Talking About Talking [Updated]

I promised a post about writing good dialogue. So here it is. (Because you don’t want yours to end up looking like this.)

Before I share a few book excerpts, consider these general tips. Keep in mind, these are principles, not hard-and-fast rules.

  • Avoid repetition of attributions. While you need the occasional “he said” and “she said,” you don’t need one for every line of dialogue. If it’s a conversation between two people, establish the characters at the beginning, then allow for the natural ebb and flow to reveal who’s saying what. Now, if you’ve got a long stretch of dialogue, you’ll need to insert the occasional “said Ben” or “said Margaret” to keep the reader from getting confused. If you’re unsure if the attribution distribution is on target, have a friend read the dialogue. If it takes more than one pass to understand who’s saying what, you might need to add an attribution or two.
  • Stick to the “said” attribution as much as possible. If you’ve done a good job with character and setting and the emotion of the scene, there’s no need to have a character blurt or spout or pontificate. Context will deliver all that’s necessary for the reader to know what tone is being used.
  • Don’t have characters over-use each other’s names. “Mary, I don’t believe you.” “Why not, John?” “Well, Mary, it’s because you’re a liar.” “John, how could you say such a thing?” “It’s easy, Mary. I just open my mouth and…” Okay. Get the point? While it’s probably fair to say that characters in a novel will call each other by name more often than people do in real-life conversation, pace yourself, okay John?
  • Don’t have characters over-explain things. Put yourself inside the conversation and remember that characters are a part of a living, breathing world. Step into each role and imagine the assumptions that each character would have. Are they both in the same room, sitting at the same counter? Then it’s overkill for a character to say: “I set it next to the toaster that’s on this gray counter.” Instead, try something like this: “I set it right there,” he said, pointing to the toaster. Allow actions to fill in the blanks.
  • Think rhythmically. Dialogue is a dance. Sometimes it’s a waltz.  Sometimes it’s a tarantella. Sometimes it’s ordered, sometimes its a reckless improvisation. Usually, it’s a blend of many different steps. The quickest way to kill dialogue is to have line after line of the same droll drone. Mix it up. If it’s fun to read aloud, it’s probably fun to read silently.
  • Don’t copy real-life dialogue verbatim. Written and spoken dialogue are similar – but not the same. In real life you have the benefit of body language and physical expression and actual spoken tone, but with the written word, you have to create the illusion of these things (as well as other things like interruption and simultaneous speaking and fractured thoughts). If you want, you can start with a real conversation, but as you commit it to the page,  you may have to add or delete or replace words. And you’ll probably have to get rid of more than a few non-word pauses like “um” and “uh.”
  • Allow characters to speak colloquially (according to their character and the time-period or culture of the novel’s setting). Unless the character is meant to sound like a British aristocrat, allow him to use contractions and sentence fragments and even to screw up his grammar now and then. Imperfections and mistakes help give characters unique personalities.

Okay. That’s just a few ideas to get you started. Now, here are a few brief scenes to illustrate effective use of dialogue. The excerpts were chosen from books randomly pulled off my meager shelf. Yes, I said “meager.” Maybe someday when I have a real house and a real life, I’ll fill a wall or two with books, but these days my pickings are slim. After I read a book, I usually just give it to a friend. (This is the second best reason to be my friend. The first is the fact that I make damn good chocolate chip cookies.) [Updated Thursday afternoon to include two more examples - from authors who have a little more estrogen than the three examples originally noted below.]

* * *

She raises the lid of the piano, strikes middle C. “Do you play?” she says.

“A bit.”

“Classics or jazz?”

“No jazz, I’m afraid.”

“Will you play something for me?”

“Not now. I’m out of practice. Another time, when we know each other better.”

She peers into his study. “Can I look?” she says.

“Switch on the light.”

He puts on more music: Scarlatti sonatas, cat-music.

“You’ve got a lot of Byron books,” she says when she comes out. “Is he your favorite?”

“I’m working on Byron. On his time in Italy.”

“Didn’t he die young?”

