Dialogue helpers

Dialogue helpers

Gwynn Scheltema

One of my grandchildren texted me: “School starts in 2 days” followed by no less than 6 emojis, all different. Smiley, sad, angry, astonished, upside down and shrugging.

By themselves, her text words could have been interpreted several ways: Yikes! I can’t believe school starts in 2 days after so long. Or I’m so excited that school is starting in 2 days. Or OMG I’m dreading the fact that school starts in 2 days.

What was this child trying to tell me? Or was she just trigger happy on the emoji screen? What was she expecting from me? A thumbs up, or something more? I opted for the “something more”, and we ended up having a lengthier discussion about what was bothering her. All good.

But the incident reminded me that in the absence of sound volume and intonation, words in messages have to be specific enough to convey the right message.

Fiction dialogue

The same applies to fiction dialogue.  And if the words can’t do it, the author needs to use one of several “dialogue helpers” to clarify.

I remember in a critique group years ago, a writer read aloud a small excerpt from his chapter where we follow the protagonist (a male teacher at a private boarding school) up to the principal’s office. Then a line of dialogue: “Sit down,” said the principal. “We must talk about young Jonas.”

Had I been reading the words myself from the page, I would have assumed that this was to be a cordial conversation between teacher colleagues, but unexpectedly, the author delivered the dialogue in a loud angry voice. Where was that emotion in the text? The dialogue needed help so readers could imagine the tone.

Dialogue helpers

  • Using someone’s full name, title or nickname

Did your mother ever add your middle name when she was angry: “Alison Elizabeth Martin! Get in here this minute.” Or a pet name when she was trying to console? “Oh Snooks, tell me all about it.”

If this principal usually calls the protagonist Bill, then using his full name William will signal that something is wrong. He might go further by removing any personal connection and using his title, or calling him Mr.

“Coach Simons, sit down…..”

  • Sentence construction

Match the length and type of sentence to the emotion being expressed. In an angry situation, short commands are more likely. “Get in here.” Friendly conversations will begin with greetings and perhaps questions about the other’s situation or feelings. “What have you been doing lately?” “How’s your Mum?” “What’s the matter?”

“Coach Simons. Close the door.”

The command to close the door signals that what is to follow is private. Issued as a command suggests that the person entering is in trouble. Short clipped sentences support tension.

  • Word choice

Think about how many words people use in different emotional states and what kind of words. The angry mother commands in simple words what she wants done. “Get in here this minute.” She doesn’t acknowledge what the recipient wants or feels, nor is she concerned with politeness. She is not likely to say, “When you’ve finished playing with Julie, please come inside.”

The principal would need to be professional but show his anger in some way.

“Coach Simons. Close the door. Sit there… please.”

Allotting a specific chair signals control in the hands of the principal. Adding a hesitant “please” at the end preserves civility but diminishes cordiality.

  • Voice description

A word of caution here. Describing the actual sounds in the scene is different from “labelling” them using attributives like “he said angrily”.

NOT: “Coach Simons. Close the door,” the principal said angrily.

BUT: “Coach Simons. Close the door,” the principal hissed between clenched teeth

  • Body language

The unspoken vocabulary of body language is a gold mine for conveying emotions. Use it.

“Coach Simons. Close the door,” the principal hissed between clenched teeth. He indicated a chair to his right, stabbed at the air with a pointed finger. “Sit there… please.”

  • Beats

Beats are physical actions a character makes while speaking. The pointed finger in the last example is both a gesture and a beat. But beats are not just gestures. They are all actions your character might make that help to animate your dialogue scene. Think of it as the difference between listening to a stage play where everyone stands in a line and recites their words versus the acting that happens on stage as characters speak.

“Coach Simons. Close the door,” the principal hissed between clenched teeth. He indicated a chair to his right, stabbed at the air with a pointed finger. “Sit there… please.” The principal walked to the window, and stared out to the courtyard below for a full minute before he turned to face Simons.

Obviously, you don’t need every helper in every dialogue situation, but add these to your writers toolkit to use whenever you need them.

10 things poets can teach us

10 things poets can teach us

Brevity — economy of words — to say so much with so few words is far more powerful than filling a scene with tonnes of description. It works the same way that bulleted, step-by-step directions work better than long paragraphs of first set out all your tools and triple check that you have everything you need and then open the box and take out the hoozits and then you put the hoozits into the whatzits, turning all the way and making sure you haven’t…etc., etc

Sound – rhyme, near-rhyme, alliteration – our ears are engaged with words that share similar sounds when placed close together or in patterns. Amidst…pussy-willow pads of labs, a sudden set of deer tracks – Barry Dempster 

Repetition — always with a specific purpose to underscore a meaning or idea — your slightest look easily will unclose me / though i have closed myself as fingers,  e.e.cummings

Ideas have power — taking us to places in unexpected ways excites our imaginations — To see a world in a grain of sand and heaven in a wild flower… Wm Blake

Imagery — picture words are effective to convey far more Who made the grasshopper…who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down… Mary Oliver

Structure — the scaffolding on which a poet hangs their words — just as any genre of prose has expectations and writers work with and, often, challenge those expectations, poets take familiar forms and upend them. 

Risk — poets, like all artists, take risks with more than just structure. Cowboy Poetry is a venerable form, evoking images of the Old West, cattle drives and breaking wild horses.  But modern Cowboy Poetry can be a different story: …the bridge abutment already signed
with 4 white crosses for those who did not
quite
       make
             this
                curve
because of booze, because of snooze…Paul Zarzyski

Symbolism — it’s like holding a flash card designed to evoke meaning, a symbol instantly takes us places. Consider a flag — now make it a white flag — now a Confederate flag — now a nation’s flag upside down — it is still a flag but each time, symbolizes something different. Where the flag is placed can change the symbol it represents. Is it tattered and falling from dying hands? Is it held high during an attack? Is it being consumed by flames on a roadway?

Pacing  – Use long languid lugubrious multisyllables with loads of vowels to slow the reader or short sharp words with hard consonants to pick up the pace. Somnolent through landscapes and by trees / nondescript, almost anonymous, …P. K. Page

Breaks – line breaks, stanzas, dashes all signal to the reader to notice, to pause and let what has just been said sink in and prepare for a new thought. Writers have similar signals at their disposal: white space when changing POV, time or location; paragraphs, chapters or a statement all on its own line.

