Category Archives: Writing tips

How to Write Good Dialogue (Part Two)

My ancient (by Internet standards) post on “How to Write Good Dialogue” is inarguably the most popular of my bloggish renderings, based on search data anyway. (You probably preferred this one because you don’t like to follow the crowd. You’re the anti-hipster of hipsters.) It seemed prudent, then, to follow that up with another post on dialogue. [Checks date on previous post.] Yeah, I’m a little slow when it comes to prudence.

Anyway, here you go.

Wait…you read the other post, right? Well click here (or above where it’s also linked because I’m a linking fool) first. Then come back to this page for more dialogical goodness. [I don’t need to mention that there are exceptions to everything I tell you below, do I? I mean, you’re smart enough to know that without a reminder, right? Good. Then I won’t remind you.]

Look, Who’s Talking Now? – One of the most common dialogue problems I run into with first-time novelists is that all the characters sound alike. While this can appear to happen in real life (see: junior high girls), it doesn’t really. The words we choose to spit or drool from our lips differ from one person to the next (even among junior high girls). So does the rhythm of those words – the spaces between them. Some people repeat themselves because they don’t have many words to choose from. Some people use big words because they read a lot of books or found an abandoned thesaurus while waiting at the DMV. Our speech patterns are uniquely our own. Listen. No, I’m not saying that so you’ll pay closer attention to this blogpost. I’m encouraging you to actually listen to Real People in Conversation. Then apply what you’ve learned to your fiction. If you know your characters well (this is a theme I will never stop shouting), you’ll know how each of them uses language. Write that way. In the perfect written world, readers should be able to identify characters simply by their dialogue.

Are You Listening? – When a character is talking, the presumption is that the people they’re talking to are really listening. Because, of course, what your character is saying is Really Important to the Plot. But maybe they’re not listening quite so intently after all. Maybe they’re queuing up a response, unwilling to hear what the speaker is saying because what they have to say is so much more important. (This never happens in real life. Ahem.) Or maybe they’re distracted by something going on around them. (Despite how they might look on the page, conversations don’t exist in a vacuum. The world spins madly on.) Or maybe they’re actively ignoring the speaker, not because they have something more important to say, but because they simply don’t like the jerk. Consider how the characters are (or aren’t) listening, and you’ll naturally write more believable dialogue.

Context Rules – Don’t feed lines to your characters so they can tell the readers what is going on. That’s just lazy and rude. Use context to deliver the details that people wouldn’t naturally be talking about. Show me the red button that triggers the missiles. Don’t make the character say, “This is the red button that triggers the missiles” if everyone in the room already knows that. Whenever a character reveals something that he wouldn’t naturally say in conversation with the person he’s talking to, I am pushed out of the moment, forced to consider the possibility that these characters are pausing their story to talk directly to me. That’s just dumb. (Unless you’re using that perspective/voice as a literary device. But please, don’t do this unless you’re really a brilliant writer. Thanks.) Build context, then trust it.

I Know, Right? – Characters who know each other pre-exist that conversation on the page; they have a history together. They communicate (just like you do with people you know) in a kind of shorthand. Not everything is said – not everything needs to be said. When Bob says, “He’s dead, Jim,” to Bonnie, there’s no need to explain this to the reader. Let the characters have lives beyond the page. As above, allow context to give us enough to figure out the rest. Instead of writing “Bonnie smiled, remembering how Bob always used to watch Star Trek.” Have her respond with a smile and, “No, he’s only pining.” Don’t explain it. It’s their in-joke. Some readers will know the references, some won’t. That’s okay. What all readers will get from that exchange is that these two have history – they know each other in a way that can be seen in a simple, unexplained exchange.

Say Something, Anything – Or don’t. Dialogue isn’t just words; it’s also the things we don’t say, the pauses and the spaces and the awkward, echoing silence. Sometimes the best thing a character can say is nothing at all. Use this sparingly for greater effect, but don’t ignore the emotional power of wordlessness.

Stop Talking – Break up those dialogue scenes with compelling expository writing. Just as Big Blocks of Expository writing can weigh heavy on some readers (I often hesitate before buying a book that is comprised of unending blocks of unbroken text), so can conversations that go on for page after page after page. It’s not a conversation, it’s a novel. Conversation is a piece of that puzzle, not the whole thing. Mix it up.

