10 Tips for Writing Dialogue

10 Tips for Writing Dialogue

It’s Writescape’s 10th anniversary and we have lots of excitement planned for writers in 2018. This installment of 10 on the 10th is the latest in the series of monthly writing tips, advice and inspiration. Think of it as Gwynn and Ruth sitting on your shoulder and nudging you along. Share with your writing colleagues and encourage them to sign up for more.

As an editor and writing coach, I’m always surprised by some of the dialogue mistakes some fiction writers make. This list should help eliminate those punctuation and style errors and keep your manuscript in the “clean” status editors and publishers value.

1. Quotation marks cradle the words spoken out loud by a character. They don’t go around any narrative that isn’t spoken out loud, like the attributive (dialogue tag) Manuela advised in the example below:

“Think of quotation marks like a blanket, containing a character’s words,” Manuela advised.

2. Punctuation that belongs to the words spoken out loud are also contained inside quotation marks, and not tacked onto the attributive or dialogue tag in the examples below:

“That’s incredible advice!” Jerry replied.

“Why are you surprised?” she asked.

3. Attributives or dialogue tags help readers know who’s speaking. But once those speakers are established, there’s little value in constantly using them. In fact, they can get in the way of the conversation and bore the reader, so drop them whenever you can.

“I guess I’m always surprised by how much I still have to learn.”

“All of us writers are always learning, Jerry. It’s part of developing our skills.”

4. Adverbs in dialogue tags are rarely needed.

“Skill development? It’s why I’m here. Make way for Super Skill Development Man,” Jerry shouted excitedly.

5. Beats or business placed before dialogue can set up the tone of the spoken words.

Manuela took a deep breath before answering. “While I appreciate your enthusiasm, Jerry, please take your seat and get ready for today’s class.”

6. Beats or business placed after dialogue can set up the next speaker’s tone.

Manuela took a deep breath before answering. “While I appreciate your enthusiasm, Jerry, please take your seat and get ready for today’s class.” She took a step back just as Jerry punched the wall, his knuckles now scraped and bleeding.

“I hate myself. I’ll never be a writer.”

7. Start a new paragraph with each different speaker. This clues in the reader to switch characters, like watching a tennis match.

“Don’t be so dramatic.”

“Can’t help it. I never wanted anything so bad.”

“Even so, you need to learn to channel that passion onto the page. Here’s a couple of bandages. Head to the washroom and clean that up. Then, if you’re serious about writing, come back, take your seat and get ready to write.”

8. Let your reader know when someone else joins the conversation.

A quiet voice from the back of the room piped up. “I guess he used to take drama, so he’s using Method Acting to develop his characters.”

Manuela searched the room for the speaker and found Angelique’s grinning face next to the back door. “Thanks for your input but next time keep it to yourself.”

9. Interior thoughts are not dialogue, not spoken aloud, so they are not placed inside quotation marks.

A quiet voice from the back of the room piped up. “I guess he used to take drama, so he’s using Method Acting to develop his characters.”

Manuela searched the room for the speaker and found Angelique’s grinning face next to the back door. “Thanks for your input but next time keep it to yourself.” Oh great. Class clown in the making.

10a. Some writers use single quotes for interior thoughts but they shouldn’t. Single quotes are only used for dialogue that is quoted inside spoken words.

Manuela faced the rest of the class. “The next one who offers up a comment like ‘I guess he used to take drama’ is going to find themselves out of my Writers Craft class. Understand?” Now that, she thought, should shut down the nonsense.

10b.Some writers use italics for interior thoughts but italics makes words and phrases stand out, like attention-seeking banners. Hi there. I’m an interior thought. It’s also more difficult to read and downright deadly when you write whole paragraphs of interior thought. Consider creating interior thoughts without any italics. Think about ways for you to craft thoughts in a way that doesn’t need to draw attention to itself.

And that, we think, is a valuable skill for all writers.

