Archive for category Writing
Writing a stand-out novel involves a lot of individual pieces working together in perfect concert. If there’s no solid plot? Readers get confused, lost or bored. If the plot is great, but the characters are all one-dimensional paper dolls? No one cares. If we butcher grammar, spelling and formatting? It’s a formula for dismal sales or even a long line of one-star reviews from ticked off readers.
Hey, the world may think writing fiction is easy, but we all know differently ;).
One of the best ways to move plot forward with increasing momentum and to create living, breathing characters is by harnessing the power of dialogue. As an editor for twelve years, I can tell you dialogue is one of the single largest components of writing great fiction, and it’s the part that’s most often butchered. The story can be great, the setting, the prose?
….and then comes this clunky dialogue with characters talking in ways only seen on bad soap operas or movies highlighted/slayed by Rotten Tomatoes. I call it Soap Opera Dialogue or Days of Our Lives Dialogue. Why? Because soap operas never end….EVER. The dialogue is written in a way that a viewer can miss the past seven months of the show and still catch up, so there is a lot of coaching in the dialogue.
Good novels aren’t soap operas. Novels actually END.
This type of dialogue can also be called, As You, Know, Bob…Dialogue, which is what we’re going to address. And just so you know, Stephano was NOT killed by the ice cream truck. It was a ruse to fake his own death, and he’s actually partnered with Victor to embezzle funds from the charity, but you won’t find that out for another three years….
Here today to talk about how to write superlative dialogue is one of our outstanding WANA International Instructors, Marcy Kennedy. This gal knows her stuff, but if you want some reassurance, I strongly recommend checking out legendary screenwriter David Mamet’s Letter to the Writers of The Unit. (Caution: Strong Language. But, in fairness, writers who are paid to write for a major television show should have known better, and they tanked a good show with bad writing and deserved the butt-chewing).
Take it away, Marcy!…
Dialogue is a great way to convey information, but only if you do it correctly.
In Revision & Self-Editing, James Scott Bell says the key to avoiding info dump dialogue is to remember that dialogue is always from one character to another. It can’t sound like you’re manipulating it (even though you are). It must always be what a character would naturally say.
Let me explain.
Dialogue written for the reader’s benefit feels unnatural because you have characters say things they wouldn’t normally say or say them in a way that they wouldn’t (often using much more detail than any of us include when we talk).
Dialogue written for the characters fits the context, and is always from one character to another rather than from one character to the reader. It takes more work to achieve, but the result will be worth the effort.
Dialogue that’s written “to the reader” is often called “As You Know, Bob…” dialogue.
As the name suggests, “As You Know, Bob…” Syndrome is when one character tells another character something they already know. It’s done purely for the reader’s benefit, and it’s unnatural.
TIP: A character won’t say something the character they’re talking to already knows.
Example: A husband won’t say to his wife, “When we bought this house two years ago, we emptied our savings for a down payment. We don’t have anything left.” The wife already knows when the house was purchased. She knows they emptied their savings. She also knows they haven’t been able to replace those savings yet.
Her husband has no reason to say any of that.
Info-dumps won’t always be this obvious, but if you could add “as you know” to the front of whatever’s being said? Time to re-write.
TIP: If it’s common knowledge, it won’t come up in conversation.
Example: Let’s say you have two sisters meeting to go out for lunch. One shows up at the other’s door.
Susie knocked on the kitchen door and waved to her sister who was mopping away in an apron she never seemed to take off. Her sister glanced up and waved then dropped her mop back in the bucket.
She ran a gloved hand through her messy hair that had fallen out of a ponytail and she let Susie inside. “Come on in. I’m just cleaning up the muddy paw prints left by our pit-bull, Jasper.”
Though the prose is good, it’s common knowledge among the characters that her sister owns a pit-bull named Jasper, which makes an otherwise good piece of writing suddenly clunky. Her sister wouldn’t feel the need to state the name of the dog. That’s soap opera writing.
Susie’s sister would be more likely to say…
“Come in for a sec. Just have to clean up the mud the stupid dog tracked in again.”
Even essential information needs to be given in a natural way. So if knowing that their dog is a pit-bull named Jasper is essential to the story, you could write…
“A flash of fur tore across the freshly washed floor and threw itself at Susie for a petting, and she shoved the dog down. ‘Off, Jasper.’ The muddy pooch dropped onto his back for a belly rub, pink floppy tongue lolling out of his mouth.
