1. jess046
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    jess046 Member

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    How much dialouge is too much dialouge?

    Discussion in 'General Writing' started by jess046, Dec 23, 2010.

    I've got an idea in mind for a novel and it's spurred one of the questions I've often pondered and struggled with throughout my development as a writer- is it possible to have too much dialouge or rely too heavily on dialouge as a form of storytelling?

    I love to write long conversations between characters to reveal their personalities and let them 'live' I suppose, but perhaps this method is more suited to screenplay writing. However, I don't like writing plays as I end up describing too much of the scene or giving too many stage directions as you can't really specify what the area is supposed to look like and how the characters are supposed to react. It's 80% dialouge and I feel too restrained as a writer. So I stick to novel writing. Which brings me back to the original issue- can a novel be bogged down by too much dialouge? Is it possible for a story such as 'Who's Afraid of Virgina Woolf' or '12 Angry Men' that relies almost soley on dialouge (and the performances of the actors) to be told in novel form?

    What do you guys feel personally when you read a scene that's mostly dialouge? Do you feel bored or is it equally intriguing? I can't really think of too many dialouge heavy novels, so maybe what I'm considering is a bad idea.
     
  2. Elgaisma
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    Elgaisma Contributing Member Contributor

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    I would love to see 12 Angry Men as a novel would be fabulous.

    I am not sure I find my first draft has a lot more dialogue than a final edit will. I add more description. Pepper it with facial expressions etc
     
  3. jess046
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    jess046 Member

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    Actually that reminds me of something. Often when I'm writing I get kind of tired of description and just keep going with the dialouge with references to facial responses and that sort of thing, but minimal interal thoughts. Then I feel like I need to add description or internal thoughts as there's just so much dialouge. But when I'm writing I just want to move the scene forward and the only way to do that with a lot of my stories is with dialouge. But I don't know how well readers would respond to a novel with a lot of talking.

    Damn maybe I should be writing screenplays :rolleyes:
     
  4. Show
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    Show Contributing Member Contributor

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    Heavy dialogue is a tool like anything else in writing. It can be worked if done right; it can hinder if done wrong. Some people will be intrigued by it; others will be automatically put off by it.
     
  5. EdFromNY
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    EdFromNY Hope to improve with age Supporter Contributor

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    Well, that was my first impression in reading your OP. Or stage plays (BTW, the proper spelling of the word is dialogue).

    One of the criticisms I received on my first novel was that there was way too much dialogue, which in turn had made it much too long (at the time, I didn't know from word count). Within the context of a novel, dialogue should be all about driving the plot forward in a manner that brings the reader closer to the characters. Too much dialogue, though, slows the story down and limits the scope that the writer can cover. Sometimes, you need that "Meanwhile, back at the ranch..."

    Keep in mind that the major difference between a play and a novel is that a play must use dialogue to do everything - develop the character, drive the plot, set the mood, provide background. Aside from stage directions and scenery, dialogue is all a play has. A novel, OTOH, can use descriptions, flashbacks, asides, narrative and a host of literary devices in addition to dialogue. A complete reliance on dialogue alone would make a rather tedious novel.

    You mentioned "12 Angry Men" as a novel. It would make an interesting writing assignment, but unless you went well beyond what was written in the original play - background on the boy and his father, full descriptions of the neighborhood, the neighbor downstairs, the woman across the el tracks, some backstory on Davis, McArdle and some of the other jurors - I don't think you could get much more than a short story out of it. And if you did go beyond the play, you might have a good novel, but you wouldn't have the essence of what the original play gave us. And you wouldn't have all dialogue.

    So, in answer to your original question, yes, it is definitely possible to have too much dialogue. My advice is to re-read some of your favorite novelists and see how they use dialogue in their stories, and also take note of what other devices they use to move their stories forward.

    Best of luck.
     
  6. digitig
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    digitig Contributing Member Contributor

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    "Too much" is when it detracts from the experience of the reader. The same goes for "too little". It all comes down to how well it's done and how well it works for that particular story.
     
  7. Eunoia
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    Eunoia Contributing Member Contributor

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    Have you considered writing for radio?

    This is rather subjective. Sometimes I like a lot of dialogue, and other times I don't.
     
