How to write a book · Writer basics 101

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


Creating a character

When to trust the reader’s intuition – and when to spell out what a character feels: post at KM Weiland’s Wordplay

kmReaders don’t have to be told everything. Sometimes they will intuit how a character feels about a plot development or another character. Or they know what’s unsaid. Or they understand that the quiet character who rarely says anything is vibrating with mysterious depths.

Good storytellers are masters of the reader’s curiosity and emotions. They know what they can plant between the lines and how to make readers fill the blanks. So how do they do this? And how might it go wrong?

Today KM Weiland has invited me to her fabulous blog Wordplay, where I’m discussing this tricky – and exciting – balance. Do come over.

How to write a book · Writer basics 101

Write great dialogue scenes in 7 steps

rusty plough conversationsOf all the scenes we write, dialogue is the most complex and rich. Most writers I know take several passes to get it right. On average, I find there are seven clear steps to nailing a dialogue scene.

1) Get the characters talking This may sound obvious, but it’s an effort to break out of ordinary narration and hop into the characters’ heads. If we’re writing first person, we have to stop sharing the consciousness of their narrator to let the other people come alive. Writing down what each character says, in their own voices, will probably be quite enough to concentrate on in one pass.

2) Visuals Dialogue needs to be more than just a soundscape. Characters act while they speak. They shrug, pull faces, refill the kettle or polish a sword. The scene has to exist visually in the reader’s mind. While you’re writing, it’s easy to get tunnelled down one sense – usually aural – and forget that there are others.

3) Change As every scene must move the story on, we hope that each dialogue scene will contain something that matters to the characters. They can’t just natter for nothing. Even if they’re establishing their characteristics, it’s better if the scene does something else too. That could be a plot change or a shift in their relationship – perhaps the scene bonds them more tightly or creates rifts.

4) Reactions When your characters are talking, are they also reacting? If your other scenes show their internal dialogue, does this continue while they’re talking, or has this evaporated because you were concentrating on making them vocalise?

5) Subtext The scene might have more heft than a simple exchange of information. It might be a battle to get the upper hand. One character might be telling the other that he loves her, or to stop trying to find out what happened to the missing neighbour. The scene might have a layer that only one group of readers will understand: for instance, if the novel might be read by both adults and children, it may contain meanings that will only make sense to older readers.

6) Language Depending on your genre, the language might add a poetic dimension, reinforce your themes, reflect the characters’ different backgrounds and outlooks. Pathetic fallacy or your descriptions may add colour, feeding the texture and atmosphere of the novel.

7) Declutter Dialogue scenes are meant to run swiftly in the reader’s mind. Although we need context, action and description, we don’t need to add every breath and eyeblink. It may not matter that the character pours a glass of water while he lets out a sigh. You may have been too obvious with your allusions; the reader may be able to fill more blanks than you think. Let the scene sit for a few days, then go back with a fresh perspective and take out the clutter.

Do you have any steps to add? (Apart from a complete phase of changing your mind – which for me happens to me ad infinitum when I’m letting the characters talk to each other.) Share in the comments!

nyn2covcompIf you found this post useful, there’s an entire section on dialogue in Nail Your Novel: Bring Characters To Life. Weightless editions are ready right now, twinkling on the servers of,, Smashwords and Kobo.

GIVEAWAY Andrew Blackman is offering a signed copy of his novel A Virtual Love on The Undercover Soundtrack. For a chance to win, leave a comment on the post or share it on Twitter, Facebook, G+ or anywhere else (and don’t forget to leave a note saying where you shared it).

Undercover Soundtrack

‘How could I make these characters living and lovable people?’ – The Undercover Soundtrack, Nigel Featherstone

for logoMy guest this week  says he has simple requirements of a good story: he wants to be moved. And so when he writes he seeks to do the same. But he was struggling to get inside the skin of the mother-son duo in his latest novella I’m Ready Now – until some songs took him by surprise.  He is Nigel Featherstone, an award-winning novelist, short-story writer, creative journalist and founder of  an online literary journal – and he’s on the Red Blog with his Undercover Soundtrack.

Writer basics 101

Nail Your Novel – the DH Lawrence way

‘Try to nail something down in a novel,’ said DH Lawrence, ‘and you either kill the novel or the novel gets up and walks away with the nail.’

