Showing posts with label Dialogue. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Dialogue. Show all posts

Monday, April 28, 2014

Emotion beats in your dialogue

by Stephanie Morrill

Stephanie writes young adult contemporary novels and is the creator of Her novels include The Reinvention of Skylar Hoyt series (Revell) and the Ellie Sweet books (Playlist). You can connect with her on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and check out samples of her work on her author website including the free novella, Throwing Stones.

Dialogue is pretty much my favorite thing about writing stories. Right up there with character development. And the brainstorming process. And writing the first chapter. And pretty much everything else about writing books.

We've talked on here about minimizing your dialogue tagssaid, asked, repliedand using action beats instead to both clue the reader in on who is speaking and what is taking place while they speak.

So instead of:

"How do you not know this?" Palmer asks.

We can show our audience more by cutting the tag and showing action instead:

Palmer looks at them like they're stupid. "How do you not know this?"

What we haven't talked about yet on Go Teen Writers is using a beat to show the emotion or sound of the dialogue. Sometimes this technique is called "dialogue cues," but I think of them as emotion beats. Like you're showing the audience not just what's happening, but the emotion of the scene as well.

The easiest way to do this would be with adverbs:

"What do you mean?" he asked warily.
"I mean you're grounded," she said forcefully.

But adverbs are high on the no-no list of editors, so you need to find another way. I pulled three books off my shelf from different genres and with drastically different author voices so you can see how this plays out in a variety of stories:

"If you're gonna wallow in it, I'm going in." Alex could be reading passing stats for all the feeling in his voice. "I simply wanted to make sure you weren't making plans to climb to the top of the hotel and dive off."

This is an excellent dialogue directive because it not only tells us how he's speaking, but it's a true word picture to Alex's character as an ex-jock. I love that.

Here's another one of Jenny's that shows deep emotion:

"You knew I assumed you were proposing that night two years ago. I thought we were going to spend the rest of our lives together." The old hurt lodged in her throat and made her words hoarse. "I can't do this right now, Matt."

Really great stuff. See how much better an emotion beat is there? The dialogue would lose something, in my opinion, if instead Jenny had chosen to tell us that the character is teary or that she's reaching for a Kleenex. This is great.

Here's one more that's similar to the previous example with Alex, only it's about fifty pages later.

"Just to review, we pretend to date for approximately one month. This time in June, I will propose to you somewhere public and slightly humiliating to us both." His voice was as expressionless as if discussing his preference in athletic socks. "In five monthsa month before our wedding dateyou and I will have a very amicable, very quiet separation. We will realize we both want different things and go our separate ways..."

Jenny's books are always popping with voice, and she carries that all the way through her emotion beats.

Now let's look at an example from historical fiction:

Julie has a lovely historical voice, as you'll notice in both the dialogue and beats:

"But we have had it wrong, Mary." Mrs. Mimpurse drew near and spoke in hushed tones. "Miss Powell is marrying one of the Marlows to be sure. But not Roderick as we supposed. She is marrying Sir Henry himself."

I like this one a lot too. The dialogue is so clear to the reader's ears:

"Down, I say." She heard a man holler in false bravado. "Down!"

And since so many of your write fantasy, I pulled To Darkness Fled by Jill Williamson off my shelf as well:

"That is disgusting." Sparrow's voice cracked. "I hate this place. I hate it!"

Jill could have chosen so many action beats for dialogue like that, but I love how she chose emotion instead. Another Sparrow example:

"Your friends on Ice Island." Sparrow's raspy voice always sounded like he had a cold.

And I like in this last example how Jill combined action and emotion for the beat:

Achan met Sir Gavin's brown eyes and forced his voice to remain even, though his stomach clenched. "Of course."

Now it's your turn! Pull out your manuscript and either find a place where you've already marked the dialogue with an emotion beat, or switch out an action beat for an emotion instead. I'd love to see your examples below!

Friday, November 22, 2013

Journey with Gillian: Beyond Skin Deep Dialogue

Gillian Adams blogs over at Of Battles, Dragons, and Swords of Adamant where she writes about anything relating to books, fantasy, villains, and costumes. Her book Out of Darkness Rising will be published sometime in 2014. She loves interacting with other writers and readers on her blog or facebook page.

Crafting dialogue is one of those areas where I feel like I’m in a constant learning cycle. I mean, I keep learning so much … but there’s always more to learn. So while I enjoy writing conversations, crafting dialogue that is unique to my individual characters is something I have to work at.

This is how I’ve come to think about it. (Hold onto your hats, ladies and gentlemen, we’re about to get technical.)

Unique dialogue comes through layers and filters.

Huh? What are layers and filters?

Layers affect what is said, while filters affect how it is said.

Layers are drawn from your character’s backstory. They are a part of your character and remain in place throughout the entire novel, forming the foundation of word choice. Things like who I am (personality), how old I am (age), where I’m from (nationality/location), are all layers that you use to influence your character’s dialogue. This is also where accents, slang, nuance—all that exciting stuff—comes in.

Filters, on the other hand, are more immediate, changed by whatever is happening at the time. Filters can be anything from a different setting, to a new circumstance, to a strong emotion. Using filters enables you to change the current tone you’re attempting to convey through your character’s speech.

Okay, so that all sounds great (and highly technical), but let’s get practical. What in the world does that look like? How do you use layers and filters and whatnot in your dialogue?

Let’s try an example. Say we’re writing a story about a two-bit, down on his luck, rough-riding gunslinger in the old west, named Brett Martin. After being out on the trail for three months, he finally has some hard-earned cash in his pockets, so he walks into the bank only to see a bunch of robbers stuffing cash into their saddlebags. And the robbers have the drop on him.

