How to Write Dialogue

Dialogue is probably one of the most important things to master in your writing.  Dialogue creates action.  It shows rather than tells.  And it’s a great way to define your characters without stopping the story to write description, which will slow down your pace.

Dialogue should serve a specific purpose.  It could show conflict between characters:

“I can’t believe you did that to me!”

It could bring up new information:

“You’re married?”

It could help the readers to get to know your characters better:

“Today’s my birthday.”

It can be the start of a new chain of action for your story:

“You’re moving away?”

It can even foreshadow your climax:

“He’s going to kill you.”

Try to avoid small talk.  Good dialogue needs to have a point, and a purpose for being in your story.  It needs to advance the plot in some way.  If it doesn’t, you might want to consider removing it, or adding some element of conflict to it.

Dialogue can be tricky to write when you’re first starting out.  Each character needs to have his or her own voice.  You’ll want to decide which words are in each character’s vocabulary.  Do they have words or phrases that they use often?  Do they have a funny way of wording things?  Is this character a big talker, or are they very brief and to the point?  Do they talk slowly or quickly?  Do they tend to speak positively or negatively?  What is his or her viewpoint? What sort of a mood is this character in?  These are all ways to control how each character sounds.  Once you have this down, your reader should be able to determine which character is speaking just by reading the dialogue.

Another thing to keep in mind is to avoid clutter while writing dialogue.  Again, this will slow down your pace.  It’s best to let the dialogue speak for itself.  Here’s a great example from The Writer’s Little Helper by James V. Smith, Jr.

“Spit it out,” she said, fiddling with his necktie.

She seemed unable to make eye contact with him.  That confirmed it for him.  He thought he’d be on safe ground telling her why he’d been so cool toward her lately.

He yanked the tie from her hands.  “I don’t trust you.”

He adjusted the knot and made sure the point of the tie touched the middle of his belt buckle.

Now, see what this same scene looks like without the excess description:

“Spit it out,” she said, fiddling with his necktie.

He yanked the tie from her hands.  “I don’t trust you.”

A great way to improve your dialogue is to read good dialogue. Try reading screenplays, which are basically all dialogue. Notice which words the writer is using, and how the dialogue itself tells the story, rather than relying on description. Notice how it keeps the plot moving. Practice this in your own writing.

Elements of a Best-Seller

Today I want to discuss the elements of a bestseller. Obviously, not all bestsellers can be considered great literature, but what most of them have is a story that keeps you hooked and wanting to read more. The way they accomplish this is by keeping the story moving. We’ve talked in the past about keeping the reader in the action, and that’s exactly what you’ll notice when you’re reading a bestseller.

Let’s take, for example, the Twilight series. Whether you love them or hate them, you have to admit that Stephenie Meyer is pretty good at keeping the reader caught up in the story. She throws in little bits of suspense here and there to keep the reader hooked. And it works. Even though nothing too bad ever happens to any of the major characters, there is always the threat of something happening to them that looms over the story, keeping the plot moving. That’s what you want to do in your story.

Keep in mind, though, that your readers trust you, and it might not be the best idea to keep foreshadowing action without ever letting it occur. This can become frustrating for your readers after awhile. So plan some kind of action for your story, and write towards it. I once heard someone say that you should always be writing toward your climax. So it might be a good idea to figure out what your climax is going to be right away. It will give you a direction to work in, and not only will that give your story momentum, it will keep you writing.

Probably the most important component of a bestseller is believable characters. Not all best sellers are well written, but they do have a magical way of connecting in an intimate, personal level with the audience. This is accomplished through characters that the reader can relate to. The author Peter Rubie, once wrote that “the story is not about what happens, but the character to whom it happens.” You might have a good plot, but if the reader doesn’t care about the character it happens to, your have nothing.

Make your characters feel like real people. Give them thoughts and feelings and flaws. Make them people that your readers will like and understand. Use your story as a way for your audience to get to know your characters gradually. If you put everything you know about a character right in the beginning, a reader is going to wonder: “why should I care about this character, anyway?” Think about it this way – when you make a friend, you don’t find out everything about them right away. Little pieces of their lives unfold naturally over time as you get to know them. It works this way with characters, too.

Writing Challenge – Day 5 – Writing the Truth

Today is day 5 of the Three Hundred Pages Novel Writing Challenge, and today, I want to talk about truth in your writing.

Even if you’re writing a fiction novel, you’ll want to make sure that there is truth to what you’re writing. Are your characters believable? Are you consistent with their dialogue and personality traits? Like we’ve talked about before, you wouldn’t have a girl that’s afraid of the dark running outside in the middle of the night to check out a strange noise she heard. It’s important to avoid discrepancies like this in your novel.

