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7 swift storytelling hacks for back story, description, dialogue, exposition, point of view and plot

I’ve just finished a developmental edit and, as always, I enjoyed how it refreshed my appreciation of storytelling essentials.

I thought I’d share them here in case they’re useful.

Back story…

Don’t make back story about the past. Let back story tell us about the characters in the present. Their attitudes, aspirations, aversions, aptitudes… Also, remember back story is only half the equation. The other half is how it affected that individual.

Describing characters…

Physical description does more than create a visual image of a character – this person is tall, this person has long hair. It also tells us about the experience of being in someone’s presence. For instance, a person might have an unsmiling aura that makes other people feel like they’ve said the wrong thing. Or a worried expression, as if they’re always expecting calamity.

Some writers always tell us about characters’ eyes, or the kind of shoes someone wears. That’s fine if they have one narrator or viewpoint character, but if they have several, it looks weird. Vary your descriptive tics!

Actions can help with description too. If characters are having a conversation and one of them pushes their hands through their hair, what is conveyed by that action? Is it a random fidget, a gesture of thinking? Is it a reaction so something the other person has said?

Which brings me to…

Dialogue

Dialogue is more than information. It is a way for characters to affect each other, and for the reader to witness it. Think beyond speech. Show how the characters maybe make each other uncomfortable, or amuse each other, or infuriate each other. Or how one is comfortable and one is not. So don’t miss out reactions in dialogue – they’re just as important as what characters are saying.

Scene-setting description

This usually works best if it has an emotional dimension – the character notices something because it illuminates something about their mood or feelings. So they might notice the décor because they are irritated by it, maybe because it reminds them of something they once hated; or they might feel cheered up by it.

Exposition

There are two narrative steps to giving information (exposition). Step one is the information you want to give the reader. Step two is finding a way to give it that is as natural, interesting and intriguing as possible. Usually, you have to give it in a way that also serves another purpose – such as demonstrating something about the viewpoint character. It might show us they’re good at something, or afraid of something, or traumatised by something – or bad at something! Check you’ve done both steps – create the information (eg character background), then make it serve another narrative purpose as well.

Choosing point of view

When you have an event that could be described from a number of viewpoints, opt for the one that will experience most discomfort. This may not always be the person who is doing the most action – it might be someone who is observing, thinking ‘what on earth am I going to do about this?’

Interesting difficulties!

If you’re ever stuck for a plot idea, look for your characters’ interesting difficulties. Write your prose so that it highlights struggle, conflict, hard decisions. That way, you’ll keep the reader gripped.

There’s loads more about all these points in my books on characters and plot. Or you can book me as your editor!

And on the subject of writing, here’s what’s been happening in my creative world this month.

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9 tips to nail dialogue – guest post at Ingram Spark

Well-crafted dialogue brings characters, literally, to life.

Dialogue is immediate, it has energy, it’s a tool for subtext and for x-raying the characters’ personalities and hearts. With all that to consider, writing fine-honed dialogue is almost a literary discipline of its own.

Today I’m at the Ingram Spark blog, with 9 key tips for writing and revising to make your dialogue sing. Come over.

PS There’s an entire chapter on dialogue in my characters book.

PPS Editing fast, editing slow, finding experts… here’s what’s been happening in my own creative worlds this month

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A plea for reviewers – can we open up a dialogue about self-published books?

So I find a lovely-looking review blog. The posts are thoughtful, fair and seriously considered. I look up the review policy and … it says ‘no self-published books’.

Today I want to open a dialogue with reviewers. If you have that policy, might you be persuaded to change it? Or to approach the problem in a different way?

I used the word ‘problem’. Because I appreciate – very well – that in making this policy you are trying to tackle a major problem. Your time as a reviewer is precious – and let me say your efforts are enormously appreciated by readers and authors alike. You get pitches for many more books than you can read and you need a way to fillet out the ones that are seriously worth your reading hours. A blanket ban is a way to fend off a lot of substandard material and save you many unpleasant conversations. And traditional publishing implies a certain benchmark of competence.