Power Up Your Dialogue

Power Up Your Dialogue

Ruth E. Walker

Excerpt from “Shooter”, award-winning Young Adult novel by Caroline Pignat:

I meet his eyes. Hold them for a moment. “Thanks…Hogan.” He shrugs it off like it’s no big deal. But it is, for me, it’s huge.
“Okay–but your brother is definitely dead,” Xander blurts at Hogan. “That I know because–.”
“Xander!” Isabelle cuts him off. “Geeze, don’t you have a filter?”
“No.” Confused, he looks down at his camera. “I never use one. I’d rather see things as they really are.”
We sit in awkward silence, looking everywhere but at each other.
“He’s right. It’s true.” Hogan lets out a deep breath. “It’s been two years. I should be able to at least say it.”
But he doesn’t.
Xander tilts his head and stares at Hogan. “But it’s true that you killed him?”

In fiction, well-crafted dialogue like Pignat‘s can take my breath away. But what if your dialogue is so over-written, unrealistic or dull that your reader wants your characters to stop breathing? Or at least, stop talking.

I get to read a lot of dialogue from writers at all stages of their writing career. For example, I read and assess self-published works from potential members of a national writers’ organization. I’m also a coach and editor working closely with writers seeking to polish their manuscripts. And I teach workshops that focus on crafting excellent dialogue in fiction.

I’ve read some fantastic and engaging dialogue. And I’ve read dialogue that felt like listening to someone recite the nutritional contents of a milk carton. Believe me, you want the words your characters speak to be fantastic and engaging. No 19% of vitamin D for you.

Dialogue has work to do

I’m always surprised when writers miss opportunities to make dialogue work for them. Dialogue is not filler, nor is it secondary. It’s a multi-tasking powerhouse and writers would be wise to remember that.

But even more important, there are technical effects that support and enhance your story. The following are just a few examples of the potential for spoken words:

Plot:

  • propel your narrative forward with action: “Get up! They’re swarming the gates.”
  • foreshadow, suggest, nudge: “Are you sure the doors are all locked?”
  • establish setting, time, era: “Mistress, your limbs are showing ‘neath your petticoat!”

Character:

  • convey emotional state: “Every time I look at you, I see her, alive again.”
  • highlight personality/idiosyncrasies: “Beans can’t never touch meat on my plate. I won’t eat it!”
  • establish culture/social background: “Ach lass, will you no’ be getting down from there?”
The art of character-speak

If we wrote dialogue like true, normal conversations, we wouldn’t have readers. Most real life conversations are a jumbled mess, peppered with ums, ers and ahs, interruptions, half-finished sentences and the shorthand of shared experiences.

For readers, dialogue is the illusion of active listening, of looking from person to person as a conversation unfolds. Readers also enjoy an increase in white space to ‘rest’ their eyes. Conversations create the dynamic that excites readers and keeps the story moving forward.

The job of the writer is to put words in the mouths of our characters and make it all sound natural while making sure it does some of that multi-tasking work we want it to produce.

Here are two approaches to consider.

1. Take out words to give a more natural flow. Start with a basic conversation.

“Did you see that cat get run over by the bus?”
“What cat are you talking about?”
“Frank’s old tabby cat, Tibby.”
“I didn’t see a thing. I guess Frank will be a mess.”

By taking out a word here and there, and giving a bit of a tic to one of the speakers, we also get a bit more flesh on the character.

“You see that cat get runned over by the bus?”
“What cat?”
“Frank’s ol’ cat, Tibby.”
“Didn’t see a thing. Guess Frank’ll be a mess.”

2. Use surprise or the unexpected to up the tension. Real life is often surprising when our conversations with a neighbour or colleagues go off to places we didn’t expect. Do the same thing in your dialogue because there is nothing like potential conflict to tempt your reader.

“Hi, Andrea.”
“Janice? It is you.”
“It’s so good to run into you, Andrea. You look amazing.”
“Why did you hide him from me?”

Knowing when to bring in dialogue

If there is a formula for when and where to use dialogue, I’d love to know what it is. I can say this much: When I look over my fiction, I see that I use dialogue most often when I need to raise the stakes or create conflict or tension in the story.

I don’t mean that the “conflict” or “tension” needs to be dramatic verbal combat. There are gradations and shades to tension and conflict, so sometimes that means being subtle in how I construct those conversations between characters.

Brushstrokes can be more effective than a gallon of paint. With those big scenes of a major reveal or emotion, I will often default to dialogue. But I also use dialogue for subtext and quiet discoveries.

Choosing to write scenes primarily through dialogue, action or narrative, is intuitive for most writers. But when looking at your second or third drafts, pay attention to where you’ve made those choices.