(This is the first time I’ve come across a quote that put the words ‘nail’ and ‘novel’ together, so I thought it was worth a mention.)

Lawrence was talking about the influence of a story’s narrative voice, and how it has to be deployed with feints and subtlety. By coincidence, I’d just read his short story The Lovely Lady and badly wanted an excuse to talk through why I like it so much. So as the gods seem to be hinting, here we go.

(If you haven’t read it already, it’s here. It’s not that long and I’ll wait for you.)


How’s this for an opening?

The Lovely Lady is Pauline. ‘At seventy-two… sometimes mistaken, in the half-light, for thirty…. Only her big grey eyes were a tiny bit prominent… the bluish lids were heavy, as if they ached sometimes with the strain of keeping the eyes beneath them arch and bright.’

Pauline lives with her son, Robert, and her unmarried and distinctly less favoured niece Cecilia: ‘perhaps the only person in the world who …. consciously watched the eyes go haggard and old and tired….. until Robert came home. Then ping! … She really had the secret of everlasting youth… could don her youth again like an eagle.’ How interesting that she only turns this magnetism on for Robert. Never Cecilia. And how creepy.

Here we have characters we recognise by their familiar vanities – and an off-kilter situation. And it’s all accomplished through simple description. First, we’re shown Pauline (most frequently referred to as ‘the lovely lady’) in a way that lets us know how she sees herself. Then we see Cecilia’s view of her. There’s a lot of unrest here; an unstable situation that can’t last. Simple and masterful.


We don’t get Robert’s point of view. He is a mute adorer of his mother. And anyway this is going to be Cecilia’s story. Cecilia, by the way, is very quickly abbreviated to Ciss, or perhaps I should say reduced as the narrator informs us the diminutive is ‘like a cat spitting’. Tiny details that reinforce her true place. (But we want this to change.)

They all live in a house that is ‘ideal for Aunt Pauline’ – but living death for the other two. That is just as well because they don’t have the confidence to leave. Cecilia is ugly and tongue tied, and Robert, a barrister, is secretly mortified that he can’t earn more than £100 a year, in spite of his best efforts. (Notice the ‘showing’, not ‘telling’ – we don’t get a sentence saying Robert’s an underachiever. We’re shown what that means and how it makes Robert feel.) By day he is at work. When he comes home at night, the old lady keeps him in awe of her beauty and gay conversation.

It doesn’t help that Robert is ‘almost speechless’. Dwell on those words for a moment: ‘almost speechless’. They reach so much further than ‘quiet’.

Psychological hold

The language drums out the unnatural state of this triangle. Ciss intuits that Robert is never comfortable ‘like a soul that has got into the wrong body’. The lovely lady is only seen by candlelight, when she is radiant in antique shawls. She made her fortune dealing in antiques from exotic countries. Are we treading into vampire territory here? Perhaps, but not literally; this is a psychological hold. The lovely lady steals Robert’s youth to keep up the illusion of her own. Meanwhile Ciss is always sent to bed early and can see the confusion seething in his soul.


‘Every character should want something,’ said Kurt Vonnegut. Ciss wants to marry Robert, but can’t see how to prise him away and fears her dazzling aunt will live for ever – or at least until Robert is a broken husk. Nudging the vampire idea again, but so obliquely. (And she’s Ciss now; never Cecilia. Her status is so insignificant that the narrator doesn’t use her proper name.)

This talk of the supernatural is also storytelling sleight of hand – seeding suggestions for what comes next. One day, Ciss learns something that may give her a means of escape.

From here, the old woman is no longer ‘the lovely lady’, a legendary and exquisite presence. She is Pauline. Not even Aunt Pauline. Ciss has glimpsed the reedy old woman under the brocades.

The relationships thicken

Ciss’s relationship with Robert deepens and she becomes Cecilia again – although he will not break away from his mother.

The final solution is bizarre, poignant and funny, but it works beautifully because of the structures and influences the author has been weaving while we looked the other way. The nailing that was done with the lightest touch.

Thanks for the pic Editor B  

Your turn – let’s talk about The Lovely Lady – or is there another short story you’d like to give an honourable mention to?