Thread Backstory into Your Narrative So the Stitches Don’t Show

Thread Backstory into Your Narrative So the Stitches Don’t Show

Guest blogger Heidi Croot

Backstory threatens to crowd out my closet. This dark cloak? That frilly dress? Those dusty trousers? I write memoir and every garment has been on my body. It all happened. It’s all true. I want each outfit to have its turn on the page.

Fiction writers and I share the same dilemma. What if we dare to toss a backstory that turns out to be the very one we should have kept?

Desperation made me dare. My manuscript was too long, and backstory was to blame. Several writing-craft books and webinars later, I’ve learned a few things about decluttering, fit, timing and how to dress the main story with backstory in a way that appeals to readers.

Decide What to Throw Out

Image by Elena Sannikova from Pixabay

Before I could declutter, I needed to understand that backstory explains things readers need to know. Sometimes it’s a mini-story: how the character’s ordinary world ticked along before trouble arrived or a bygone trauma shapeshifted a character’s personality.

Other times backstory is information, such as how the invented world works in fantasy or science fiction.

Either way, “less is more.” According to Toni Morrison, “…it is what you don’t write that frequently gives what you do write its power.”

1. Toss Appeals for Sympathy

Some writers, says author Roz Morris in Past Mastery, a Jane Friedman-sponsored webinar I attended in July, drop in a calamity from the past out of a desire to generate a dose of sympathy for a character. The annoyed reader waits in vain for the calamity to mean something.

I did this when I dropped a reference to my great-grandmother dying by suicide, a tragedy that slays me but had no bearing on the narrative. Out it came.

My mother’s tragedy was contracting polio when she was eight. Thankfully, I realized the story wasn’t about her polio. It was about how this early trauma warped her worldview and injured every relationship that should have been important to her.

2. Save Your Cast-offs
Image by Sophie Janotta from Pixabay

Marie Kondo-ize your closet by examining every backstory garment. For each, ask:

  • Does the reader need to know this?
  • How does this episode propel the main story forward?
  • Will cutting this set the reader adrift?
  • Is the relating of this backstory triggered by a main story event?
  • Is this scene or slug of information a call for sympathy that goes nowhere?
  • Does the incident help to tell the protagonist’s story or another character’s story?

Culling can be brutal. I comforted myself by building a special closet at the bottom of my manuscript, out of Kondo’s clutches. Sign on the door: Private. I move beloved old outfits here when they don’t fit the main story. Someday, these backstories may inspire their own narratives.

Threading So the Stitches Don’t Show

Having decluttered, the next step is to dress the manuscript in essential outfits in a way that lets it carry off backstory with natural grace.

1. Wait for Thirst

Readers want backstory, but have limited patience for it, especially in the early pages. The writer’s job is to make readers thirst for it, and then deliver one glass of backstory at a time, at just the right moment.

Image by Gary G from Pixabay

What creates thirst in a reader? Curiosity.

What creates curiosity? Emotion—a steady drip of emotional intrigue and engagement. Who, on a first date, wants to hear the other person’s biographical details in the first 15 minutes? We long for those later, when romance makes us eager to sit across the picnic table until dawn.

Readers, says Morris, don’t want facts. They want feels.

2. Show Readers the Gap

But there’s an exception, one that writers sometimes overlook. A critical plug of backstory that readers need early is what the character’s life was like before trouble arrives. Without that, they can’t gauge the impact or feel the related emotion.

Show the “before” early. Make it brief, vivid, perhaps your opening scene. “Follow the character’s expectations,” Morris says. What had the protagonist intended to do that day, before Pandora’s Box flew open?

My narrator expected another day of tranquil living with her husband in their country home. She comes downstairs for lunch. He’s heating soup. She reaches for the mail on the counter. Dread rises in her throat when she sees the envelope with the familiar handwriting.

Readers feel the anxiety because, having had some early backstory, they understand what she risks by opening that letter.

3. Animate Backstory with Scene

Writers can “tell” backstory or “show” it.

Showing is better.

Flashback eases the reader into a dramatic scene from the past, complete with character, setting, plot, conflict and resolution. If the scene satisfies curiosity ignited by the main story, it can be whatever length it needs to be—including its own chapter.

Another way to animate backstory is by having one character share an anecdote or instructions with another who needs to hear it. Michael Crummey does this splendidly in Sweetland when the main character spars with a visiting government official, giving us a glimpse of “ordinary life” and how the growing conflict threatens it.

Sometimes a “tell” cannot be avoided: a biographical detail, an historical event, how something works. In these cases, deliver the information in short, engaging bursts at the moment of keenest thirst.

4. Use Logic to Shift into Backstory

Readers want a reason to be interrupted out of main story. Moments of reflection, discovery or epiphany serve as a water slide into backstory.

Image by ArtTower from Pixabay

Perhaps your character ruminates while driving to meet an old friend at the winery where the murder took place. Stumbles on a locked tin of old letters in the potting shed. Finds himself repeatedly sketching a mysterious face and wakes one morning knowing whose it is.

I bustled a fair amount of backstory into a pensive hour sitting at the foot of my father’s bed as he lay dying, giving my narrator a logical opportunity to muse on who was this man.

5. Signal Your Entrance and Exit

Readers like to know where they are in narrative time.

One way to signal a transition into backstory is through a change in tense. Start with a single use of past perfect: “She had estranged herself from her family.” Continue in simple past tense (less clunky): “She had written wrote threatening letters.” Signal your transition out with another single use of past perfect—“What she hadn’t foreseen was how she might need these people”—before returning to main story.

In Three Day Road, Joseph Boyden’s transitions are like lubricant. “I have paddled by myself…to get here,” Niska says. “My one living relation died in a faraway place”—and with that, Boyden rocks us into a story from the past.

Backstory can be necessary outfits and supportive undergarments for your main narrative, or mismatched, distracting accessories. Taking time to examine your wardrobe for fit will help make your manuscript the best dressed in town.

What are your backstory secrets and techniques? How do you make backstory as compelling as main story for your reader? We’d love to hear your discoveries.

Meet Heidi Croot

Heidi Croot lives in Northumberland County and is currently working on a memoir. She has been a finalist with The Writers’ Union of Canada, The Malahat Review, WOW! Women on Writing, Tulip Tree Publishing, and her work has been published in the inaugural edition of Linea magazine, the WCDR anthology, Renaissance, in Long Term Care magazine, and others.