“Thirty-six. They all died young…”

- from Disgrace, by J. M. Coetzee

* * *

“Kath, I’ve been looking all over for you. I meant to say sorry. I mean, I’m really, really sorry. I honestly didn’t mean to hit you the other day. I wouldn’t dream of hitting a girl, and even if I did, I’d never want to hit you. I’m really really sorry.”

“It’s okay. An accident, that’s all.” I gave him a nod and made to move away. But Tommy said brightly:

“The shirt’s all right now. It all washed out.”

“That’s good.”

“It didn’t hurt, did it? When I hit you?”

“Sure. Fractured skull. Concussion, the lot. Even Crow Face might notice it. That’s if I ever get up there.”

“But seriously, Kath. No hard feelings, right? I’m awfully sorry. I am, honestly.”

At last I gave him a smile and said with no irony: “Look, Tommy, it was an accident and it’s now one hundred percent forgotten. I don’t hold it against you one tiny bit.”

- from Never Let Me Go, by Kazuo Ishiguro

* * *

We sat and looked out. Brett stared straight ahead. Suddenly she shivered.

“It’s cold.”

“Want to walk back?”

“Through the park.”

We climbed down. It was clouding over again. In the park it was dark under the trees.

“Do you still love me, Jake?”

“Yes,” I said.

“Because I’m a goner,” Brett said.

“How?”

“I’m a goner. I’m mad about the Romero boy. I’m in love with him, I think.”

“I wouldn’t be if I were you.”

“I can’t help it. I’m a goner. It’s tearing me all up inside.”

“Don’t do it.”

“I can’t help it. I’ve never been able to help anything.”

“You ought to stop it.”

“How can I stop it? I can’t stop things. Feel that?”

Her hand was trembling.

“I’m like that all through.”

“You oughtn’t to do it.”

“I can’t help it. I’m a goner now, anyway. Don’t you see the difference?”

“No.”

“I’ve got to do something. I’ve got to do something I really want to do. I’ve lost my self-respect.”

“You don’t have to do that.”

“Oh, darling, don’t be difficult…”

- from The Sun Also Rises, by Ernest Hemingway

* * *

“Well?” Annabel says.

“She wasn’t there. Of course she wasn’t there. Everyone was right. I was wrong. It’s over.”

“I’m so sorry.”

“You know, I really believed I could find her. Remember my senior year of college, when you came to see my photography show in the student union?”

“Of course,” Annabel says.

“There’s something I never told you. I was the last person in my class to get a show. The very last. Everyone else did one during the fall semester, but my professor thought I wasn’t ready. In the end, the only reason I got to do the show was that I spent every night for three months in the darkroom, long after everyone else was in bed, working my ass off. Then, over time, I built my own business and made it work out of sheer stubbornness. I know I wasn’t blessed with obvious talent. My art has always been something else: hardheaded determination. It always worked for me before. I thought it would work this time, that if I was determined enough, for long enough, I’d find her.”

“You did everything you could,” Annabel says.

“It wasn’t enough.”

“Where are you calling from?”

“Playa Hermosa. I’m packing up.”

No tears now, I can’t find them. Even the anger is gone. All that’s left is a dry, empty space. This longing that will never be satisfied. This guilt.

“Come home,” Annabel says.

- from The Year of Fog, by Michelle Richmond

* * *

When we return to the house, my father calls Dr. Gibson. I hang around in the den so that I can hear him in the kitchen.

“I just wondered how the baby was doing,” I hear my father say into the phone.

“That’s good, right?” my father says.

“Where is she now?” he asks.

“She’ll be there how long? . . .

“Does she have a name yet? . . .

“Baby Doris,” my father repeats. He sounds surprised, taken aback.”You say she’ll go into foster care? . . .

“It seems so — “

Dr. Gibson must make a comment about foster care and adoption, because my father says, “Yes, cold.”

I can hear my father pouring a cup of coffee. “When the system doesn’t work, what happens? . . .

“She’d be prosecuted, though. . .

“Thanks,” my father says. “I just wanted to know that the baby was okay.”

My father hangs up the phone. I move into the kitchen. He’s sipping the lukewarm coffee and looking out the kitchen window. “Hey,” he says when he hears me.

“She’s all right?” I ask.

