Talking about Dialogue

Dialogue is talk. Just thought I’d clarify. Some writers don’t seem to get that. So unless the character you’re writing dialogue for is some English professor – and even then – chances are, the character won’t speak all in whole sentences. Because it’s not how we talk. We speak in fragments. Sometimes just one word sentences. Really. We also often start sentences with words like ‘and.’

And depending on your character, some words might not be technically or grammatically correct, but I ain’t gonna expand on that one too much.

People don’t talk in semicolons. Don’t use them in dialogue. If the English professor in you is itching to put a semicolon inside those quotes, substitute em dashes or just separate the sentences with a period. Period.

Try to avoid having too many times when your character rambles on forever without a break. This is called monologuing and, as any villain will tell you, monologuing is Bad. Many times it’s a sign of infodump, unless you have a character who just likes to lecture – and if that’s the case, do your best to rein him or her in.

If your character must talk on and on, break it up with interjections or questions from other characters, or separate the dialogue with tags or better yet, beats.

You can also use new paragraphs to break up the dialogue when appropriate. I say ‘when appropriate’ because I’ve seen writers who feel that after every sentence or two they must start a new paragraph. It’s not necessary. Real speech often rambles or changes subjects abruptly. Using a beat is a much better way to indicate a topic change than having five paragraph breaks in seven sentences for one character’s speech. Much easier on your readers, too.

But don’t forget, if you do start a new paragraph in the middle of a monologue, you must follow the proper quotation rule. Don’t use an end quote at the end of the old paragraph, and do use a beginning quote at the start of a new one.

originally published in The Sword Review 2006-10-05

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From Flat to Fleshed-out

bringing life to your characters

Have you ever had a critique partner or editor tell you that your characters lack depth or feel flat? One thing that can cause this problem is a lack of internal monologue. Let the reader inside the character’s head, and reveal what he’s thinking. This can be effective, done correctly.

Consider this opening paragraph, taken from my short story, “Alternate Path,” (published in Deep Magic, July 2005) as an example:

Alcandhor gulped as he entered the conclave chamber. The clan Chiefs sat at the table, their gazes fixed on him. He walked to the end of the table and faced them.

Sorta blah, huh? Flat.

Now, here’s the same opening paragraph, with internal monologue:

Alcandhor gulped as he entered the conclave chamber. The clan Chiefs sat at the table, their gazes fixed on him. What could they want with a mere stripling Ranger having thirteen years? He walked to the end of the table and faced them, his mind racing through possibilities of adventures and pranks, dismissing one then another. He had done nothing wrong, er, very wrong – at least, well, surely they would not call conclave for that. And anyway, that had been more Haladhon’s escapade than his.

Yeah, better, isn’t it? We learn quite a bit about our young protagonist just from one paragraph. (Adorable rascal, isn’t he? Well, maybe I’m prejudiced…)

I think you get the idea – let your reader ‘hear’ your character’s thoughts, the voice inside his head.

However, be careful. You can end up telling instead of showing with this technique. Or using it as a not too clever method of sneaking in an infodump. Also, some writers tend to get carried away and have long paragraphs or even pages of internal monologue – this can end up boring.

So get inside your character’s head then let the rest of us inside, and you will find your character has become more real.

originally published in The Sword Review 2006-08-05

Specific Verbs

bringing your verbs, and story, to life

I homeschool my daughter, and we don’t follow a curriculum, but she loves to ‘play’ school, so I gave her some texts to work from. I grinned as she asked for direction on one particular page of the English book. It was about choosing appropriate words. Specifically verbs.

The book explained that verbs like run and went don’t tell us much. Ha, yes, I’ve discussed this before. But I thought it was humorous that many adult writers don’t get this, yet it’s being taught on a second and third grade level (at least in the texts I have on hand).

Make your verbs come alive. Some common culprits are walk, run, went, and look. Let’s use went and look.

Example:

She went into the house.

Alternatives:

She stomped into the house.
She sneaked into the house.
She pranced into the house.
She sidled into the house.
She dashed into the house.

Example:

He looked at the stranger.

Alternatives:

He peeked at the stranger.
He squinted at the stranger.
He glared at the stranger.
He stared at the stranger.
He gawked at the stranger.

Get the idea? Go over your story and look for how many times you use run, walk, went, look. Then find more descriptive or active verbs to replace them. It will make your story come alive!

originally published in The Sword Review 2006-06-27

Writer’s Block

Someone asked about writer’s block in The Sword Review forums. I wasn’t kidding when I said I was going to use my reply as a column. Here it is…

Talk to a dozen writers about writer’s block and you’ll get a dozen answers, but usually the first we all say is, “Keep writing.”