Top of the podium

Top of the podium

Our congratulations to Helen Bajorek-MacDonald for winning Writescape’s summer Postcard Story Contest, with her story Woman with Cigarette

You can read her winning story below, followed by our comments on why we chose this story as our winner. And after our comments, read why and how Helen wrote this story. Truly inspirational!

If you missed them, please follow these links for the 2nd-place and 3rd-place winning stories and our comments on those.

Here again is the contest image that inspired this story.

Woman with Cigarette

by Helen Bajorek-MacDonald

You think you want to crawl over me, slither across my skin, creep into my soul.

You think you can create a masterpiece with your authoritative direction and with darkroom magic. One that will earn what you expect:  praise for your technical skill, for your ability to render beauty.

You think you can possess me, after you gift me with your obsessive eye, and the promise of immortality.

And you think you can do all this with a click of the shutter.

Maybe.

You perform as artiste. 

Uncompromising behind the camera, you peer through the viewfinder.

Click.

Then the sound of the film advance lever.

Click-advance.

Again, again, between prompts and coos and directives barked by a lusty hound.

Click-advance.

“Good! Almost there! Lift your face. No, don’t look up. Chin up! A little. Eyes on the camera. Look deep into the lens.”

The staccato rhythm of the shutter-and-advance-lever echoes the intensity of your tone and commands.

“Don’t move. Just look. Right at me.”

My head’s right, but the eyes aren’t.

More barking.

My neck’s right, but the shoulders aren’t                                                              

“Raise your arm over your head.”

Not a question.

I thought it would be easy and fun. First one, then the other, taking photos for our first portraiture assignment. It’s just a few weeks into our photography programme where I am the sole female student, and already it’s all insistent tones and breathless snapping. Just another reminder that I am – merely – subject. For your camera and of your desires.

You complain that there’s not enough light because of the storm.

The rain beating against the window of your shabby one-room apartment makes me shiver, and I wonder … when will you ask me to take off my clothes, for the sake of art?

More instructions.

