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GUEST POST: 5 ways to improve a rough draft

Client W.E. Larson shares 5 ways to improve your rough draft…Erik Larson

There are a lot of things I’ve done to improve my craft since I started writing. Some of them have come from books, more have come from crumbling up drafts and critiquing other’s works. Between writing and rewriting, I’ve probably typed a million words trying to get my first novel right–it still isn’t ready to even show Linda. Writing a million words teaches a lot of lessons, and some of them aren’t all that difficult to deal with. I’ve come up with five little things I’ve learned that can spruce up that rough draft.

1. Saw-ing and heard-ing

This is a bad habit I’m still trying to rid myself of. If your point-of-view character notices something, just describe it. There’s no need to say he saw the block of cheese or that she heard the siren. It distances the reader from the point of view you’ve established. You can just say there’s a block of cheese on the counter or that a siren split the calm day. Sure, it’s a little thing, but getting rid of these unnecessary verbs will draw the reader in and help him or her identify with the POV character. I’ve gone to the lengths of popping up a find dialog and searching for every ‘saw’, ‘heard’, ‘thought’, so forth and so on to figure out if they are really needed or are just distancing. It might take some time, but it’s a pretty easy thing to do to make your writing more intimate and sophisticated.

2. Watch out for crutch words

Sometimes you have to choose between what is right and what is easy. There are a few words that I think are crutches for writers because they are so easy to use. ‘Was’ and its ‘to be’ cousins are very seductive. It’s really easy to describe something by saying it was that, it was this, it was one, it was two, it was red, it was blue. But all you do with that is create a list. Yes, it might be a lovely list of shiny adjectives, but it’s still a list and there’s a reason a grocery list doesn’t qualify as literature. If you see a string of sentences all using the verb ‘was’, then you probably need to think about turning some of those sentences from being to doing. After all, what’s more compelling, a description of what something is or a description of what something does to the person observing it? Not that ‘was’ is always bad, but give it a stern look when it starts cropping up a lot.

Adverbs are a whole class of words that can lure you in with their easiness. Need a stronger statement than your verb or adjective is giving? Just slap on an adverb. It’s so easy that it’s tempting to skip having to find that stronger verb or adjective. In dialogue, it’s easy to throw on an adverb like ‘he said exasperatedly’, but it’s so much more vivid to show the exasperation or let the dialogue convey it. Again, adverbs are not always bad, but weeding out the ones that are simply band-aids can elevate the prose.

There are other words like ‘seemed’ and my personal nemesis ‘just’. These are words I’ll pop up a find dialog to hunt down. Sometimes ‘seemed’ is the right word, but a most of the time it only waters things down. It’s like you can’t commit to the words that follow it. ‘Just’ I just plain overuse. Figure out some of the words that haunt you personally and find every single instance of them, then ditch the excess ones. Time consuming, but not hard. Don’t get me started on the overuse of ‘suddenly’.

3. Don’t drown your dialogue

Sue shook her head as she fidgeted. “No, I don’t want to buy that cheese.”

“But it’s good, and we need it,” Bob argued, pointing toward the white block of cheesy goodness.

Sue glanced toward the cheese and let out a breath. “It’s so white.”

Bob rolled his eyes and spread his hands. “It’s mozzarella, it’s supposed to be white.”

“White food just creeps me out.” Sue took a step back from the cheese, shuddering.

When you picture a couple of characters talking to each other, it’s tempting to throw in lots of physical beats or attributions into dialogue. I want the reader to see the body language exactly the way it is in my head, and I want to make sure he or she always knows who is doing the talking. However adding too much clutter will drown the dialogue, and the reader doesn’t need to see the scene the same way I do. Pruning the excess brings the dialogue and the characters to the forefront. You don’t want to get rid of all of them, but sometimes less is better. It’s not a big thing, but it can make that dialogue more effective.

Sue shook her head. “No, I don’t want to buy that cheese”

“But’s it’s good and we need it,” Bob argued.

“It’s so white.”

Bob rolled his eyes. “It’s mozzarella, it’s supposed to be white.”

“White food just creeps me out.”

Hmmm… I’m not sure even the eye rolling should stay in there.

4. Don’t -ing it up too much

Taking off her boots, she walked into the room.

Another temptation is to start off sentences with an -ing word since it’s a really easy way to tie together a couple of actions. This can easily lead to sentences like the above where the author means that she took off her boots and then walked across the room. However, what the sentence really says is that she somehow took off her boots at the same time as she walked across the room, which is awkward at best. Even if you avoid that trap, too many of these easy sentences can make your writing sound crude and lazy. When reading through your work, keep an eye on how many of these -ing’ing sentences you have. Also, make sure your characters aren’t doing physically improbable actions when you do have one.