“She’s fine.”

“They’ve named her Baby Doris?”

“Apparently.” He sets the mug down. “Going to Sweetsers,” he says. “Want to come?”

I don’t have to be asked twice to accompany my father on a trip to town.

- from Light on Snow, by Anita Shreve

* * *

You may notice that these authors don’t follow “to the letter” my suggested guidelines. Well, you’ve heard a lot about a writer’s “voice,” right? One of the defining facets of that voice is the way an author presents dialogue. The use of “say” where you might expect “ask” is a matter of voice. So is the decision to have a line of dialogue follow a colon. (So, also, is the use of the occasional adverb, as you can see in two of the excerpts.) [Updated note: I like how Anita Shreve handles the phone call in her scene. This is a great example of mixing dialogue with contextual action (the daughter's eavesdropping) in just the right measure so the reader hears everything said and unsaid.]

The main thing to ask yourself when reviewing your written dialogue is this: Does the conversation fit organically into the rest of the narrative? Does it “feel” right? If so, you’re on track. But if it pulls you out of the story or causes you to cringe, you’ve got work to do.

Okay. Tomorrow, some news about the contest entries. And (if everything goes as planned) an announcement about the winners. Plus, other random stuff.

Until then, write well.

Let It Die

Is it time let your novel die?

That’s a question every writer faces at least once in his or her writing life. The decision to pull life support is difficult at best, debilitatingly impossible at worst. You’ve worked on this novel for, what, months? years? How many hours have you invested? Even a poorly-written novel takes a long time to write.

Then there’s the emotional cost. Whether you love your characters or hate them, they’ve most likely become real to you. (I’m 99 percent certain I’ve seen some of mine hanging out at the local Starbucks.) Giving up on their story can feel like signing a bundle of death warrants. And who wants to do that?

There are a number of good reasons to let a novel die – a plot that goes nowhere, characters that just lie there on the page, un-patchable holes in story logic, an unbelievable premise, and (though this might be the hardest one for the writer to identify herself), shoddy writing. Thankfully, most of these things will rear their ugly heads long before you’ve finished your work, saving you the agony of having to decide the fate of a Fully Operational Death Star… I mean, completed novel.

But let’s assume for a moment that your plot is sound, your characters interesting, and (according to someone other than your mother), the writing is actually decent. And you’ve finished the book. And you’ve been shopping it to agents (or, if you have an agent, he or she has been shopping it to publishing houses) for months. And months. And months.

And nobody wants it.

You’ve heard a dozen variations on “It’s not for us” or “The writing is good, but I’m just not blown away by it” or the real soul-killer, “I wanted to love it…”

Do you give up on your novel after ten rejections? Twenty? Fifty?

How many times can you go back to the story and “improve” it before you actually start to make it worse? Five times? Ten?

I’ll offer you the inspirational message first. Don’t give up! If you need a break from constant rejection, just set aside the novel for a time and work on something else. [Insert any of a hundred stories of authors whose novels languished for years before becoming an "overnight success" story.] When the time is right and the market is right and the stars align and God decides He likes you, all your hard work will pay off in a contract offer and the subsequent joy of walking into Barnes & Noble to see your lovely book on the front table next to Dan Brown’s next bestseller.

If inspiration is what you need, you should stop reading now.

For the rest of you? Well, killing your unsalable book might just be the best thing you ever did. It’s quite possible your stillborn story is holding you back from creating something better. If every time you sit down to write a new work, you look longingly at your last project and wonder “why oh why don’t they love you like I do?” you might be dooming your current work to the same fate.

Letting go of a novel can free you up to try new things with the next one.

Now, I’m not actually suggesting you should delete all files and throw away all hard copies of a go-nowhere book. That would be silly. You should keep past work in some sort of archive. That archive is a great testament to all you’ve accomplished, and (hopefully), a scrapbook that shows how far you’ve come.

But what I am suggesting is that you effectively let the book die. Stop thinking about it. Put all your time into the current project. Apply everything you’ve learned from the last one and make this story shine. You can’t hurt your previous novel’s feelings. A novel understands its role, even if the writer doesn’t. A shelved novel has already served a very important purpose. It has taught you.