The first edition of my newsletter is out now, including useful links and snippets about the next Nail Your Novel book!  You can read it here. And you can find out more about Nail Your Novel, original flavour, here.

Creating a character · Writer basics 101 · Writer basics 101

Time to get passive aggressive – get your main character out of the back seat

We hear a lot about passive and active characters, but what does this mean? And why is character passivity such a problem?

A problem I see in many manuscripts is that the main character is passive. By this I mean the character doesn’t seem to do very much. The trouble and events are inflicted on them and the story consists of them reacting or trying to extricate themselves. They’re in the back seat of the story – and other people (and forces) are in the driver’s position.

What’s wrong with that, you might ask? Certainly, many stories might kick off with an act from an outside person, a coincidence or bad luck. But if most of the mess and trouble that follows is caused by other people, and not the central character we are reading about, what happens?

The person in the driving seat becomes the more interesting character.

Well, of course they do. They have more gumption. They are pushed further by their hopes and fears. They are active shapers of their own destiny. They are more likely to surprise us. In short, they are riding a bigger rollercoaster than the character who is centre stage.

(Of course, you may be making a deliberate choice to make your character passive; but if not, you’re probably unintentionally neutering them.)

Not just novice writers

But the problem of making main characters passive seems to be a tricky blind spot – and not just for first-time novelists. I was once in a writing group that included several much-published authors, at least one of them award winning. While they read excerpts from their WIPs, the rest of us would frequently tell them off for making their main characters passive.

So it seems our natural inclination might be to put our characters in the back seat, rather than the one that has the wheel. Which makes me wonder – why?

Because we like it that way

For most of our lives we’re in routines – juggling the conflicting demands of work, play, family. Traditionally, a story might start when an event bolts out of the blue and disrupts the status quo. The writer thinks as we all would – what would I do? We’d deal with the distraction and try to restore normality as soon as possible. Because this is how real life works.

The second reason we naturally make our characters passive is this – most writers are the hermit, routine kind of person. It’s not that we aren’t shapers, making our destiny, but we do it most actively inside our heads. We observe, react, shuffle the cards – and write. It’s no wonder our natural inclination is write passive characters.

Stories are not like life

So all that is true to life, but stories and entertainment don’t work in the same way as real life. In stories we want trouble and change or they’re hardly worth telling. We also want to feel we are on a journey with a person who is driven to unusual and interesting lengths by what is happening to them. Someone who isn’t just reacting, but has interesting urges awoken by what is going on. Not fire fighting, but about a fire that is forging a new them. Active characters aren’t naturally more dashing than you or me. They are driven to new extremes – possibly to do things that they never thought they were capable of.

With all that in mind, there are two ways to naturally make your main character more active.

1 – If possible, don’t start a story with an event from outside – a death, a job loss, a hit and run, a murder. Instead, make the kick-off event arise from what the character is already doing. Grafting drama on from the outside can only produce reactions – when an active character needs to take action.

2 – Make this inciting incident something that makes it impossible for the character to go back to their life as they were before.

Find a way to force your character into the driving seat.

Do you have problems with recognising when your main characters are passive? Or do you prefer them that way?

Inspirations Scrapbook · Rewriting

How to make your most ordinary scene interesting

Having a cup of tea on the way somewhere

Some scenes crackle off the page as we write them. Others fill logical gaps or give us information, but they can be the dullest scenes to write. How can we liven them up?

I’m a big fan of giving scenes in novels a purpose, but in some manuscripts I come across scenes that are all purpose and no soul. I can see the writer thinking – ho-hum, here’s where I introduce the main character’s parents over tea, here’s where they’ve got to be in the car going somewhere, here’s where he explains a set-up that we need or nothing else will make sense. The writer’s weariness slumps off the page.

But elsewhere in the novel, the tension is beautifully done, the characters spring into three dimensions as living, feeling people, with things to hide, issues that are at odds with some of the other people.

Wow, what just happened? It’s as if the book has come alive.

No. The writer has come alive.

The reader knows you were bored

When I point out that some of their scenes were flat, the writer usually says they had a hard time writing them. But, they say, I have to get those bits in, don’t I?

Going from A to B in a car, the Iron Man way

They’re right in a way. For a story to make sense you do have to convey a certain amount of information, background, and there are logical gaps you have to bridge.