Competence. That’s probably the heart of the matter. There are good self-published books, of course, but how can I help you sort them from the bad and the fug-ugly?

Most people would probably tell you to look at the presentation – whether the cover and interior look professional, and the blurb looks authoritative and slick. But to be blunt, pigs can be well disguised by the right kind of lipstick. Still thinking in pig, a good sausage and a bad sausage look mostly the same on the outside.

No, instead, I urge you to do this. Look at the author.

The author

Consider the following:

  • What experience do they have of publishing? Do they know how much meticulous polishing a book should have? Have they already been traditionally published, and learned what it takes?
  • Do they give the impression that they are wise and competent enough to make responsible publishing decisions?
  • Look at their online persona – do you think they’d act on professional feedback, and would they have the self-discipline and pride to give the book another revision if a pro told them it wasn’t yet ready?

Underbaked books

Yes, it has to be admitted that some books are published too early. A release date is decided, and sometimes there is no time for the author to do a rewrite, even if the manuscript badly needs it. The editorial people do the best they can in the time available, tidying up the typos and inconsistencies – or sometimes they don’t even have time for that. I’ve been involved with books like this – and industry friends have too.

Sounds like a ghastly compromise, doesn’t it? And do you know, the examples I have in mind are not self-published books. They’re books produced by traditional publishing houses. I promise on my honour, this happens and it’s not even uncommon.

Manuscripts that have already been published in hardback often get another proof-read before they release in paperback – and all manner of unholy errors come to light. Not just the odd typo, but fundamental goofs with credibility and consistency. And major craft issues like head-hopping. I can’t count the number of published books – yea, even those from trad houses – where the author hasn’t grasped point of view. When characters start talking about things they can’t possibly know, it can slap a reader right out of the story.

So it’s not safe to assume that a trad published book has superior quality control.

But, you might ask, who is doing the quality control on an indie author’s book? Well, the trad houses use freelances – freelances who are also now working with indie authors. It’s the editors who guide the book, line by line, into a publishable shape – so indie authors who use them are getting exactly the same degree of professional stewardship as authors who are published by an established imprint. And, if they’ve been sensible with their schedules, these authors might be able to use the editor’s contribution more fully. (Here’s a post where I give advice on how to build in time to use your editorial experts properly.)

But all the good authors get book deals, don’t they?

No. They don’t. A book deal isn’t like an academic qualification – you hit the standard, you get the badge. That’s one of publishing’s biggest myths. Here’s the reality – a book deal is awarded to writers whose work fits current marketing needs. Big, big difference. Here’s a unicorn.

Thank you, Catherine on Flickr

Let me tell you a story to illustrate what it’s really like. I have a friend who’s a senior editor at one of the Big 5. A decade ago she published a set of novels that were well reviewed, got a five-figure advance – the full fanfare. She’s now come out with a new novel, which has seriously impressed an agent. But.

What’s the but? The market has moved on and isn’t looking for books like hers. On its own terms – as a reading experience – the book is her best ever. Her old fans would probably love it too. Her original books are still finding a steady trickle of new readers. She’s made the grade, dammit, but that book does not fit today’s market.

And what’s she doing? She’s seeking my advice on self-publishing. As is another friend who got his original publishing deal by winning a national award, and then went on to publish 10 highly acclaimed novels.

These are some of the people who are self-publishing. Senior figures in the industry. Prizewinning authors. People of solid publishing pedigree. And they’re probably even better authors than when they started because they’ve grown as writers and people. Other kinds of people who self-publish responsibly include authors who’ve begun under contract and then continued as self-publishers; authors who have released their books once they went out of print; authors who’ve published in very commercial areas but would like to publish with more creative control – me, for instance, but I’m not alone. Purely as an example, here’s my story.

Some book deals are unacceptable to authors

Even if an author ticks the marketing boxes, they might prefer not to accept a deal. Not just because of money or royalty rates, but because of other clauses that have long-term consequences. Two that particularly deserve attention are rights grabs and reversion clauses. Here’s a shark.

