Posts Tagged characters

Novels aren’t movie scripts: how to write great dialogue in prose

bookshelvesDo you learn your storytelling from movies as much as from prose? Have you cut your writing teeth on the wisdom of the hallowed screenwriting gurus (McKee, Field and Goldman)? Are you a screenwriter who’s making the switch to novels?

If so, you’ll certainly know some great storytelling tricks, but the two disciplines are different. Some movie techniques simply don’t translate to the page.

Indeed, if you’re writing your novel as though it’s a movie in your head, your ideas might not work as powerfully as they should.

I’ve already discussed a few general points in a previous post – scenes with a lot of characters, short, choppy scenes and point of view. There are other crucial differences between screen and page, so over the next few posts I’m going to look at them in detail.

Today: dialogue

Film is a visual medium. If we’re watching a scene in a movie where two characters were talking, the words they say are not as noticeable as the characters’ expressions, their actions and the way they do things – whether it’s picking a lock, walking home late at night, sharpening a sword or getting progressively and endearingly sozzled. And so the actors’ moves, the camera angles and the emphasis of the lighting are telling the story just as much as any words the characters are uttering. Indeed, you could probably watch a well-made dialogue scene with the sound off and still understand the thrust of it. An argument, a reconciliation, etc.

On the page, however, the prose does everything. But what I often find with writers who are tuned to the screen is that they don’t realise how much more work a dialogue scene in prose has to do. They haven’t got actors, or a lighting crew, or a set designer, or a composer who will add the other pieces to take the story forward.

They’re good at getting their characters talking, and sounding natural, but their dialogue scenes lack half the information they need to move the story on. They’re imagining it on a screen, and they’re writing what the characters would say and do, but they miss out the impact of the scene’s actions, realisations, changes in mood and plot revelations. All this is part of the story – and it has to come through the characters’ lines and your narration.

If you’ve learned your writing from movies, add these tips to your arsenal for good prose dialogue scenes:

Banter and quips In a movie, atmospheric natter and irrelevant quips are a great way to create a sense of a mood or character. On the page, this quickly looks aimless. Also in a movie, you can have them breaking into a bank vault while bantering – the story is happening at the same time as the visuals. On the page, we can only see one thing at a time. When using inconsequential chat, social niceties and companionable remarks, keep it concise, or find a way to make it purposeful.

Internal reactions The screenplay-tuned writer often doesn’t use internal dialogue, because an actor would add the expressions. Also, most films show a story from a third-person point of view. But in prose you can show what a character thinks and feels. Either you can do this with a close third-person point of view, or a first-person point of view, or by showing reactions through a physical act like clenching a fist. If a character is keeping their reactions hidden from the other characters in the scene, make sure we see they are seething – or celebrating – under the surface.

Silence, pauses and non-verbals Remember we see dialogue as well as hear it – don’t forget to include the characters’ reactions and non-verbal responses in your scene. Use your narration to create pauses. Make them sigh, look out of the window. Let them change their expression.

Prose is your background music Take charge of the scene’s environment. Create atmosphere through your description of the setting. A dripping tap in a moment of silence might increase a sense of tension. Rain might echo a character’s sadness or make a happy moment seem deliriously unreal.

nyn2 2014 smlThere’s a lot more about writing good dialogue scenes in Writing Characters Who’ll Keep Readers Captivated: Nail Your Novel 2. And Nail Your Novel 3 will concentrate on plot – so if that sounds like your cup of tea, sign up for my newsletter to get word as soon as it’s available.
Let’s discuss! do you find it tricky to write good dialogue scenes? Do you have any tips that helped you?

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Find the style that fits the story – Jose Saramago’s Blindness

blindnessI’m reading Jose Saramago’s Blindness, and its style is rather striking. It’s an omniscient narrator hopping between a lot of heads. The dialogue is run into the rest of the prose, with no punctuation to distinguish it from the rest of the prose. Yes, no quote marks. Not even a dash. Sometimes the dialogue has no tags to tell us who’s speaking – or indeed that it is speech. When the characters speak, it’s not even presented in separate sentences, let alone paragraphed.