What layers do we have in this scene? Just from the information above, we can make a few educated guesses.
Layer 1: WHO: Brett Martin, two-bit gunslinger. He’s not the most educated person in town—had to start working at a young age, wasn’t able to finish school. Doesn’t possess the largest vocabulary, but gets by on common sense rather than book smarts.
Layer 2: PERSONALITY: Hardened—he’s had a tough life, but it’s just made him tougher. Tends to be a bit short of speech. Doesn’t waste his words.
Layer 3: AGE: He’s a young feller. Most folks consider him still a bit wet behind the ears, but that’s just their mistake.
Layer 4: HOME: Old West! He’s from some little old Texas town, so you can expect plenty of “y’alls” and “reckon” and “fixin’ to” in his speech.

We could keep going, but this is enough to start with. You can see how the layers that we’ve highlighted would affect Brett’s speech regardless of the situation. This is Brett’s VOICE. How he usually talks as a character.

But now, we start on the filters that have to do with this particular scene.
Filter 1: EMOTION: Bone-Weary—Brett’s been on the trail for three months, probably rode all day long just to reach town.
Filter 2: EMOTION: Pride—It’s been a long time since he’s had cash in his pockets. Now look at him, walking into a bank like one of them big rich men from back east.
Filter 3: LOCATION: Bank—This is where the snobbish bankers work. It’s frequented by the rich who like looking down their noses at hard-working folks who don’t have as much as they do. But as Brett walks up to those doors, money in hand, he can’t help standing taller and talking a little bit more refined.
Filter 4: EMOTION: Fear—Brett spies the robbers and freezes, unable to draw his gun, as his grand dreams come crashing down around his ears. The robber asks him a question, and Brett manages to stammer out an answer.
Or EMOTION: Anger—Brett spies the robbers and anger courses through his veins. Steal his money, will they? He’s not Brett Martin the gunslinger, for nothing!

So you start with the layers—that’s what give you your character’s voice—and then for each individual scene, you add in the filters to change the tone of the dialogue within the scene.

Can you see how each of those things is going to affect the choice of words? The length of your sentences? Even the things your character does and doesn’t say?

You don’t have to do this for every scene. But it’s something I think through whenever I hit a roadblock while I’m writing a tough scene where all my characters sound the same and I can’t figure out how to make their dialogue unique.

And if you want a fun “dialogue-crafting” research assignment, watch The Avengers. Awesome movie with seriously hilarious one-liners and dialogue that perfectly matches each individual character. And yes, it does count as research! :)

What tricks do you use to craft dialogue to match your individual characters? Any fun dialogue research assignments you can think of?

Friday, July 12, 2013

Creating Unique Voices with Dialogue

Jill Williamson is a chocolate loving, daydreaming, creator of kingdoms. She writes weird books for teens in lots of weird genres like, fantasy (Blood of Kings trilogy), science fiction (Replication), and dystopian (The Safe Lands trilogy). Find Jill on FacebookTwitterPinterest, or on her author website.

One of the best ways to characterize is through dialogue. The way people speak, the things they say---and think ... it shows the reader who the characters are. It shows what they care about and what they think of the world or their situation.

Here is an example of two characters from my book Captives. Notice how very different their dialogue is. It reflects how very different they are from each other.

       “Hi, Mason.” Jemma looked up from the flowers and smiled. “How are you today?”
       “Fine. Looking for Omar.” Unlike most people, when Jemma asked, “How are you?” she truly wanted to know. But if Mason had answered truthfully, Jemma would insist on more information. And Mason had no time for Jemma’s compassion today. “Have you seen him?”
       “Not since the harvest field this morning,” she said. “I hope you find him. Levi says your father might have made him a match.”
       “Yes, well, my father and Levi’s enthusiasm in this matter only enforces my skepticism.”
       “Mason.” After staring at the centerpiece for a moment, Jemma pulled a mule’s ear from her hand and threaded the flower into the arrangement. “You should be happy for Omar. Getting married would be wonderful for him.”
       “I’m not unhappy. I simply see no point in celebrating that which has not yet taken place.”
       Jemma practically sang her reply. “ ‘You can nearly always enjoy things if you make up your mind firmly that you will.’ ”
       Mason frowned, pondering her words. “That’s not yours, is it?”
       “Anne of Green Gables, one of my favorite Old books. And Anne is right. So go find Omar so you can celebrate.”
       Mason left without offering a reply and made his way back across the square to the stage. He suspected his brother would have many baffling encounters with his new bride. How women could find joy in the marriage of complete strangers, Mason would never understand.

In Captives, Jemma is a bubbly, happy person. A romantic, who refuses to be hopeless. She wears her heart on her sleeve. Mason is practical and busy. And blunt.

Here are some examples you might recognize:

"Farewell, Daughter of Eve," said he."Perhaps I may keep the handkerchief?"
(The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by C. S. Lewis)

"Easy, Ponyboy. They ain't gonna hurt you no more."
"I know," I said, but the ground began to blur and I felt hot tears running down my cheeks. I brushed them away impatiently. "I'm just a little spooked, that's all." I drew in a quivering breath and quit crying. You just don't cry in front of Darry. Not unless you're hurt like Johnny had been that day we found him in the vacant lot. Compared to Johnny I wasn't hurt at all.
(The Outsiders by S. E. Hinton)

"It's been my experience that you can nearly always enjoy things if you make up your mind firmly that you will."
(Anne of Green Gables by L.M. Montgomery)

"No one wants to upset me! That's a good one!" howled Myrtle. "My life was nothing but misery at this place and now people come along ruining my death!"
(Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets by J. K. Rowling)

"Don't you 'what Mama' me, you little Saumensch!"
(The Book Thief by Markus Zusak)

Mr. Neck: "We meet again."
Would he listen to "I need to go home and change," or "Did you see what that bozo did"? Not a chance. I keep my mouth shut.
Mr. Neck: "Where do you think you're going?"
It's easier not to say anything. Shut your trap, button your lip, can it.
(Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson)

What are some of our favorite lines of dialogue from books? Post them in the comments.

