Posts Tagged dialogue

10 eye-opening tips to add impact to your storytelling

2013-04-29-eye2When I work with a writer on their first serious novel manuscript, there are certain aspects they usually get right on instinct alone. There’s the content – a believable story world, characters with solid backgrounds and stuff to do. They usually write fluently too. But there are other, more hidden levels of craft that they usually haven’t noticed in good books, but will make an immense difference to the quality of their work. So here are a few.

1 Keeping the reader’s curiosity

When we’re kids we’re taught we must finish any book we start. Like eating every morsel on the plate, even the detested Brussels sprouts. But a reader will not persevere with a book out of politeness. So writers have to be relentless showmen (within the expectations of their particular genre, of course). Curiosity is the name of the game. Compelling writers will prime the reader to be curious about everything they show – a character, story development, back story or historical context. How do you learn this? Read with awareness. Analyse what keeps you gripped in books you enjoy. (Often when I point this out, the reply is: ‘I get so swept up that I don’t give it a thought’. QED. I don’t want to spoil your enjoyment, but learn to read with primed antennae.)

2 The beginning has to grab attention …. But it also makes a promise to the reader

Don’t start with a thrilling piece of action if the rest of the book doesn’t contain that kind of action. lf you do, you’re wooing the reader under false pretences. Instead, find an intriguing scene that is representational of the entire tone of the story, its themes and concerns. That’s quite tricky and you might try out many beginnings. Indeed, you often don’t get the beginning just right until you’ve written the end.

3 Descriptions come to life if you add humans

You might describe a tidal wave by saying it was the height of a house. Or the earthquake split the town hall in two. These specifics are good, but they’re lifeless. For real impact, try showing how it affected the people in its midst. Just as photographers or painters might use a figure of a person to show scale, you can convey the power of disasters by including humans – cowering, trying to run away with a cat under their arm, filming it on their phone while a friend yells at them to flee.

 4 Show not tell

Show not tell is one of the trickiest storytelling techniques to learn. In a nutshell, it’s about creating the experience for the reader. Instead of writing ‘fear was on everyone’s faces’, show us what the characters did that would make you conclude they were afraid. Here’s a post that explains more and you’ll also find lots more discussion of this concept in the Nail Your Novel books.

5 Decide what you want to emphasise

Sometimes you can tell, not show. If you want the reader to feel the impact of the experience, write it in a way that ‘shows’. If the experience doesn’t really matter, you can ‘tell’. Sometimes you can write ‘She had a terrible voyage’ and that might be enough for the purposes of the story. At other times, you want the reader to share the terrible voyage.

6 Don’t wait too long before telling us your main character’s rough age

You don’t have to state it explicitly or numerically, just give us enough to figure out whether we’re looking at a pre-teen, a teenager, a person in their 20s, 30s, 60s. I read a lot of manuscripts where I can’t fathom that out and it interferes with my ability to interpret the action. A person in their 20s who yearns for adventure or love is very different from a person in their 40s or 70s.

7  Home isn’t just a geographical location

It’s a place that owns us – we want to return to it, escape from it, inherit or disown it. If your characters talk about home, what does it mean to them? Take time to let us know.

8 Don’t accidentally create a passive main character

A lot of writers fall into this trap. They create a central character who is thrown into trouble by the actions of other people. They are pushed from one crisis to the next. The pressures mount, they get a bit anguished, but do they do anything about it? No, they wait for the next piece of trouble. That might be lifelike – many of us would prefer to avoid difficult situations. But it makes for a frustrating read (unless the passiveness is a deliberate choice). Otherwise, readers prefer a character who in some ways creates their difficulties and adventures – perhaps because they are restless, or a control freak, or because they succumb to temptation or yearn for something new.

9 Don’t forget to conjure the set-up at the start of each scene

Many writers forget these essential orientating details at the start of a scene – where we are, who is there. Indeed, they often don’t realise an author is doing it every time they load a new location. Even if it’s an ordinary room or an ordinary street – although once you’ve made an environment very familiar to the reader you can use shorthand such as ‘I sat at Mary’s battered piano’.