  8. HeinleinFan
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    HeinleinFan Banned

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    The thing about dialogue is it's a useful tool, but it can be overused. Easily. In fact, a fair number of writers go through what I think of as a "Dialogue Phase" where their story has a short introduction, some dialogue starts, and then the dialogue goes on and on and on until the story "ends." I'm not talking about stories like "Hills Like White Elephants," because that one had body language and setting and outside events thrown in. Rather, I'm talking about the stories where instead of characters doing stuff, they just talk about stuff until the plot is resolved.

    Letting characters just sit down and talk stuff out can be useful as a way to get inside the characters' heads. But a lot of what gets put into those scenes will have to be cut later.

    Obviously there are some very specific situations where dialogue works as the main vehicle for a story. In "Hills With White Elephants," the story is a puzzle; the characters never outright state what it is they are discussing, and the reader gets to feel clever when she sorts it out. In "Twelve Angry Men," the story is about the biases each jurist has, and the reader gets to learn more and more about each character through the dialogue, not just about the crime that occurred. In "What People Talk About When They Talk About Love," the point is that the character who is unhappy has largely been the cause of his own unhappiness, and when he talks slant about love, it's because he's the sort who has to look slant at everything or else he'd have to face his own failings.

    Most stories aren't so easily told with dialogue alone. There's a reason many "Let me tell you what happened..." scenes get cut to a third-person past-tense flashback instead of actually being rendered in dialogue. Namely, it's because storytelling involves using a blend of the character's voice and the narrative (writer's) voice to tell about what happened.

    Dialogue cuts out the narrative voice. Action, description, observations and everything else that narrative voice is better at gets waylaid. Unless you have several characters with conflicting goals who can hash things out, that means the reader is only getting one character's interpretation of events, and it's probably going to be narrow.

    So. How much dialogue is too much dialogue? If the story can be told with less dialogue, then you're using too much. If the amount you're using is necessary to the story, you should be fine .... but you should also ask yourself whether you could cut 500 words of dialogue if someone held a gun to your head and told you to. If the answer is yes, you're using too much dialogue -- and the answer will be "yes" more often than you'd like to think.
     
  9. Steerpike
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    Steerpike Felis amatus Supporter Contributor

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    Hmmm. Can't say that I agree with this. Virtually any story can be told with no dialogue whatsoever, so by this definition they're all using too much :D
     
  10. mammamaia
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    mammamaia nit-picker-in-chief Contributor

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    ...yes... as it can also be by too little... and, btw, it's spelled 'dialogue' or 'dialog'...

    ...of course it can be, but doing so successfully is highly unlikely, imo...

    ...everything depends on the skill of the writer... anything great can be trashed by a poor writer and the worst trash can be turned into gold by a great one...
     
  11. popsicledeath
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    popsicledeath Banned

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    Thank you for recognizing the 'dialog' spelling! I had a professor write a snarky comment on a critique one time because I use the 'dialog' variant of the spelling. He wrote 'what's this, the British version of dialogue?' and I didn't have the heart or gumption to explain to him 'dialog' is actually the North American variant, like where he was teaching fiction! :p


    And more on topic, the only time a story has too much dialog is when the writing is forcing the characters to say things they wouldn't, or didn't actually say. If it's a scene where the characters are talking a lot, then they're very simply talking a lot. The question should be whether to leave that scene in a story, not whether to force the characters to do something unnatural, whether it's not letting them speak when they want to say something, or forcing them to continue speaking because the curtain hasn't closed yet.
     
  12. Allegro Van Kiddo
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    There's two SF writers whose dialogues I enjoy so much that I could read a 10,000 page novel with no plot by them. The guys are Iain Banks and Matthew Hughes. Banks writes snappy banter and Huges is good for quirky discussions between characters who barely understand each other.
     
  13. Edward G
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    Edward G Banned

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    Dialog speeds the pace of a story considerably. If you've watched the movie or read the play Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf there is certainly a large amount of dialog, but that is an incredibly fast paced movie or play, and of course it's supposed to be.

    The most common fiction error is to make your stories too fast paced. Remember that there is a difference between a novel and a comic book. A novel tells a story by way of a plot by bringing characters to life in a setting according to a theme that ends with a moral, and it doesn't use pictures to help it. If you speed through that process with a heavy emphasis on dialog, you will loose your novel. It will become a very long court transcript.