“Back in a minute,” you announce as you get up from your crouched position on the hardwood floor.

~~~

As she stands to stretch, her eyes sweep the room. Her camera waits on its tripod. Atop a beaten dresser, cup circle stains are partially exposed under the clutter of keys, cigarette packs, matchbooks, a brimming ashtray, and other miscellany.

Maybe it was the clatter of thunder that drums an idea into her mind.

She moves quickly and purposefully.

She sets up her camera. Pre-focusses on the couch. One frame left in the roll of film. One chance to get the focus and exposure right, and to coolly pose herself.

She grabs a cigarette from atop the dresser, sets the camera’s self-timer, dashes to her position at the couch.

Pose. Gaze into the lens. Be you!

Click. 

She and her camera are gone before he emerges from the bathroom.

Later, under her darkroom’s safelight, the image reveals itself in the developer tray.

A whisper: Woman with Cigarette.

Why we chose this entry as the winner

  • Risk in any art form is part of stretching the creative soul and we feel that in this story, huge risks were taken, and they worked. Risks in POV and content themes.
  • Narration/voice/POV – the writer took a huge risk in moving from what seems to be second-person narration but what the reader is surprised to realize is first-person narration by the character directed at an anonymous “you” — followed by a full shift into third-person narration at the point the “I” narrator takes control of her movements and poses, makes the decision to photograph herself with the last shot in her film (which means she likely expended all but one on the fellow student who is male.) It’s unexpected and despite common advice to not switch POV in a short piece, in this story it works. It does take time to realize what is happening and may challenge some readers, but the payoff was worth it. The story begs a second read to savour the story again with that realization.
  • Theme: Tackling a familiar subject — the female as object — is also risky because it has been done and done and done. But this feels fresh, partly because of the intriguing shift in POV.
  • Intensity of the moment which is always a plus for a postcard story — like the click of the camera, a few minutes only are captured and shared to create an emotional effect on readers. Little is given as background or character relationships, but a lot is implied.
  • Layers – even though we see only a few moments of story action, there are big issues presented for readers to consider: We’re asked to consider the idea of “subject” as seen through the lens of the camera — and that that lens takes a perspective from the person lining up the shot. We are asked to consider the trope of female model posing equals permission for sex.  We are asked who has control  – of the art and of the model?
  • Twist: the tropes of subject and model and control as part of the production of perfect art is upended with the sense of the personal as she takes control of the last photo — she chooses the lighting, the pose and backdrop — all of it her decision.
  • The style of the first part is staccato like the click click of the camera. Short sentences and paragraphs, sometimes even just one word per line. No descriptions of setting or characters. Everything is focussed, mechanical, shallow, artificial, dehumanizing. In the second half, the writing becomes more fluid and human. We see some of the surroundings and there is character movement and building to a motivated point. The reader is involved in the action and outcome.

Both of us felt that the writer’s attention to craft in this fine story was as strong as any we’ve read over the years in various journals and anthologies.

We asked Helen why she entered and what was it about this photograph that took her into this story…

Helen Bajorek-MacDonald

Over the last two years I have been home ill, battling sarcoidosis. Symptoms include debilitating fatigue and visual and cognitive impairment. Not good for a college professor who teaches communications!

When the Covid-19 quarantine struck, I was already accustomed to self-quarantine. But, my world grew even smaller. While unable to devote more than a few minutes each day to reading or writing, I decided as the quarantine dragged on that I needed something to do. So, I turned to Writescape as I knew of the work of Gwynn and Ruth from Writers’ Community of Durham Region (WCDR). A blog is short, requiring little time and energy, and it is easy to enlarge text on a computer screen. It was something I could give precious time and resources to, without compounding my health challenges.

Ruth’s blog, “Picturing Inspiration” resonated especially strongly. Firstly, because it combined two things I love to do: writing and photography.

Secondly, the image haunted me. Maybe because of the times, but I kept thinking about the masks we wear. Yet, the woman in the photograph seems to be unmasked.

Further, she is in repose, but this didn’t make visual sense to me, so I kept turning the picture around to see what the image might ‘say’ if she were erect.

I was especially struck by the direct gaze of the woman in the photograph. Not blank, I wondered what she was projecting to the photographer. What was the photographer trying to achieve? And who was the photographer? Further, there was a nagging whisper over my shoulder … why was her cigarette unlit?

These and other questions led me to conclude that the woman must be the photographer. Her gaze suggests a certain confidence, defiance, direct communication with the camera’s lens. Though this is no 21st century selfie. It’s a self-portrait. It’s art. But how did she come to take the photograph? And what was her motivation for the self-portrait?

I began to think about the reasons one does a self-portrait. Lots of history and critical mass of the male self-portrait, in painting, photography and in writing. Not so for women. Even less awareness of the female self-portrait.

Frida Kahlo Self Portrait

Perhaps predictably, I imagined the woman in the image to be a student in a photography programme. I determined she was a trailblazer. Defiant. Confident. Keenly aware how others might view her self-portraiture – as ‘less than’ in the art world [yes, I imagined her an artist; she’s got something of a beatnik look to her which helped me determined her era] – similar to the reception given to painters Frida Kahlo and Tamara de Lempicka, who woman-with-cigarette might have known, and photographers Elsa Dorfman and Vivian Maier, who remained largely unknown throughout their lives, and about whom woman-with-cigarette likely would not learn of in a school of photography.

As I thought of the challenges woman-with-cigarette would face in her aspirations to be a photographer, I was reminded of the work of African-American photographer Deborah Willis, who was told when she entered an all-male Bachelor of Fine Arts (photography) program in the early 1970s that she was taking up a man’s seat, when all she’d end up doing was have babies. One of her earliest and most profound works is Willis’ self-portrait triptych, “I made space for a good man.” A direct, confident, and political response to those who would silence her creative voice.

And so, I envisioned the woman-with-cigarette in the late 1960s; maybe early 1970s. A nascent feminist and emerging artist, committed to the study of photography, and most certainly possessing some skill and creative talent. She was going places with her art!

And, I determined, she knew enough about art history to know that Woman with Cigarette is almost a cliché over-saturated subject for painters. The greatest challenge in writing “Woman with Cigarette” was to find a subtle way to expose her ironic joke with self.

Writescape’s contest became a much-needed distraction during challenging times, as well as allowed writing to become part of my wellness plan.

Thank you to Writescape for offering the writing challenge, “Picturing Inspiration”. It’s not easy to write to spec. But, Ruth’s blog and the image were a perfect Goldilocks challenge for me. Absolutely, the right time! Just the right length to manage with my limited personal resources. The image checked all of the right inspirational boxes. And, most important, because I struggle with brevity, clarity, and conciseness in my writing, the postcard parameter of the competition offered a perfect opportunity to wrestle with these skills. As Timothy Findlay once observed, a writer must learn to “kill her darlings”. Not so easy! My first draft was almost 900 words.

Thank you, Ruth and Gwynn, for this writing challenge, for your feedback, and for allowing readers to read the three finalist stories. It is inspiring to read the unique approaches to the telling of ‘her’ story.


