Posts Tagged how to write dialogue

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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Why writing a novel is not like writing for your day job – and how to transition

Nail-Your-Novel_2_cities_presentationcuYesterday I was teaching an editing masterclass at The Guardian. During the lunch break I got chatting to a desk editor from its sister title The Observer, who remarked that he’d always been curious about writing a novel, but wondered where his journalism instincts would be a hindrance and where an advantage. (He was also remaking several news pages to squeeze in the latest royal birth, so was possibly hankering for a life where he’d be in charge of the surprises.)

Two worlds

When I’m not working with fiction, I do sub-editing shifts on a magazine, so I have a foot in both worlds. And many of us have day jobs where we might write reports, presentations, legally required notes or other documents. Although all of this helps us get used to creating text, it doesn’t help us use it in the way a novelist does.
Here are two major differences.

Difference 1 – the reader’s journey
Journalists – and anyone who writes reports or presentations – learn this guiding principle: ‘Tell them what you’re going to say, say it, then tell them you said it.’

Fiction observes this three-step principle to an extent. Themes and concerns are evident early on and the end seems to arise out of the beginning. So far, so good. But the way fiction fulfils its mission is not the same at all.
Reports and articles take the reader on a straightforward journey. Draw a diagram of the reader’s progress through an article or presentation, and it will be a straight line. Statement, development, conclusion (though see Hugh’s comment below for a few exceptions…).

In fiction, the journey is anything but straightforward. We do not want the reader to guess where we’re going to end up. We want to surprise, reilluminate, perhaps startle. We might want to create complex emotions. The main character may start with a particular goal, then decide they want something else, then change their mind again, then decide none of it was important.

Draw a diagram of the reader’s journey through a novel, and there will be ups, downs, reversals. It may circle back to the place it started or even go backwards and off the scale. The conclusion might be boldly stated, in terms of a problem solved. Or it may be a resonant moment that leaves the reader assembling the final pieces.
A satisfying novel that takes the reader on a journey will not be a straight line. (If it is, it’s known as a linear plot – and will seem plodding and predictable.)

Difference 2 – the relationship with the reader

In an article or report we present facts, issues and ideas. In a novel we work on the reader at deeper levels. We can be subtle and manipulative. We might plant clues, then misdirect so that the reader doesn’t see them. We might make the reader love a character and then do something vile to them.

In a report or article, we might attempt to be balanced, concise and authoritative. In a novel, we might narrate as characters who are biased, unreliable or on the very bad side. Nya-ha-harrgh.

Two habits to unlearn if you write novels

Avoid condensing the process of change. In novels, change is gradual.

Journalism – and other types of report – tend to be super-condensed. When I’ve critiqued first novels by journalists they have a distinctive problem – when characters change it is sudden. For instance, an errant boyfriend is given a talking-to by a wise friend and in the next scene he’s changed his ways.

This sharp contrast will work well in an article or a report. It makes the point that change has happened. But in a novel, the change is part of the reader’s journey, so it is more gradual, spread out over the book. We might also have periods where the character resists, which is why it is a challenge. Thinking back to our graph of the reader’s journey, this is the meandering line.

Stop using scenes and dialogue to convey only a focussed message

Reports and articles are written with a ‘message’ in mind. Quotes from sources and interviewees are used to back the message up. But dialogue in a novel is much more organic and rich.

rebThe ‘reporting’ way to use dialogue is to cut to the chase and summarise – showing only what is necessary to back up the journalist’s assertion.

Mrs de Winter said she was delighted to be at her new home Manderley, but found the housekeeper Mrs Danvers a little frightening. ‘She gives me the screaming creeps,’ said Mrs de Winter.

For novels, we prefer the reader to draw that conclusion for themselves, by giving them an experience. We include details that would be irrelevant clutter to the journalist or report writer. I just opened Rebecca, looking for the scene where Mrs de Winter becomes aware that Mrs Danvers is an intimidating presence. It isn’t one line, or even one paragraph. It’s a scene that builds over several pages, with clues in the characters’ expressions, body language, tone of voice, choice of words and the narrator’s thoughts, the atmosphere of menace and unease.

Of course, you may want to direct the reader strongly – after all, some narrators are highly judgemental. But I’ve seen a lot of manuscripts that stop the characters coming alive because they present the action in a digest.
(Indeed, you might think this topic is looking familiar – it’s that old chestnut, show, not tell. Outside of novels or narrative non-fiction, the norm is to tell, not show.)

So if you’re transitioning to novels from other forms of writing, here are my 5 tips for success:

  1. – make the journey purposeful, but tangled
  2. – try being unreliable, biased and manipulative
  3. – be lengthy
  4. – build the truth gradually, and seek it in the details that seem irrelevant
  5. – read novels – and notice how the prose does its work

ebookcovernyn3There’s more on plot twists, structure, show not tell and endings in this little thingy.

And meanwhile … congratulations, my hard-working Observer friend, on your new front page.

observer

Have you had to unlearn any writing habits in order to write fiction? Are there any more you’d add to my list?

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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 Amazon.com, Amazon.co.uk, 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).

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‘Changing the voice of seven different narrators’ – The Undercover Soundtrack, Andrew Blackman

for logoAnother Soundtracker returns this week, a new book under his belt. Andrew Blackman had set himself a steep challenge with his second novel. His story of love in the internet age had seven narrators, each needing their own voice and style. Early feedback from his agent said they weren’t distinct enough, and for a while, Andrew despaired of finding a solution. Then, as he always did in times of trouble, he turned to music. Which saved the day. He’s on the Red Blog with the Undercover Soundtrack to his second novel, A Virtual Love.

GIVEAWAY Andrew is offering a signed copy of A Virtual Love. 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).

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