    Pacing is very important and it is difficult to learn. Don't be afraid to have scenes with imagery so long as you keep moving forward while showing it. You don't have to move forward fast in a story, you just have to always be moving forward as opposed to standing still or going backward.

    The best way to learn this is to read up on what makes pacing fast or slow, then pick a novel you like and read it with an eye for how it achieves its pacing. Stephen King, for instance in The Stand , is very slow paced. Even in most of his short stories, he's slow-paced. The Fight Club, by Chuck Palahniuk, in my opinion is very fast paced. Both authors, however, have the correct pacing for the story they are trying to tell.

    So, how much dialog is too much? I would say if you had all dialog, your story should be no more than 1000 words long. However, I don't know how you can make a story with all dialog. Nevertheless, if you can, I as a reader couldn't tollerate more than a thousand words of it.
     
  14. jess046
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    haha yes that particular blunder has been pointed out to me :redface:

    Having strangers point out my Posting spelling on a writing forum is an excellent way to insure I never misspell that word again.

    I've got a few ideas to keep the action going in my story, but like some of the examples I showed, the idea I have relies heavily on dialogue :)D) between the characters to reveal plot elements and the personalities of the characters. It's all about how the characters use language and dialogue as a means of facade. I guess the challenge for me will be to make the situations in which the dialogue transpires interesting. I was originally going to set it in one location, but I think I'll have it in many locations to keep things moving so the reader doesn't lose interest.

    I really would like to read a novel that puts a lot of emphasis on dialogue though. Often, I prefer plays to novels sometimes because they can't use narration to reveal plot elements or characters...it's all done by 'showing' rather than telling (although a great writer can achieve a good balance). I think that's why as a writer I avoid internal monologues and focus on description and dialogue, as I think in a very visual manner. I always 'see' my scene transpire as if it were a movie.

    Oh and thanks to Allegro Van Kiddo for the Iain Banks reccomendation- I've been planning to read some of his books for a long time, so I'm definetly going to do it now. Does he have any particular novels with oustanding dialogue?
     
  15. popsicledeath
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    popsicledeath Banned

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    It can, but doesn't have to. If a scene is all dialog in a talking-heads sort of style, the yes it's usually very faced paced and rarely (if ever) justified unless the people are literally floating in space with no setting and high on meth so never pause.

    No offense, but this sort of blanket statement isn't helpful. It's like saying short sentences speed up pace, when that's not entirely true. Controlling the pace via the multitudes of ways one can control pace, speeds up or slows down the pace of a story.

    I don't know how many fiction drafts you've read. I've read hundreds (Oh lord, tried to calculate it and maybe pushing a thousand, lol), and wouldn't say this is anywhere close to topping the list for most common fiction errors. Usually stories are way too slowly paced because the writer isn't confident in their abilities, so as trying to over explain everything to make sure the reader gets it, so the story takes forever to even start, much less develop.

    Or were you talking more published works? Haven't taken much of an inventory on the most common fiction errors in published works, as it's a bit late to change anything with feedback, so it's usually just sour grapes at that point.


    Richard Bausch managed to do it twice with one of the stories that was a conversation between two people, all over the phone, and has been pretty widely acclaimed and anthologized. If I find the time I'll try to get a precise word-count to see how he measured up to your 1k word mark.
     
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  16. Timewriter
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    Timewriter New Member

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    You must write according to your instincts and desires, rather than the laws of others.
     
  17. Allegro Van Kiddo
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    Allegro Van Kiddo Contributing Member

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    That's simple but I believe it's true. Having a bunch of rules in your head that you're constantly fact checking can produce anxiety and trip your creativity up.

    I recently read a Cormac MaCarthy novel, which I didn't like, but thought it interesting that he wrote the thing without quotes and many other typical technical details. It didn't affect my ability to read the work at all. I'm not sure why he chose to do that and it would be interesting to know.
     