Helen Bajorek-MacDonald is an educator, writer and photo-text artist, whose writing has been published in books, journals, anthologies, magazines and newspapers.

Helen has exhibited collaborative visual/textual works with partner Jean-Michel Komarnicki, such as “Water and Iron” in Clarington Taken (Visual Arts Centre of Clarington), and in a group exhibition, Reading the Image (Whitby Station Gallery).

Postcard Story 2nd-Place Winner

Postcard Story 2nd-Place Winner

Last week we announced our Top Three winners and published the 3rd place winner’s story and comments.

Today we continue with our 2nd-Place winner, Lori Twining and her story Smoke Job. Our comments and suggestions appear after the story.

Here again is the contest inspiration image.

SMOKE JOB

by Lori Twining

There’s an off-duty cop in the backyard blowing leaf-litter all over the grey Ford sedan and the black Cadillac SUV, both stolen days before in a violent carjacking. There’s an ex-con sprawled out on the living room floor wielding a highlighter over a set of blueprints. There’s a young techie perched over the kitchen table setting all four watches—stolen in a smash and grab last month—to the same time because seconds are crucial.

Lastly, there’s a liar, a thief, and a snitch stretched across the leather couch enjoying her last dart. She contemplates several of her life choices, especially the ones she neglected to make, and the one she made hours ago, but regrets already.

Individually, the four of them are troubled souls with big dreams, but together, a powerful force.

Stella blows a smoke ring above the ex-con’s head and stares at the clock. In less than two hours, she’ll be celebrating her last heist, boarding a plane, and sinking her toes into the soft sand of the Virgin Islands. Nothing beats the smell of deep-fried conch fritters basted with sweet and spicy sauce wafting from Hemingway’s Caribbean Café unless it’s the salty taste of her forever sea.

* * *

The sedan stops in front of the building. Four individuals touch their watches to begin the countdown. They are clothed in black, wearing balaclavas, with guns firmly gripped in gloved hands. They step out of the car, leaving the doors wide open and rush toward the bank.

Ten seconds later, Techie has them inside. He uses a jamming device to knock out the security cameras, along with the alarm system. Blueprint guy heads to the vault, with off-duty guy hot on his heels. They have five minutes.

Stella stands in the shadows scanning the street for activity. Waits three minutes. She reaches into her backpack and retrieves the item, pulling the pin and tossing the frag into the sedan. She races into the bank, down the hall, and out the backdoor to the waiting Cadillac. She climbs behind the wheel.

Her mind wanders as she tries to remain calm…Serial killers still feed their goldfish, pyromaniacs still swim with dolphins and the president still swears on an upside-down and backward Bible, while spewing lies.

She holds an imaginary cigarette between her fingers and blows another invisible smoke ring. This will be her last. She’ll be sure to tell her offspring she never smoked a day in her life.

Sirens sound. Soon, they’ll be running for their lives from Police with dogs, helicopters with reporters, and grandmas with their I-told-you-so wagging fingers. There are many decisions in life, and now, she wonders, should she stay or should she bolt?

The snitch would kill for another smoke. Instead, she drops her hand to her belly, fingers splayed. She whispers, “Time for Mommy to disappear and time for Daddy to have a 20-year sleepover with all the men who hate him.” She presses the gas pedal to the floor.

Strengths:  

  • Authentic voice — hard-edged and worldly yet tentative. Stella is a complicated narrator telling a tale of betrayal. The slow reveal of her betrayal is tantalizing with tension building nicely and the ending packs a nice punch.
  • Deliberate attention to detail and word choice – This is a story that invites a second read to look for the clues offered. The two cars: the team think she’s distracting by blowing one up but she’s faster than they are, and the SUV waits at the back door for her to leave the three holding the bag. She’s “the snitch” — and told us so in the beginning. We just didn’t know she was snitching on these particular three at this particular moment. No names here but hers which helps us believe she can be that cool to make this choice. And the coming baby – lots of echoes in the text — “offspring” and “Virgin Islands” for example — that fit with her pregnant state.
  • The twist: Her motivation for betrayal becomes crystal clear — it’s not the lure of escape for herself but for her baby. After all, she’s already given up smoking for that baby.
  • Loaded title: Smoke Job. So many definitions for that title and all of them relevant to this story. Smoke job – hiding the truth; smoke job – exposing others; smoke job – sexual heightening by the woman; smoke job – destruction.
  • There’s subtle, clever and topical humour here. Very difficult to pull off successfully, but well done in this piece. “Serial killers still feed their goldfish, pyromaniacs still swim with dolphins and the president (purposely lower case) still swears on an upside-down and backward Bible (purposely uppercase), while spewing lies.” Or “She’ll be sure to tell her offspring she never smoked a day in her life”

What could be stronger:

  • In such a tight piece, clarity must be paramount. Readers should not need to re-read a line to be sure to understand the events. The leaf-litter being blown over the cars was intriguing but didn’t seem logical as the heist was “in less than two hours”. Was the leaf-litter to hide the cars? Was the leaf-litter being blown OFF the cars in readiness? They were stolen days earlier.
  • Postcard stories are stories of the moment – resist long lead- ins and begin “in media res” if possible.  We know you wanted the image (like the contest image) of Stella “enjoying her last dart”, but perhaps consider starting instead driving to the bank, and converting the beginning part to her thoughts on the ride.
  • Naming only Stella was a good choice, but “tag-names” can get confusing.  Especially when they change: Off-duty cop became off duty guy; ex-con became blue-print guy. Suggest using consistent tags as names with Caps – still impersonal, but easier to understand: “Off-duty Cop blows leaf-litter …. Ex-con sprawls on the living room floor… Techie perches…..
  • Passive construction rears it’s ugly head a fair amount in this story. Lots of “to be” verbs keep readers distanced from the rising tension. Look for “was/is/are” and replace with more active verbs or reorder the sentence to avoid them as much as possible.
  • Also, proofread to catch grammar errors like police vs Police — generic so no capitalization.

A quirky and fun ride, Lori. We enjoyed reading this story — congratulations!

That’s two winning stories down and one to go….the 1st Place winner. We’ll publish the winner next week complete with our comments.

In the meantime, perhaps you have a flash fiction piece you can polish up and submit to one of these contests or journals:

Understanding Underwriting II

Understanding Underwriting II

Ruth E. Walker

Last week, we looked at underwriting in fiction and focused on underwritten scenes. Scenes are the building blocks of any story and essential for developing forward progression.

As a refresher, if a scene is underwritten, it lacks at least one of three important qualities: a reader’s connection to emotions, sensations and, ultimately, the story.

Most scenes involve the actions and reactions of a story’s characters. And it is here–in how a writer treats character development–that the beating heart of a story is found. Story is what we long for but it is character that embodies that story and leads us through to the end.

More than once, I’ve worked on novels that have underwritten important elements of character development:

  • physical presence (external = movement & abilities)
  • moral centre (internal = reactions & decisions)
  • wants and needs (external vs internal = motivations & goals)

When any one of these is underwritten, writers risk losing vital connections to readers.

The body is alive

The physical presence of your character is much more than describing how they look. How they move is based on their physical capabilities: strengths and weaknesses. And those strengths and weaknesses will change depending on their circumstances.

Big, tall Deshawn has to rescue a buddy trapped in a haunted house. We know he’s afraid of the dark.