Now about this new work? You really should pay attention to it. Because, as you know, this is the one that will get you published.

Yes, this one. It’s a living, breathing thing.

And I think it’s hungry.

A Few Words of My Own

A couple years ago, on a blog far, far away, I invited readers to send me a word or phrase that I could use as the basis for a short story. Readers sent me words like “cheesecake” and “dragonfly” and “rick-rack.” I wrote a story for each. But there was this one reader who thought it would be funny to send me more than one word. Here was her list:

  • pus-oozing scabs
  • maggot-infested corpses
  • lightning bugs
  • Hello Kitty band-aids
  • Silver Queen corn
  • a kite-flying windy day in March
  • chocolate cake
  • tiramisu
  • sargassum tea
  • Hershey’s Kisses
  • flying monkeys
  • a white tiger
  • transistor radios

I told her I could write a story that included them all. And so I did.

* * *

Not Enough Sky

I am watching her sleep.

It is a restless sleep. She has been like this for two weeks.

It began the night after she got that letter. Elle had tried to hide her reaction from me, but in an unprotected moment, I saw the life drain out of her, the air sucked from her lungs, and the hope ripped from her heart. It took extraordinary courage and strength to force an almost-believable smile to her face when she finally said, “It’s from my old college roommate.” Then she got up from the kitchen table and shuffled outside in pajamas and slippers to sit on the porch swing.

My pj-girl sat there in the brisk morning air for more than an hour. I wanted to follow her. To sit next to her and put my arm around her and hold her in whatever sort of silence her heart needed.

But somehow I knew that would be too much.

Later, after the sun fell behind the hills, we sat in the den together, reading. I brought her a glass of red wine. She stared at the same two pages for at least forty minutes before slipping away to bed. It was a book by Anita Shrieve. I don’t remember which one, but it had a silvery-blue cover that reminded me of winter.

She is waking up now.

“David?”

“I’m here.”

She has been crying. The moonlight paints pale blue trails down her cheeks.

“You were having another nightmare.” I wipe the blue away with the back of my hand.

“I…I was…”

“What was it this time? Maggot-infested corpses?” I say this with a smile, hoping to soften the edge between asleep and awake.

“No…no…I…”

“Pus-oozing scabs?” She brushes my hands away from her face.

“Stop it. You’re making fun of me.”

“No, I…I’m sorry, Elle. I don’t mean to.”

She swings her feet over the bedside and sits there with perfect posture, staring out the window.

“Go back to sleep,” she says. I hear fresh tears in her voice.

I don’t argue. Not this time. I lie on my back, look over at her silhouette.

She is a ghost.

* * *

“Chocolate cake?”

Elle takes a long sip of her coffee.

“Okay, then what about tiramisu?” I ask. She, sputters, nearly chokes. “You used to love tiramisu. It’s been years since you had it…”

“No.”

“No?”

“No, I don’t want dessert.”

“Elle…I wish you would…”

“No, David. Not tonight…”

“But Elle…”

“David…I can’t. I just can’t.”

I reach my hand to hers. She flinches as skin touches skin, but does not pull away from me.

“Will you ever want to talk?”

“I don’t know,” she says. And now she retracts her hand, bringing it up to join the other in cradling her coffee cup. She starts coughing. A deep, throaty cough.

“Maybe we should trade that coffee for sargassum tea,” I say. She finds a smile and for a moment I see the Elle I chased along the beach two years ago during our 10-year-anniversary getaway. She’d threatened to make sargassum tea right there on the shoreline and force it down my throat.

“I don’t want you coughing up your lungs this week,” she’d teased. “I need you healthy so you can make love to me every morning and every afternoon and every night.”

I didn’t need the tea. The promise of passion in her beautiful brown eyes healed me faster than a Hello Kitty band-aid could wipe way little Haley’s tears after a tumble.

On the way out of the restaurant, I grab a couple Hershey’s Kisses from the crystal bowl by the door. I’ll place one on her pillow tonight.

She really did want dessert.

* * *

We are celebrating Haley’s seventh birthday. It is a kite-flying windy day in March.

