Tag Archives: free writing lesson

Did I Say That Out Loud? Tips for Writing Dialogue

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Did I Say That Out Loud? Tips for Writing Dialogue

Ernest Hemmingway has been called the master of dialogue. So who better to go to for advice than a master? On writing great dialogue he said: When people talk, listen completely. Don’t be thinking what you’re going to say. Most people never listen.

So how can we take that advice and put it into practice? I’m going to cover five things we can do so that our books have great dialogue.

1. Listening is the beginning of great dialogue. We are around people everyday, whether it’s at work or at school, while we are shopping, when we take our kids to the park. People are everywhere. Most of the time we tune them out. Now it’s time to tune back in. Develop the skill of eavesdropping. What are their speech patterns? What’s the content of their conversation? Our goal as writers is to make conversation between two characters seem realistic. However, we can’t make it too real. Huh? Try to transcribe an actual conversation. Chances are it will be tedious and wordy.

“Hey, what’s up?”
“Not much. What’s up with you?”
“Nothing. Just trying to figure out what to make for dinner.”
“Me too. I get so tired of making the same thing.”
“I know what you mean. It’s time for a new cookbook.”

How extremely boring is that? Yet we have all had similar conversations. Therefore, when we listen we do it with an ear for content. How do people speak? When we write it we do it in a way that will read well. Remember, people read dialogue with theie eyes, they do not hear it with the ear.

Assignment: Take a notepad and a pen to your local coffee shop, mall or park. Somewhere you can sit close enough to people to hear them speak without crowding them. Now proceed to write what they say, every word. You will be amazed at what you learn about dialogue from this little exercise.

2. Tags or Attributions. I once read a book by a well known and liked author who did not use dialogue tags. It was so frustrating because I’d have to go back and count the lines of dialogue to figure out who was talking. I eventually gave up. The whole point of dialogue tags is to know who is talking. Read the following passage from a short story, Here We Are by Dorothy Parker. I’m going to take all the dialogue tags out to see how it reads.

She had been staring raptly out of the window, drinking in the big weathered signboards that extolled the phenomena of codfish without bones and screens no rust could corrupt. As the young man sat down, she turned politely from the pane, met his eyes, started a smile and got it about half done, and rested her gaze just above his right shoulder.
“Well!”
“Well!”
“Well, here we are.”
“Here we are, aren’t we?”
“I should say we were Eeyop. Here we are.”
“Well!”
“Well! Well. How does it feel to be an old married lady?”

Without dialogue tags we have no way of knowing who is talking until the final line when we know it is the young man asking her the question. Now read it with the dialogue tags.

She had been staring raptly out of the window, drinking in the big weathered signboards that extolled the phenomena of codfish without bones and screens no rust could corrupt. As the young man sat down, she turned politely from the pane, met his eyes, started a smile and got it about half done, and rested her gaze just above his right shoulder.
“Well!” the young man said.
“Well!” she said.
“Well, here we are,” he said.
“Here we are,” she said. “Aren’t we?”
“I should say we were,” he said. “Eeyop. Here we are.”
“Well!” she said.
“Well!” he said. “Well. How does it feel to be an old married lady?”

Isn’t that so much better? When using dialogue tags, ‘said’ is normally sufficient. Avoid ‘ly’ tags such as ‘she said loudly,’ ‘he said laughingly.’ He proclaimed and she exclaimed are also ones to avoid. Let the characters words speak for themselves. If dialogue is written properly the reader will know if the character is yelling, if there is tension in their voice, if the character laughed immediately after uttering those words.

3. Don’t use dialogue as a way to dump information on your reader. Some writers make the mistake of using dialogue to reveal facts that the other character should already know but the reader does not. For example, “As you know, I just graduated from nursing school and am working in the ER at the hospital in town,” Jane said to her brother.

That was an information dump. Since her brother already knew that, there was no reason for the line. The best thing would have been to give that information in the narrative and keep the dialogue clean.

4. Slang and dialect. Again we go to the master, Ernest Hemmingway.

Never use slang except in dialogue and then only when unavoidable. Because all slang goes sour in a short time.

To much slang can distract the reader and pull them out of the story, it’s best to use it sparingly. The same is true if your character has an accent, whether it be British, a southern drawl, or is from Boston. Giving a character an accent can be a way to distinguish them from other characters. However, it is possible to overdo it. A little goes a long way. Making it clear to the reader that the character has an accent and stressing that fact in a few words here and there is enough. Anything more risks offending or alienating the reader.

5. Break up dialogue with beats. A beat is a characters physical action interspersed in the dialogue. It sets the scene as readers can see the character moving as they speak. This adds realism to the story because a person very rarely sits perfectly still when they are talking. Some people talk with their hands. Others work while they carry on a conversation. Beats brings all that into the story. Read the following passage from Judith McNaughts Until You and see if you can pick out the beats.

Sheridan bit back a teary smile at his quip, afraid to believe him, afraid to trust him, and unable to stop herself because she loved him. “Look at me,” Stephen said, tipping her chin up again, and this time her glorious eyes looked into his. “I have several reasons for asking you to walk into that chapel, where there is a vicar waiting for us, but guilt is not among them. I also have several things to ask of you before you agree to go in there with me.”

“What sort of things?”

“I would like you to give me daughters with your hair and your spirit,” he said, beginning to enumerate his reasons and requests. “I would like my sons to have your eyes and your courage. Now, if that’s not what you want, then give me any combination you like, and I will humbly thank you for giving me any child we make.”