A typical spread looks like this

blin2 001

Dense, long paragraphs. Rather offputting, isn’t it? It looks like the book will be a horrendous muddle and heavy going. Dave – who will give most styles a fair crack – tossed it down in disgust, muttering about pretentious gimmicks.

It’s certainly risky to mess with the conventions of dialogue. I frequently see novice manuscripts where all the dialogue is reported. This creates a distanced effect, as if no one in the book is really alive. It also creates a dense block of text that – as you can see – looks forbidding to the eye (although not many writers take it to the lengths Saramago has). But Blindness is enhanced by this style. Let’s look at why.

The society is the focus While there are certain characters who are central, Saramago’s interest is an event that breaks the normal structures of civilisation. The omniscient view and the technique of running the dialogue together in long sentences builds on this. It means they are part of a bigger picture. The focus can be on anyone – the person whose actions are the most interesting or urgent to watch at a given moment.

The main characters become more vulnerable There are key characters, and this style creates a sense that they are more fragile. In any story that follows just a few viewpoints, we’re aware that most of them must continue as consciousnesses until the end of the book. In the dangerous world of this story, anyone could vanish and the world will go on being narrated. So the threat to them is more real.

Nothing is confusing Despite the unconventional presentation, you can usually tell who’s talking. Where you can’t, it’s either not important – or the point is to experience confusion.

41L5A0POlkL._BO2,204,203,200_PIsitb-sticker-arrow-click,TopRight,35,-76_AA300_SH20_OU02_It’s set up carefully All stories have to introduce the reader to the rules of the world, and any quirks of the style. Saramago starts as he means to go on, tuning you in so you look carefully at the prose to see if someone’s talking and who it is.

He doesn’t throw us into this many-voiced chorus straight away. The first few chapters follow a limited cast, so we get to know them. This gives us figures who are anchors in the later chapters – if they survive. He assembles a large cast quite quickly, but they are connected with these originals by the establishing scenes so it’s easy to remember who’s who.

There is also a consistency of style, although this may not consciously be noticed by the reader. One paragraph – which may go on for many pages – is a scene.

The story has momentum The style may be unorthodox, but he’s keeping the story moving. Curiosity pulls us along. The stakes keep building, the situation is running further out of control. We keep reading to find where it is going.

I haven’t read very far so I’m looking forward to even more interesting effects, but my final point is this. The run-on presentation with few traditional markers is like hearing a lot of voices and being unable to tell who is who. Isn’t that like being struck blind? It is also panicky, as though things are happening too fast to take proper note of them. It feels out of control (although the writer is tightly in command). You might even say it’s breaking convention as the society of the book is disintegrating. It makes the characters disturbingly into a herd, stripping them of individuality. This clever style choice reflects the experience of the sighted people, who have quarantined the blind people for fear they will catch it. We are at once seeing the story two ways.

This style is creating and amplifying the experience of the world. Wow.

No spoilers, please, as I want to discover the book’s surprises in the proper way… but let’s talk about styles. Have you read a novel with an apparently challenging style that enhances the material?

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Heroes and heroin – writing a character who has an addiction


Pic of Janis Joplin from Wikepedia

You might remember the terrific question Adam Nicholls asked me about daily wordcounts and now he’s sent me this: May I pick your brain about fleshing out a character? I’m struggling with someone who’s addicted to heroin.

What a challenging subject. It’s daunting to portray a character whose experience is well beyond your own, especially to such an extreme. Here’s where one of my day jobs comes in handy. My freelance gig on a doctors’ magazine means I’ve edited a lot of pieces by people who help addicts. So this is my checklist for creating a plausible, three-dimensional character in the grip of a demonic addiction, whether illegal drugs, alcohol or a habit such as gambling.

Choose your poison

The addictive drugs have different effects. Adam has already decided his character uses heroin but you might want your character speeded up, slowed down, made more confident or just mickey finned. For one of my ghosted novels I needed a drug that would produce ghastly, debilitating hallucinations with possible flashbacks and could be easily obtained by ravers. With that wish list I decided on ketamine. (A horse anaesthetic, since you ask. Horrible if taken by humans. And make sure your internet firewall is working. You’ll find some seriously shaky stuff.)