Rants and Speechifying – Rants can be entertaining. They’re usually fueled by strong emotion, so they tend to reveal a lot about the Ranter. Speeches, on the other hand, are often boring. In fiction, speeches typically appear on the page when there’s Something Very Important to say. Fine. But before you give a character a long speech, make sure he’s the speechifying kind (know your characters), and make damn sure it’s reasonable in context. So many speeches spouted by characters end up sounding like the writer is preaching to the reader. I don’t want characters to preach to me. I want them to react honestly to the circumstances they’re facing. In my experience, speeches serve best as background noise for while you check your email. Rants, however – even wrong-minded rants, especially those – can be dangerous. Danger is good for fiction. Boredom? Not so much.

‘Nuff Said – There will come a time during a conversation when one or more of the people involved will run out of things to say. Unless that’s the point of the conversation, end it sooner. Do something interesting with exposition to keep the reader’s interest. There will also come a time when a character simply doesn’t know what to say. This may be because you don’t know your character all that well. (You know what to do.) Or perhaps it’s because the conversation has simply run its course. End it. Don’t drag on conversations just to fill a page.

Bonus advice: Don’t drag out blogposts, either.

“He’s dead, Jim.”

(How To) Listen to Everything

The best advice about how to be a better writer can be summed up in six words: Read a lot. Write a lot.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve said that to writers. (Not because it’s a secret. I just didn’t keep track.) If you’re not doing both of those things, any other advice you might unearth as you wander this vast Internet wasteland won’t do you much good.

There are no shortcuts to “getting there” as a writer. By “there” I mean a place where your writing is distinct enough that readers want to read all your books, and compelling enough that they forget you exist between the first and last page.

But you didn’t come here to hear six words you already know. You came here for the Secret to Becoming a Best-Selling Author. (Really? Um…that’s someone else’s blog.) No, you came here for encouragement and commiseration and the occasional bit of accidental wisdom. Today’s attempt at all three can be summed up in a single word. (You already know what it is. You’re observant that way.)

Listen.

You want to be a better writer? You listen. To everything. Here’s how:

Listen to other writers. Read their copious books and blogs. Try their writing habits on for size. (Except that “getting up at 4 a.m. to write before the world awakes” thing. Seriously. That’s just insane.) There is no “one size fits all” system for writers. Learn what other writers are doing, then adopt only those things that work for you. Please note: This doesn’t mean you’re destined to write your own “How to Write” book someday. It’s okay if some writers don’t do that.

Listen to your characters. Well-written characters are a writer’s best friend. They can help solve just about any plot problem, given the chance to speak. Make sure your characters have permission to tell the truth, then trust them when they tell it. If you’ve painted yourself into a plot hole, ask for advice. If they don’t have any, it’s likely that your characters aren’t as well-written as you’d thought. Start there.

Listen to your critics. There are two kinds of critics in the world – those who love the sound of their own voice more than anything, and those who love the sound of a well-written story. The former are attention-seekers who don’t really care about your words. Most people would tell you to ignore them. That’s solid advice. But I think there’s some value in listening to them once in a while. Not because they have great wisdom (though they might), but because they can teach you something about the human condition; like for example, narcissism. Then you can use this when you craft characters for your next novel.

The other kind of critics deserve your full attention. When they say “I struggled with Mrs. Jenkins’ motivation for killing the penguin,” they’re telling you “I really wanted this to work, but it’s missing something.” These sorts of comments are not unlike the way baseball fans lean into fair territory as the potential winning home run arcs through the air toward the foul pole. Good criticism is leaning toward hoped-for results. These folks want you to succeed. Try leaning along with them to see what they see.

Listen to your mother. That’s usually good advice in general. But when it comes to your creative work, there’s still something to be said for listening to Mom (or other Family Member of Significance). Maybe your mom is an honest-even-if-it-hurts mom. Lucky you. Brace yourself, then listen. She might not have a lot of insight about the literary brilliance in your novel, but she probably knows a thing or two about you. Who knows, you might discover a flaw in your writing voice that only your mom could identify. (“It doesn’t sound like you. It’s much too happy.”)