Also, Stephanie is giving away a copy of The Revised Life of Ellie Sweet on the blog of our friend, Roseanna M. White. If you're wanting to win a copy, hop on over there!

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

What Are Your Characters Talking About?

Jill Williamson is a chocolate loving, daydreaming, creator of kingdoms. She writes weird books for teens in lots of weird genres like, fantasy (Blood of Kings trilogy), science fiction (Replication), and dystopian (The Safe Lands trilogy). Find Jill on FacebookTwitterPinterest, or on her author website.

Last week Arlette asked a question about how to keep your characters' dialogue vivid and alive. Steph wrote some posts on dialogue a while back, and I think they're really good. So, you might want to check those out:

Go Teen Writers: How to Write Good Dialogue Part One

Go Teen Writers: How to Write Good Dialogue Part Two

But what if you're staring at your blank Word document, the cursor is blinking at you, and you don't know what your characters are talking about. What do they have to say to each other?

Keep in mind, there shouldn't be any dialogue in your book that's superfluous. Dialogue is part of a scene, and every scene in your book should have a purpose. Every scene should do one or more of the following:

1. Advance the plot
2. Deepen characters
3. Fill in backstory

That said, if your goal is to deepen the characters, and there is no major plot point happening besides them getting to know each other, how do you keep the dialogue interesting? You don't want to write the way people actually talk, because people are boring. The guys in my youth group could talk about a video game for an hour. I don't want to read about that.

But when conversation is exciting, funny, or adversarial, it can keep the reader turning the pages just as quickly as if they're in the midst of an action-packed scene.

“Great, Jill,” you say. “But how do I do it?”

“Dialogue is a war.” So says Randy Ingermanson in his book Writing Fiction for Dummies. And that's a great place for us to start. Dialogue should have tension. And not all tension means a fight. Tension can come from fear, anger, hatred, desire, excitement, sorrow, competition. I could go on an on.

So here is what I suggest. Start by choosing an overall emotion you're hoping to convey during the scene. Also, figure out where your characters are, emotion-wise, before the dialogue starts, and if you're hoping to change that or not. Also, it always helps to know each of their motivations for the scene and for life in general.

I'm going to use an example of dialogue from my book The New Recruit. All I wanted to do here was characterize a few people. The only thing this conversations adds to the overall plot is that both Gabe and Spencer like Isabel.

Here is what I knew in advance:

Overall emotional goal for the scene- humor

Character emotions/goals- 
Spencer- He's feeling awkward because his new church friends invaded the lunch table where he sits with his basketball friends.
Kip- He's annoyed that these “losers” came and sat at the cool people table.
Gabe- He's trying to make friends with Spencer.
Isabel- She's just looking to see where her friends are sitting at lunch.

And here is the scene-

     “Dude, this is nuts. I’m out of here.” Kip stood up. “I’ll be outside.”
     Gabe opened a bag of chips and offered Kip one. “You should probably stay in the building. It’s pretty hot out today.”
     Kip stared at Gabe as if the guy had two heads.
     “Que pasa? Got room for me, Gabriel?” Isabel stood behind me, holding a pink fabric lunch sack. Her thick black lashes seemed to blink in slow motion.
     Gabe pushed his stuff over and squished closer to me, making a spot for Isabel, but she sat on my other side. Ha! Garmond-1. Stopplecamp-0. And I just have to point out: When Isabel said Gabriel’s name, it sounded like Gabrielle, which is a girl’s name. I’m just saying . . .
     “Yeah . . .” Kip said, his eyes roaming over Isabel like a searchlight. “It does look kind of hot outside.” He sat back on the bench. “Kind of hot in here too.”
I snorted a laugh. Kip took great pride in the cheesy pickup lines he dealt to girls. The sad thing was, they worked half the time. I secretly hoped Isabel was smarter than the girls Kip usually hit on.
     “Es-pensor, what church do you go to?” Isabel asked.
     “Calvary Baptist,” I said, thankful for the first time that Grandma made me go so I could provide the goddess with a pleasing answer.
     “Me, Gabe, Arianna, and Neek, we all go to Cornerstone Christian Center. You should come to our youth group sometime. It’s on Wednesday nights.”
     Yeah, right. Like I’d ever set foot in that place again. Nick didn’t like me, and neither did his dad, Pastor Muren. Yet this was Isabel inviting me somewhere.
     “I’m sorry, were you talking to me?” Kip asked Isabel.
     She looked across the table. “Uh, no. I was asking—”
     “Would you like to?” Kip said.
     She frowned. Apparently she wasn’t quick enough to catch his meaning.
     Kip flashed her a cheesy grin. “I’m just asking because my friend Spencer here wants to know if you think I’m cute.”
     I rolled my eyes.
     Isabel pursed her lips and tipped her head to the side. “Well, what is your name, Es-pensor’s friend?”
     “You can call me Kip if I can call you tonight.”
     This time Isabel chuckled. “Oh, you’re a funny one.”
     Kip tapped his fingers on the table in front of my tray.
     “Dude, did the sun come up or did she just smile at me?”
     I laughed too. I couldn’t help it. When Kip got going, only a slap to the face could stop him. And I had to give him credit for using his clean lines on Isabel. I guess he could tell she was too nice to be raunchy around.
     Or maybe he just didn’t want her to slap him.

So what does this show the reader? That Gabe is nice. That Isabel speaks a little bit of Spanglish. That Kip is kind of a jerk and likes to make things all about him. That Spencer thinks Kip is funny. That all three guys like Isabel. That Isabel is polite but isn't showing any interest in Kip. That Spencer is competitive. That Spencer might consider going to church (something he doesn't like) to spend time with Isabel (someone he does like).