Decide how the drug or habit alters their personality

The drug will probably amplify or change certain parts of your character’s personality. So you need to know what they were like without the drug. And remember personality is not the same as back story. Although you might use back story to demonstrate a traumatic event that led them to addiction, their reaction is individual. That same event may have had a completely different effect on another person.

Consider what the drug does for them

What do they get out of it? Why did they like it at first? Why did they try it? Have they used other drugs and what did those do for them? Are they calmer, more intensely concentrated, does it take the edge off, make them more confident, ease awkwardness with other people, numb a sense of not belonging, being fundamentally wrong or dull some other pain?

Decide how addiction controls them

You’ll undoubtedly be reading first-hand accounts of addicts and those who have been close to addicts. But you can also do a little role-play yourself to understand a person in the grip of a fierce dependence. You may not have dabbled with drugs, but I’ll bet there’s something in your life that is so important you arrange everything around it. Your children, partner, job may all govern your day-to-day decisions and choices. So you know what it’s like to place something at the centre of your life and defend it when necessary. This is like your addict’s need.


What does your addict do to fund the habit and how does that impact their life? Do they steal? If so, do they commit crimes or do they steal from the people close to them? Or are they independently wealthy? Is their supply guaranteed or do they struggle to find the drugs? What dangerous people might their habit bring them into contact with?

Significant others who aren’t addicted

How does the addiction affect the lives of those around them? What story conflicts might that create? Does your character have family and friends who aren’t addicted? How do they react? How are relationships changed by it? Who might be driven away? Who might grow closer in an attempt to help? Who knew the character before they were like this? Who has only known them since it started?


Does your addict have the capacity to stop? What might help them? What might throw them back down?

Introduce the reader to the behaviour that will be abnormal

Your addict character won’t behave like the others. If they develop the addiction through the story, you can introduce their bizarre actions gradually. But if they’re already addicted at the start, you need to handle the character-establishing scenes carefully in case the reader mistakes them for clumsy writing or refuses to believe them. This may be tricky for you to judge by yourself, so when you give the book to beta readers, ask for feedback about it.

nyn2 2014 smlUltimately, when writing an addicted character, it’s not about the substance/habit or the extreme physical experiences. Concentrate on their personality, priorities, conflicts and other people. Thanks for a terrific question, Adam – I’ve enjoyed tackling this.

There are a lot more tips about writing a character who’s not like you in Writing Characters Who’ll Keep Readers Captivated

Thanks for the pic of Janis Joplin Wikipedia

Guys, do you have any tips to add? Have you had to write a character who’s addicted, or somebody whose world is significantly different from your own?

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Self-editing masterclass snapshots: accents and making a character sound distinct in dialogue

guardThis week I’m running a series of the sharpest questions from my Guardian self-editing masterclass. In previous posts I’ve discussed three/four-act structure, endings and characters who are either bland or too disturbing to write. When I posted on Tuesday I forgot there would also be an Undercover Soundtrack to disturb the sequence, so here, slightly later than trailered, is Masterclass Snapshots part 4.

Lee carson

Regional accents to make a character sound distinct

One writer had his characters encounter people with strong local dialects. He asked how he should render their speech.

We discussed why he wanted to do this. He explained that it was to include a flavour of the setting and emphasise that the main characters were in unfamiliar territory. The odd speech was one good way to show this – with caution. Strange spellings or contractions will trip up the reader if overused. We discussed other ways of achieving this effect – perhaps by showing local customs and attitudes, lifestyles and so on. All of this will create a sense of a different culture.

This led to another good discussion – how do you make characters look distinct through their dialogue? Favourite phrases are useful, and that might be a way to show foreignness too. Habitual gestures are also good.