  18. mammamaia
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    mammamaia nit-picker-in-chief Contributor

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    you're welcome, pops!... i'm partial to the simplified version m'self...

    hugs, m
     
  19. popsicledeath
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    popsicledeath Banned

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    Most writers I know involved in academic settings go through a process. At first, they get depressed because someone tells them their brilliant thoughts-on-paper aren't exactly as brilliant as they may have thought. Then they dig in and try to learn everything they can from a craft perspective. Then they lament how their stories start to get worse (and they often do) because they're all craft and no story. Then, for those that stick with it, they finally have the breakthrough where they aren't paranoid about craft anymore, because it becomes ingrained and they simply DO craft, instead of thinking about it, as they're writing their compelling, engaging 'that's a cool story' type of fiction.

    Trust me, when solid craft becomes your instinct, you're much better off as a writer.

    And don't be fooled by Cormac McCarthy, the knows exactly what he's doing. It's like all the first-year poets who try to write like E.E. Cummings by just spewing nonesense onto the page, not realizing Cummings was actually crafting his poems to still have meaning and purpose. McCarthy does his own thing, sure, and I personally have no clue why he'll sometimes use contractions and sometimes wont. But he's doing all the 'craft' things that are taught in a good creative writing program.

    The frustration is that people often perceive 'craft' of fiction as spelling and grammar and 'show, don't tell' and nonsense like that (okay, grammar aint be nonsenses but whatev'). Good creative writing instruction doesn't teach stuff like that usually, and instead teaches things that can in fact be applied to all stories anyone would reasonable be considered great.

    There is bad instruction too, but a good creative writing program would take something like Cormac McCarthy and have no issues with his style and the crazy things he does with language, because all the important craft-elements are still working. His details are still always relevant, he's still always controlling the message/story he's trying to convey, he's building empathy through characters, etc.

    That's why I find most writing 'how to' books useless, and have had luck and support formal creative writing programs, because there is a lot of shallow, prescriptive 'how to' write advice out there that is then rendered useless by examples like Cormac McCarthy. Good instruction (and thankfully I've found it in academia, but it isn't necessary by any means) goes deeper than that and taps into elements of craft that are deeper than the misconceptions assume, that it's all about these 'rules' of writing.

    Here's one of the first rules I learned in the hoity-toity fog of snooty academia: ALWAYS BE INTERESTING!

    Look at every book ever written that's considered great, and you can very clearly point to how and where it's most definitely being interesting (maybe not to you personally, but from an objective standpoint), despite genres or subjects or themes or style or publication date. There ARE rules that are valid out there, and they often are being taught in creative writing programs, and they're usually far less prescriptive and constraining than those outside the programs like to think.
     
  20. Allegro Van Kiddo
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    What's your explanation for successful/entertaining writers who have not been trained in said rules?
     
  21. popsicledeath
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    popsicledeath Banned

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    They often are trained, just not formally.

    Or, sometimes, the public just likes things that aren't very good.

    Notice I said there are tangible things that can be found in all great works of fiction. Not all popular or best-selling. Sure, people think 'great' is all just so subjective so will dismiss any such discussion, which is fine to do if they want, but there are people out there studying the craft of writing and trying to figure out why classics are classics, why award winners are award winners, why best sellers are best sellers, etc, and to go with the 'there are no rules' or 'it's all just so subjective anway' is shooting oneself in the foot.

    There are differences between the 'art' and 'business' of fiction, of course. And a lot of overlap as well, naturally. The thing is, both aspects can be taught largely (imo, based on things I've seen, experienced, researched and studied). Yet, people often support the teaching of business elements, as it's a bit more tangible (and frankly, easier, though still not guaranteeing any level of success). Most people can learn market trends and how to format a manuscript and how to write a query letter and which genres have word-count expectations.

    Understand the 'art' of fiction is much tougher, of course (much less trying to teach it). And there is a lot that can be learned on one's own, and is instinctive and from the gut, etc. But these instincts are often not just vague, luck-based ruminations of feelings, but almost always point to tangible craft elements that can be studied and learned from and even taught formally.

    Sure, it's nice that some people simply 'have it' (though almost always they WERE studying, just didn't know it). And it's not a sure thing that something can be taught, much less lending to success.

    But keep in mind, just because a writer didn't go through a formal creative-writing process, or just because they can't exactly pinpoint WHAT they did well, doesn't mean they didn't do very tangible, teachable things fiction-writers can look to for study.