Two technical terms
What’s a rights grab? A book contract is a grant of the right to publish in a particular format. A book could be published in many formats or ‘products’ – an ebook, a print book, an audiobook, a movie script, a TV adaptation, an interactive app, a workbook. And it could be all these, multiple times, in all languages (translation rights) and other English speaking territories (England, US, Australia etc). A rights grab usually tries to get as many of these in one deal without paying extra for them. If the author sold them separately elsewhere, they would usually get a better deal. Publishers are usually not keen on this.

What’s a reversion clause? A book doesn’t have to ‘belong’ to a publisher for life. Indeed, a book often goes out of print, which means the author could then take it back and find a new publisher for it, or publish it themselves. So contracts should have a reversion clause – but if the terms of this aren’t fair, that book might completely disappear. For many authors who are building a body of work, that’s simply not acceptable.

Sometimes, a publishing deal doesn’t make business sense to the author, even with the kudos.

Dealing directly with authors

Now this is tricky. If you review traditionally published books, you might deal with third parties – publicity departments or services such as NetGalley. If you don’t like a book or choose not to review it, you don’t have to explain or justify anything to the sensitive person who wrote it. But indie authors might contact you directly, and it could get difficult.

So here’s a plea to authors. If a reviewer has agreed to look at your book, send it and then … forget about it. Don’t hassle to see whether it’s being read or when the review will be published. In the publishing ecosystem, far more copies get sent out than are reviewed. They slip through the net for all sorts of reasons, many of them unrelated to the book itself. Don’t hound a reviewer to give you feedback. Fire, forget and move on.

The author as creative director

We are in an age where more authors will be their own creative directors – for artistic reasons and financial ones (we haven’t even mentioned creative control, but that’s another factor for committed authors with their eye on the long game). A lot of the new, important voices will come up through self-publishing because traditional publishing will have to play safer and safer. And a lot more of your favourite authors will be continuing their body of work by self-publishing.

So if an author can prove they have the necessary maturity and wisdom, would you give them a try?

A few more things to chew over.

Here’s a post about highly commercial publishing and creative control.

Just to confuse matters even more, here’s how the boundaries between traditional publishing and self-publishing are blurring.

And here’s a post about how we’ve – thankfully – moved on from the bad old days of ‘vanity publishing’.

I’d like to take this debate forward in a helpful way. Book bloggers and reviewers, you set your policies for thoroughly sound reasons. Would you share them here? If you accept indies, how do you make this work? And if you don’t, what are your concerns? I’d like to understand them. What would you need to know about a self-published author to consider one of their books?

What am I working on at the moment? My latest newsletter

 

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How to write dialogue that’s convincing and full of life

life in dialogueI’ve had this interesting email: ‘A literary agent told me my dialogue sounded lifeless and unconvincing and that my characters talked only about plot information. What might be missing? What could I do to improve?’

What’s good dialogue?

First of all, although dialogue is one of the ways we can unfold the story, it’s more than an exposition vehicle. Note that word ‘lifeless’ in the agent’s assessment: good dialogue brings a quality of real experience. It lets the reader eavesdrop on people who are experiencing the story first hand. Even in a first-person narrative, we need dialogue from other characters or the world may seem less vivid.

(Of course, you might do this deliberately, perhaps to create a highly coloured or unreliable view of the world. But usually even a first-person narrative will let the other characters speak for themselves.)

However, characters obviously must talk about what’s happening – who is going where, what so-and-so had done to someone else, what everyone should try next. So how should writers handle it? What might my correspondent’s manuscript be missing?

Again, look at the word lifeless. And consider another word that goes with it: emotion.

It’s all about emotion

I would bet the missing ingredient was emotion. And emotion comes from the writer connecting with the characters. If I talk about something I’m worried about, it colours my vocabulary, my body language, the questions I ask. So the first thing I’d recommend is:

Be aware of how each character feels about the situation. Aim to convey that, not the information.

Second, consider the characters’ personalities. Expressive, confident types might tell everybody what they’re feeling. What goes on in their heads comes straight out of their mouths. More private people might find it hard to articulate their worries to another person.