It could be that what you’ve shared in a long, explanatory passage of mostly narrative just might be better delivered through conversations between your characters.

Did You Know?

We were recently asked what a writing coach does. A writing coach supports writers at different stages of the creative process. At Writescape, we often work with writers who just want to know if they are on the right track.

Sometimes a writer needs help with specific techniques like Point of View, dialogue or story structure. And sometimes, a discouraged writer just needs someone to prompt or encourage them.

Coaching services should be tailored to your unique needs and timetable. Writescape’s  coaching services combine online, mail and telephone or in-person communications — depending on geographic, time and similar circumstances.

Contact info@writescape.ca for more information on our coaching and editing services for writers.

A Writer’s Listening Skills

A Writer’s Listening Skills

Ruth E. Walker

My grandmother wore hearing aids. Bulky beige plastic half-moon shapes sat behind her ears.  They were attached to wires that held a small custom-moulded earpiece to fit into each ear canal.

The aids helped with her hearing but at times the high-pitched whining feedback loop was terrible, and she constantly had to adjust the volume. As a child, I thought it seemed a lot of work just to hear better. As I got older, I wondered what it would be like to have to wear hearing aids.

As fate (and genetics) would have it, I’m about to find out.

Hearing is believing

Why would a writer need to worry about perfect hearing? After all, my work exists between my fingers and the keyboard and/or the page. I don’t need to hear what I’ve written when I’m editing—I just need to know that I’ve used the best possible words in the best possible order.

I write fiction. I am especially drawn to characters—their motivations, fears, desires, idiosyncrasies. And I’m curious about them and love to get inside their heads—in short, how their actions and reactions reveal who they are.

Dialogue is a huge part of revealing character. Through conversations and interior monologue, I get to do a lot of exploring and developing interesting characters. And getting that on the page is what gives readers insights into what makes characters tick. What they say. What they don’t say. And how they say it.

I like to think that I’m pretty good at this part of the writing process. I have, as they say, an “ear” for dialogue, for the way people speak and I’ve learned how to use that in my fiction.

I’ve honed that skill by reading how other writers use dialogue. And I’ve further honed that skill by listening in on conversations over the years, by paying attention to how people speak, and especially if they have an agenda or perhaps something they want to keep private.

But lately, I’ve had some trouble with that listening-in part.

I beg your pardon

Over the past year or so, I’ve gone from occasionally asking people to repeat themselves to missing about 40% of what is being said around me. Phone conversations are more difficult. The television is set at an increasingly high volume. Indeed, our PVR has been a godsend so I can rewind and replay two, three even four times to get what I missed.

Parties are really tough even though I’ve become adept at the “large conversation gathering smile”—the go-to when I can’t hear most of what is being said but don’t want to appear “out of things.”

But does this actually affect my writing? I suspect it does in ways I’ve not yet considered. And most importantly, it’s severely limited my listening-in skills. My gift for dialogue doesn’t rest at my fingertips the same. It’s almost as if I have trouble hearing what my characters are saying.

A hearing loss is isolating and while I can still turn to writing to focus my energy, I am missing out on aspects of life.

Solitary craft still needs the world

What I write and how well I write is directly affected by me living a life outside my writer’s room. I’m inspired by the world around me. From birdsong in the early morning to the river’s gurgling at the cottage to the chatter of people in the grocery story, it all is part of what makes me the writer I am.

Sure, the act of writing is solitary. But for me, it is the result of all the senses in play in the world around me. There is nothing solitary about that.

I’m lucky. I have the means to purchase hearing aids that should help me return to the conversation of the world. And if I’m right, those hearing aids will give this writer a much needed boost of inspiration and life.

DID YOU KNOW

In 2015, The Guardian newspaper published an article Hearing Words, Writing Sounds: Examining the Author’s Brain. It’s a fascinating glimpse by Richard Lea into the idea of two kinds of “listening” — writing and reading.

For Pakistani and UK novelist Kamila Shamsie, “It’s about the sound of sentences.” and accordingly, she reads her chapters aloud when she finishes each one. But Booker Prize winner, A.S. Byatt, never reads her work aloud because there are “clearly distinct forms of written and spoken language”.