At the beginning stages of your writing, you might still be changing and making adjustments to your story or your characters. Remember if you change something now, you should also be changing it in the rest of your novel. If a character starts out with blonde hair, but ends up having dark brown hair, unless you have a scene in which she goes to the hair salon, you need to make the hair color the same throughout. Your readers will pick up on this if you don’t. Likewise, if you change a character’s name, it’s very easy to hit Control R on your keyboard and replace the name in every instance in which it occurs.

It’s very important to stay in the writing mode while working on your rough draft, but that doesn’t mean you can’t make changes as you go. After all, that’s what writing is all about! And if you find that what you’re writing doesn’t sound real, or believable, by all means, change it! The most important thing about writing is to create the best experience you can for your readers. If it doesn’t sound right to you, it’s definitely not going to sound right to them.

Also, try to be as specific as you can with your details. Specific details are of utmost importance to the truth of your novel. If you’re talking about a bus, include a few describing details. What color is it? Is it a school bus, a greyhound bus, a city bus? If you go from “he got on the bus” to “he got on the blue school bus,” you create a scene your reader can picture, which will make all the difference in your novel.

Another tip I’ve learned that will help you always write the truth is to consider your five senses. Every scene you’re writing, try to put yourself into it. Pretend you’re there. What do you see? What do you hear? What do you feel? What do you smell? What do you taste? Obviously, not all five will apply to every scenario, but chose the relevant ones, and use them. The more the readers know about your story, the more they will allow themselves to get lost in it.

Happy Writing!

Creating Characters – Part 2

Once you’ve figured out what your character’s name will be, and what basic personality traits they will have, it’s important to go deeper, and get an even better understand of “who” your character is. It’s helpful to keep a file, or even a separate Word document with all of your character information to refer back to.

Here are some things you may want to know about your character:

1.) When is their birthday?

2.) How old are they?

3.) What do they look like?

4.) Do they have a family? How many siblings? Are their parents still alive? Do they have any children of their own? Do they have a husband, or a wife, or a significant other, or a best friend?

5.) Do they have any enemies?

6.) What do the other characters like about this character?

7.) What do the other characters dislike about this character?

8.) What are they good at?

9.) What are they bad at?

10.) What do they do? Do they go to school, do they have a job? What hobbies do they have? What do they do for fun? What movies do they like? What books do they like? What music do they like?

11.) Are they optimistic or pessimistic?

12.) What are their favorite foods?

13.) What are they afraid of?

14.) What is their favorite color?

15.) Do they have any pets?

16.) What do they carry in their purse, pocket, backpack, wallet, etc.?

17.) Has anything bad happened to them in their life?

18.) Are they shy or friendly?

19.) How do they walk, talk, and behave that makes them different from everyone else?

20.) Do they have any bad habits?

21.) What sort of facial expressions do they make?

22.) How would they react to good news? To bad news?

23.) Why should we care about them, anyway?

The main thing to remember when creating your characters is to make them believable. Nobody’s going to believe, or even like, a perfect character. Characters need flaws, just like real people need flaws. It’s what sets them apart and makes them different. Find that one thing that makes your character different and run with it. Readers embrace imperfection in characters. It makes the characters more relatable, and everyone wants to relate in some way to the characters they’re getting to know.

As Steven Taylor Goldsberry says in The Writer’s Book of Wisdom, “We adore eccentricity. Most of the folks who populate the real world, never mind invented ones, distinguish themselves by being unusual.”

He’s right. Uniqueness is important. Use your imagination to create a character that people will remember.

Creating Characters – Part 1

Often, the most important part of your story will be your characters. Sometimes, you decide to base one or more of your characters on someone you know. This can be a great way to start. You already know most of the things about them, anyway – how they act, how they speak, what they would or wouldn’t do. But unless you’re writing non-fiction, you will probably have to come up with some of the characters on your own.

Deciding Who Your Character Will Be:

The first thing you must do when creating a character, is to decide on basic defining characteristics. Will your character be male or female? Approximately what age group will your character be in? Is he or she a small child, or a teenager, or a young adult, or middle-aged? Maybe he or she has just had their 100th birthday. Once this has been decided, you must decide what this character will look like.

Maybe your character will be tall, dark and handsome. Maybe not. Maybe he or she will wear glasses, or have blue hair. Maybe your character has a pug nose or bushy eyebrows or very tiny ears. Find that one thing that will set your character apart, and use it. Readers like your characters to have flaws. It makes them more believable, and it’s very important for your audience to relate to your characters. The success of your novel will depend upon this.

How does your character speak? Is his or her voice very low or very high? Does he or she speak in complete sentences or fragments? What words does he or she use often? You need to be able to hear in your mind what this character will sound like, because this will help you immensely with dialogue.