5. Start off with something unique

There’s lots of advice about the opening of your story, but this is a pretty simple one. You want to make sure that the first page of your book can’t be the first page of just any book–it needs to be unique in some way. Maybe it’s something about the main character, maybe it’s something about the voice, or maybe the setting, or maybe the plot, but it needs to stick a flag in the reader’s mind that says this is not generic. This is the genesis of the advice to avoid starting with the weather or the main character waking up–these are the kind of openings that any old book could have. If you write an epic fantasy book that starts with the main character bundled up against some unfortunate weather regretfully overlooking a burned-out village where his family perished, then your first page could belong to any of a hundred books. If the main character smiles and dances in the chilling rain when she sees that burned-out village where her family perished, then it’s not going to belong to just any book even if you do start off talking about the weather and a destroyed village. If that first page seems generic, crumple it up and think of the things that are specific to your story. I’ve certainly crumbled up a lot of my openings.

Not everything that can help improve your craft needs to be complex and difficult.

W.E. Larson is a life-time midwesterner living in the Kansas City area with his wife, daughter, son, and two dogs.  He earned a degree in physics from Trinity University with minors in computer science and mathematics.  He went on to pursue a career in software engineering.  Larson always enjoyed telling stories and decided to finally put some to paper—especially stories that his kids might like.

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GUEST POST: Talk is Cheap, Dialogue is Priceless

Part 2 of a 3-part series on dialogue, by client Joe McGee…Joe McGee

“Where’s Papa going with that ax?” said Fern to her mother as they were setting the table for breakfast.

~ From Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White

Well, it’s obvious, isn’t it Fern? Papa is off to do some revisions; to chop out unnecessary or clunky dialogue. And just like Fern, you may throw yourself in front of your manuscript, begging and pleading that Papa doesn’t take his axe to your work. But unlike Wilbur, “weaklings” in your dialogue are a sure way to stop your work from drawing the attention you want from agents and editors. Milk from a bottle won’t help.

So, let’s take a look at HOW dialogue is being used. Last week I discussed THE ART OF DIALOGUE, and this week we’ll tackle THE MECHANICS OF DIALOGUE.

Grab your axe…

PART II: THE MECHANICS OF DIALOGUE

Dialogue is such a unique animal, varying in context and application, that the points discussed below are merely basic elements to consider; to be cognizant of and perhaps avoid. However, like anything in writing, the “rules” are simply guidelines.

Robert McKee says it best: “Anxious, inexperienced writers obey rules. Rebellious, unschooled writers break rules. Artists master the form” (Story).

So what are some of the forms we should be aware of?

Tags: Ah, the old “he said,” “she said.” It is sometimes believed that in order to write effective dialogue, to entertain your reader, you need to flavor your dialogue tags. Why have “Wolfgang said” when you can have “Wolfgang exclaimed” or “Wolfgang reiterated” or even “Wolfgang screamed, happily?”

While there are certainly occasions where the writing calls for a flavorful tag (such as identifying the speaker, making the situation/emotion clear, or varying the read on the page), most times it comes down to lazy writing. Now hold on, don’t grab your torches and pitchforks. We all do it (and that’s what revision is for), myself included. By lazy writing, I mean that we are allowing the tag to do the work that the dialogue is supposed to do.

If Wolfgang exclaims, let him exclaim: “Hear me roar!” [the exclamation mark tells the reader that Wolfgang is, indeed, exclaiming]

Let the character’s words paint the picture:

“Honey, it’s a boy,” said Helga.
“I’m so happy, I could raid a village,” Wolfgang said.
“Good, because we need milk.”

[In this example, Wolfgang tells the reader his emotional state]

Reiterating:

“Are you serious?” said Helga.
“Completely serious.”
“I don’t believe you,” she said.
“I’m serious,” said Wolfgang, “I drank all the milk … and ate their cows.”

[This example demonstrates how natural exchanges of dialogue can identify the speaker with not every line necessitating a tag and how the identity can be varied: Helga vs. she]

Pacing/Weight: Just like every scene should have a purpose in moving the story forward, we should know the purpose of dialogue exchanges (as well as the lines we give our characters). And while it is extremely important to know why a character is saying what they are saying (because we don’t want speech just for speech’s sake), I am more concerned with dialogue at the macro level. What is the purpose of the conversation? If you know that, you’ll be more aware of how you craft your dialogue on the page.

If you want a quick, snappy exchange, use shorter bits. This is also great for building tension and moving action along.