Below are three different ways of sharing physical information about Deshawn, from a passive “tell” narrative, to a more active and physically connected narrative, and then finally a physically and emotionally active approach. Consider all three and decide which one is easiest to visualize and believe in the action.

  • Deshawn is a tall man. The room beyond the doorway he passes through is dark and frightening.
  • Deshawn stoops to pass through the doorway and looks around the frightening dark room beyond.
  • Deshawn tucks in his shoulders and lowers his head to pass into the room, his eyes wide and searching for any flicker of movement in the dark.

Unless they’re in a coma, your characters will always have to move their bodies. Those bodies need to act and react as any other body would. They feel the cold. Muscles get tired. Armpits sweat. Stomachs rumble. Eyes strain. Goose bumps appear.

Overwriting would be to have all those physical actions happening at the same time. But underwriting is to not have any of them ever happen to your characters. Using the senses — taste, touch, sound, smell and sight — will help keep readers physically connected to the people in your stories.

Good vs evil vs a little of both

Morality (beliefs, values, principles) is part of what drives your character’s actions and reactions. Characters make choices and firm decisions based on their moral centre. Underwriting happens when writers either don’t know what their character believes in or doesn’t give characters an opportunity to act on or challenge that belief system.

In Margaret Atwood’s The Testaments, sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale, we gain insight into the moral centre of Aunt Lydia. A disturbing and evil antagonist in the first book, we discover that she is far more complex. We learn about her life before the extreme right-wing, Christian theocracy takes over part of the United States. If she opted to cling to her values and principles, she would be executed. She chooses life and must suppress her moral centre until she finds her way back to embrace it once more.

While I’m not suggesting that all your characters must have deep-seated values and principles, you will create well-rounded, logical and engaging characters if they act within some kind of moral centre. They won’t be underwritten because their actions and reactions will be logical, consistent and recognizable. And just like Atwood’s Aunt Lydia, there is plenty of room to play with the range of morality from which they operate.

Motivation and goals

Just as characters act from a moral centre, what they want and why they want it forms another part of what drives them and the narrative forward. You risk underwriting your character when goals don’t appear until halfway through the novel. Worse yet, if a character has no goal, they have no reason for motivation. And why will a reader worry about their failures and cheer their successes?

A character’s motivation can change, as can goals. What a character wants at the beginning of any story is rarely what a character needs. In terms of plot, readers want to follow an interesting or intriguing story. They don’t want an aimless meandering stroll through narrative that eventually gives them the ah-ha moment. “Oh, her mother’s disappearance is why she won’t commit to any relationship. Would have been good to get a hint of that long before page 107.”

There are plenty of ways to add a brushstroke or two before page 107. Figurative language is one method: metaphor and symbolism, for example.

  • a character’s attachment to a mother figure — a Madonna icon, an activist role for “Mother Earth” OR the reverse — disgust of sacred “mother” icons, a pro-development role that dismisses “tree huggers,” etc.
  • what your character refuses to see — photo album with mom’s pictures removed, flipped over or folded to hide her image. (There’s no need to explain the reason at this point — on page 107, it will support the ah-ha moment that makes the reveal be logical)
  • a character serving in caregiver (mother) role — a house plant, a pet, a neighbour’s child — and not doing it well at all, gives you lots of room to play: a missing neighbour’s pet — that you lost — is not the same as a missing neighbour’s child — who you were babysitting

In the process of editing, revising, rewriting and second-guessing ourselves, it’s easy enough to pare out elements of character development. A simple method to uncover underwriting for characters is to ask yourself the following:

  • Is this character physically present, using their senses, filling their space, moving appropriately?
  • Is this character acting in concert with their beliefs and principles? And if not, is there a reason?
  • Does this character know what they want? Are they working towards it and, if not, why not?
  • And, as the author, do I know what they need? And am I moving them (or the plot) towards that?

Tip of the character iceberg

And this is just the start. Characters, like real human beings, are amazingly complex and this blog is really just touching the surface. There are many good books that explore character and how to enrich yours. The more you know your character and how they should be acting and reacting, the less underwritten your characters will be.

Understanding Underwriting

Understanding Underwriting

Ruth E. Walker

We recently featured a series of posts about overwriting. It got me thinking about the opposite issue: underwriting. Writers often don’t notice underwritten scenes and characters but we editors sure do.

Underwriting can be as specific as a scene or part of a scene doesn’t have the impact you hoped for. Or it can be as broad as missing key plot elements that set up events later in the book.

Underwriting is missed opportunities to connect emotionally with your reader by letting them “witness” the story. Would you rather read a single sentence: Dustin yelled at her in his usual hurtful way to get his way“? Or read the scene of actual dialogue and action that took place, so you can “see” and “hear” the nasty words he used, and her cowering, him looming over her …?

Underwriting has several consequences but the most important one is that it doesn’t engage your readers. Underwriting creates:

  • Emotional disconnect
  • Sensory disconnect
  • Story disconnect

Today, we’ll focus on underwritten scenes and then follow up with a focus on underwritten characters.

Your novel is full of scenes. Some scenes take up a whole chapter and some chapters carry several scenes. But long or short, all scenes have a purpose: keep the reader engaged and push the story forward.

A scene needs geography

We need to be grounded in place — not nailed in place with every detail revealed but enough setting features that readers can visualize what’s happening. Choose elements that matter to the scene and its purpose. Is it important to the plot to know it’s sunset? Let that blazing orb drop behind something that develops the story — a castle in the distance, a massive range of mountains, a line of camels crossing a dune.

Spotlight: Let the reader’s eye take in the quality of the light and how it plays on an object that has significance. Or use the senses to bring something important into focus: colour, shape, and textures — odours faint or strong — distant noises or booming sounds — flavours and temperatures on the tongue — textures and touches. Put that dried fig in someone’s mouth. Run fingertips along the gladiator’s shield. Create a sensory connection for readers.

A scene needs action

Action comes in many forms: movement (large and small) and dialogue (lengthy or brief). But don’t forget the action found in internal thought (a moment of angst, reaction, an internal struggle or making a decision.) The process of coming to a decision, especially in a key area of the plot/character development, is sometimes given little or no air. And that’s a missed opportunity to bring your reader into a character’s emotional life.

Maybe you think internal thought is “tell” instead of “show.” And sometimes, it may very well be “tell” but, in fact, necessary tell that feels just like show. Not everything needs to framed through movement or dialogue in order to feel active and move the plot forward.

For example:

He held the urn in both hands. If he threw it now, all the pain and frustration would be over. So easy. Just drop the thing over the cliff. Watch it smash on the rocks below and then turn and walk away. Let his father’s ashes go and never have to face his mother and sister, or tell them what he’d done, how Dad’s ashes were all that was left. But easy had never been his way. Not then. And not now. He slipped the urn back into the cardboard box and returned to the car. Time to face the family.

A scene needs meaning