Or maybe your mom is an I-love-everything-you-do mom who still has that handprint ashtray on the coffee table in the living room even though she’s never smoked a cigarette in her life. Take those glowing words about your crappy first draft for what they are: a sincere desire for you to be happy and successful. This is fuel for the soul. Burn it while you revise that crappy first draft.

Listen to your inner voice. I don’t mean the voices in your head. Nor do I mean the characters’ voices here. I’m talking about the little voice that says things like “that doesn’t seem to be working” or “that’s kind of the best thing you’ve ever written.” I’m talking about your writerly instincts. Note: Like most of these bullet points, this idea is closely tied to the original six words. The more you read and write, the better your instincts. Does that mean a day will come when you don’t need an editor? Um, probably not. But it does mean when that editor asks “what if you tried something like this?” you’ll be able to answer the query with confidence.

Listen to hope. Believe that you can do the impossible. Because you can.

Listen to despair. It’s okay to feel like a failure once in a while. Fighting that feeling just serves to prolong it. Be emotionally honest with yourself. Say it with me: “I suck as a writer.” Go ahead and compare yourself unfavorably with all the other writers. Just don’t stay here. Remember that you’re the only one who can write like you. Maybe that doesn’t feel like a good thing today (because you suck). But tomorrow? Tomorrow it will be a grace.

Listen to the wind. We live in a loud world. All those voices above (and many others) are constantly competing for your attention. Sometimes the best thing to listen to is…anything but those voices. Take a walk through the forest and bend your ear to the wind as it bends the branches to the earth. Skip rocks across a pond and count each slap of stone on water.  Play hopscotch with the neighbor kids and let their laughter soak your spirit. Stand on a busy street corner and embrace the chaotic rhythm of the workaday world as a kind of urban music.

Don’t think about your work in progress. Just take in the sounds and silences of the world around you. This may be exactly what your brain needs to sort through the current writing challenge: uninterrupted time for the subconscious to do its best work. But even if you don’t become a better writer by listening to the wind, at least you will have listened to the wind. And that will make you a better person.

Make Something Happen

“Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.”Elmore Leonard

I love this quote. Not just because it indirectly gives purpose to the existence of content editors. (Mostly because of that.) But also because it’s impossibly clever and initially appears to be cleverly impossible.

I mean, how do you do that?

Some readers tend to skip long descriptive sections. So you should leave those out, right? Not necessarily. There’s nothing wrong with good descriptive writing. If your voice happens to be descriptive, some readers are going to go skipping. You can’t stop them.

Other readers become impatient with anything that reminds them even remotely of a history textbook. No problem. Just delete it all. Um, unless your novel kind of needs that historical content. Which it probably does. Expect more skippers.

But we’re supposed to leave out the part…

Look, you’re not going to please all the readers. Don’t even try.

There is, however, one part readers tend to skip that you can address, regardless of your writing voice.

The part where nothing happens.

The part where characters simply pass the time. The part where characters start to repeat themselves unnecessarily. The part where the world slows to a crawl, not so the characters can collect themselves in anticipation of The Next Big Thing, but because you don’t really know what to say.

The part where the story stops moving*.

This often happens in the middle, but it can happen anywhere.

Conventional editorial wisdom (mine included) suggests the way to fix this is to Make Something Happen.

But before you strike your protagonist with lightning, take note of these “Three Rules for Making Something Happen.” (They’re not really rules. I don’t like rules. But it’s easier to call them rules than “Really Good Suggestions Based on Years of Editing Experience.”)

1. The Something must be notable. It needs to be significant enough to capture the characters’ attention. (And thus, the readers’ attention.) Sudden death works. So do natural disasters and other surprises. But your Something can also be a small thing, as long as it has not-so-small implications. A character’s decision to use the blue mug instead of the green one might not seem notable, but it could be if there’s a measurable risk in using the blue one. Here’s a simple test for those smaller actions: if there is no cost to the character, it’s probably not notable.