Professor Brenda Rapp of Johns Hopkins has focused a research study on speech and writing and two regions of the brain: one dedicated to producing and interpreting speech and one to the act of writing. They are, according to Rapp, separated at a very deep level. According the Lea’s article, Rapp’s study followed:

…patients with specific difficulties in speech and writing for 15 years [demonstrating] that writing and speaking are supported by different parts of the brain, not just in terms of the processes controlling the hand and mouth, but at deeper levels of the language system that contain knowledge of how words are put together.

Like Shamsie, I often read my work aloud. Does that mean I’m listening for something more than what I see on the page? I think so, even if I’m not too sure what it is that I’m hearing when I read my work.

How about you? Read The Guardian article and think if “listening” comes into your process of writing. Or, like A.S. Byatt, do you keep your focus strictly “on the page” in how the words work?

Reading outside your genre

Reading outside your genre

Gwynn Scheltema

My last post was about defining what genres we write in. Which got me to thinking about what genres we read. And the value of reading outside our usual genres.

Books that move me

I love language and wallowing in words. I love to reread evocative passages, to stop mid story to share a sentence with my husband that I find particularly beautiful or thought-provoking. I like skilled play with fiction forms. Consequently, I often gravitate to literary fiction. Story is important to me, but plot is not. I prefer internal character struggles rather than thrilling events, or fast-paced action. I’m happy to spend time in people’s heads, seeing the world from their perspectives. Recent reads (which I highly recommend) have been: The Orenda by Joseph Boyden. All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr and Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese.

I also like the books I read to be set in exotic places, in other cultures, and affected by political or natural turmoil that I am never likely to be faced with. I like to learn about other customs and occupations. The Bonesetters Daughter by Amy Tan (historical fiction), Three Cups of Tea by Greg Mortenston (non fiction/memoir) and In the Shadow of the Banyan by Vaddey Ratner (historical fiction) fit that bill.

Broadening my reading horizons

But I’ve also had to spend a fair amount of time this year away from home, and have found myself reading books passed on to me or chosen for me by others, books I likely would have walked right by in the bookstore.

I learned a lot in the process. Reading time is limited and with the books I have to read for a variety of reasons, the time left for reading for enjoyment is really limited, but I was reminded that broadening my reading horizons was a necessary—and enjoyable— part of being a well-rounded writer and editor.

What I learned from the books that found me

Of the books that found me, let me tell you about just three of them. Turns out, I enjoyed them all, and reading as a writer, I learned a lot too:

The first one: Spud by John van der Ruit is a YA humorous coming-of-age story set in a fictional private boys school in South Africa in 1990 around the time of the release of Mandela. It’s written in a diary style like The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole.

Apart from bringing back a lot of memories of my own schooling in an Anglican Church School in Zimbabwe, Spud reminded me that humour is a great foil for addressing tough and often brutal circumstances. This book tackled bullying, attempted rape, mental illness as well as the usual problems of growing up, boarding school and relationships. It showed me that sometimes less is more, and that young boys and girls face many of the same problems. Structurally, the diary format allowed much to be said without embellishment or long drawn-out scenes. It allowed room for things to be left unsaid.

The next: The Casual Vacancy by JK Rowling, listed as a contemporary mystery thriller, is a multi-voice fiction about a seemingly ordinary small-town and what really goes on behind closed doors.

Rowling’s dialogue in this book is superb. She handles the dialogue of different ages, cultures and socio-economic characters in way that their speech and dialect is distinct, authentic and utterly believable. I had a hard time getting into the book because there is an enormous cast of characters, and Rowling “head-hops” a great deal, but once in, I was hooked. From this book, I learned that multiple viewpoints can work well as long as each voice has their own story not more or less important than the others.

And the third: Some Girls, Some Hats and Hitler is a memoir by Trudy Kanter, an Austrian Jew who used her connections as a hat designer to escape events in World War II and find safety for herself and her husband Walter. Like Spud, this book handled grave situations with humour. What really struck me though, was how Trudy spent a lot of time talking about hats and fashion and parties and décor and other things that at first seemed frivolous and inappropriate for the dire war situation and terrible and frightening circumstances she was facing. But then I realized that that was Trudy’s coping mechanism. It got me thinking about the different ways different people use to handle a given situation. Just because I might handle a situation one way, my characters (and readers) might do something completely different.