They are standing together atop a hill, staring at the darting and diving colors.

“Look, mom…flying monkeys!” Haley points and laughs. It is an inside joke between mother and daughter. But I think I know how it came about. I wandered in late from work one evening to the cackle of the Wicked Witch of the West accompanied by the sobs of a frightened six-year-old coming from the family room. I didn’t hear what Elle said to her, but it wasn’t much later when Haley’s high-pitched giggles skipped around the house, brightening every room.

“How many ears of corn do you want?” I shout.

“Just one for me, daddy,” Haley calls back.

“And one for me,” Elle adds. “Unless it’s Silver Queen.” She blows a kiss to me. Perhaps she winks.

“Sorry, ma’am, we’re all out of Silver Queen,” I say in my best southern accent. It’s not a very good impression, but Elle laughs anyway at our own inside joke.

* * *

Haley is asleep in her bed, arms wrapped tight around her new best friend, a white tiger. When she announced his name to us after tearing through the wrapping paper and giving him a breathtaking hug, Elle turned whiter than the stuffed animal.

“William,” Haley said, “I’m going to call him William.”

We are sitting on the bottom step of the back porch. The neighbors’ bug zappers sizzle and crackle like poorly tuned transistor radios.

Elle reaches into her pocket and removes a folded-up letter. The letter. She holds it for a moment, turns it in her hands, then gives it to me.

“Look…the lightning bugs are out,” she says. Her voice is steady.

I hold the letter in the sliver of light coming through the kitchen window. I am afraid to read it…

Dear Elle,

I have some sad news. There’s no easy way to say this, my good friend.

William died yesterday.

He was driving home from work and someone ran a red light. He was killed instantly. We’re all stunned. Lisa is a wreck, as you might guess. I can’t even imagine it, losing my husband like that. And the kids…oh my, they’re all so sad. I haven’t stopped crying.

I knew about your letters. I found out quite by accident and confronted William. I hated him so much then. Do you know what it’s like to hate the brother you’ve looked up to all your life? Then I made him tell you a lie, Elle. I made him write that last letter all those years ago. I made him promise never to write again.

I had to, Elle. I love you and David too much…

I stop reading and fold the letter. I hold it out for Elle.

There is a sudden silence. The night waits.

She takes the letter and slips it into her pocket.

The stars are brilliant tonight. They remind me of something Elle told me on the beach after we’d made love to the gentle rhythm of the midnight waves. “There’s not enough sky to hold all my love for you,” she said.

In the stillness God has granted, I take her hand in mine.

The crickets tentatively resume their chorus. The wind blows music through the hanging glass chimes.

LIghtning bugs dot the yard.

Slowly, patiently, the night returns.

And morning will follow.

Your Novel Doesn’t Stink Enough

Scent. The forgotten sense.

Take a look at your work in progress. How often do you invite the reader’s nose into the story? My guess? Not as often as you should.

Consider real life for a moment. (In case you’ve forgotten, this is the life where you have to do laundry and feed the dog and occasionally acknowledge the existence of your spouse and/or children.) Breathe in each the following. Be sure to pause long enough for the brain to write the scene that goes with the scent.

Diesel fuel.

Chocolate chip cookies fresh from the oven.

The sidewalk after a summer rain.

Burning plastic.

Theater popcorn.

Cigar smoke.

Wet dog.

Spinning class.

The ocean.

Lavender.

Is your head spinning yet? Good. Then you get my point. In real life (see above for reminder of what this is), scent is one of our most powerful memory-triggers. Whereas I sometimes struggle to re-paint the visual elements of a past experience, scent memory acts like an impatient time machine. The moment I smell vanilla, I’m in my mother’s kitchen, barely as tall as the counter, fingers dusted with flour and waiting impatiently for the first spoon of cookie dough. The heady tease of campfire smoke takes me to any of a dozen childhood-through-adult memories, each flashing by in some visceral “Best Of…” camping memories video. And then there’s the unique pheromonic signature of those we love… or once loved. Sigh. The paradox of hope and a broken heart in a single inhale? Don’t even get me started on that one.