If every scene has a job to do, then your role is to make sure it gets that job done. Too often, we see manuscripts where important plot points arrive without any set up. For example, the main character wants forgiveness from her ex-husband but we only discover that halfway through the book. Readers will wonder where that’s coming from. But if you make forgiveness a theme, you can bring in metaphors, images and hints of that want so, for example, the ex-husband element makes sense.

Perhaps early in the story a small transgression is forgiven. Is she a character who often says “sorry” over little things then waits to hear “that’s okay”? Maybe something gets broken and she’s more upset than the owner of the broken item. Maybe a favourite film is “Unforgiven” or a favourite Mark Twain quote is Forgiveness is the fragrance that the violet sheds on the heel that has crushed it.

A useful approach to make sure your scenes are doing their job is to ask yourself: What is the point of this scene? It’s a simple question but an important one. Are you developing character motivation, introducing a new character, raising the stakes, revealing a new plot element, establishing time and place, showing conflict, etc.? When you know the purpose of each scene you can make vital editing decisions:

  • Eliminate or combine/conflate scenes that do the same work
  • Energize flat scenes with action
  • Slow down a scene for emotional impact
  • Reorder scenes for more logical progression

When you analyze the purpose of each scene, you gain a better understanding of your novel. And that makes for a confident writer.

Find the balance

  • Avoid a laundry list of setting description but ground readers in the scene with just the right brushstrokes of important details about place.
  • Avoid too much chatter and physical action but feed the emotional connection with characters by letting readers hear their thoughts at important moments.
  • Avoid packing in too much figurative language but enrich the story with metaphor and subtle hints, especially where it’s missing in a key scene.

A writer is like a movie director, deciding who and what to include in the scene, where to aim the camera, how to light the scene, etc. Fortunately, you don’t have to call in the crew and actors to re-shoot your scene. Instead, you choose whether to trim or embellish on the page. And that’s the beauty of our craft: until it goes into the hands of the publisher, it’s all up to us to make those choices.

Overwriting Revisited

Overwriting Revisited

Ruth E. Walker

Last week’s blog post in The Top Drawer summarized the three deadly sins of overwriting: over-emotional writing (i.e., sentimentality); hammers and know-it-all writing. We kept our focus on sentimentality and over-the-top emotions.

This week, we’re heading to the workshop to focus on those hammers.

Hit that nail, again and again, and again…

My Writescape partner, Gwynn Scheltema, introduced me to the concept of hammers. She used to draw tiny hammers at the side of my text in any spot I “hammered home” a point for my readers. It’s an image I’ve never forgotten and one I imagine every time I come across it in my editing role.

The most common hammer I find is when a writer “shows” something (usually by creating a vivid image or two) and then “tells” it afterwards. As in:

Pay attention reader

Camille dabbed her eyes with a tissue. Her cheeks were wet from the falling tears.

The first sentence is a nice show through character action (dabbing her eyes) that also reveals reaction (crying). Of course her cheeks are wet from the falling tears. It’s like the writer isn’t sure the reader has the whole picture.

Remember, your job is to show enough for readers to envision the scene — the reader’s job is to use their imagination and it’s hard for readers to do when you paint the complete picture.

Similarly, writers hammer home emotions: Camille dabbed at her eyes with a tissue. She was so heartbroken, she’d begun to cry. Again, the action/reaction happens in the first line which shows us the emotion. Don’t water down the power of the action/reaction with an Are you getting this, reader moment.

In dialogue, writers hammer home emotions when they use qualified attributions like:

“Oh my God! You didn’t,” Zhan said with surprise.

Or

“Oh my God! You didn’t,” Zhan said incredulously.

The dialogue’s emotion is clear without adding descriptions to the attributive. Instead, use this opportunity to insert a beat or bit of business to underscore the emotion or enrich the development of your character or the plot.

“Oh my God! You didn’t.” Zhan balled his fists and turned away from his mother.

Just one more tiny nail

Another hammer is more challenging to recognize but no less important to know as you edit your work. This hammer comes when writers set something up and then, at the last moment, tag on a bit more to make sure readers get it. In this case, setting up that a character “paused.”

Releasing him, Daddy placed both his hands on Teddy’s shoulders, holding him at arm’s length, appraising him head to toe as he paused for a moment or two.

If you read over the actions: hands placed on shoulders, holding at arm’s length, appraising head to toe — all that takes a moment or two so that last bit tagged on “as he paused for a moment or two” is unnecessary. Readers have already imagined the pause as they read.

Hammers often show up in early drafts, especially in drafts with an excess of passive writing. When I see a lot of adverbs and too few active verbs, I can expect to see a high number of hammers as well. Look for those “ly” words and see if a verb with energy can be used instead (walked happily: skipped/danced; ran swiftly: raced/rushed/fled; slowly walked up: crept/snuck up/step by step — there are plenty of active verbs out there.)

In our workshops, Gwynn and I often talk about adding new skills and techniques to your writer’s toolkit. But hammers are one tool you want to leave on the workbench and out of your writing.

Next week, we’ll be looking closely at Know-it-all moments, another common form of overwriting.


Trust Your Reader & Yourself

Trust Your Reader & Yourself

Ruth E. Walker

As an editor, I see a great deal of overwriting. Sometimes, it’s just an occasional dip that needs correcting — a moment of unnecessary description or repetition. But when overwriting overtakes the story, it slows pacing, deflects from the story’s core and distracts readers with “window dressing”. My job as an editor is to help writers see when they overwrite and discover ways to fix it.

Overwriting can find its roots in a lack of trust. A writer may not trust that the reader will “get it” and so puts in extra material to ensure complete understanding. Or a writer may not trust themselves– that they’ve created enough detail that the reader will see what is intended.

Three Deadly Sins of Overwriting

Overwriting covers a lot of sins in stories. Three of the most common forms of overwriting are: over-emotional writing, hammers, and know-it-all writing.

Over-emotional writing leads to sentimentality, theatricality and hyperbole. For today’s Top Drawer blog, I’ll focus on this one. But first, a quick summary of the other two. Next week we’ll take a closer view of them.

Hammers are those phrases and sentences that “hammer home” something a writer wants to make sure their reader “gets.” Repetition and over-use of imagery and metaphor can turn into hammers in your work.

Know-it-all writing is similar to hammers but it’s related to research or knowledge that the writer has and adds in to “prove” they know their stuff. Not restricted to historical writers, know-it-all writing can come across like an author “info dump” of details.

Let’s get emotional

Here’s an example of overwriting for emotional impact.

As she sat before her vanity mirror, Camilla lowered her gaze and placed her right hand on her beating heart. If she could, she would squeeze the life out of that heart and fling it to the floor and stomp all over it. He was leaving her without saying goodbye and the sadness filled her very being, her soul. How could she live without him? Her throat constricted with a burning lump of pain and tears welled up from her eyelids and trickled down her cheeks. They fell from her chin and plunked one after the other onto the letter she clutched in her left hand, resting on her lap.

Of course, without having the whole story before us, it’s hard to know what part of this scene is window dressing and what is essential to both plot and character development. But if we look closely at the work each part of this scene is doing, we could decide what to cut, what to tweak and what to leave as is.

So let’s examine:

As she sat before her vanity mirror — is this a reflection scene? Is it, literally, a mirror moment where a character reflects and realizes something about themselves? Is this “scene setting” even necessary? With “As she…” we’re pretty sure that Camilla is already sitting there, the line or two before this likely put her in front of that vanity. Trust your reader to make that connection.

Get right to the moment. Camilla lowered her gaze and placed her right hand on her beating heart. All hearts beat. Does it matter which hand? Cut beating and right. Your reader doesn’t need it.

Be true to your character. If she could, she would squeeze the life out of that heart and fling it to the floor and stomp all over it. He was leaving her without saying goodbye and the sadness filled her very being, her soul. How could she live without him?

Is Camilla a drama queen? Is she petulant, angry or heartbroken? Is she all three at this moment or do her feelings progress? What is the overriding fear? Start with that. He was leaving her without saying goodbye. And then the deeper, primal fear: How could she live without him?

Squeezing her heart, flinging it to the floor and stomping all over it — that’s hyperbole and petulance — in this moment keep us in the sorrow, the grief. And as for sadness filling her very being, her soul — that’s far too cliché and a full on “tell”. Her behaviour — hand to heart, tears falling unchecked — shows us her sadness.

Show me the sorrow

And it’s there, in those last two descriptive sentences that with some careful paring and tweaks, we can move this scene from sentimentality to deep emotion. A simple constriction of the throat — don’t we all know that feeling when sorrow moves up from our aching hearts to tighten our throats? And tears that we can’t stop, coursing down our cheeks and sliding off our chins? Simple short images that call up our own experiences with sorrow –without any window dressing.

Camilla lowered her gaze and placed a hand over her heart. He was leaving her without saying goodbye. How could she live without him? Her throat constricted, and tears welled up and trickled down her cheeks. They fell from her chin onto the letter in her lap.

In any high-emotion scenes, you can double-check your approach and seek out any phrases or sentences that are more than what is necessary to convey the emotion. But also look for what is necessary to stay true to your character and your plot and then decide what can be cut or amended.

Just remember to ask yourself: am I trusting my reader? and am I trusting myself?

10 ways to doom your novel

10 ways to doom your novel

For the month of May 2020, we imagine many of you are thinking about your manuscripts. Isn’t it time to give yourself time away from focusing on hand washing and sterilizing the grocery bags? We think so. This month’s 10 on the 10th blog post is designed to help you spot story pot holes and set about fixing them. Happy writing!

1. Refuse to Revise: Perhaps someone, somewhere, sat down and wrote the perfect 87,000-word novel without making a single change, each word falling onto the page like an elegant dance of perfection. Um. No.

Truth is, for most of us, the successful novel or story is the result of repeated revisions. Not just proofreading and editing for spelling and grammar. We’re talking revisions. Dropping the first three chapters of backstory and starting just before the inciting incident. Rewriting the ending completely with a different purpose in mind than the original ending. Revision is not for the faint of heart, but getting your hands deep and dirty into your manuscript is part of shaping it into publisher-ready material.

2.  Start in a perfect world: A perfect world without any hint of discord or danger is a fantasyland. From kids who leave dirty dishes in the basement to the pestering pets demanding attention, our ordinary lives are full of irritations and disappointments. But remember to save the big issues for the inciting incident. That big crack in your main character’s world is what drives the narrative into the meat of the story.

3. Only develop your protagonist: You know everything about your main character from favourite pets to emotional wounds, from the layout of a childhood bedroom to motivations for every action taken.

But the other characters in the novel circle like stage actors waiting to appear and act for the sole convenience of the protagonist. Life and stories don’t work that way. All characters should act from their own motivations and experiences. Ditch the cardboard, and put flesh on everyone’s bones.

4. Avoid Danger or Fear:  For effective fiction, tension is necessary. There are degrees of tension used by writers. Some books (especially thrillers) can start with a bang but others gradually develop tension in a variety of ways. From a foreshadow (“Careful Maeve, that horse is skittish”) or bit of figurative language (looming dark skies, thunder in the distance, etc.), skillful writers learn to raise the stakes with tension as the story goes forward.

5. Rely on Expounding Exposition: Scenes with action, dialogue and tension propel your story forward. Lengthy passages of and then this happened and then this happened and then this happened will put your reader to sleep. Seek out places where you give information that could be better delivered in a scene between characters.

Ginny was worried that Dewa’an was afraid. It was his first sleepover at her house. She comforted him by reading a story and leaving the light on. 

OR

“Dewa’an, would you like me to stay and read you a story?”

He barely nodded, his eyes still wide and searching.

Ginny held up Stuart Little. “My kids loved this one. Maybe you will too.”

She’d barely read ten pages when he fell asleep. Ginny kept reading for two more pages just to be safe. Before she left the bedroom, she switched off the big light and turned on the wee nightlight on the dresser.

6.  Clog with Filler Scenes:  Sometimes we don’t realize we’re writing a filler scene. It’s a great scene with strong dialogue and character bits and foreshadowing and lots of great stuff. But if you look closer, it’s covering most — or even the same territory as a scene you wrote earlier. It’s advancing the same elements that the earlier scene advanced. 

Time to murder this darling. Or revise it so it’s doing new work to move your story forward. All scenes need to add forward progression with at least some of the following: answer some questions and raise more, enhance character qualities or introduce new ones, add or enhance setting details, and so on.  The scenes you write are meant to pull the reader’s engagement along to the next scene and all the way to The End.

7.  Use Droning Dialogue:  Dialogue in fiction is the illusion of conversation.  And it has specific jobs to do when you use it: convey information that relates to the plot, to the characters, the setting and so on. So like Filler Scenes, mindless chit chat does nothing to add to the reading experience. What does your current dialogue do to advance your story?  Learn to spot the fat and then pare it. And pare it again.

8.  Pack in Know-It-All stuff:  You’ve done your research. You know exactly how many steps it takes to get from the front door to the attic. The map of all the islands, ports, harbours and rocky shoals is ingrained in your mind and you want your readers to know you know. Don’t. Just don’t. There is a huge difference between a strategically placed reference or two to help ground your reader and a litany of details that soon become a list readers must wade through before getting back to the story.

9.  Display your vocabulary: Yes, it’s important for writers to be widely read and in the process, you’ve developed quite a vocabulary.  Whoopee for you, but like the know-it-all research, don’t try to impress your readers with a display and get in the way of the story. Use words suitable for the genre and audience and stand back and let them do their job.  Don’t excavate a cavity, just dig a hole.

10.  Be Predictable: It’s important that your characters react and that the story follows a logical path. But beware the characters that never veer from what we’ve come to expect or storylines that offer no surprises. Take this approach with your dialogue and try for exchanges that show two very different agendas. Many of our conversations don’t quite go as expected, like for this retail store customer:

“Good morning, I was wondering if you had any—”

“Did you close the door?”

“Ah. Yes. Now I was wondering—”

“They get in when you don’t close it tight.”

“I closed it. Now, listen, I’m looking for—”

“There’s one now. At your feet.”

“What— What is that?”

“A displaced soul.”

There you have it. Ten ideas to consider and help you take your manuscript forward. Happy writing.