Other reasons to read out of your usual genre

Stephen King famously said, “If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that.”

Yes, you should read extensively in the genre you write to become familiar with it on all levels, but reading on a regular basis outside your genre, outside your comfort zone, makes you a better well-rounded writer. It clears the cobwebs away in your creative brain. Gets you out of a rut. New perspectives, new craft approaches and new possibilities. Same-old-same-old in your reading leads to same-old-same-old in your writing.

Who knows, you may discover a new genre that really speaks to you. Perhaps that coming-of-age story you’ve been struggling with as an historical romance might be better reworked as a dystopian YA. But you have to read some dystopian YA to find out.

And not just different genres, but different writing forms: short stories, poetry, plays…  Each form can teach you different writing skills that will help with your novel. Plays are excellent for studying dialogue, poetry can remind you about image and metaphor and the economy and power of words.

So take the plunge, be adventurous, make a pact with yourself to include a new genre or new form when you pick up your next book. You’ll be glad you did.

DID YOU KNOW

Ruth and Gwynn are off to the Niagara Region this month to deliver a workshop that explores writing in different styles and genres, called What’s in Your Writing Closet. If your group is interested in this or any of our workshops, explore our on demand workshop options.

 

 

The Art of Noticing

The Art of Noticing

Gwynn Scheltema

Lately I haven’t been writing much. For once I have a valid reason. I’ll spare you the details, but essentially, because of a family crisis, I find myself back at my childhood home in Zimbabwe with little to no time to myself and definitely no emotional energy to be creative.

I decided that I should at least do a bit of journaling, and record what is happening and how I felt about the situation I find myself in, but I’m too close to it right now, and too focused on what needs doing to write even that. My friend and business partner Ruth, in her wisdom, suggested that I just be aware of the five senses while I am here. Store up the smells and sounds and tastes of Africa where my novel is set.

It was a good idea. I had noticed, for instance, that when I arrived in the last week of October the Jacaranda trees were in full and splendid bloom. They only bloom like this for about a week, and if you are lucky enough to witness it, you can find yourself travelling under a canopy of trumpet-shaped lilac blossoms—no green leaves yet, just blossoms— each blossom bunch a nodding head of delicate beauty. Then one gusty wind storm or a thrashing afternoon thundershower and they fall en masse, carpeting the ground in lilac for one glorious day until they are trampled underfoot into a bruised mess. I knew this about Jacarandas. I’d grown up with them. But in my memory, I had one important detail wrong. I always thought this happened in September!

flying-white-antsIt’s also the time for flying white ants. I thought I knew all about them too. After all, as kids we used to catch and cook them on a fire till they were crispy and edible. (Yes, people, the fad move to eating insects is definitely not revolutionary.) What I had never noticed, however, was that once they lost their wings (a natural occurrence) they seek each other out on the ground and form a train of wingless bodies head to toe. To what end, I have yet to discover.

So, I told myself, maybe forget trying to advance the novel for now and concentrate on noticing with a writer’s eye. Australian writer, Paddy O’Reilly,  says, “Deep and focused attention makes the old new. It recognizes connections between things we thought were unrelated. It throws light on hidden parts of ourselves and others. The attention we pay to the world pays us back as writers.”

It’s advice I give to participants in my creative get-a-ways at Glentula. It takes time and focus and a willingness to really look and see what really is and not what you think is or should be. There is an art to noticing.

So how can you develop your writer’s eye and learn to really notice?

  1. Practise, practise, practise

cafe-845527_640Whenever you are out and about, pay attention. In cafés, in waiting rooms, at the supermarket or on a lonely country road. Notice with all the senses. I listen in on conversations at Tim Hortons, or between the cashier and the shopper, moms at baseball games and GO train passengers. I notice the words and phrases they use, the topics they discuss and the reactions of those around them.

I often travel by car long distances on the same road and have challenged myself to notice different things on different trips. One trip, I may focus on what grows in ditches. Or what yellow things occur naturally in nature. What birds sit on fences or what a roadkill really looks like. I feel the fabrics in a fabric store or smell the flowers in public gardens. How do you describe the taste of coffee?