As with every other aspect of writing, using scent in story is an art form. It’s not as simple as saying “She smelled of raspberries.” Here are a few basic tips to make the most of scent:

  • Vary the manner in which you put the scent on the page. While it’s easy to write “she smelled like…” or “the air smelled like…” and so on, this sort of simplistic introduction to scent can actually diminish the reader’s experience over time. Mix it up. Use sentence fragments. Or just toss the source of the scent on the page. (“When she reached for the spoon, she knocked over the open bottle of vanilla and it soaked her sleeve.”)
  • Choose your scents carefully – what takes you back to a happy memory could take someone else back to a sad one.
  • Obscure scents can be effective (they take readers to very specific places), but familiar ones will have the most universal impact.
  • Allow plenty of space around the scent. Unless you are trying to overwhelm the reader in a particular scene, don’t throw a bouquet of aromas on the page. A single mention of burning plastic can linger almost as long in a story as it does in real life (remember real life?).
  • Scents can be used for good or for evil. Don’t be afraid to use them for the latter. Nothing will make a reader remember a villain more than being told he reeks of a decomposing mouse.

The nose matters.

That’s all for today. But before I go, I thought I’d share some of the titles I almost used for this post. Just because.

  • The Ol’factory
  • Scents and Sensibility
  • Sulphur for Your Art
  • The Odor Way to Write
  • Scratch and Sniff Your Way to a Pulitzer

In case you’re wondering – I haven’t forgotten the “First and Last” contest. Your entries are lined up in my reading queue. I’ve skimmed them once already. You people are quite creative. And slightly insane. In a (mostly) good way.

Winners will be announced Friday.

Smell you later…

Put Down Your Red Stapler and Go Home. It’s Friday.

Three things.

Uno – The “First and Last” contest is coming to a close tonight at midnight… but if you ask really nicely, I might let you finish your story over the weekend. Here’s a link to the contest info. And thanks to all who have already entered. So far, nearly 20 of you have taken on the challenge. I suspect a few more are waiting until the last minute to submit your brilliant work. Looking forward to reading each entry.

Two – I invited you to send suggestions for first and last lines that I might choose from to write a story… and some of you have done that. I might try to find a way to fit more than two of these in my story. This reminds me of a similar challenge I faced in an old blog of mine. I told readers I’d write a story using any word or phrase people sent in. Most sent a single word, and each got a short story. But this one sassy blogfriend sent me like a dozen (including, among others, “maggot-infested corpses” and “sargassum tea” and “Hello Kitty band-aids” and “a kite-flying windy day”) and challenged me to fit them in a single story. I did. And it was almost brilliant, if I do say so myself. (I’ll tell you more about that later.)

Here’s what I have to chose from so far.

First lines:

Joan hated dogs, especially hated them for breakfast.

If only he could see the future.

The end of the world was the best thing that had ever happened.

The striped cat glared at me.

The scent of roses had a chemical edge to it.

It had to be a trick, Nessie was just a myth, right?

Three attempts for three failures, and the last the worst of them all.

She wore bling like Christmas tree decorations, and I wondered if she could pay.

The song finishes too quickly.

Maybe this fertilizer will make our garden grow.

Last lines:

I was still hungry.

The jar was broken beyond repair.

The last thing he heard was, “dance for me monkey, dance.”

It burned on.

The feeling lasts forever.

Hot and sinfully smooth, just the way I like it.

If only the chairs were edible.

But it didn’t matter, not now.

The rain washed it all away.

He opened the envelope, no longer afraid.

Third Thing – While you’re waiting for the results of this contest (hopefully, by next Friday), I have a new challenge for you. Remember this post about what not to do with dialogue? Well, I want you to start thinking about what good dialogue looks like. Grab your favorite book and see if you can figure out what makes the dialogue shine. Listen to a conversation in a coffee shop and imagine it on the page. What would you keep? What would you delete? How many times do you need to mention who said what?

Next week, I’ll show you some of the good examples I’ve run across in recent reading.

Until then, write well. Read a lot. And send me cookies. (I prefer the cake-like cookies you typically only find in swanky bakeries. You know the soft’n’chewy kind. Chocolate chip. Peanut butter. Snickerdoodles.)