Dialogue is a war. They all want to talk about different things. Kip won. He dominated the conversation.

Let's take two characters. We'll call them Eli and Paige. And we want them to have a conversation.

"Hey, what's up?" Eli asked.
"Nothing," Paige said.

Right now, what they're saying is boring. We need to turn this dialogue into a war of some kind.

So here are some tips to help you figure out how to make your dialogue a war:

Make it confrontational. Each character's traits can clash with another. In my example, Kip's traits took over the conversation. The words spoken (or thought internally by your POV character) should be traits that are natural to each speaker. Things like: politeness, sarcasm, humor, etc. (click here to see the character traits list). You can also add character emotions like anger or flirtation. And should those emotions clash, all the more interesting for your reader.

"Hey, what's up?" Eli asked.
"What do you think is up, you jerk?" Paige said.
"What did I do?"
"Are you kidding me? You really don't have a clue?"

Make it suspenseful. Have one of the characters say or do something that piques the reader's interest or curiosity. Maybe their answer is vague or suspicious and makes the POV character think the other character is hiding something or lying for some reason.

"Hey, what's up?" Eli asked.
"You don't want to know," Paige said.

"Hey, what's up?" Eli asked.
"As if you don't know," Paige said.

"Hey, what's up?" Eli asked.
"Mr. Lawler gave a pop quiz that I totally failed," Paige said.
"Wait. You're not in Mr. Lawler's class."

Make it confusing (in a good way). Have one of your characters say something odd in reply. Maybe she's in a goofy mood, maybe she's preoccupied by something, or maybe she wasn't listening to the POV character or misheard him.

"Hey, what's up?" Eli asked.
"Sky. Moon. Stars," Paige said, smiling.

"Hey, what's up?" Eli asked.
"Did you know Mike and Emma are dating?" Paige asked.

"Hey, what's up?" Eli asked.
"Do I want some what?" Paige asked.

Make it make decisions. People often decide things when they talk. What they think about people or what they'd like to do next. Since you should have a goal for the scene, let your dialogue lead your characters to the place you need them to go.

"Hey, what's up?" Eli asked.
"I'm starving," Paige said.
"I've got a Snickers. You want it?"

"Hey, what's up?" Eli asked.
"I'm starving," Paige said.
"I could eat. Let's go to DairyQueen."

Make it describe. Use description tags or action tags to give clues to your POV character. You don't have to use such tags with every bit of dialogue, but practice to find places where it fits and feels natural.

Paige walked into the room and slumped into the seat beside Eli's. Her eyes were red and puffy.
"Hey, what's up?" Eli asked.
Paige huffed. "As if you don't know."

Paige clomped into the room and slumped into the seat beside Eli's.
"Hey, what's up?" Eli asked.
Paige stuck out her bottom lip. "I'm starving."

Make it internal. You should already be adding your point of view character's internal narrative here and there. Not with every bit of dialogue, but practice this! This is your character's voice. Learn to perfect it.

Paige walked into the room and slumped into the seat beside Eli's. Her eyes were red and puffy.
Uh oh. "Hey, what's up?" Eli asked, wincing inside.
Paige glared at him. "What do you think is up, you jerk?"
A chill ran up Eli's arms. She'd seen. She knew. Nuts.

Paige clomped into the room and slumped into the seat beside Eli's.
"Hey, what's up?" Eli asked.
"I'm starving," Paige said.
Eli instantly thought of the Snickers in his bag. The Snickers he'd bought for himself. The Snickers he'd been saving for after track practice. "I've got a Snickers. You want it?"

And---of course---don't forget to make use of the FREE Self-Editing Dialogue Checklist from the Go Teen Writers book. It's a great took to help you diagnose problems in your dialogue. Click here to download the checklist.

Can you think of any other ways to make dialogue into war?

Monday, March 4, 2013

Story Brainstorming Questions and Self-Editing Dialogue Checklist

by Stephanie Morrill

We're continuing the celebration of the Go Teen Writers book release with more free printables for you!

These lists are found in the Extras section of the Go Teen Writers. They've been on the blog before, but we updated them for the book:

Story Brainstorming Questions
When you have a new story idea, these questions are meant to help you take it deeper.

Character Questions (for major characters):
Who is my character?
What is she named and why?
If I had to describe her in one word, it would be:
What’s her family like?
What does she value?
What lie does she believe?
Why does she believe that lie? What happened in her past that caused her to believe it?
What is her main goal in the story?
Why is she ideal for the journey and why is she not?
Who are her allies and who are her enemies?
What will my main character sacrifice?
How does she need to change?
What happens if she doesn’t meet her goals? Why are her goals important? How can I make
that worse for her? Who else could it impact?
In what ways is she operating against society and in what ways is she operating within?
What part of her past can come back to haunt her?
What is her greatest fear?

Other Character Questions:
What does the antagonist want?
Does my antagonist have a secret he’s trying to keep?
Who will make sacrifices for my main character throughout the story?
What character could come out of the shadows and “shine?”

Story Questions:
What’s the best place for the story to start?
How do I think it will end? What is the climax?
Does my story have a theme? Why does this book matter?
What kind of hurdles will there be in the journey? How can I make these harder? How can I
make them “cost” my main character more?
What is my storyworld like? Are there political, historical, or environmental situations that
might affect my character’s journey?
Is there magic in my story? If so, how does it work? What are the rules, costs, and
limitations for it?

Self-Editing Dialogue Checklist
A writer on the Go Teen Writers blog asked if we could make one of these. Hopefully you 
find it helpful as well!