Check your characters’ personalities How does this particular person show they’re worried? And – a bigger question – how thoroughly have you developed your story people?

Also consider:
Relationships – how do they feel about the person they are talking to? Irritated, calmed, excited, flirtatious, threatened, grudging, hesitant?

And don’t forget:
Individual agendas – what personal concerns do the characters have in the scene? Are they hiding anything? Are they competing with the other characters in any way, and do they want to show this? Are they fishing for information?

If you’re finding this tricky
Write dialogue and narrative on separate days
Relax. To write convincing dialogue you need to make a mental gear change. You stop being the storyteller who knows everything. You inject yourself into the souls of the people who are caught up in the events. Many writers find it’s easier to concentrate either on narrative or dialogue in a session. And sometimes, if a character is quite different from you, you might need to concentrate a session on just their lines.

Riff, then edit
It’s hard to get the great lines instantly. Allow yourself to write a riffing draft where the characters natter. Let them go off piste if they want – natural conversation does that. Tune into their voices, their fears, their hidden agendas. Once you’re warmed up, they’re sure to surprise you too, so have fun with it. Then come back on a different day and pan for gold. Look for sections that enshrine the important differences between the characters’ attitudes, and their similarities too. Look for remarks that seem to underline a theme. Cut all of this together to make a dialogue scene full of emotion – and plot significance.

nyn2 2014 smlThere’s a lot more advice on dialogue in Writing Characters Who’ll Keep Readers Captivated: Nail Your Novel, as well as questionnaires to help you develop your fictional people.

Let’s discuss! What would you add? Have you had to add life to your characters’ dialogue? How did you do it?

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Clumsy dialogue – your mission statement for a subtle scene

246805948_c436365936_oI was editing a manuscript and came across a confrontation scene. It was well set up so that we understood the stakes, the context and why this encounter would sizzle. We were about to watch a protagonist face a mischief-maker and warn them off.

Except the dialogue was painfully obvious. Realistically, the characters should have been tiptoeing about, laying hints, oblique warnings and making concealed excuses. Instead, they came baldly out and said what was what, in a way that was unrealistic for their situation and personalities. Indeed, one of the characters said things that would have been professional suicide – when they were usually much smarter.

But wait!

Although it was unconvincing, it certainly wasn’t bad work. Indeed it was a very useful way to mark out what must go in a scene where there’s a lot simmering under the characters’ words.

What I advised my writer to do was this. Make a copy of the plain-speaking on-the-nose version, and highlight the dialogue in a colour. This is what the characters really mean. Then rewrite so that they try to get this across without saying it. If one of them originally had the line ‘I know you started that malicious rumour’ or ‘I’m in love with your husband’, make them try to convey it in another way, by steering the conversation, making hints and watching the other person pick up the cue.

It’s not all speech

Non-verbal reactions are very useful in oblique dialogue. After all, a conversation with a heavily shaded meaning is a highly emotional situation. Characters might panic, develop a visceral sense of wrong or injustice. They might insist more strongly that they were right, or back pedal shamelessly. Even, a character might not know what they’re trying to say and surprise themselves with how much they reveal in an indirect way.

Their spoken lines may sound innocuous to an eavesdropper, but you can demonstrate their inner state with gestures, expressions, pauses, and nervous abuse of the cafe teaspoons.

Clarity first

Readers love to spot what’s between the lines and a scene that is undershot with subtext can be immensely satisfying. But until you know what your people mustn’t say, it’s hard to write it well. Indeed I see a lot of scenes that suffer from the opposite problem. I’ve seen many a scene drown in opaque, vague fluff because the writer wasn’t clear what was going on.

So if you’re having trouble with a nuanced, subtle dialogue, write the clumsy version. Splurge everything out. Describe the elephant in the room, its every wrinkle, eyelash and toenail. Then go back on another day, rub it out and leave just the hints and shadows.

Your clodhopping dialogue could be the mission statement to a fine scene.

nyn2 2014 smlThere’s a lot more about dialogue and subtext in Writing Characters Who’ll Keep Readers Captivated: Nail Your Novel 2.