10 You can’t set the scene through dialogue alone

Although dialogue can help establish the scene, it can’t do it all. Often writers try to, and end up with artificial-sounding lines such as ‘Hand me that glass from the mahogany table’. But prose is a medium of description as well as dialogue (unless you’re aiming for a deliberately abbreviated style). It’s an environment and you want the reader to experience your scenes with all their reading senses. Include the last rays of sun slanting over the roofs. The family unloading children and picnic hampers into a cluttered hallway. The tinkling of crockery as a meal is prepared.

3 nynsPsst…. all these points are discussed at greater length in the Nail Your Novel books.

Would you add any? What eye-opening tips have you been given by editors or beta readers?



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How to find your author voice – interview with Joanna Penn

author voiceHello! I’m slightly late posting this week because I knew I had this waiting. Joanna Penn invited me back to her podcast to thrash out a thorny topic – how to find your author voice.

We discuss what voice is, how to develop it, how character dialogue differs from narrative voice, how authors might adapt their style for different kinds of book, voice considerations for non-fiction, the value of experimenting and – that perennial favourite – why literary fiction might take so darn long to write. Plus side helpings of Nigella Lawson and Nigel Slater, so bring a picnic.

You can get it on video, audio download or written transcript – it’s all here.

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Masterclass snapshots: how to write several narrators and make them sound distinct

guardian classHere’s another of my favourite discussions from my recent Guardian self-editing masterclass…

characters sound distinct Nail Your Novel

How to write several narrators and make them sound distinct

One student had several narrators and was finding it hard to make them distinct. His writer group reported that they sounded too similar, especially in dialogue. One character was male and one female, so some of his critiquers were assuming the gender was the problem; that he as a male couldn’t write as a female.

Hold it there. Some writers – and readers – believe that males can’t write plausible females and vice versa. And certainly, there may be some gender-specific mentalities that are impossible to disguise … but before we all assume we’re tethered to our chromosomes, let’s consider what makes a character distinct.

Difference usually comes from outlook, education standard, moral compass, background and the character’s emotional state. I thought it far more likely that the problem came from not making the characters individual enough, rather than the influence of our writer’s gender.

Sure enough, he said that when he explored his writing group’s objection, they had observed that his characters used similar vocabulary in dialogue. So perhaps the problem was not gender at all.

Where the differences really lie

If you have several narrators, you need to find different ways for them to express themselves. Different catch-phrases, senses of humour, frames of reference, moral and social codes.

jason uvIf you like writing with music, that can take you to a gut sense of who your different people are – this post on The Undercover Soundtrack by actor-writer Jason Hewitt shows how a few talisman pieces of music conjured a character’s state of mind and helped him remember who each person was … on the inside.

Two characters …. two tenses?

Another of my students had a similar problem. She had two characters in the Arctic; one a hard-bitten scientist, the other a wonder-struck friend who was visiting. They narrated alternate chapters. In her own mind she had a sense of how they were distinct, but despite this she found they sounded too similar on the page. So she decided she’d write one as first-person present and the other as close-third past.

I said I thought that sounded confusing. Some readers would think the shift of tenses was significant in story terms and would look for a reason. Did it mean the action was happening at a different time? Was it a parallel thread? I suggested she scrap that approach and look more forensically at the characters’ outlook, attitudes etc. She agreed as she’d worried about that herself.

But then she said something that was rather interesting.

She’d never written in first-person present before, and when she did she found she felt and thought differently. She found herself inventing all sorts of back story and behaviour that took her by surprise. By squiffing the tenses, she’d hit on a new creative mindset that suited this book.

The verdict was clear – and exciting; write a discovery draft in these two tenses. Then edit and make them uniform, marvelling at the new inventions. Eureka.

Just like listening to music, a change of writing style or technique can get you to new places. Do whatever you need to, then tidy up afterwards. The reader never needs to know how you did it.

Writing Characters Who'll Keep Readers Captivated: Nail Your Novel by Roz MorrisThere are a lot more discussions on how to make characters distinct in Writing Characters Who’ll Keep Readers Captivated: Nail Your Novel 2.


Have you tackled a similar problem? Especially, have you hit on any tricks that helped you give your characters different voices, and then later removed the evidence of how you did it?

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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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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:

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.’


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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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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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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