__ Are you trusting your dialogue and using action beats, or are you trying to make up for weak
dialogue with lots of, “she retorted” and “he exclaimed” and she “expostulated”?
__ Are your characters strategic about what they say, or are they just blurting things out? Did
they enter the conversation with a plan?
__ When your characters receive tough news or bad breaks, are they processing the situation and
experiencing grief in a realistic way?
__ Have you fallen into a “Q & A” pattern anywhere? Where one character is doing nothing but
asking questions and the other character is doing nothing but answering them?
__ Do your characters use different words for the same thing, or are their phrasings too similar?
(Grocery store can also be the market, purses can also be handbags.)
__ Are you letting character/story information come out naturally, or are you trying to explain
too much with your dialogue? (“Gee, Bob, I’m so glad it’s our anniversary today and that we’ve
been married for seven years and have two beautiful children!”)
__ Does every character behave and interact as though they believe they are the main character?
__ Are you using contractions?
__ Is your  dialogue age-appropriate? Or are your toddlers elegant and your grannies saying
words like “peeps” for anything other than marshmallow chicks. (*Shudder.* Don’t know why,
but I hate the word peeps.)
__ Do you have too many “group” conversations? (Conversations with four or more.)
__ Is “small talk” bogging down your story? (Hi, how are you? Good, how are you? Good. Nice
day we’re having. Sure is. And so on.)
__ Do you have a good balance of internal thoughts and dialogue? Does the reader get a sense of
not only what the point-of-view character is saying, but why he’s saying it and what  he feels
about the conversation in general?
__ Have you considered conversations from the perspective of all the characters involved, not
just the point-of-view character?

Click below for the printables!:

Friday, August 17, 2012

Punctuation 101: Dialogue Tags

by Jill Williamson

This may be review for some of you. But I'd like to go over this for those of you who have some confusion about when to use a comma or period or what when writing dialogue.

First of all, there are two types of dialogue tags: “said” tags and “action” tags.

Said Tags

A said tag assigns the dialogue to a speaker by using the word “said” or a variation of that word (asked, yelled, whispered, etc). A said tag is connected to the dialogue with a comma, unless the dialogue is a question or requires an exclamation point. When using a said tag, the pronoun must be lowercase unless you are using a proper name. Pay attention to the underlined parts of the examples below for proper punctuation.

Sample said tags:    

“I’m sorry,” the girl said.     

“I am the President of the United States,” Abraham said.   
“What do you want?” she asked.   
“What do you want?” Kate asked.    

“Leave me alone!” he screamed.    

“Leave me alone!” Mike screamed.     

“I can’t believe I’m telling you this,” Mindy said, “but I’m one of them.” (In this example, the said tag interrupted the dialogue, so a comma was used on the other side of the said tag since the sentence wasn't over yet. If you do this, make sure the interruption falls in a natural place for your character to pause. Read the dialogue out loud to see what sounds best.)       

“I can’t believe I’m telling you this,” Mindy said. “I’m one of them.” (Here the said tag came between two complete sentences.)       Mindy took a deep breath and said, “I can’t believe I’m telling you this, but I’m one of them.” (The “Mindy took a deep breath” part of the example is what's called an action tag. But if you combine action with a said tag, like I did in this example, you need to punctuate the sentence like you would for a said tag.)

Action Tags

An action tag is a complete sentence that identifies the speaker by what they are doing. Because we see a character’s action in the same paragraph as dialogue, we know they are the speaker. Since action tags are sentences, they are punctuated like sentences.

Sample action tags:     

Krista rolled her eyes and sighed. “What do you want, Paul?”   
“Get out!” Beth slammed the door in her mother’s face.    

“If you want to come, get in.” Kyle opened the car door. “Just don’t be mad at me if you get in trouble for missing curfew.”     

“If you want to come, get in,” Kyle opened the car door, “but don’t be mad at me if you get in trouble for missing curfew.” (This example used an action tag to interrupt the sentence.)

In special cases when an action interrupts dialogue in a quick way, you can use em dashes to set this off. Since the break belongs to the sentence, rather than the dialogue inside, the em dashes must appear outside the quotation marks.     

“Before we start”—the knight plunged one of the blades into the grassy soil—“we need to go over the basics.”

Any questions? And tricky sentences you're unsure how to punctuate?

Monday, June 4, 2012

Dialogue Tags vs. Action Beats

by Stephanie Morrill

Today's post is a revision of something I wrote around a year ago stating that said is considered to be invisible.

In that post, I told you guys that in your dialogue, your characters should be saying stuff rather than exclaiming or retorting it. I said your dialogue and action beats should be doing the work rather than your clever replacement of said.

I still think this is true, but what I would like to revise is my suggestion that the word "said" is invisible to the reader. Because I think saying that implied that something like this would be okay:

"I want to eat macaroni and cheese," McKenna said.
"Honey, we can't eat macaroni and cheese for breakfast," Stephanie said.
"Why not?" McKenna said.
"Because..." Stephanie said. "We just can't."
"But why not?" McKenna said. "I like macaroni and cheese."

Said is hardly an invisible word there, right? Especially on an audiobook. Can you imagine how obviously repetitive that would sound?

So, like a year ago when I said that said is invisible, what I really meant was if you have to use a dialogue tag, said is the most discreet, and you don't want to draw attention to your tags.

I listened to a POV class of Kristen Heitzmann's where she was asked, "Is there ever a time in a manuscript when you should use said instead of an action beat?" She laughed a little and said, "In the first draft when you don't want to take the time to come up with an action or emotion?"

She was joking ... but not totally.

In a way (and now I'm getting crazy picky here) using said or other tags is a form of telling. You're already showing that this is being said by putting those cute little quotes around it. (I find quotation marks to be absolutely adorable. Anyone else? Just me?)

Obviously people need to know who said what. But can you push yourself to achieve that without the traditional "he said"?