But you don’t need any scene that you’re bored by. Because the reader can tell your heart wasn’t in it.

What I do

When I get to a scene that makes me feel this way, I rethink. How can I get my obligatory information across in a way that entertains me? I play a few improv games to make the dialogue snap, I mess around with the location or other things the characters can do until I hit on something that makes it all wake up. (You’ll find some of them in my book, Nail Your Novel – Why Writers Abandon Books And How You Can Draft, Fix and Finish With Confidence).

Or make them say the opposite

Another thing you can do if you have an obligatory conversation is make the characters say the opposite of what they needed to say.

In Hitchcock’s film of The 39 Steps, there’s a scene where the hero, Richard Hannay, is in a hotel room with the woman he’s handcuffed to. They’re lying on the bed and she’s obviously going to ask him if he’s really a murderer. And he’s got to explain. I was keen to see how the writers would tackle this because –

1 – we’re going to get a lot of explanation

2 – it’s all stuff we’ve already seen, yet he obviously has to tell her.

How in holy were they going to keep us interested?

Here, roughly remembered and greatly truncated because I didn’t think to write it down at the time, is how that bit of the dialogue went:

She: I’ve been told murderers have terrible dreams.
He: Only at first. Got over that a long time ago. When I first took to crime,
I was quite squeamish about it….
She: How did you start?
He: Quite a small way, like most of us. Pilfering pennies from other children’s lockers at school… a little pocket picking, a spot of car pinching… Killed my first man … In years to come, you’ll be able to take your grandchildren to Madame Tussaud’s and point me out.
She: Which section?
He: It’s early to say. I’m still young … You’ll point me out and say, “if I were to tell you how matey I once was with that gentleman, you’d be… ”
And so on. He didn’t explain how innocent he was. He went ludicrously over the top and claimed he was on his way to being the grand-moff master-criminal. Far from being a plodding piece of exposition, it’s a wonderful character piece that makes the characters trust each other a little more.

In a good story we’re interested in every scene. So every time you find yourself wearily thinking ‘I’ve got to get this bit in’ or ‘they have to go here or say this’ wait, think and brainstorm. Turn off the autopilot and find a way to write it that excites you.

Do you have any tips for obligatory scenes? Or examples of scenes where writers have found a great way to liven them up? Share in the comments!

Creating a character · Writer basics 101

Would you cross the road to avoid them? A problem with flawed characters

Characters with major flaws aren’t always endearing. Here’s how they might scare the reader away

Most writers are aware that if their main character is going to change, they have to set them up as incomplete, or flawed, or in need of something.

But I see a lot of manuscripts where they’ve gone too far. The MC is so abject, feeble, whiney, wussy, miserable, dysfunctional or even bonkers it’s a wonder they ever acquired a bipedal stance.

And that usually makes them hard to tolerate.

First impressions count

In the first few pages of a book, we’re deciding if we want to spend time with the characters. Although flaws can definitely be humanising and endearing, creating a character like this is such a fine balance. If they’re too draining, we’ll quietly put the book down.

Yes, there probably are people like this in real life. But do you seek them out? Be honest now. You let voicemail take their call.

The faithful friend solution

Often the writer senses the character is not likable enough. So they give them a faithful friend who is always looking after them, and hope this persuades the reader that something about them is adorable.

This friend has endless patience for the MC’s feebleness, unreliability and bad behaviour. They may even give a tough-love pep-talk from time to time. Personally I either want them to take centre stage as they have the more interesting life, or I want to give them a slap too.

But flawed, damaged, incomplete characters can be quintessential drivers for a good story. So how do you build them?

The actual, real solution

Don’t make the flawed character helpless.

Ask yourself: how do they cope? Presumably they need to earn a living, manage a family or keep up with schoolwork. Even people with quite serious problems manage a juggling act where they keep it under control – just about.

Show that. Perhaps they are keeping a high-powered job in spite of being blitzed on cocaine. Or pouring Darjeeling demurely at the vicar’s tea party while being tormented by horned demons. Or playing the romantic lead in a drama despite being abused by their real-life husband. Or trying to please their parents who want them to be accountants, but sneaking off to circus practice because that’s where their heart is.

