Monthly Archives: July 2009

Effective Dialogue – Get to the point

One problem a lot of novice writers make with their dialogue is they put in too much extraneous conversation.  It’s important to understand what to leave out.  An easy way to do this is to ask yourself, why is this conversation important?  If your characters are meeting over lunch, skip over all the discussion about the menu, what to order, hold the mayo, pickle on the side, blah, blah, blah.  Get to the point. Unless it’s important to the plot or helps with character development, who cares if your character tells the waiter to put the salad dressing on the side?  Most of the time it’s not important at all.  So begin the scene where the important discussion begins.

Another thing to watch for is anything that breaks up the flow of the conversation.  Anything that makes the reader stop and say “Huh?” needs to be fixed.  This generally happens when someone says something they wouldn’t say or does something that doesn’t make sense.  Dialogue should flow and not be interrupted by a lot of stops and starts.  I’m not talking about pauses while the characters react to something or do something that is important to the story.  I’m talking about breaking up the dialogue with unnecessary descriptions.  If the dialogue is too fragmented, then you may be putting in a lot of extra words that aren’t needed.  Go back and read for content.  Does it advance the plot or provide insight into the characters?  If not then you should cut it.

Pacing is also important.  If your characters are talking over lunch, don’t have the food arrive then be gone after only a few comments.  Think about how it would happen in real time and write it that way.  If it only takes a few minutes for the conversation to take place, then don’t have the waiter take away their empty plates when they finish talking.  Let them talk, then take a bite of their “untouched” sandwiches.  Dialogue over food can be a real gotcha if you’re not careful.  If the reader stops and says, “Wait a minute, when did they eat all that food?” then you have a problem.

One last point – avoid the soapbox.  Rambling discourses become boring very quickly.  Get the point across and move on.  If you’re at a party and some blowhard is going on and on about something, you generally tune him out or move on to a more stimulating conversation.  Your readers will do the same thing.  Don’t bore them with speeches.  Remember, you’re writing scenes in a novel, not producing a transcript.

There are only two things you want to accomplish with dialogue – advance the plot and develop your characters.  Anything else is fluff.  Unless you’re getting paid by the word, get to the point.

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Effective Dialogue – Dialogue should be heard not read

For me, dialogue is the true measure of a writer.  I’ve found that if a writer is adept at writing dialogue, then he’s almost always good at everything else, as well.  Writers who fall into this category also seem to use it a lot – not just so their characters can speak, but to show us what their characters are like, to explain how they think, to advance the plot, to provide humor and entertainment, etc.  Well-written dialogue is a terrific tool.  On the other hand, nothing detracts from a story more than poorly written dialogue.

When I was a kid and just beginning to get serious about writing I asked my dad how to write dialogue.  He gave me some basic, grammatical instructions and offered a few do’s and don’ts.  Then he said, “If you really want to learn how to write good dialogue study the writers who do it really well.  Start with John O’Hara, Ernest Hemingway, and Eudora Welty.  They are masters at dialogue but they each have their own style.  Studying how they do it will give you a good understanding of how it should be done.”  Then he thought about it some more and said, “The bottom line is dialogue should be heard not read.  When you read what you wrote, are you reading what you wrote or are you hearing the characters talk?  If you’re hearing their conversation then you got it right.”

Obviously, the authors Dad recommended were of his era, but they are still worth studying.  Later in life he added Scott Turow and Elmore Leonard to the list.

When I’m writing and I’m in a groove, it’s like I’m sitting in a booth at a diner and listening to the conversation in the booth behind me.  I’m not really aware of thinking very much or choosing words or putting in punctuation.  It just flows and I simply write down what I hear.

This relates back to an earlier article where I talked about getting to know your characters intimately.  If you really know your characters then you don’t have to think too much about what they would say or how they would react or any of that.  It’s almost like you’re involved in their conversation, not writing dialogue.  So, if you’re struggling with it, or if you don’t know what they would say or how they would react, then you probably don’t know your characters well enough.

Next week I’ll get into a little more detail about the technical side of writing dialogue.  But for now my recommendation is to study the people who write dialogue really well and pay attention to how they do it.  Likewise, if you know someone whose dialogue drives you crazy, study them as well.  It’s always good to know what not to do.  Then look at your own dialogue.  If it needs work you need to determine if it’s a technical problem or if your characters “just don’t sound right.”  If that’s the case then you don’t know them well enough and you need to take the time to get better acquainted.  If it’s a technical problem…check back next week.

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Plot Development – Tools for outlining

In this last article on plot development I want to talk briefly about tools you can use for outlining your novels.  There are any number of tools you can use, from low-tech to high-tech, depending on your preference.  You can simply write or type an outline.  You can use some kind of graphical computer program to create a visual picture of the structure.  Or you can use an in-depth charting tool.  In writing Consequences, I actually used Microsoft Project because I had a lot of dependencies that I needed to keep up with so that the timing worked to build the suspense and tension as the story progressed.  But that’s overkill.  You don’t need anything that complex to outline a novel.

The method I prefer is actually very low-tech…multi-colored index cards (or large post-it notes) and poster boards.  This is easy to use and provides a great big-picture, visual depiction of your plot.  Here’s what I do.  I use different colored cards for the MP and SPs and red dots to signify the “hooks.”  Hooks are simply points where I want to provide surprises or throw out something that will keep the reader turning pages.  On each card I write a quick note explaining what happens in that chapter.  Then I stick the card on the poster board.  If the chapter includes both MP and SP content then I’ll put the SP card below the MP card on the board.  You can accomplish the same thing by using the same colored cards and writing the info on them in different colors.  But I prefer different colored cards because it really jumps out at you when you stand back and look at it.  You can also lay the cards out on the floor and shuffle them around.  I prefer putting them on poster boards taped to the wall because I’d rather work standing up than crawling around on the floor.  It also keeps my cats from sitting on the cards or batting them around and getting them out of order.