Each character needs to have his or her own distinct personality. Maybe he or she is one of those happy-go-lucky people who always has a smile on their face. Or maybe he or she is very shy and quiet. Your character could be very funny, or dry, or cynical, or romantic, or even some odd mixture of everything. Don’t be afraid to experiment. Try something, and if it doesn’t seem right, change it. Getting to know your characters often continues long after you’ve begun working on your novel, and sometimes, you’ll have a flash of insight and suddenly just “know” that your character has a fear of dogs, or an interest in aviation. Go with it. It’s easy to go back and change things if you need to.

Naming your Character:

Once you’ve figured out who your character will be, you need to name him or her. Try to pick a name that suits them. Often, naming your characters can be one of the hardest parts. But sometimes, you’ll just know. You know that the sweet old lady living down the street is named Betty, or the cute little baby in the stroller is named Davy. You don’t know how you know that, you just do. Sometimes, all you need to do is get to know your character a little better, and the name will just come to you.

Happy writing!

Writing a Novel – How to Begin

With the first Three Hundred Pages Novel Writing Challenge coming up March 1st, I’ve been thinking about ways to make the process of beginning a novel much easier.

When you begin to write a novel, you may already have something in mind. Maybe you’ve had a story in your head for months or years, just waiting to get out. Or maybe there’s a certain character you’ve been creating over time, and you’d like to create a story around him or her. Maybe you have nothing in mind, and have just always wanted to write a novel. Well, here’s your chance!

There are two types of novels: story driven and character driven. Story driven novels happen when you have a specific story you’d like to tell, and you let the plot set the pace of the novel and define the characters. Character driven novels are the opposite – you begin with a character or several characters, and you build the story around them, based on how you feel they would act or behave.

In either case, I believe it is important to get to know your characters very well.

If you don’t know how to begin and have no ideas for a story or characters, here’s the easiest way to start:

1. Decide WHO you want your story to be about, rather than WHAT you want it to be about.

2. Begin to define your character – what does he or she look like? How does he or she speak? What does he or she like? What is his/her name? Write down everything you can think of about this character. You can always go back and change things once you begin writing. This is just to give you an idea of who this “person” is.

3. Once you have your main character, you can begin to define your secondary characters. Decide what their relationship will be to the main character, and write down everything you can about them. Again, you can always go back and change things later.

4. After you’ve come up with a few characters, you may be starting to have ideas of what will happen to these characters. At the very least, you must have an idea of the type of novel this will be. Will it be love story? A mystery? A thriller? All you have to do now is start writing, and let the characters guide the story. The better you get to know your characters, the more you’ll realize that the story is already there, you’re just writing it down.

5. Remember to be true to your characters. If your main character is scared of the dark, you wouldn’t have her going outside at midnight to investigate a noise she heard. Your readers will pick up on this, and you will lose credibility with them.

Happy writing!

Writing Every Day – Why It’s Important

Writing every day is so important. Not only is it a great way to improve your skills, it’s a good practice to get into because it keeps your creativity flowing. If you stop writing, even if it’s only for a few days, it’s really hard to get back into it. Writing can also be very therapeutic.

If you’re not working on anything in particular, it can be hard to think of something to write about every day. Journaling can be a very rewarding activity. Sometimes, writing about the mundane, boring things that happen to you on a daily basis can make them seem much more fascinating, and often, very funny. You may find it more fun to create a fictional journal about the life you’d rather be having. This can be a fun exercise, as well.

Writing prompts are also a great way to get your creative juices flowing. Shut off your thoughts and allow the prompt to guide you in whichever direction it takes you. You’ll surprise yourself. Most of the time you’ll write something you never knew you had in you, which is the best kind of thing to write.

I found this adorable little book called A Creative Writer’s Kit by Judy Reeves at Barnes and Noble. It contains a writing prompt for every day of the year. She suggests committing to sitting down to write at the same time every day for a certain length of time, whether it’s ten minutes, or two hours. And then actually do it. I agree, because it’s so easy to tell yourself that you’ll do it later, or tomorrow, or after you finish some big project you’re currently working on. That’s what separates the writers from the wanna-be writers. The writers actually write.

If you’d rather not buy a book of writing prompts, you can create your own. Anytime an idea for a prompt or a story pops into your head, write it down and stick it in a jar. Every day, draw out a prompt, and write about it. Prompts can be as simple as writing about making a turkey sandwich, or that tall, dark, handsome stranger you saw at the gas station the other day. Which brings me to people watching.
People watching can be a wonderful creative tool. Next time you spot any interesting looking strangers, invent backgrounds for them. Write what you think their lives must be like. You may even be able to use some of them as characters in a novel.

There are many reasons it’s important to write every day. You’ll always be able to think of a million reasons not to, but don’t let them stop you. Be a writer.