People who really have problems paper over the cracks and carry on as if life is normal. Readers love to spot the holes – and they love the plucky, the brave, the fighters.  Make them show their hero qualities by what they are already having to cope with – and the reader will love them.

Thank you, Freya Hartas, for the pictures – more of her work can be found at her fab blog Carl Has The Funk

Who are your favourite flawed characters?

Creating a character · Uncategorized · Writer basics 101

Talking characters – Victoria and me

I’m back at Victoria Mixon’s for the second part of our weekly editor chats. Last week we hammered out plot. Today the subject is characters. We discussed techniques for developing characters, what makes a character with dignity and depth, whether to use all your research – and my dislike of what some of you call plaid and what I call tartan.

Hey, we’re all allowed unreasonable quirks. Take a highland fling over to Victoria’s blog and see what it’s all about… Thank you, Lee Carson, for the picture…

Inspirations Scrapbook

New Year special – writing sins that scupper a story Part 4: Did You Hear About The Morgans?

Weak story links, lazy plotting, wrong point of view, unsatisfying endings… Although Chez Morris we’ve taken time off from writing, we’ve seen some DVDs that have roused me to write posts of protest. So, to keep your critical faculties ticking over until life resumes as normal, I thought I’d share them with you in this five-part mini-series. (And yes, beware spoilers…)


Today: Did You Hear About The Morgans?

Did You Hear About The Morgans? features a couple from New York who are separating. Out one evening to discuss their divorce, they witness a crime and are forced to go to a safe house, in a tiny town hundreds of miles away from the city.

This sounds like a great concept –danger, soul-searching, an unsophisticated town to put the New Yorkers back in touch with what really matters.

Writing sin 1: story delivers on expectations only superficially and not deeply

Did You Hear About The Morgans? delivers on none of the promises, except in the most mechanical way. There are a number of mishaps and small-town oddities, but they seem to operate only to set up superficial and unsatisfying pratfalls later.

There are nominal attempts to get the Morgans involved in the community – Mrs Morgan, who is a real estate agent, helps the doctor to sell his house, and Mr Morgan, a lawyer, helps an ornery old grump to write a will. None of these have payoffs later, or are particularly funny, or – most important – challenge the characters at any personal level. They seem to have been put in only to show that the Morgans had jobs, and to make the community like them. But in a story like this we want the change to be the other way round – the main characters have to grow to like the community and thus have discovered some new values.

Taking the Morgans out of New York didn’t force them to act in new ways, so there was nothing gained by doing it. All it seems to mean to them is that they miss their lattes, vegetarian restaurants and the internet. This story is partly a fish out of water scenario – and should be more than simply a way to force characters to spend time together. The setting should be instrumental in the characters’ change.

Writing sin 2: wooden characters

This is the central problem. The main characters are wooden. They never discover anything about themselves. It’s a story about a reconciled relationship, but we never see how the two Morgans relate to each other now, what they were like at the start, what had gone bad and how it changed.

There are hints at fertility problems and conflict about starting a family, but these look as if they have been flung in in a desperate attempt to press emotional hot keys, rather than being thought through.

The characters also don’t live up to the professions the writers gave them. Mrs Morgan ran a company so famous that she was on the cover of a glossy magazine. Mr was a high-powered lawyer. They should have had some corresponding personality traits, such as tenacity, ruthlessness and ingenuity. When people like that are in conflict with each other, particularly emotional conflict, they should become ugly. It looked like nobody wanted to risk making the Morgans a bit nasty. This misses the point of a story like this. If they don’t bring nasty traits out in each other at the start, they have no way to mellow at the end.

Writing sin 3: changing the story direction without putting enough work into the new elements This is just a guess, but it looks to me as though Did You Hear About The Morgans? started life as a thriller. Probably a lot of that material was taken out, but the thriller elements that remain (including how the hitman tracks them) are the best honed and have obviously had multiple drafts.

Also, the supporting cast are far better realised than the main characters. Although they have less screen time, each of them gives us a sense of a real person with aims, hobbies and troubles – conspicuously lacking in the main characters.

It looks like the film was rewritten in a hurry, but nobody paid any attention to working through the main characters properly.


Tomorrow: Sherlock Holmes