Usually this is great advice.

But sometimes the problem is the need for a fresh outlook. At times I feel stale, and so does the story and the characters. When this happens, I take a total break. I do something I like (besides writing). Like gardening. Or watching a funny movie, or bike-riding. Just something to clear the cobwebs in my brain so I can tackle the story afresh.

Sometimes a block comes because the story or a character has taken a wrong turn. I’ve had this happen countless times. The character and I stand and stare at each other thinking, “Now what?” When this happens, I go back and see if there was a place where the character might have made a different choice, or even introduce an event to force the character to do something different, then usually the scene flows, and the story begins to weave together.

So bottom line, keep writing, look for fresh angles, and keep writing!

originally published in The Sword Review 2006-06-09

How to Get Published

Do you want to get published? Then I have some advice for you. Be willing to learn.

In one of the first lectures I ever listened to about writing, I remember the author telling us a critique she did for a woman. This woman, however, was not open to the author’s suggestions. Her reply was, “I worked hard on this and I’m not going to change a word!” The author told us, “Guess what? She’ll not get published.”

I had wondered how any writer could not be open to improvement, but I’ve since met them. They respond with “Yeah but…” to every suggestion. One told me that he didn’t have time to read books on how to write. I suggested articles he could read that would help him understand writing techniques, but his response every time was, “I’m too busy.” He’ll be too busy to get published, I guess. (I’m not trying to sound superior – believe me, I know I have much to learn.)

So my advice: don’t be intractable concerning your writing. Develop a thick skin and listen to the feedback. Take something good and turn it into something great. Something polished and publishable.

Yes, it takes time. And if you’re like me, patience isn’t a word you like. But time passes whether you learn to craft your writing or not, and will make the difference on whether you begin receiving acceptance letters rather than form rejections.

So take the time to learn.

originally published in The Sword Review 2006-05-19

Feelings

I’ve talked quite a bit in the past about some little things that might help tighten your writing, help you craft your story just a little. I’m no expert, just sharing what things seem to help me.

This time I want to share one point.

Feelings. Get used to this word. I’m going to overuse it in the next few paragraphs.

Feelings are what make a novel. It doesn’t matter if you can craft a story with perfect techniques. It doesn’t matter if your plot is pure genius. It doesn’t matter how much you’ve researched to make the story genuine and real. It doesn’t matter if you are a master of dialogue. If your story isn’t something that you feel deeply – and if you can’t get that feeling across to your readers, you’ve not done your job.

It’s what makes the difference between “Who cares?” and “Man, I can’t stop reading! What happens to the hero? I have to find out!”

Without feeling, you’ve got a cardboard story. You have to make your reader feel. Whether it be laughter, tears, anger – without engaging emotions, the reader won’t care. The story will sit on the page and die.

So to use a cliché, get in touch with your feelings, then get those feelings in your story and to your readers!

originally published in The Sword Review 2006-05-01

Good Crit Partners

few resources beat being a member of a good critique group

Above almost anything else, I recommend that a writer have a few crit partners that look over their manuscripts. I’ve heard some few writers say they have no one who looks over their stories until it’s in their agent’s hands, but for the most part, every writer needs someone to give feedback, help look for typos, and keep one on target. I have one ‘writing partner,’ and she’s my lifeline. We encourage each other daily as we each write our own stories. My critique groups (I belong to two) are invaluable – I don’t know what I’d do without them.

I’m not knowledgeable about where to find a critique group, but I can tell you what to look for. Whether online or meeting locally, the group should be friendly, with the attitude of benefiting one another. Put downs are no help to a writer. Neither are pat praises without any constructive critical feedback. If you find a crit group and the responses to your stories are “Wow, this is great!” and that’s it – no suggestions for improvement or at least marking typos or errors, or (as one writer shared with me): “w00t! u r a grate writer!!! This r0x0r!!!” I would suggest finding another group.

No matter how well you write, you will have problems that need to be pointed out. Develop a thick skin. When you receive your manuscript dripping red ink like blood, tackle the critiques with an open mind. You might receive conflicting critiques from your partners – if you do, set them aside, and let the ideas simmer in your head. Go over whether you think they have merit and ‘click’ in your gut. Then tackle the story.

(And I would like to thank my writing partner, Shannon McNear, for critiquing not only my stories but the articles for this column as well.)

originally published in The Sword Review 2006-03-31