Ellen rubbed her tired eyes. ‘Sorry about that, Sis. Did he get you dirty?’”
Susie shook her head and rubbed Jasper’s belly with her foot. A little mud never hurt anyone. ‘Any more trouble with the anti-pit-bull crowd at the park? Rick said someone threatened to call the cops last week.’”
TIP: A character won’t say something that isn’t relevant to the conversation.
“A hundred years ago when the dam was constructed, this town was built on the dried out flood plain. If the dam breaks, it’ll wipe out the whole place.”
Did you catch the sneaky insertion of backstory in adding a hundred years ago? What regular person would actually say that? Who would care how long ago the dam was built when the real issue is whether or not the town is about to be destroyed?
Want to learn more about writing great dialogue?
On Saturday, December 7, I’ll be teaching a 90-minute webinar called Say What? Techniques for Making Your Dialogue Shine. I’ll cover the seven most common mistakes when it comes to dialogue and how to fix them, explain how to ensure your dialogue makes your story stronger, show you how to create dialogue unique to your characters, and answer some of the most frustrating questions about dialogue such as how to handle dialect, should we use contractions in historical novels, science fiction, and fantasy, and is it okay to begin a book with dialogue.
If you can’t make it at the time it’s scheduled but still want to attend, sign up anyway. The webinar will be recorded and sent to all registrants. Click here to register!
NOTE: WANA Mama (moi) has created a special page for classes and specials. Just click the new tab or go HERE.
All registrants also receive an ebook copy of the latest book in my Busy Writer’s Guides Series—How to Write Dialogue.
Do you struggle with “As You Know, Bob…” Syndrome? Are there movies that have driven you nutso with this kind of dialogue?
About Marcy Kennedy:
Marcy is a suspense and speculative fiction writer who believes fantasy is more real than you think. Alongside her own writing, Marcy works as a freelance editor and teaches classes on craft and social media through WANA International. She’s also the author of the Busy Writer’s Guides series of books, including Strong Female Characters and How to Write Faster. You can find her blogging about writing and about the place where real life meets science fiction, fantasy, and myth on her web site.
Yes, even WANA International is offering a Black Friday special. Cool thing is? No leaving home or getting in a fist-fight…unless you want to. I’ve killed three people this morning (though as writers. it’s ALL legal). I’ve asked Lisa Hall-Wilson to come chat with you guys about a serious sticky-wicket for new writers especially. We need to know what is going on in the minds of characters, but if they go around talking to themselves non-stop? Readers just roll their eyes.
There is a BIG difference between narrative and internal dialogue, and Lisa is here to clear up the confusion!
Take it away!
Stephen King wrote in On Writing about the writer’s toolbox. Tools like vocabulary, punctuation, grammar, showing not telling – those all belong in the top level of your toolbox, but lift off that top shelf and there’s a bunch of other tools that are very necessary but relegated to the more advanced writer.
Internal dialogue is a tool in the bottom half of your toolbox.
Internal dialogue is the thoughts, dreams, stream-of-consciousness stuff inside a character’s mind only the reader is privy to. Most people talk to themselves, think in at least partial sentences, talk themselves into and out of all kinds of things, they weigh consequences, wrestle with past experiences all in their head in a split second. How many smart girls make bad decisions about men?
Without internal dialogue, understanding what the character is struggling with – how they arrive at their decisions – what motivates them, it’s very difficult for a reader to connect emotionally. Internal dialogue happens through all points of view – first person, third person, omniscient.
There are a lot of aspects to writing internal dialogue correctly that go beyond punctuation (which is what I get asked about the most – should I use italics or quotation marks?).
One of my favorite movies is While You Were Sleeping. This came out in 1995 so I’m using spoilers. If you haven’t seen it I’m calling Scrooge – too bad. Go watch it on Youtube. Seriously awesome movie.
Lucy is this slightly neurotic (aren’t we all) but loveable single lady who finds herself facing another Christmas alone. Her parents are gone, she has no family or siblings – and she’s asked to work Christmas AGAIN because she’s the only one without family.
This is the story’s main story arc. Lucy wants a family, to belong somewhere, more than anything else. We have to understand this internal conflict for the rest of movie’s antics to make sense. To understand why she makes the decisions she does – and what she sacrifices for that dream.