  1. Look for incongruitiesleaves-1380761_640

How is the thing you are observing different from other things of its kind? Why is it different? What’s missing? What’s extra? Why are all the kids at the crosswalk wearing coats except one? Why does only one apartment in a high-rise have a balcony flower box? Can you think of a story behind that observation?

  1. The same thing can be different

Microsoft Word - Artist's Book Cover in total.docMy good friend, Ingrid Ruthig taught me an important lesson about observation: the same thing can be different. The basis of her book Slipstream was a scene observed out of a window every hour on the hour for eighteen hours.

Try describing the same thing at different times of the day, different seasons. Notice what cell phone covers women or young people choose over older men. Don’t just notice a colleague’s scarf, notice how it is tied today versus yesterday. What colour is the asphalt when it rains versus a sunny day? What colour is snow? (it’s seldom white).

  1. Read people

Don’t just look at people in general, look for specifics: what makes them stand out or blend in. What actions and body language do they use to exude confidence or jealousy or nervousness? What can you deduce from how they dress or wear their hair or hats? If a couple looks unhappy, businesslike or best friends, can you identify what made you come to that conclusion? What is it about someone that makes you uneasy or willing to open your heart to them?

  1. Challenge your powers of description

How many ways can you describe something? What is it like? How many different similes can you come up with? How would your characters describe it? My husband and I try to find different names for the kinds of moons we see: wolf moon, rain moon, wishing moon… Do you always resort to sense of sight? Do you consider light and temperature, texture and mood?

piet-my-vrou

So what have I noticed today? I’ve noticed the three-note call of the piet-my-vrou bird is the first birdsong of the morning. That the pods of the weeping boer bean tree hang like fruit bats. That the blue-green iridescent loerie bird that flew overhead has red underwings, and the bark of the fever tree is yellow.fever-tree

That my sister’s dachshund dog is so portly that when he sleeps his legs stick out straight like roadkill. That the tortoise in the garden can devour half a watermelon in twenty minutes, and that my mother’s hair is the colour of history: iron, copper, silver and gold.

flower-15249_640And I’m waiting to see if, like the lilac Jacarandas, the red flamboyant trees will lose their blossoms in the storm that is now brewing on the horizon.

What did you notice lately?

Been there: Using real-world settings in fiction

Been there: Using real-world settings in fiction

Gwynn Scheltema

I’m always fascinated by the worlds that writers create for fantasy and sci-fi novels. I think I’m fascinated by the sheer complexity of creating an entire culture from its laws and religion to its people, plants and landscape.

But basing our stories in the “real world” we all know (or think we know), can be just as complex.

Keeping facts straight.

krzywy-las-641507_640Using real settings—real towns or cities, real street names, real landmarks— can seem easy because you have everything created already. You don’t have to invent culture, landmarks or names. If you mention the CN Tower or Westminster Abbey, you need only give a few details, and readers can fill in the rest.

Provided you get it right.

You can be sure that if you get it “wrong”, someone’s going to tell you. Or your reader will be aware that you made a mistake once, and be on the alert in case you do it again, so now there is a subconscious element of distrust as they read. At the very least, it will kick them out of the narrative momentarily.building-72225_640

Your Impressions

Sure, you can control facts to a large degree with good research and careful editing, but what you can’t control is readers’ reactions to your perceptions of real places. If, like facts, readers think that you got the impression “wrong”, it will be noticed, and have the same effect as getting facts wrong. If, as a narrator, you describe a particular real neighbourhood as “dangerous”, or “upcoming” or “ugly”, that might be your interpretation, but your reader may not agree. Your perceptions of real places are valid, but so are your readers’impressions of the same place.

So what can you do?

Impressions vs. facts

As you write be aware which setting details are facts and which are opinions. Characters only should express all the impressions or opinions. Characters in this instance include the narrator in a first person story. In sections of exposition, stick to facts. This is a good rule of thumb for any details actually, not just for setting. Essentially, setting opinions expressed through exposition become “author intrusion” and open that door for “getting it wrong”.

Manipulating impressions

The moment you move impressions of real places to the realm of character, you have the opportunity to manipulate setting to support other elements like character development and theme.

