recipe for disaster.

If you want to read more about my thoughts on writing, you can find those here.

I also write original fiction, which you can find here.

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