“Ever fallen in love with somebody you’ve never even talked to? Ever been so alone you spend the night confusing a man in a coma?”
We feel her pain. Who doesn’t know the pain of being alone? Being alone at Christmas is a double whammy – who can’t sympathize with Lucy? But she’s funny. Her self-deprecating humor doesn’t make her a tragic character – who wants to follow a story about a Debbie Downer?
This movie uses a lot of internal dialogue really well. The conflict of the movie kicks off when she saves a man from being squished and severed by an oncoming subway train. (A man she’s secretly fantasized about for a while.) She bungles yet another opportunity to start a conversation with the guy she’s been fantasizing about and after he’s walked away she says, “Nice coat. Merry Christmas to you, too. You’re beautiful. Will you marry me? I love you.”
She follows the ambulance to the hospital to make sure he’s OK. They won’t let her in to see him because – she’s not FAMILY. She’s standing on her own in the ER and says out loud to herself, “I was gonna marry him.” She’s trying to get her Christmas tree into her second-floor apartment through the window.
“Forty-five dollars for a Christmas tree and they don’t deliver? You order $10 worth of chow mein from Mr. Wong’s and they bring it to your door. Should’ve gotten the blue spruce – they’re lighter.”
Internal dialogue is not the same as narration though, and the two are often confused. Lucy does a fair bit of narration as well, so this is a good movie to watch to learn the difference. The movie opens with a Lucy-voiceover:
“OK. There are two things I remember about my childhood. I just don’t remember it being this orange. First, I remember being with my dad. He would get these far off looks in his eye and he would say, ‘Life doesn’t always turn out the way you plan.’
I just wish I’d realized at the time that he was talking about my life. But that never stopped us from taking our adventures together. He would pack up our sometimes working car and tell me amazing stories about strange and exotic lands as we headed off to exciting destinations like… Milwaukee – it’s amazing how exotic Wisconsin…isn’t.’”
You can watch the opening few minutes of the movie here:
This is narration. Lucy is talking directly to viewers not herself. What she’s talking about, revealing, she intends for others to hear. It would be like giving someone your diary to read, but sitting next to them and offering narrative context between each entry. Note the difference?
Take an hour and a half this season and watch the movie. Pick out all the places where Lucy talks to herself (because that’s how internal dialogue has to work in the movies). What do you learn about Lucy and her personal desires, the reasons she makes her decisions, why she doesn’t speak up. Does knowing what she’s thinking to herself make you root for her, feel her pain, cheer with her success, agree with the lies she tells?
I’m teaching a webinar on Beyond Basics: How to Write Effective Internal Dialogue on December 7 at 11AM ET. We’ll cover punctuation, the psychology of internal dialogue, tense dilemmas, and lots of other things, and I’ll have examples from best-selling novels to show you how it’s done.
This class is being offered as part of a WANA2fer. Save $20 when you register for my Internal Dialogue class and Marcy Kennedy’s How To Make Your Dialogue Shine on the same day at 2PM ET. Because it’s Black Friday, today only if you sign up for the Internal Dialogue class you can save 25% by using the code ‘lisasentme’ at registration.
About Lisa Hall-Wilson:
Lisa Hall-Wilson is an award-winning freelance writer, author, and journalist published across Canada. She specializes in social media administration, interviews, profiles, and social justice initiatives, and speaks at writer’s conferences. She’s passionate about making this world a better place one get-off-your-butt-and-do-something article at a time. She blogs Through The Fire at http://www.lisahallwilson.com and writes dark fantasy novels. She hangs out on Facebook A LOT.
The past few posts, we’ve been talking about the fabulous James Scott Bell’s LOCK System. LEAD, OBJECTIVE, CONFLICT, and, finally, KNOCKOUT. Jim’s given me permission to talk about his system, but there is NO substitute for his fabulous book Plot & Structure. It’s one of the BEST writing references out there.
I am sure many of you’ve had this same experience with either a book or a movie. The characters are great, the story riveting, tense, and you can’t wait until the…..eh? WTH? Was that the ENDING? Really? I invested TWELVE HOURS of reading for THAT? And then you toss the book across the room or tell every friend you know not to watch Such-and-Such movie. I think it’s worse with novels because readers have a lot of time (they don’t really have to spare) invested.
I remember one book I read a couple years ago. It was beautifully written and had me on the edge of my seat. I couldn’t wait to figure out the truth to this mystery and when it was revealed? O_o.