By choosing to focus on the details the character notices in a setting and what they think and how they feel about it, says as much about the character as the setting. Characters usually notice the things that align with their emotional state and with their level of understanding. You can set or heighten mood and sneak in details that will be important to plot or speak to theme.

midway-game-983385_640

Think of a child and his mother entering a fairground. The child is likely feeling excited and looking forward to fun, so will notice details that are colourful, fun and energizing: whirling rides, flags and balloons, stalls full of prizes to be won. The mother might be jaded by years of attending fairgrounds, aware of potential danger and cost. She will notice questionable people, machinery that looks or souman-1283576_1280nds dangerous and the crush of crowds that make it hard for her to keep track of her child.

Another manipulation is to purposely describe factual details “wrong” to establish an unreliable character.

Fiction and reality fusion

Perhaps the best way to use real settings is to create a fictional piece within the real one. A fictional town in real Northern Ontario. A fictional bar in Paris. You still get the advantages of the “real world” settings, but not the disadvantages. Your fictional component should be similar enough for believability, but you have the freedom to create your own “impressions”’ of the place. You get to decide if the place is “dangerous”, or “upcoming” or “ugly”, and your readers will believe you.

 

Making a Scene… with Dialogue

Making a Scene… with Dialogue

In just over a month, I head to the Ontario Writers’ Conference to mingle with writers, publishers, agents and editors. I’m also delivering a workshop on dialogue, specifically on dialect and diversity in dialogue.

It took me many years to become comfortable using dialogue. My early characters spent a lot of time in their heads thinking about what was going on. In their heads, they voiced concerns, got angry, wanted to ask about stuff. The reader knew all this, [if they were still awake at this point] but the other characters in the story didn’t. Eventually, I realized my characters needed to react and interact— out loud!

But just saying everything out loud is not the whole story. Dialogue scenes are powerful. Dialogue is one of the best ways to engage the reader. Even if characters are sitting still, a dialogue scene works as an action scene and propels the story forward. And it can do so much more—even several things at once—like reveal character, advance the plot, create mood, build conflict, reveal backstory or support the theme.

“Writing good dialogue is art as well as craft,” says Stephen King. Here are 5 tips for writing good dialogue scenes:

Know why you are writing the scene

Dialogue is not filler—or shouldn’t be. If your characters are just discussing the weather or what they want for dinner, your readers’ eyes will glaze over. Kind of the same way I skip over all the pictures of people’s dinners on Facebook. Will the scene reveal or hint at some backstory, or let the reader see how the relationship is developing, or give information about the plot.people-talking

“You wouldn’t say that if you had known my mother.” (Hint at back story? Reveal character?)

“Mike said it was just over the hill, an old factory where they processed paint or something.” Relaying information BUT it must be new to the reader AND to the character being spoken to.

Make dialogue do double duty

Once you’ve decided what the main purpose of the dialogue scene is, see what else you can make it do at the same time.

 “You wouldn’t say that if you had known my mother. She was a right ball breaker. Besides, she had a stash of these things up at the old farmhouse in Williamstown.” (hint at back story PLUS info for the plot?) 

“I’ll never step foot in that woman’s house.” (Opinion of another character? Showing anger and resistance? Plot problem?…all three?)

Anchor the scene

It’s okay to dive into the scene right in the conversation, but if you start a chapter with dialogue make sure it’s not “floating”. Readers need to know who is talking and where they are, and what point this is in the story. If you don’t, the reader will find it hard to absorb the dialogue nuances or subtext because they will be too busy trying to get oriented. I’m not suggesting a long piece of exposition here. Set it up in the chapter before, use a name in the spoken dialogue, or add a beat of setting.talking

Floating:  “I can pick you up around seven. At the diner okay?”

Anchored: When Leah reached the motel, she rescued her cell from the clothes on the backseat. “Amber, I can pick you up around seven. At the diner okay?”

Show emotions

Always be aware of the emotions being felt by the characters speaking and convey that in word choice and body language, not exclamation points or adverbs tacked onto the end.

Adverbs and punctuation: “I will NOT GO!!!” said Lily defiantly.

Beats and word choice: Lily crossed her arms and stared from under smoldering eyebrows. “A team of horses couldn’t drag me to that place.”

Never use dialogue as an “info dump”

My critique circle calls this an as-you-know-Bob moment. Characters should only talk about the things that are important to them at that point in the story, that fit with their emotions at the time, and that they would ordinarily say in real life to another person.