This is a brief scene from the second draft of a manuscript of mine. In this draft, I replaced all my he said/she said with action beats. I've marked my replacements in red:

There’s shouting and scuffling close by, but I can’t seem to lift my head. Pain sears my face. Someone groans. Or was that me?
“Sage?” Desmond’s voice is in my ear, and I tell my eyes to open. He’s crouched there beside me, with Hazel and Marshall too, but it’s as if the morning fog has rolled in. They’re hazy. “Sage? Are you okay? Sage?”
“I’m fine.” Did I say that or just think it?
There’s more shouting. When I open my eyes, my unit mates are all looking at something beyond me. Again I try to turn and see what’s going on. “What’s happening?”
“Everything is okay.” Hazel’s tone is soothing, the one she’ll someday use as a doctor. “You’re going to be fine, Sage.”
I don’t care about me! How’s Nellie?! But all I can seem to croak is, “Nellie?”
Marshall’s broad forehead furrows.“What’s she saying?”
Hazel bends closer to me. “I don’t know.”
Have they moved farther away from me? My eyes close, and I can’t seem to reopen them.
Their voices, repeating my name with increasing panic, are drifting away.
Sage? Sage? Sage?
Then they’re gone.

Again, all that red stuff is where, in my hurried first draft, I originally had a form of he said or she said. Sometimes I had it in addition to the action beat ("What's she saying?" Marshall asks. His broad forehead furrows.)

It's a lot better like this, isn't it? Not only is the writing tighter without the unnecessary saids, but it opens up the opportunity to show the reader more of what's going on and to drop in on more of the POV characters thoughts.

I know you see said and retorted and questioned in a lot of bestselling books that you love. I certainly do. I'm reading the Harry Potter series right now and there are dialogue tags all through that thing.

But my challenge for you - and this is something I've challenged myself to do as I edit my current manuscript - is to examine the saids (and its various forms) in your manuscript and ask yourself is this necessary or can I show this better with an action or a thought?

Question for you guys - where are you in your writing at the moment? Tackling a first draft? Researching your setting? Final edits?

Monday, May 28, 2012

How to Write a Novel

by Stephanie Morrill

Okay. I'm leaving on vacation today and therefore decided you all needed a 2,000 word blog post from me to tide you over.

Kidding. What really happened is that I became frustrated with the "Steps to Writing a Novel" page that I had posted from when we started our Write Now program in 2011. It began to feel very inadequate to me, though I was regularly receiving emails from writers who said they were using it.

So I decided to improve upon it. Below is the result. You can easily find it up top there by clicking that handy "How to Write a Novel" tab:

The good news is that every writer is different. I began my writing journey as a "pantser." A writer who writes by the seat of her pants without an outline. I wanted to be an outline type girl (After all, I love everything to be neat and orderly) but it just didn't work for me.

The pluses of writing as a pantser, I've found, is the creativity. The story can wander as you see fit that day.

The bad thing is ... the story can wander. Which means a lot of tightening up, trashing, and rewriting during the revision process.

After 11 years of pursuing publication, 8 years of doing it full time, and 4 years of being a published author, I've developed into a hybrid of pantser and plotter. I'm a plantser, you could say.

With every book I write, I learn more about the craft and more about what works for me as an author. It's hard to write a solid "Step by Step" guide for writing a novel, but this is my process more or less. Hopefully you find it helpful:

Before I Write Anything

• I might brainstorm with some writing friends and talk the idea over with my agent (who's amazing about dropping what she's doing to help me brainstorm ways to make the idea bigger).

• I write back cover copy, though at this stage I don't worry yet about making it quippy. Really, it's more of a "blurby thing" than it is back cover copy.

• I begin work on a one liner, which is my story boiled down to a sentence or two. They always take me forever, and I can never figure out the right balance.

Getting Started

• When I know my opening line and opening scene, I begin writing.
Related Posts: Writing a good first paragraphWriting a good first chapterHow to end a chapterWriting Chapter Two
• I write the first couple chapters. Typically three. Because I'm published, I can sell a manuscript before I've written the entire thing.

• After I've written my three chapters, I have a decent idea of who my characters are, what they want, and how they interact with each other. So I pause my first draft to make a book proposal. That way my agent can be shopping the idea while I keep writing. A book proposal involves:
  • A title. For a series this also means a title for the series and the other books.
  • My estimated word count
  • My target audience
  • My one-line, or "The hook" as we list it in the proposal.
  • Comparitive titles, which I possibly hate even more than the one-liner. This is a handful of titles that's similar to your book. The point is for the publishing house to get an idea of similar titles that are already on the market and how they're selling. It's tricky stuff because you want to show that your book will be successful, but I've also heard agents say to not put down books that are phenomenal best sellers. Like Lord of the Rings or Harry Potter. is a good resource for these, but I've actually found that my library's website is even better.
  • My author bio and a picture of me looking cute and likable and, "Don't I look like a professional, fun person to work with?"
  • Sales Hooks/Author Promotion, which is anything that will say to publishers, "I can sell some books for you!" I put endorsements here, awards my books have won, and stuff like being featured on the cover of The Kansas City Star. 
  • Marketing Strategies, which is what it sounds like. It's all the fun marketing stuff I've come up with for this particular book or series. 
  • Book summaries for all books being pitched.
  • Sample chapters
  • Synopsis, typically 2 to 3 pages.

Writing the first draft

• Once I've gotten the book proposal turned into my agent, I get back to writing my first draft. For me it works best to write without editing. It means my first drafts are lousy, but they're for my eyes only, so it's okay. I've learned to turn off my internal editor, and it's transformed the way I write. (And while many other writers are supporters of writing bad first drafts, many others like to edit as they go. Roseanna M. White wrote a guest post about that on here.)

Because of all the work I put into the book proposal, particularly with writing the synopsis, I now have a decent idea of what will be going on in my story. I've found this provides just enough structure for me that I know where the book is headed,  but I still have the "pantser" freedom to figure out how to get there.