I wanted to run the book through an industrial paper shredder.
Needless to say, endings are important. There are all kinds of endings: clear, unclear, twist, positive and negative. All will work if we execute them well (so buy Jim’s book and he can tell you how).
So your novel has thrust a likable, relatable protagonist into a collision course with the Big Boss Troublemaker. The Big Boss Battle must deliver all you (the writer) have been promising. Endings tie up all loose ends and sub-plots and, if we have done our job, will leave the reader a feeling of resonance.
Your protagonist MUST face down the BBT. No fighting through proxies. Darth (Anakin) had to face The Emperor. Agent Clarice Starling had to take down Buffalo Bill. Harry had to take out Voldemort. Spooner had to kill VIKI (I, Robot).
By employing skills learned over the course of the story and growing and maturing from protagonist to HERO, the protagonist is finally equipped to triumph.
Same in literary works.
Evelyn Couch (Fried Green Tomatoes) had to stand up to her husband (who was as useful as ice trays in hell) and her abusive monster-in-law. She couldn’t send in Ninny Threadgoode to do it for her. In the movie’s climactic scene, Evelyn employs the “Jedi skills” she learned from stories about Idgy. Her Jedi skills are confidence and self-respect, and she uses them to defeat her oppressors by refusing to take any more of their sh—enanigans.
This is why all this “my protagonist is the BBT/antagonist” WON’T WORK. In Fried Green Tomatoes, Evelyn is her own worst enemy. She is spineless and weak. But, the real enemy resides in those who desire to control and bully Evelyn. In each act of the movie, we see Evelyn learning confidence so that by the end, the BIG battle, she can tell her abusive mother-in-law and Momma’s Boy Hubby to stuff it.
She isn’t having an argument with herself. She is standing up to a very real external antagonist…even though this is a character/literary story. Characters having inner angst for 80,000 words is therapy, not fiction. Humans do better with the tangible. Existentialism is great for torturing college freshmen, but for a mainstream successful novel? Not the best approach.
If you plan on writing a connected series, every book must stand on it’s own. If we get hit by an ice cream truck after publishing Book One, the story should be good enough. No 1960s “Batman Endings” where we leave the reader on a cliff to manipulate them into buying the next book.
There are two types of series in my world: connected (I.e. Lord of the Rings) and episodic (crime novels). In Lord of the Rings, we follow a larger story and more is revealed with each book until a final climactic ending. In episodic books, readers are following a beloved character, but each story is different and self-contained (I.e. Agatha Christie mysteries).
If we have several books in a connected series, a reader might not pick up Book One. She might pick up Book Three. The story must still satisfy, and, if it does, likely the reader will seek out the earlier works to catch up.
When we have a connected series, we have ONE BIG BBT (I.e. Sauron) but each book still completes the story problem. There are mini-BBT’s which represent the main BBT.
Uruk-Hai—> Sauroman—> Sauron
Each book has a complete arc. Uruk-Hai dead, Sauroman defeated, Ring of Power melted, killing Sauron and all his evil power. When placing all three books together, each book will be an “act” of the larger work.
So when you get that nugget of an idea and think, Hmm. THAT is my novel. Try using the LOCK system. Ask yourself:
Can I cast a LEAD who is relatable, likable, or at least empathetic?
Is this OBJECTIVE something that will keep readers interested for 60, 000-100,000+ words?
Can I create a BBT and opposition force capable of generating plenty of CONFLICT to keep my lead from her objective?
Does this story problem lend itself to a KNOCKOUT ending?
This is just a taste of the good stuff that James Scott Bell has to offer in Plot & Structure so I recommend buying a copy for your writing library.
What are the biggest problems you guys have when it comes to developing your endings? What are some setbacks you have faced? Do you guys have any recommendations for resources? Or, feel free to commiserate and laugh about all the good ideas that went oh so wrong.
To prove it and show my love, for the month of October, everyone who leaves a comment I will put your name in a hat. If you comment and link back to my blog on your blog, you get your name in the hat twice. What do you win? The unvarnished truth from yours truly. I will pick a winner once a month and it will be a critique of the first 20 pages of your novel, or your query letter, or your synopsis (5 pages or less).
Also, for all your author brand and social media needs, I hope you will check out my new best-selling book Rise of the Machines—Human Authors in a Digital World.