Thanks for the elephant pic Bitboy

Do you have problems with writing oblique dialogue? Have you any tips to share? Let’s discuss!

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4 reasons why your novel’s dialogue sounds awkward or stilted

dialogue unnaturalIn a recent episode of So You Want To Be A Writer, my co-host, bookseller Peter Snell, asked a great question. What makes dialogue sound awkward, unnatural or ‘wrong’?
In the manuscripts I see, there are four main reasons.

1 Trying to say everything in dialogue

Sometimes we get so focused on making characters talk that we forget to let them perform non-verbally, especially if they are shocked or surprised.

Speech is only one part of dialogue. Writers often don’t realise they can use silence, pauses, thoughtful expressions, gulps, gasps of laughter. Instead, they try to put the character’s reaction into words, but this can sound false because many people don’t verbalise if they are reacting strongly. Indeed, they might be robbed of their words.

If a character has been highly amused, don’t make them say how funny something was; let them laugh. If they’re horribly upset, don’t force them to translate that into speech unless this is one of their personality quirks. I’ve seen many an awkward dialogue moment when writers have made their character say ‘No, please no’, when a gesture or a facial expression would be the natural response. Pauses and reactions can be just as eloquent as speech, especially to demonstrate when a remark has had an impact.

2 Including too many banalities

Sometimes, writers stuff their scenes with inconsequential dialogue. Encounters with postmen, neighbours, waiters, flight attendants and others are narrated in their entirety:

Hello.
You all right?
Yes, thank you, how are you?
Did you come a long way?
Yes, but the motorway was clear so it only took me a couple of hours….

Oh snore. An exchange like this would be normal in real life, and probably in a TV or film script. Indeed it might go on for much longer. But on the page, even the briefest amount of chit-chat soon racks up a lot of lines and draws attention to itself.
If you’ve got a sequence like this, consider why you’re showing it. Is it to make the scene more lifelike? Does the content of it matter? Could you condense it and show just enough to establish that the characters greeted each other, then get on with stuff that will keep the reader’s attention?

Although it would be strange if characters never said anything inconsequential, we need to strike a balance. A few lines go a long way:

Your Chablis, sir.’

or

Do sit down.’

This same problem arises when major characters have downtime. For instance, they meet for a casual day out. Because they are major characters the writer feels they have to record every sentence. Was the train ride all right, is the fish good, where shall we have coffee, isn’t the weather awful. Let’s go into the cheese shop, and nod as the owner recommends the Brie. Crikey, will anything happen that’s worth talking about?

As always, writers need to examine what the reader should take away. Is it closer knowledge of the people and their relationship? Is it a change or a deepening bond? Pointless chat won’t show this, so delve deeper. Use subtext to explore the boundaries being pushed and adjusted. Maybe your scene is not as edgy as that and the characters are simply enjoying their day. In that case, lose the dull details and bring out the enjoyment. A little trivia is authentic, of course. But use inconsequential dialogue sparingly – and keep your focus on the real purpose of a scene.

Roz Morris Peter Snell dialoguesml3 The exposition info-dump

This is the easiest dialogue problem to spot. Obviously characters have to explain stuff to each other from time to time. And exposition isn’t always bad – indeed, a novel with none might be incomprehensible. But often it’s mishandled and the number one way is in scenes where characters explain something they don’t need to talk about.

As you know, when you and I arrived on this planet three weeks ago and found there was no one at the base…’

So how do you give the reader background information? Simple: find a reason why the characters discuss it. Or write it in the narration, just as you might handle back story or description. But don’t contrive a scene where the characters explain it to each other.

4 Trying to be too idiosyncratic with accents and other speech characteristics

We want our characters to sound distinct and to speak with their own voices. But sometimes writers attempt to replicate accents and dialects, using odd spellings and dropped syllables. Phonetic and mutilated language slows the reader and might throw them out of the story. It can be comic, of course, and more so if other characters also struggle to understand. But it’s just as likely the reader will skip those bits, especially if the rest of the prose is conventional and easy.