The combination of composting and writing my synopsis has helped me determine all these things before I get into the meat of my story:
The first draft process will deepen all these things, of course. Some things that get deepened during the first draft are:

Even though I allow myself to write "bad first drafts" it's important that the structure of the story is solid. This means it's important for me to have:
If this is early in your writing journey, you might have some unique questions and struggles with the first draft. Such as:
• Because I'm more of a bare bones writer, I aim for about 10k less then I want the book to wind up being. That gives me plenty of room for all the adding I'll need.

• When I finish a first draft, I take a 6 week break before editing.

During my time off

After I've caught up on laundry and email, all of which were likely ignored as I finished my first draft, I often have a couple story-related things I want to do.

• Sometimes I'll do some general research. Like if my character is really into, say, trees, then I'll spend some time perusing books about trees just to build up my knowledge base.

• I often use this time to make a marketing calendar, listing all the things I plan to do to promote my book and when I intend to do them. If I don't have a release date yet, then I make the dates generic.

Editing the first draft

• The first thing I do is read through my manuscript in as few sitting as possible. I keep a notebook next to me so I can keep a list of things I notice that need to be changed.

Editing the second draft

Now that the big stuff has been taken care of, I zoom in and start working on my scenes. The first thing I examine is if the scene even matters. Then I can move onto:
Within each scene, I'll examine the following:
Editing the third draft

Now is when I make it sparkle. The big story stuff - predictable plot twists or flat characters - have all been fixed, so now I get super picky about word choices and grammar.
Related Posts: Some lessons on commas, CAPS, "Quotes" (and parentheses too)
Finishing up

• After I've done my best with it, I send it to my writing partner to get her input. She points out all my comma mistakes and also draws attention to anything that doesn't feel quite right to her. ("Why does your main character say this?")

• When I've input her edits and suggestions, I often read over the manuscript one more time before declaring it done and ready for an editor's desk.

• There are a couple spreadsheets that are helpful for editors. (Or so mine have told me.) If you're more of a plotter, it might benefit you to make these before you start. Sometimes I make mine while writing the first draft, but more often than not they happen after I'm done editing:
• And then the process begins all over again with another spark...

Friday, March 9, 2012

Q&A: What if my scene has too little dialogue?

On Wednesday we talked about how to balance out a scene that has too much dialogue, which of course begged the question, "What about a scene that has too little?"

Just like in life, there's certainly a time and place in your story where it's fine to not have much dialogue. There are a couple of dangers lurking in those non-chatty scenes that you should be aware of:

Too Much Introspection

Any scene that involves your character sitting alone, drinking chai tea, contemplating the meaning of life should instantly be cut. Or you should follow the advice of writer Erle Stanley Gardner and have someone walk in with a gun. Your choice.

I know J.D. Salinger did just fine with The Catcher in the Rye, but as a general rule, broody main characters do not work well because they don't do very much.

Description Bogs

Are you lacking dialogue because you've spent three paragraphs detailing the room your character is in? I notice this happening most often in historical, sci-fi, and fantasy manuscripts because of how unique and important the storyworld is to the action. I know it's tempting and you want your reader to experience everything to the full capacity, but you can't sacrifice forward motion.


Rachel Hauck said something in a class once that I just loved. She said, "tell the story between the quotes." Which I take to mean that the dialogue should be progressing your story. 

Try thinking of it this way: In a movie, there are no "asides." The actors can't pause their dialogue and explain things to the viewer:

"I never loved you, Robert!" The actress turns to the camera and whispers to the viewer, "Don't feel too sad; my character is being untruthful."
Because when you clutter up scenes in your novel with asides like that, that's what you may as well be doing. You're sucking out the tension! Your reader has opened your book hoping to be tortured. It's weird, but true. We want the suspense. We want to be biting our nails, thinking, "Does she love him? It seems like she did, but look at how she's acting!" I mean, where's the fun in it if we're not suffering?

So close your eyes and imagine your scene as a movie where you can't simply explain your concept or explain emotions. You must communicate them through the dialogue of the actors.

As a novelist, you obviously don't have the luxury that film makers do of just being able to show the setting, and those descriptions are vital to your story, but this can be a good exercise to push you toward creative dialogue.

So you've come across a scene full of brooding and descriptions and explanations. You think there should be more dialogue. What should you do?

Make your character's talk! You're in charge!

I'm not talking about filler conversations (How are you, Bob? Fine, Susie, how are you? Oh, I'm doing fine...) I'm talking about conflict-ridden dialogue that advances the story.

You do this by giving your characters something to talk about.

  • They can be talking about the plan - what should be do next? but what if the bad guys do this?
  • Or their feelings  - you really hurt me when you made this choice.
  • Or what's happening right then - why is Fido sniffing around the garden like that?

Or other things I'm probably forgetting. If they don't have anything interesting to talk about, that's a different problem relating to character development.

Also, don't leave your character alone too long. There's a time and place to ignore this suggestion, I'm sure. I was kinda shocked in the Twilight Saga when Stephenie Meyer chose to write out (what felt like) all 3 days of Bella's transformation. I thought it really dragged, and I'm not just saying that because Jacob rules.

Hopefully this makes sense. Honestly, it was kind of a tough post to write because I tend to have too much dialogue in my first drafts. If anyone has other suggestions for editing scenes with too little dialogue, please leave a comment!

Have a great weekend, guys!

Other posts you might find helpful:

A checklist for editing dialogue
Tips for improving your dialogue
Characters' internal and external motivations
Developing Secondary Characters
Developing Antagonists

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

The fear of too much dialogue

As we continue our conversation about pacing, which comes out of our conversation of writing fears, one of the questions raised was about the balance of dialogue and prose. How much dialogue is too much? How little is too little? And how do you know?!?

Every writer tips toward one or the other, too little dialogue or too much. (Note: I have zero scientific evidence for that statement, it's just an observation of mine after a couple years of judging for the Genesis contest and general critiquing.)