“Wolfgang?”
“Busy!” He pulled his axe from the giant’s foot.
“That’s no excuse,” said Helga.
“No excuse? I’m fighting a giant!”
“And I’m nursing a baby.”
“But-“
“Milk. Now,” Helga said, slamming the shutters closed.

Arguments should employ people cutting one another off and talking over each other (look at the end of the exchange above). If you want to slow a scene down, draw out the conversation, be methodical, deliberate.

“So…” said the giant. He looked down at the axe in his foot. “Here we are.”
Here. We. Are,” said Wolfgang. He smiled up at the massive creature. “Don’t suppose you’d like to help me with my axe here?”
“Not particularly,” the giant said. “I’d actually much rather squash you.”
“Understandable.”
“Squish you flat.” The giant scratched his dry scalp. “After all, you deserve as much. Don’t you think?”

If you compare the exchange above to the exchange between Helga and Wolfgang, you’ll notice a difference in the white space on the page. Read it out loud, you’ll hear the gears shift between the two samples.

The Dreaded Info Dump: While I did mention that you should put your characters to work, allowing them to express emotional states or share some important information, you must handle this with care. Having characters open their mouths and vomit chunks of information that you, the writer, want to pass along to your reader is a tremendous NO-NO. Again, there must be a purpose for what a character says.

For example, Helga and Wolfgang are sitting in the kitchen:

“As you know, Wolfgang,” said Helga, “we’re sitting in our kitchen.”
“Yes, yes we are,” said Wolfgang. “The kitchen I just recently painted.”
“Magenta, my favorite color.”
“Magenta,” Wolfgang said. “A purplish red belonging to the primary color family.”

Yes, this is an extreme and silly example, but moments of inadvertent info dumping can happen before you know it (especially if you are building fantasy worlds, or introducing histories). Tease the info in. Avoid paragraphs of expository dialogue.

“And so,” Wolfgang began, “it was said that in the days of my father, and his father before him, and his father’s father, and even in the days of his Uncle, twice removed, on his mother’s side, who first set eyes on the great dragon, Fizzylgraut…a dragon mind you who once fought the dwarves and the trolls and the elves, and some leprechauns, and the Dallas Cowboys…”

Ok, enough Wolfgang. By now we’ve hurled the book across the room and vowed to never ever EVER read anything by this author again.

Dialect/Slang: It just so happens that Writer’s Digest has a great article on this very topic in their current issue (May/June 2013). I urge you to check it out, but will offer these brief thoughts:

  • Filling your dialogue with heavy slang and broken speech stops readers more often than you would expect.
“Dat dere boy dat you wuz wit down dere done did wersh dem cars.”

Seriously? This would be the last sentence I would read and I don’t think I’d have many people disagree with me.

  • If you’re going to use dialect, know the terms; know the “language.” Also know how heavy to paint it on the page. Balance, my friends. Listen to your words and let them sing, not stifle.
  • Profanity: Know your audience, know the purpose. Is it true to the character? Is it necessary? Constant use weakens those moments profanity is employed and when used for simple shock factor, it is apparent and generally not appreciated.

While this is no way covers every nuance of writing dialogue, it will hopefully give you some things to consider. Like McKee tells us, “the Artist master(s) the form.” Know when to break ranks and when to color inside the lines. And as much as you may love a bit of dialogue, know when to step aside when Papa approaches your revision with his axe.

“We’re born, we live a little, we die.” So says Charlotte in E.B. White’s Charlotte’s Web.

Crafting strong dialogue can help your work live long enough to attract the attention of an agent or editor, and to keep your readers turning the page.

Come back next week for Dialogue Part 3: WAYS TO IMPROVE YOUR DIALOGUE.

Have any thoughts or suggestions on writing good dialogue? Let’s hear them!

Joe McGee is a children’s book author from southern New Jersey. He is a graduate of the Rowan University Master’s Writing Program and is currently pursuing his Master’s of Fine Arts in Writing for Children and Young Adults at the Vermont College of Fine Arts. Joe is a former airborne Army officer, the father of three young boys, and an amateur cartoonist. His fiction and poetry have won national recognition.

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GUEST POST: Talk is Cheap, Dialogue is Priceless

Part 1 of a 3-part series on dialogue, by client Joe McGee…
Joe McGee
 
“You seem a decent fellow,” Inigo said. “I hate to kill you.”
“You seem a decent fellow,” answered the man in black. “I hate to die.”
– William Goldman, “The Princess Bride”
 

Dialogue is one of the more powerful tools in the writer’s kit. Done well, we love it. We quote, text, Tweet, post, share and enjoy memorable snippets of what characters say. Done poorly and we cringe.