If you need to draw attention to a character’s distinctive speech and you want us to read it, tics are best kept to a minimum. You can remind us of it indirectly:

He heard the Scots burr in her voice.

Of course, a novel is its own special world. Your quirks might enrich the speech of the people you invent. It might make glorious sense if your gangsters posture in iambic pentameter, your infants sound inscrutably academic and schoolteachers mumble in monosyllables. But these effects are the result of a conscious style choice.

Certainly we should make our characters distinct, but this should come from their personalities and personal styles. This can come through vocabulary, word choice and sentence rhythms. University-educated characters might think in elegant sub-clauses. Streetwise bruisers might have one plain idea per sentence. With all those devices, you hardly need phonetics.

nyn2badgeThere’s an entire section on dialogue tips in Writing Characters Who’ll Keep Readers Captivated: Nail Your Novel.

Do you have problems making dialogue sound authentic and natural? Do you have any tips for overcoming them, or have you had to learn some unexpected tricks when working with an editor? Are there any writers whose dialogue you particularly admire – or can’t abide, and why? Let’s, er, talk about it…

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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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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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Dialogue special part 3: subtext

8290528771_4ab84a0303_hIn part 1, I discussed how to get into the mental zone for writing dialogue. In part 2, I talked about the non-talking and action elements that also make a dialogue scene come alive. Which brings me to the natural conclusion of this trilogy of posts on dialogue – subtext.

What is subtext?

Put simply, subtext in dialogue is what’s between the lines.

I find it easiest to split it into two aspects – subtext for the characters and subtext for the author.

The former is the hidden agendas or feelings of the characters; these may be deliberate, unconscious or a mixture of the two. The latter is the author’s themes; the universe of the story influencing the language and tone.

Subtext and characters

Novel dialogue has to be more condensed and purposeful than real-life chattering. As writers, we need to pick the encounters that will show something significant about the characters, the way they interact, the way they view the story events.

Subtext is useful when we don’t want to show this significance plainly. Indeed, it might be jarring if a character says ‘I don’t think you love me any more’ or ‘I know you meant to kill Jane’. It’s more human if characters say things indirectly, or the reader can intuit that they are grasping at a thought – perhaps one they haven’t fully acknowledged.

Another use of subtext is to demonstrate that characters know each other well. They might make assumptions about what is said, answer what they think the other person meant, rather than the literal words. Perhaps they’re in a situation where plain speaking isn’t possible. This gives a layer of depth under the superficial conversation, like a kind of code.

So if the characters are having an argument about a washing machine, they might also be displaying what’s wrong with their relationship. Perhaps one of them is always leaving all the household tasks to the other, or is much fussier than the other. Maybe the characters are flirting but not wanting to admit it. If you explore what might be left unsaid, it’s a terrific way to build tension.

When subtext works well, we can feel these agendas vibrating – but it doesn’t look obtrusive.

Subtext and the author’s thematic intentions

Subtext can also be wider than just the characters’ little world. It can resonate with the whole conceptual problem your story is tackling. So in My Memories of a Future Life the narrator remarks that she feels as though she’s in a dream where she’s been thrown out into a hostile world with nothing to protect her. This states one of the themes of the story – the difficulty and pain of a major life-change. (It also arises naturally from the action.)

How to do it

Subtext has to look natural (unless you’re aiming for an artificial effect). You’re building it from a scene where characters need to talk to each other, so that’s where you start. Don’t do it the other way round or the reader will feel jarred out of the spell of the story. Figure out what the characters will say on the superficial level, then make it stand for more than that. As with all aspects of dialogue, you might need a few passes to really hone it. I find this kind of editing very creative and rewarding (but then, I do like editing…).

For character subtext, play with Freudian slips, misunderstandings, questions that one character might be avoiding, coded dialogue, tensions that can’t be expressed. Look for underlying harmony and agreement too; it’s not all negative or sinister.

For thematic subtext, pay attention to your authorly portrayal of the scene. Look for suggestive synonyms, imagery, a dark bird sitting on the skyline that makes an ominous shape, church bells that suggest a celebration. The characters probably won’t demonstrate they are aware of this kind of subtext – unless they’re a first-person narrator.