I always tip toward too much. This is something I wrestle with in the editing process rather than the first draft process. (If you're the type of writer who edits as you go, this will obviously be different for you.)

Here are the clues I look for that tell me I've used too much dialogue:

  1. I'm a couple paragraphs into the scene, only to be surprised my characters are in the cafeteria, not at the main character's house.
  2. After a page or two of dialogue, a character joins the conversation ... and I didn't even realize they were there.
  3. I have no mental picture of where these characters are.

This happens when I haven't done my job setting the scene, and/or because I have failed to provide sensory details.

What do I mean by setting the scene? Here's the way Betsy St. Amant opens a scene in Addison Blakely: Confessions of a PK:

After the day I had, ice cream was a must. I stood in line at Screamin' Cones after school and wished Marta were there to share the fat grams and encouragement.

Or this one from Sarah Sundin's A Distant Melody:

Sheer curtains hung at the tall drawing room windows, limp from heat so still that Allie's breath provided the only movement of air.
Allie sat at the grand piano to play after-dinner music for her parents and Baxter on the porch outside - every night the same.

Now does that mean you can't start a scene with dialogue? Of course not. But you don't want to let the dialogue go on too long before you drop in the setting details.

Here's another scene opening from A Distant Melody:

"I couldn't pick if I were her either," Daisy Galloway whispered, then stuffed more popcorn in her mouth. "Bing Crosby or Fred Astaire? Bing Crosby or Fred Astaire? They're both dreamy."
Allie shushed her - again.

And one from Addison Blakely: Confessions of a PK:

"I heard you needed an artist, little lady."
I looked up from my clipboard of assignments as Luke swaggered across the production room toward me.
See how they start with dialogue, but pause the conversation just long enough to help the reader get their bearings?

Once you've established the setting for the reader, sensory details are the tool you use to remind the reader (without them feeling like they're being reminded) of where they are. (Click here for more of an explanation of sensory details.)

Confession: When my scenes lack sensory details, it's because I haven't taken the time to think them through. So if you have a sneaking suspicion there's too much dialogue, take a moment to close your eyes and conjure up the scene in your head.

Where are your characters? (In their room? The forest? Walking through school grounds?)
Who else is there? (Other patrons of Starbucks? Classmates? No one?)
What's the lighting like? (Waning sunlight? Fluorescents? Early morning fog?)
What kind of ground are they on? (Crunchy leaves? Harsh concrete?)
What kind of smells linger in the air? (Fresh ground coffee? Hot dogs? Sweat?)
Does your character taste anything? (The food they're eating?)
If they're outside, what's the weather like?
And what kind of sounds are going on around them? (Birds chirping? School bells ringing?)

You don't have to incorporate every one of those into your scene. (In fact, I'm gonna say you shouldn't.) But you also don't want to just tell your readers that your character's are in their school cafeteria and leave it at that.

Another thing you want to make sure you're including is what is going on in your point of view (POV) character's head. Your readers want to feel like they're involved in the story, and now that they know where they are, they want to feel what your character is feeling during the conversation.

Here's an example of how Betsy St. Amant does this in Addison Blakely: Confessions of a PK. I highlighted the character's feelings, just to drive home the point:

"Not a problem." Jessica flashed her pearly teeth, and I wondered not for the first time this year how often she Crest white-stripped.

And here's one from Sarah Sundin's A Distant Melody: (Walt is the POV character)

Grandpa shook his head. "Nope. Ray's a quiet soul. He's not cut out for the rough-and-tumble of combat like you and Jack."
Walt's shoulders felt straighter and broader. Grandpa thought he could handle combat. 
"Okay, boy..."

Those glimpses into the POV character's head help knit your reader's heart into the story, because now they're not just seeing and hearing the conversation, they're feeling it as well.

Anybody have any additional tips or questions about dealing with a scene with too much dialogue?

Friday, January 27, 2012

A checklist for editing your dialogue

The lovely Emily Rachelle asked me if I could please compile a checklist for editing dialogue. I thought that sounded like a great idea, so I did. If the following list seems helpful to you, here is the link for downloading and printing it out.

__ Are you trusting your dialogue and using action beats, or are you trying to make up for weak dialogue with lots of, “she retorted” and “he exclaimed” and she “expostulated”?

__ Are your characters strategic about what they say next, or are they just blurting things out? Did they enter this conversation with a plan?

__ When your characters receive tough news or bad breaks, are they processing the situation and experiencing grief in a realistic way?

__ Have you fallen into a “Q&A” pattern anywhere? Where one character is doing nothing but asking questions and the other character is doing nothing but answering them.

__ Do your characters use different words for the same thing, or are their phrasings too similar? (Grocery store can also be the market, purses can also be handbags)

__ Are you letting character/story information come out naturally, or are you trying to explain too much with your dialogue? (“Gee, Bob, I’m so glad it’s our anniversary today and that we’ve been married for 7 years and have 2 beautiful children!”)

__ Does every character behave and interact as though they believe they are the main character?

__ Are you using contractions?

__ Is your dialogue age-appropriate? Or are your toddlers elegant and your grannies saying words like “peeps.” (*Shudder.* Don’t know why, but I hate that phrase.)

__ Do you have too many “group” conversations? (Conversations with 4 or more.)

__ Is “small talk” bogging down your story? (Hi, how are you? Good, how are you? Good. Nice day we’re having. Sure is. And so on.)

__ Do you have a good balance of internal thoughts and dialogue? Does the reader get a sense of not only what the point-of-view character is saying, but why they are saying it and what they feel about the conversation in general?

__ Have you considered conversations from the perspective of all the characters involved, not just the point-of-view character?

Anyone notice something that should be on the list? Leave a comment below, and I'll get it added.

Have a great weekend! Be back here on Monday for the new 100-word writing contest!