As-you-know-Bob moment: “We’ll go to Mike’s place, near your Mom’s house, and give rubbish-143465_960_720him the book you’re holding.” (The listening character knows where Mike’s place is and knows who is holding the book. No emotional content here.)

Real words: “Ok, Ok. We’ll go to Mike’s place, already. Give him your bloody book.”

Spending time on dialogue is well worth the effort. It dramatizes your story helping readers feel like they are actually listening in.

Do you have any dialogue tips to share? Post in  the comments below.

If you want to explore dialogue further, here are some other blogs you might find interesting. .and useful.

Keep it Simple: Keys to Realistic Dialogue Part 1

Keep it Simple: keys to Realistic Dialogue Part 2

On Writing – Dialogue – Robert J Sawyer

9 Easily Preventable Mistakes Writers make with Dialogue

Recipe for Great Characters

Recipe for Great Characters

Ruth E. Walker.

Sometimes you need to cook up a new character. Sometimes, you just want to add depth to a character that could use a little spice. Here’s my quick and easy recipe. It’s open to all kinds of substitutions, so feel free to experiment and season to taste. I’d love to hear how it worked for you. By the way, if you are missing any of the “ingredients” email info@writescape.ca and I’ll email you a starter.

MAIN INGREDIENTS:

  • 1 cup of ‘real’ person (a neighbour, a picture from a magazine or someone from your past, for example)
  • 1 cup of a story idea (choose a theme or a question that begs for an answer)
  • 2/3 cup setting (browse through travel brochures, coffee table books or stare into your own backyard)
  • ¼ cup back story (this one’s entirely up to you, writer!)
  • Flavour bouquet (mix 3 positive and 2 negative traits, such as cheerful, friendly, kind and boastful, envious…)
  • 1 tsp of a line of dialogue (overheard on a bus or at an event, or some line you really like)

DIRECTIONSCharacter

  1. In a quiet room, mix together the first three ingredients. Allow them to simmer over a low heat. Stir occasionally to see what changes.
  2. Add back story. Continue to simmer.
  3. Choose contents of your bouquet. Loosely tie ingredients together and add them to the pot.  NOTE: Don’t worry if any bouquet ingredients seem too strong at first; you can always spoon some out for now. Remember to reserve your removed ingredients in case you need them later on.
  4. Carefully insert the line of dialogue.
  5. Bake in your pre-heated mind for 2 minutes.

INGREDIENT LIST — brief notes here, just the bare bones. This will be your reference point as you write your character scene later on.

1 cup of real person

  • Name
  • Gender
  • Age
  • Appearance Basics

1 cup of a story idea

  • Kind of story and genre
  • Loss/Gain
  • Theme(s)
  • Emotional connection for character?

2/3 cup setting

  • Place
  • Year
  • Season/temp
  • Time of day
  • Smells, sounds

¼ cup back story

  • Childhood
  • Old losses
  • Old gains

Flavour bouquet

  • Positive
  • Negative

1 tsp of a line of dialogue

“Blah, blah, blah, blah, blah-de-blah blah!”

Additional spices

You are the cook; what else do you want to add?

Watch Your Language AND From Inspiration to Publication

Watch Your Language AND From Inspiration to Publication

Gwynn Scheltema and Ruth E. Walker are at the Ontario Writers’ Conference.

Gwynn is offering an advanced class: Watch Your Language. Dialect, foreign languages, accents and other linguistic touches provide diversity and authenticity to dialogue. Gwynn will help participants avoid character stereotypes so that what is being said is not overshadowed by how it’s being said. Gwynn’s popular workshops at the OWC are consistently highly rated and fully booked.

Ruth’s beginner workshop From Inspiration to Publication invites new writers to play with words through hands-on exercises and fun activities. Participants will risk a little and try on different forms of creative writing. Useful handouts offer tips on submitting material to the right market. Ruth will also serve as a Blue Pencil Mentor, offering helpful feedback in one-on-one discussions with writers about their manuscripts.

Gwynn and Ruth have been at the OWC since it launched, facilitating workshops, mentoring writers and enjoying the many speakers and learning opportunities that a comprehensive conference like this has to offer.

To register, visit the Ontario Writers’ Conference.