This poster board with the cards attached works kind of like the storyboards they use for movies.  It makes it very easy to survey your plot to make sure everything is flowing like you want it to, that the SPs are woven through the story at the proper intervals, and that you’re providing enough hooks at the right places to keep the reader interested.  You can easily shuffle things around if you find gaps or problems with the sequencing of events.  You can add hooks if you identify any slow areas that need a boost.  And you can quickly see where you’re repeating yourself or putting in scenes that aren’t really needed.  Remember that you don’t have to write out your chapter cards in order, either.  You can write the cards as the chapter ideas come to you, then shuffle them around to see how they best fit together.

If you’ve never used this technique before I highly recommend it.  I think you’ll be surprised how helpful it is.  It’s cheap and easy and doesn’t require any hardware or software or other technical junk that can get in the way.  And, if for some reason you don’t find it useful, you haven’t invested a bunch of money.  As a matter of fact, you probably already have the materials you need to give it a try.

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Plot Development – To outline or not to outline…

I’ve had more than a few authors tell me that they don’t outline their novels.  They just sit down and start writing and see where it goes.  For what it’s worth, one of those was a successful author.  None of the others have met with any measure of success.  Be that as it may, the subject of this article is to discuss outlining your novel.  This is in reference to fiction writing, obviously.  If you’re writing a non-fiction book or anything other than fiction then you’re going to create an outline for your project.

I’ve heard lots of reasons for not outlining – it stifles creativity, it’s too confining, it’s boring, it’s too much like writing a term paper, to mention just a few.  Typically these excuses come from authors who are more enamored with the idea of “being a writer” than authors who actually produce manuscripts that are readable.  On the other hand, if you were responsible for creating a huge, important sales presentation at your day job, would you outline what you wanted to present?  After all, this is an important presentation that could bring in lots of money for your company.  It needs to be professional and slick and impressive.  Besides, your name’s going to be on it and you’re going to be responsible for presenting it to the big wigs.  Your credibility is at stake.  You better believe you’re going to outline that sucker.

So…what’s different about a novel?  Do you want it to be a money-maker?  Do you want it to be professional and impressive?  Unless you’re ghost writing or using a pseudonym, your name’s going to be on it.  Your reputation and credibility as a writer are at stake.  If an outline could help, why in the world would you not create one?  Well, again, there are lots of reasons and I’ve even used some of them myself.  As a matter of fact, I have about five novels that I’ve worked on without an outline.  They aren’t finished yet.  Go figure.

I think one reason authors don’t outline their novels is because they don’t know how.  It’s actually quite easy and if done properly won’t stifle your creativity.  In fact, it’s a very creative process itself and can be a lot of fun.  The first thing you do is develop your “cocktail party description.”  This is what you tell people you meet at a cocktail party who, when they learn you’re a writer, inevitably ask, “What’s your book about?”  Or maybe it’s what you scribble down on a cocktail napkin in the airport lounge as you’re waiting for your flight.  This is one paragraph, only four or five sentences, that states what your story is about.

Harry Bishop is living comfortably in a quiet little southern town, the kind of town where nothing much happens, and that suits Harry just fine.  But his peaceful existence is soon interrupted.  The trouble begins when a friend dies in what appears to be a tragic accident.  In the aftermath Harry learns that his friend had a few secrets of his own…the kind that involve the type of people he left Detroit to get away from.  In spite of his attempts to avoid involvement, Harry soon finds himself embroiled in a deadly, real-life chess match with a ruthless mafia hitman and an adversary from his past who still holds a grudge.

Next you take the cocktail party description and expand it into two paragraphs, then three, then four, and so on until you have two or three pages that outline what’s going to happen in your novel.  Keep in mind, this is still a high-level, very general outline.  But it does include how the story ends.  This is what an agent or publisher might request if they ask for a synopsis.  This should also include a paragraph or two about each of your subplots.

Once you’ve completed your synopsis you will work through the same process with your characters.  Refer back to my earlier articles on character development for more information on how to do this.

Now it’s time to sit down and diagram your plot like we discussed in the article on main plots and subplots.  Once this is completed you write a brief description for each chapter.  Keep it brief, no more than three or four sentences.

Harry comes home to find Charlie waiting for him at his house.  They listen to a CD Charlie brought over and make plans to meet for lunch on Monday to celebrate Harry’s birthday.  But when Harry hasn’t heard from Charlie by Monday evening he goes to his house and finds him, dead, floating face down in the river.

Now, when you sit down to write the chapter described above, you know what you’re going to write.  But you haven’t outlined it to the point that it becomes restrictive or limits your creativity.  There is still plenty of room for creativity in how you set up the scenes, how you describe what happens, how you write the dialog, etc.  And, of course, this is just an outline.  It isn’t set in stone or written in blood.  It’s written on paper, in pencil…metaphorically if not literally.  If you get a better idea you can always change it.

When you’re outlining your chapters you may want to do them all before you start writing your first draft, or you may only do a few at a time.  I generally outline three or four chapters, then write those chapters, then outline the next three or four chapters, and so on.  That way I always know what I’m supposed to be writing at any given time when I sit down and starting mashing keys.  You will need to experiment a little and see what works best for you.

That looks like a lot of work, but you know what?  Writing a novel is a lot of work.  Outlining will help you stay focused and “on track.”  It can also help prevent writer’s block since you know what you’re supposed to be writing when you sit down at the keyboard each day.  Outlining also helps reveal places for twists and turns and “hooks” to keep the reader turning pages.  I’ll go into more detail on this in my next article.

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