Humour styles are a very interesting way to differentiate people. (Curse words too, but some writers might not explore this very thoroughly.) I often see manuscripts where writers have given all their characters the same sense of humour, which makes them look like clones. In reality, you could take any group of people and they’ll all have their individual ways of expressing humour. Some enjoy wordplay. Some will try to grab attention and be the joker of the group. Some will be understated and enjoy the odd ironic quip. These are all ways to use dialogue to create a three-dimensional, distinct character.

nyn2 2014 sml(There’s more about this in Writing Characters Who’ll Keep Readers Captivated, including a discussion of phonetic Glaswegian.)

Thanks for the pic Lee Carson

Tomorrow: editing is more than tweaking the language

Have you had difficulty making your characters sound distinct? How have you tackled this?

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Self-editing masterclass snapshots: bland friend and upsetting antagonist

guardThis week I’m running a series of the sharpest questions from my Guardian self-editing masterclass. In previous posts I’ve discussed three/four-act structure and endings. Today it’s two questions about difficulties with characters.


The bland friend

One romance writer had a character who was the supportive friend for the protagonist. She worried that, in all the scenes of tea and sympathy, the friend was bland. I suggested giving her a rough edge that showed the limits of this tolerant soul. I drew inspiration from Dave’s mother, easily the most accommodating person I ever met. But she couldn’t abide spiders, and would not have been bothered if you squashed one while removing it from her presence. Suppose, I said to my romance writer, your nice lady is so mortally afraid of spiders that she always stamps on them?

The antagonist you’re afraid to write

Another lady had an antagonist who made her feel inhibited. She knew he should have more darkness than she had written but she feared to explore it. She also recognised this was cheating the book. What if, I said, she put that worry into another character, let them act out her discomfort? Would that free her to unlock the antagonist? She seemed to feel that would do the trick. I also encouraged her to look for the kernel of good that let him feel positive and justified about himself – and maybe even disturbed him.

nyn2 2014 smlContradictions are a great way to make two-dimensional characters into compelling story-people. I’ve written about it at greater length here. And of course, there’s even more about characters here.

Thanks for the pic, heyjoewhereareyougoingwiththatguninyourhand

Tomorrow: accents in dialogue

I’m really curious about this question of the character who upsets us so much we feel inhibited when we write them. Have you had experience of this? Let’s talk.

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Self-editing masterclass snapshots: endings and epilogues

guardThis week I’m running a series of the sharpest questions from my Guardian self-editing masterclass. Yesterday I ran a post about three/four-act structure. Today it’s a great point about how you tie up the end.


Tying up the ends at The End – should you write an epilogue?

One student in the class had written a major climax scene, then another scene to tie up the subplot ends, then an epilogue so we could see what the characters did next. She asked, how many climax scenes could you have? How long should you go on after that? She also felt she didn’t know when to let go and allow the book to end.

Deciding the order of the end events is tricky. You need a main climax, which obviously is the major plot thread. Other threads can be solved in less prominent positions, and often work well in the post-climax scene, as the dust is settling, as a leave-taking for the whole book.

But then what? Do you need an epilogue to show life going on? At what point do you pull the plug and send the reader away?

This is very much a gut decision, but I’ve seen a lot of writers who can’t leave their characters behind. They embark on epic epilogues which dilute the ending, water down its poignance or sweetness, or delay the final punch for too long.

But I know why we write them. I did it myself with My Memories of a Future Life. I wrote several more chapters after the end, page after page, but I recognised that this was so that I could let go. It was an act of exorcism, just for me. I never intended those chapters to be in the book.

Of course, in your mind and in the reader’s there’s always more to tell. So answer this – what will an epilogue add? And who are you adding it for – the reader or yourself?

Thanks for the pic peddhapati

Tomorrow: two difficult types of characters

Do you have trouble tying up the end of a novel? Have you ever written extra chapters so you could ‘let go’? Have you ever had feedback that suggested you’d paced these ending chapters wrong, either too abruptly or too slowly?

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Writing your scenes out of order – and the real title of The Mountains Novel

writing scenes out of orderI’ve nearly finished the first draft of The Mountains Novel and am breaking what has been one of my holy writing habits.

Usually I write from beginning to end with no gaps. This time, I’m writing the characters’ final scenes and retracing.