Happiness began to spread through Sheridan until it was so intense she ached from it. “I want to change your name,” he said with a tender smile, “so there’s no doubt who you are ever again, or who you belong to.” He slid his hands up and down her arms, looking directly into her eyes. “I want the right to share your bed tonight and every night from this day onward. I want to make you moan in my arms again, and I want to wake up wrapped in yours.”

He shifted his hands and cradled her cheeks, his thumbs brushing away two tears at the edges of her shimmering eyes. “Last of all, I want to hear you say ‘I love you’ every day of my life. If you aren’t ready to agree to that last request right now, I would be willing to wait until tonight, when I believe you will. In return for all those concessions, I will grant you every wish that is within my power to grant you.”
― Judith McNaught, Until You

Assignment: Read a scene containing dialogue in one of your favorite books. Look for the beats interspersed in the dialogue. Now take your WIP and write or rewrite a scene of dialogue including beats.

It’s all about Perspective – A Point Of View Lesson

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Why is point of view so important and what is it? Point of view is all about who is telling the story. It’s important because if it isn’t done properly we can confuse the reader, and we don’t want them to put down our book. It is vital to choose the right narrative point of view for our story. Let’s review some of our options and how best to carry them out.

First Person – This is the most intimate POV because it gets the reader directly into the characters head, they are telling the story in their own words. They are in the ‘I’ and ‘me’ perspective. The following is an example from Walking into the Wind by John O’Farrell.

I think that day was the first time they understood why I’d refused to follow them into the slavery of a normal job. Now that they’d glimpsed this world of fringe festivals and beer tents and circus arts, they couldn’t believe that this was my everyday life.

When using first person POV it’s important that the narration fit the characters personality. Their background and education play important roles in this. A wealthy socialite would not notice ornate furnishings when they walk into a room. Yet, the handyman coming in to fix a light fixture would. A lawyer or doctor’s diction would be different from that of a teenager or child. You also cannot reveal anything the character doesn’t know. While it does create a quick intimacy with the reader, the writer risks being stuck in that one characters thoughts and perspective. First person POV does present some challenges but the writer can be successful.

Second Person – This is told in the voice of a narrator, not a character, who is addressing ‘you’ the reader. Most self-help books are written in this POV, but when used in a novel it’s purpose is to make the reader feel as though they were experiencing the action themselves. There are not many novels written in this POV, but don’t let that stop you. If you can find a fun, new way of using it then go for it. Here is an example from Bright Lights, Big City by Jay McInery:

You are not the kind of guy who would be at a place like this at this time of the morning. But here you are, and you cannot say that the terrain is entirely unfamiliar, although the details are fuzzy. You are at a nightclub talking to a girl with a shaved head. The club is either Heartbreak or The Lizard Lounge.

Third Person – This is by far the most commonly used POV for novels. A narrator is telling the story about what he or she did. There are many different ways of using third person POV. One is third person limited, or single vision where the narrator tells the story from one characters perspective. This POV pulls the reader into the characters head, creating an intimacy between them almost as close as first person POV. It’s possible to use multiple third person points of view by switching characters. Some writers will switch characters with each chapter, others will make the switch within the same scene. If scene swapping is done its best to only switch once per scene. Any more runs the risk of confusing the reader. The following is an example of third person limited from my novella Homerun.

“Here.” She shoved the schedule at him. “Let’s get this done so we can go to bed.”
His grin widened and she realized what she’d said. She could feel the blush creeping up her face. “Not together of course. You go to your bed and I’ll stay here.”

***

He found her blush and her eagerness to clarify her words alluringly cute. He leaned in closer and let his fingers trail down her cheek and neck. The iron-clad control he maintained when he was near her was slipping fast.
“Are you really going to make me drive all the way home when I’m in danger of falling asleep at the wheel, Princesa?” Her lips were a breath away. How had they gotten that close?

In this example we get into both the hero and heroines POV, each separated by the symbols. Some authors won’t use any type of dividing line but rather switch within the same scene using a different paragraph. This can be done but use caution because many publishers don’t like this type of head hopping. If you choose to do this type of POV change start with the characters name and an action. Jessica ran her fingers through her hair. This could not be happening. “What do you mean you lost her? How does one lose a two hundred pound gorilla?”

Third person omniscient POV has a narrator who knows it all, the characters, the setting, any past or future events of the story. The omniscient narrator can reveal things to the reader that the characters don’t even know. The only drawback with this POV is that it removes some of the intimacy between the reader and character and creates distance. And for that reason omniscient is very rarely used now. It calls attention to the fact that there is a writer, which is exactly what most writers want to avoid. We’d rather draw readers into our fictional worlds instead of having them on the outside watching the events take place. Here’s an example from Home Sweet Home by Hannah Tinti:

A month before Pat and Clyde were murdered, Mrs. Mitchell was fixing the toilet. Her husband passed by on his way to the kitchen, paused at the door, shook his head, and told her that she was too good for him. The heavy porcelain top was off, her arms elbow deep in rusty water. The man she had married was standing at the entrance to the bathroom and speaking, but Mrs. Mitchell was concentrating on the particular tone in the pipes she was trying to clear, and so she did not respond.

Assignment: Write a paragraph or two in any POV you feel comfortable writing in. Now write it again using the other two POV’s so you have the same content written in first, second and third person POV. Which do you like better?