Dialogue can leap from the page, break the shackles of exposition, and bring your stories alive. It can breathe life into your characters and bring your readers to laughter or tears. So, why does it seem like such a mystery at times? Why do some people struggle with dialogue and how can we improve that?

In this three-part series, we will look at: what is being said (the art of dialogue); how it is being used (the mechanics of dialogue); and ways to improve your dialogue (the workshop).

PART I: THE ART OF DIALOGUE

There are several things to consider when employing dialogue. We’ll examine some of these below:

Character Voice/Construction: What our characters say can tell the reader a lot about who they are. As writers, we have to be conscious of how our characters respond. Their words give the reader insight into how a character thinks, what their priorities are, and an understanding of their personality. Dialogue cannot merely be an exchange of lines. The author should remove him or herself from the page and let the characters’ nature be revealed in their speech.

For example, if a ship is sinking and we hear a character begin to order bystanders to organize and load up the children, we understand that this is a quick thinking, take charge, noble kind of person. If the character next to him whispers to his manservant to retrieve the jewels from the room while he “listens to these sniveling brats and deplorable women panic,” we get a completely different idea.

Furthermore, dialogue gives you another tool to make each character unique. Vocabulary, delivery, and style are all things to consider depending upon each unique character. Does your proper gentleman never use contractions? Does your quirky artist lose his own train of thought and constantly – “Hey! Are you going to eat that last donut?”

Story Info/Moving Plot: It has been seared into our writer brains: “Show, don’t tell.” But sometimes you have to get some crucial information across to the reader and it is not something that can be shown. This can be done, in moderation, and dialogue is one way to do that. This is a delicate balance. I’m not suggesting an information dump from the mouth of your character (which we’ll discuss in Part II) but suggesting that you can write lines with enough info to allow your reader to fill in the gaps or understand enough through context.

For example, let’s pretend that our characters, Jimbo and Dugan, have had a past experience with the local underworld boss, Alfonse Gruber. It didn’t end well for Jimbo and we need the reader to have a sense of the history and danger:

Dugan lit a Newport and tossed the match. “Gruber? Alfonse Gruber?”

Jimbo looked like he was going to be sick. “Yeah.”

“You remember what happened last time?” said Dugan.

“I remember,” Jimbo said. He flexed his left hand and looked at where his fingers used to be. “I remember.”

Pacing/Tension: Stories are built at the micro level. Every sentence we construct, every word we choose, they all become part of this greater whole that transcends the sum of its parts. Part of that construction is in the white space and page design. Take a look at a story where dense chunks of exposition seize the page like a zombie virus outbreak and the only room to breathe is in the margin. That’s a slow, heavy read that can easily weigh upon your reader. Inversely, you can quicken pace and create tension with short, staccato bursts.

“Jimbo?”

“Yeah?”

“Ready to do this?”

“That bastard owes me a few fingers. Let’s go!”

Quick, snappy, pulls the reader through the page.

Purpose: Just like every scene should have a purpose, conversations should have a purpose. Every line should have a purpose. It’s not enough to write dialogue just to have characters interact. There has. To be. A purpose. You must know why the characters are talking to one another, what they intend to get out of the conversation, and what you intend the reader to get out of the conversation.

In the example above, Jimbo and Dugan are gathering courage to make a move on Alfonse. Dugan wants to make sure Jimbo is with him and Jimbo obviously wants some payback. I want the reader to share the tension, to start building some adrenalin and anticipation for what’s about to unfold. Jimbo and Dugan are not just talking so that I can break from exposition or have them interact.

Emotions: Finally, what we have our characters say and the way they say it can illustrate the emotional state of our character. As writers, all we have are the words on the page. In movies, actors deliver the lines with visual and auditory clues. Dialogue gives us a way to paint an emotional picture in textual context.

“I’m … I’m ready to do this…I think,” said Jimbo. (nervous, uncertain)

“I’m ready to do this!” (Excited)

“Am I ready to do this?” Jimbo said. He looked out the soot-smeared window. “I was never ready to do this. Let’s get it over with.” (resignation)

While there are many other considerations for writing strong, effective dialogue, I hope these concepts will give you some things to examine and practice in your own work.

Please visit next Wednesday, when I’ll discuss THE MECHANICS OF DIALOGUE.

Thank you and happy writing!

Joe McGee is a children’s book author from southern New Jersey. He is a graduate of the Rowan University Master’s Writing Program and is currently pursuing his Master’s of Fine Arts in Writing for Children and Young Adults at the Vermont College of Fine Arts. Joe is a former airborne Army officer, the father of three young boys, and an amateur cartoonist. His fiction and poetry have won national recognition.

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