Does every conversation in a novel need subtext?

By no means. Although subtext is very satisfying, not every line – or scene – has to have a hidden meaning. Sometimes characters just chat. 🙂

nyn2 2014 smlThere are more tips on character creation, character voice and dialogue in Writing Characters Who’ll Keep Readers Captivated: Nail Your Novel 2

Thanks for the iceberg pic NOAA’s National Ocean Service

 

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Dialogue special part 2: dialogue is more than talking

jamie lucie sheffield pk 008Last time I discussed ways to make dialogue scenes easier to write. But dialogue is more than just what characters say.

Dialogue is action

Dialogue is a kind of action scene. Although the conversation is the main focus, the characters are more than just mouths.

Make the characters respond to each other

There should be give and take. A good scene will give a sense that something in the story has changed; in a dialogue scene you can make the conversation cause this change. And if so, the characters should respond to each other – listen, be surprised, perhaps refuse to accept. They could change each other’s minds or become more entrenched in their wrongheaded mission. Maybe strengthen their supportive relationships; deepen rifts and conflicts.

Non-talking responses

Some writers try to make the characters express everything in speech. For a radio play, that’s probably a necessary evil, but for a novel it’s not ideal.

It can also undermine the power of a character’s response. For instance, if a character has been upset, writers often try to put this in words – an understandable urge as they’ve got used to writing lines.

So I’ll see a lot of dialogue that goes: ‘how could you say that, I’m your best friend, I feel very hurt’ as they flail to convey the enormity. But not everyone is articulate and voluble when upset. Characters might react with a moment of silent shock, a gasp, an unguarded facial expression. Or they might stand up and put on their coat.

If you’re struggling to think of the right words in such a scene, consider whether you’re forcing the character to articulate when they would not.

Less drastically, you can build in other actions and reactions. I often see scenes where characters are sitting dummy-still while they’re talking. But most people get quite busy when they’re involved in a conversation. They might betray nervousness by kicking the table leg, or fiddle with their cuffs while they think. Even if the characters are on the phone – and therefore most of the communication is verbal – they are doing a lot more than simply speaking. They’ll be grimacing, smiling, biting their nails, straining to hear through a bad connection.

jamie lucie sheffield pk 007Go back and edit – how much talking do you need?

Once you start adding the non-verbal responses, you usually find you can refine the lines that are said out loud. If a character points across the loch at a monster, they might not need to say ‘look at that monster over there’ (thank you, Dave and Jamie, for the demonstration in the picture). If you edit the gestures so that they work with the spoken words, you make the point better. And you keep all the reader’s sensory channels open.

Don’t forget the setting
In the pressure to get the dialogue flowing, the writer sometimes forgets the environment. Then suddenly the character will stir their coffee. (Hooray for lattes, BTW: with just one prop you can slurp foam, add sugar and twiddle spoons.) But the environment is there all the time. If we don’t have continual low-key reminders, there can be a jolt when it returns to the scene. I often see long exchanges of chit-chat, then a sudden reference to the mahogany desk the character was sitting at – but the environment of the scene had long since disappeared from the prose.

A really vivid scene will keep the setting in the reader’s awareness. And that’s not just visuals, but sounds too – readers need all their senses fed.

A word of caution, though; it’s very easy to overdo. Details like this can get intrusive and irritating, so it’s better to use the setting to create natural pauses as the characters are talking, or when they need a beat to think. And don’t write ‘she thought’, try: ‘a police siren wailed in the street outside’, which will create the pause in the reader’s mind. It’s even better if you can make the environmental action echo an emotional point of the scene – for instance, a customer at the till who is arguing about his change.

These are ways to make a dialogue scene more fully rounded. And of course, there’s a whole other level under the words: the subtext. We’ll look at that next time.

For now, though, give me your thoughts: do you have to do separate passes to add these elements to dialogue scenes?
nyn2 2014 smlThere are more tips on character creation, character voice and dialogue in Writing Characters Who’ll Keep Readers Captivated: Nail Your Novel 2

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