2. The Something must be believable. This may seem obvious, but nevertheless it needs to be stated. Have you ever rolled your eyes at an author’s decision to “shake things up” with an event that came out of proverbial left field? That author ignored this rule. They knew the story had stalled, rightly wanted to fix it, then chose an action completely out of context from the rest of the story. The Something needs to make sense. Yes, it can be a Big Surprise. Big Surprises are a great way to shake up a story. But if that surprise has no basis in the story so far, readers won’t buy it. (I see this a lot in fantasy and science fiction. Hey, we’ll just add this new ability/technology, and it’s all better. Nope. Not unless you have previously built a foundation for this thing.) Don’t drop an anvil on your protagonist unless the story takes place in a structurally-unsound anvil factory.

3. The characters’ reactions to the Something must be reasonable. A character you’ve painted as stoic isn’t suddenly going to become a bubbling mess of tears just because you killed his dog. Oh, he might show a crack in his armor, but he’s not going to change right there after the Something. (Unless, of course, you’ve been carefully crafting his arc so he’s just one crisis away from implosion.) If the characters react out of character to the Something (or not at all), your Something becomes little more than an ink spill. And if you don’t know how your characters would act…well, you have a bigger problem than the “part readers tend to skip.” Fix your characters.

And…that’s it. Blog post done. I tried to leave out the parts that readers tend to skip. If I failed, feel free to toss a grenade in there somewhere.

 

*”Moving” isn’t a synonym for “action-packed.” Some stories move like a bicycle messenger. Some move like a ballet dancer. Some move like a leaf lifted by a gentle breeze. And some don’t appear to be moving at all, yet somehow stir the reader in ways that feel like motion. I happen to love stories that move in unconventional ways. But they’re not for everyone. And certainly not for every writer. It takes unusual talent to do unconventional well. 

Two Paths

The path to writing well and the path to publication are two different paths.

I’ll explain in a second. But before I begin, let’s dispense with the “good writing is subjective” conversation. Can we just work from the assumption that everyone in the room understands that my definition of “writing well” and yours differ at least in small ways, and perhaps also in big ways? We can? Cool.

Four Truths About the Path to Writing Well

1. Writing well takes time. Period. There are no shortcuts to writing well.

2. Each person’s journey to writing well is unique. A select few writers get there (relatively) quickly. Most don’t. You are probably in the latter group. Don’t beat yourself up about that.

3. You can study writing until you’re blue in the face (where you’ll quickly learn that clichés like this are verboten), but there is no substitute for simply writing. I recently tweeted this: “You don’t find your writing voice by reading about writing. You find it by writing.” If you take nothing else from this post, take that.

4. Writing resources (craft books, blogs, conferences, fortune cookies) can make the path more interesting. They can inspire a healthy curiosity and ignite an interest in pursuing excellence. They can teach you plotting and character arcs and other helpful stuff. But they can also frustrate your writing life. If you’re constantly reading about how to write, you’re not writing. And if you’re not writing, you’re not growing as a writer. Here’s a tip: If you’re buying more writing books than novels, you’re probably doing it wrong. Reading is your best writing teacher and writing is your homework. Do your homework.

The path to writing well doesn’t always line up with the path to publication. Sometimes the two paths are parallel. Sometimes they’re perpendicular. Sometimes they’re the very same line. This is one of the reasons why your head hurts.

Four Separate Truths About the Path to Publication

1. The path to publication takes time. Almost always. Except when it doesn’t. For some, it appears to happen suddenly. Like “overnight” suddenly. Usually the “overnight” can be measured in years. Usually.

2. Each person’s path to publication is unique. Stop comparing yours to everyone else’s. Especially that guy in your writing group who got an agent last month – the one whose writing truly sucks. Compared to yours, I mean.

3. There is no substitute for studying all you can about getting published. Read the agent blogs and the “how to get published” books. Go to conferences. Listen to the wisdom of those who have gone before, whether you’re pursuing traditional publishing or self-publishing. Heed (most of) this advice.

4. The pursuit of publication will frustrate your writing life. Seriously. Every moment you spend in that pursuit is a moment you don’t spend writing. (Or reading about writing, for that matter.) Along the path to publication you will be angry and depressed. You will be confused. You will be exhausted. You will question your dream. More than once. But if you’re patient and persistent, the path will matter. It will give shape to your dream. Be patient and persistent, okay?