I usually can’t do this. I need the continuity from one scene to the next, so that I know what each character feels about their mounting troubles as the screws tighten. Indeed I was writing in this orderly way until I hit the half-way point, when a sudden epiphany left everything spinning. By three-quarters, the end was suddenly indubitable, and I was quite unable to concentrate until I’d written it. So I’m finishing the draft by mining my way backwards. The impulse is discharged, and now I can be logical and fill the holes.

Joss Whedon would agree with the new, impulsive me. I recently read an interview where he explained how he assembles his scripts from a series of ‘cool bits’, then gradually fills in where necessary. He says it helps him because he knows he has material he likes, and that keeps him enthusiastic to stitch it together properly. As most of us go through phases where we despair of our manuscripts, this sounds like a good way to keep positive.

On the other hand, the British scriptwriter Robert Holmes would agree with the old me. (We just bought a biography of him because we are devoted fans of original Doctor Who). Robert Holmes hated to plan or write outlines. One producer asked him to write a presentation with ‘a few key scenes’ and he replied: ‘I can’t write a scene before I get to it. I know some writers hop around like this. They’re probably the same people who turn cherry cake into something resembling Gruyere.’

Certainly when I was ghostwriting I was dogged about writing each scene in order. This was partly a discipline to make sure I didn’t avoid scenes I was finding difficult, or where I found a problem I hadn’t solved. And I still find that many good discoveries have come of forcing myself to find a solution on the hoof. But The Mountains Novel has required more discovery (see here and here about my writing methods). It also has more main characters than my other novels. Perhaps it is an ensemble piece, and so an organic assembly seems to suit.

Another reason this hopscotch back and forth feels right is because I know what my characters need. I wrote far enough in formal order to know how they are changing, what will be triumph for them and what will be tragedy. And in the revisions I’ll do more infilling, understanding and reordering.

ideas book cropAnyway, all this means The Mountains Novel is nearly an orderly draft from start to finish. I’ve been incubating it for years, referring to it by this working title, because I was nervous it wouldn’t mature. Its proper name is Ever Rest. I’m sure you’ll probably shrug and say ‘so what’, or wonder why I made an issue of hiding it. Maybe you’ll tell me you like the old title; some people already have. But this is a landmark for me. I now feel secure to declare it: my next novel is called Ever Rest.

Diversion over – do you write your scenes in order? Has any book you’ve written made you revise your working methods? Let’s discuss in the comments!

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The book versus the film – a tip to help writers fix an incoherent and sprawling plot

The English PatientI’ve had this question from Marco Viviani:

I’m stuck. I outlined a setting, characters and events. But when it comes to put all together, they don’t fit. Every time I try to change something (aspects of the setting, adding or removing characters) things don’t work. I tried killing several darlings (and reviving them),but the plot is still not making sense. I feel like I’m forcing a cat to take a bath. I keep seeing logic holes. I rearrange and new holes appear. I tried a lot of things (including the card game from Nail Your Novel), but I feel there is something I can’t see, which is the piece I’m missing to put in (or take away) to make things work.

Oh my, what a familiar litany. You must have been eavesdropping chez Morris. My desk is currently littered with notes and scribbles about The Mountains Novel.

What stands out for me is this phrase:

‘I feel like there’s something I can’t see, the piece I’m missing to make things work.’

So there are two things you are looking for: coherence and clarity.

(And what’s that got to do with the title of this post? We’ll come to that. But first, let’s tackle coherence.)

sidebarcrop1 Coherence

Every time you try to streamline, your inner editor-fairy is telling you that’s not the way. Sometimes we’re like detectives following a hunch, and the only way is a 7% solution or strangle a violin. Just what is the connection that makes sense of all this sprawl?

Here’s what I do – and it’s not very different from what you’ve described. I muddle about with possibilities, subtract things, double them, make lists of pros and cons of a new idea, viewpoint or angle, let the idea settle and come back to it anew.

It particularly helps to return to your themes. Jot them down and consider how your plot events and character issues align with them. Perhaps your themes have changed and this is why the novel is looking too sprawling. Has it suddenly become a novel about ‘everything’?