    Even in instances where something become popular or a success (if you're looking at the business side of things, not art) by means that seem to be dumb luck or circumstances of trends, one can still analyze and point to how the writer put themselves and their work in a position to then be lucky.

    For instance, Twilight is pretty much considered crap from an artistic perspective according to what most academic creative writing programs are teaching. However, if you did bring that text into a classroom, it could be studied and analyzed and tangible reasons could be found that it was a success. Meyers does a pretty good job sticking to the pov of Bella, delivering the experiences through her eyes. The character is easily relatable to the target demographic of the novel (and to other, older people, heh). The story isn't very deep, imo, but there are definite tensions and arcs involved.

    The goal of most formal creative writing education isn't to do a few things that may be just enough to lend your manuscript to success and then hope to get lucky, but to do ALL the craft aspects of a story well. And the focus is often not on doing things that sell books, as it's often a different direction of the 'art' of fiction, though is it's own art perhaps, but most academic classrooms could break those things down (whereas most general, random conversations don't get much deeper than it just being a 'good story' and 'fun to read' sort of stuff).

    I dunno, I guess part of my problem is I don't buy that even the 'art' side of fiction is just so subjective or intangible or inaccessible. It's as much a skill and process as construction, imo, and we can easily go into a construction classroom and find reasons why a building is built certain ways, and what that means for it's longevity and durability. And we can also see people who have learned those things on the job (usually more likely than not). But we will very rarely, if ever, see someone simply pick up a hammer without any previous knowledge or thought on construction or engineering and simply luck or ignorance their way to a well built structure.

    To me, fiction isn't much different. There is an art to construction and some methods add style and grace and that 'it' factor that is hard to define, but for the most part, like construction, writing is something that can be analyzed and evaluated in quantitative ways. So there really aren't people who just happen into a successful fiction piece with no knowledge, though they may lack formal training and/or not even be aware of what it is they're doing that lends their fiction to success.

    Then again, sometimes trends take over and the pet rock becomes a widespread success and it's not worth analyzing why, as you're better served just getting one, having some fun, and concentrating efforts elsewhere (which is why Twilight isn't studied in most academic classrooms, I suppose, not to say it's the artistic equivalent of a pet rock, of course...)
     
  22. popsicledeath
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    popsicledeath Banned

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    Oh, and one huge misconception or stereotype or ignorant barb against formal creative writing training is that they're making up rules. Though horror stories happen, most programs aren't creating rules, simply discovering them.

    This of course can be done outside of the classroom by reading with a conscious eye toward craft. You see a passage of dialog that really works, and try to figure out how the writer did it. Congratulations you're now an academic literary snob (in effect).

    The main difference is formal writing education has a pool of knowledge (that changes, of course) to work with. What someone before you already learned can be taught to you (and accepted or rejected, shrug), so instead of a year to figure it out on your own, you spend a month.

    Formal training doesn't make artists great, it just helps them get there quicker.
     
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  23. Allegro Van Kiddo
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    Allegro Van Kiddo Contributing Member

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    Pop,

    If I were the coordinator of such a program I would hire you instantly as marketing director.
     
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  24. mammamaia
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    mammamaia nit-picker-in-chief Contributor

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    ...sadly, oh so true!!!
     
  25. Allegro Van Kiddo
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    Allegro Van Kiddo Contributing Member

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    I had a client years ago who came from a very bad part of town. His family were all heroin addicts and hardcore criminals. He wanted to be a good person and didn't get into crime but did get addicted to Heroin. His brother was a major dealer, when you get to be major, other criminals become jealous and will try to take you down. A little gang shows up at my client's place thinking he's a dealer and knows where his brother's stash of drugs and money are. He doesn't know, they don't believe, so they tie him up and torture the sh!t out of him until they almost kill him. The guy is now completely traumatized but manages to recover.

    He gets into a methadone program and does well. There he meets a girl, they get a place together, have a kid, after a couple of years she has a relapse, takes the kid and becomes a hooker. He doesn't want abandon the kid or give up on the woman so he hangs in there. He wants to be a good father.

    That's around the time I met him. After I got to know him, he told me he thinks about killing himself daily and the only thing keeping him alive is waiting for the next Star Wars game, book, etc.

    That statement burned a message into my brain about the real importance of entertaining and cool stories.

    Quality be damned, or not.
     

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