Some final advice: if you haven’t been on the path to writing well for long, please don’t start down the path to publication. Not yet. Just write for a while. Maybe a long while. Write until you find your voice. Then and only then, step onto the second path and try not to stumble.

Oh, and when you finally get published? Well, there’s another path. The marketing path. We’ll talk about that another time.

Meanwhile, wear comfortable shoes.

Listen Carefully, Your Manuscript Stinks

Your manuscript doesn’t speak English. (Or American. Or Australian. Or Esperanto. Or whatever you call your native tongue.) It speaks Manuscript.

This is why all the threats you sling at it in your native tongue go unheeded. (Well, that, and the fact that it doesn’t like being threatened. It can read your tone even if it doesn’t understand your words.) And while yelling at your manuscript may help release existential angst (Cue “Shout” by Tears for Fears), increased volume still doesn’t result in increased comprehension.

When you’re having a novel crisis, it could be simply because your novel is truly awful. (Give it hemlock.) Or it could be that you’re overwhelmed by life and those things causing your overwhelmed-ness (work stress, heartache, parenting challenges, more heartache, lack of wine, still more heartache) are making the writing process harder than it needs to be. (Give yourself hemlock. Wait, don’t do that. Hemlock is a poor substitute for wine. Just take a break from writing until your real life stuff settles down a bit.) Then again, it could be a million other things, but for the sake of this blog post I’m going to pretend there are only three possible reasons for your crisis and that the third one is a simple case of misunderstanding.

You need to learn Manuscript. (You can call it Story if you like. Or Novelish. Or Splargenslap. Whatever. It’s not a real thing, so I don’t care what you call it.)

Manuscript isn’t easy to learn. There is no Rosetta Stone program for it. Editors waste spend their entire lives learning it. But you don’t have that kind of time. So I’m offering you a handy translation guide. Did I mention that Manuscript is a language of metaphorical scent? No? Well, it is. And it’s terribly fickle.

When your manuscript starts to smell (metaphorically) like rotting fish, it’s saying one of the following things:

  • You’re falling back on those pet words and phrases again. How many times can our heroine nod her head before physics demands that it fall off? And who “swipes at their eyes” anyway? Stop it or I’ll delete myself from your computer.
  • You’re using similes to distraction. I’m as tired as a tired thing is tired of things that make it tired. Please vary the way you describe stuff. Thank you.
  • Hey, it’s not me. I’m fine. You just forgot to put the fish in the fridge.

When your manuscript starts to smell like a moldy orange, it’s saying one of these two things:

  • Nothing is happening. Nothing. Is. Happening. Kill somebody already. But first, delete the last 30 pages.
  • Hey, put some words on the page. Yes, I might just tell you to delete them tomorrow. Trust me on this, just put something here so I don’t go mad from all the white space.

When your manuscript starts to smell like burning rubber, it’s saying:

  • This is probably a good time to release the clutch on some of those plot points. I mean, they’re all great and everything, but there comes a time when it’s no longer suspenseful to “wait for it” – it’s agony. Not the good kind.

When your manuscript starts to smell like paint, it’s saying:

  • Step away for a while and let the words settle. I think they’re good, but if you keep messing with them you might screw things up. Work on something else for a few hours – like a blog post or a bag of M&Ms.

When your manuscript starts to smell like some kind of flowers but you aren’t sure what kind of flowers because it’s just some generic floral smell, it’s saying:

  • Get specific, friend. If our protagonist’s pet weasel smells like flowers, just tell me what kind of flowers. I don’t know what “floral” means. And about that “beautiful” sky? Really? That’s all you can come up with? Beautiful is a stupid word. It’s practically meaningless. If you can’t find the right words to describe a thing, write a shape around it instead.

When your manuscript starts to smell like chocolate, it’s saying:

  • Send me to your agent/editor already. We’re good. I like myself just as I am. I’m not just saying that. Stop revising or you’re going to give me a complex. Would you send your agent/editor a chocolate bar with bite marks?

When your manuscript starts to smell like coffee, it’s saying:

  • You just knocked over your venti white chocolate mocha. I hope you remembered to back me up to the cloud.

There you go. Sniff away, writer-friends.

[Insert scent of bacon here.] This is Manuscript for “We’re done here. Go eat some bacon.”