Sometimes you get more coherence by diving into the first draft regardless. If you have a scene order that makes rough sense but isn’t perfect, start writing anyway. See what happens once you live as the characters and let them inhabit the book. You might find their experience fills those gaps and confirms your hunch on a level you couldn’t get by analysis. Or you might see modifications you can make – rewrite cards, shuffle them if necessary, adjust your map as you go.

With The Mountains Novel, I have two big ideas I’m putting together that don’t appear to naturally fit. That’s one reason I’m not going to tell you what they are in this post – but in my gut I always knew they belonged together. And the further in I write, the more resonance I see.

Which brings me to my more practical tip.

2 Clarity

I’m currently rereading The English Patient. I love both novel and movie – but they are very different, even though they are made from the same characters, setting and story events. Reading the novel and noticing the differences is suggesting new ways I could use my own ideas – and they’re all the kind of changes we might make when refining a plot -

  • characters in the novel have been spliced together to suit the leaner lines of a film
  • scenes that happened in the back story of peripheral characters have been reworked as bonding moments for the main players
  • the scenes featuring the English patient’s romance are very different and very much condensed, yet true to the spirit of the original novel
  • the novel’s climax is not the same as the movie’s, where far more emphasis is on the English patient’s romance
  • the novel’s events are more fragmented, less chronological

So find a novel that has been extensively reworked to make it into a movie, and notice how the demands of each medium – and audience – has reimagined common material.



Marco, you’re doing all the right things. You may feel lost, but sometimes this takes a long time (see this post about how I write and here’s the pics version) It’s often frustrating, and you might feel that all you achieve is a big list of duff stuff. But you might not realise how far you’ve come. Sometimes I look through old notes and smirk at the ideas I was trying to shoehorn in but am now wiser about. (My favourite bookseller, Peter Snell of Barton’s in Leatherhead, points out that I have been mentioning The Mountains Novel in enigmatic hints ever since I first walked into his shop in Christmas 2012 and I’m not nearly done with it yet.) But time and persistence will show you what belongs and what doesn’t.

What would you tell Marco? How have you found clarity in a muddled plot? And can you suggest any movie adaptations that depart interestingly from the original novel?

acxheadedtoretail NEWSFLASH Sandy Spangler and I have finished the files for the audiobook of My Memories of a Future Life (here are the posts about our adventures) and I just noticed today on the ACX dashboard that it’s passed the technical vetting. If you’re signed up to my newsletter I’ll be sending an email as soon as it’s out – and I’ll have a limited number of review copies to offer. If you want the chance to get a free copy of the audiobook, sign up here!

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‘Music prepares me to face a blank page’ – The Undercover Soundtrack, Carol Cooper

for logoI’ve long suspected that the music writers work to is not necessarily their favourite listening. My guest this week supports this theory. She says music is her creative Viagra, but that her choices sometimes surprise her – thus confirming for me that Undercover Soundtracks belong to a separate department in the mind. She describes her work as raunchy romance with a heartrending medical strand – she is also a doctor and the author of several health books, as well as a journalist for The Sun newspaper. Her musical colleagues include The Beatles, the BBC proms and Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. Carol Cooper is on the Red Blog with her Undercover Soundtrack.

Blogging break: I’m taking a short break from my dashboard this week – to work on a few projects and get the files finalised for my upcoming audio book of My Memories of a Future Life. The next post here will be an Undercover Soundtrack, but after that it will be writing and publishing as usual! In the meantime, here’s Carol’s post

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‘A trickle of notes can flood your thoughts with broken things’ – The Undercover Soundtrack, Warren FitzGerald

for logoMy guest this week has studied music more closely than some. His previous artistic incarnation was a rock singer – both with a band of his own and performing as a session vocalist to vast venues. (If you’re very good, we’ll include a video of him so you can see for yourself.) Now he has settled into an artform of lower decibel, but he hasn’t left music behind. His latest novel, Tying Down The Sun, is the story of a kidnap in the Sierra Nevada and he used music to help him verbalise the landscape and to mark the plight of his captive characters as their ordeal wears on. He is Warren Fitzgerald and he’s on the Red Blog with his Undercover Soundtrack.

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