Tuesday, June 24, 2014

SIX Tips for Writing Dialogue

When dialogue is done well:

(1) You don’t need creative dialogue tags of the adjective variety i.e. “she said, surprised” or “he said, angrily”.  

The reader should not be told that a character is shocked or angry. The reader should be shown this: from the dialogue itself, or from action beats placed around dialogue or, where appropriate, from internalization.

What reads better?

“It’s over,” Sarah said, angrily.


“It’s over.” Sarah threw the coffee cup she’d been clasping. The fine china disintegrated against the cold kitchen tiles.

In the first example we are told she is angry. In the second example we are shown that she is angry, by Sarah smashing a cup.  The dialogue tag is unnecessary because the action beat frames the dialogue.

(2) The dialogue doesn't state something for the readers benefit only

If both characters in the scene already know what is being stated then there is normally no point in saying it. The writer may be trying to ‘dump’ the information into dialogue for the readers benefit, so that the reader can glean something that both the characters already know.
    • Often dialogue that has “As you know” or “Remember when” in it is often for the readers benefit.
    • A “catch up” between two characters that just repeats what happened to one character to another character is often an information dump. It is telling the reader, you may as well write the scene where the events happen to that one character instead of regurgitating it from the horse’s mouth. If you need the other character to know, don’t retell the scene.
    • Anything that seems unnatural or forced, or something that the character would not usually say, is often just an information dump for the readers benefit. Be true to your characters and don’t force words out of their mouths.

(3) The dialogue doesn't repeat an action beat. 

Dialogue should not be made redundant, if it is, it does not need to be said.

    • She nodded her head in agreement, “Yes.” 
      • The “yes” is unnecessary, you should have either the action or the dialogue. You don’t need both, unless you are trying to emphasize this for some reason.

    • Jim glanced up at the clock: 8:55. They were late already, and the kids were still in their pajamas; stuffing their little mouths with pancakes. “Come on, come on. Let’s get a move on. We’re going to be late, it’s almost nine.”
      • It feels clunky when its repetitive and does not flow well. You can rearrange as such: “Jim glanced up at the clock: 8:55. The kids were still in their pajamas, stuffing their little mouths with pancakes. “Come on, come on. Let’s get a move on. We’re going to be late.”

(4) The reader isn't confused by who is speaking at any given time. 

Appropriate dialogue tags, action beats or internalization are used when it is not clear who to attribute the dialogue too.  Without a tag/beat/internalization, and where the dialogue isn't distinct to a particular character, the reader may get confused.


“But dad, I’m still hungry.” Greta groaned, with icing-sugar powdered lips.
Synchronized moans rang out across the table.
“We’ll be late to church.”
“But, I hate going.”
“Hey,” she narrowed her eyes at Benny, “we don’t hate church.”

We don’t know who said lines three or four. We don’t know who the “she” is referring to in line five. We may assume that Benny said, “I hate church,” but we don’t get this information until we get to line five. All in all, it’s confusing to the reader and may cause them to lose interest or get irritated.

(5) A balance of dialogue tags (John said, she said), action beats, and internalization is used to frame who is speaking. 

Repeating one again and again can be jarring and unpleasant. Where possible mix it up for variety, and where you are able to—without confusing the reader—leave off the tag, the beat or internalization. Also vary where you place dialogue tags, beats and internalization so that they aren’t always at the end of the sentence (though that is preferable for shorter sentences).  Place them at the beginning, middle and end for different effects.

Jarring example:

“But dad, I’m still hungry,” Greta said.
"We’ll be late to church,” Jim said.
“But, I hate going,” Benny said.
“Hey,” Molly said, “we don’t hate church.”

Better example:
“But dad, I’m still hungry.” Greta groaned, with icing-sugar powdered lips.
Synchronized moans rang out across the table.
Jim started clearing plates. “We’ll be late to church.”
“But, I hate going.” Benny’s face scrunched together as his pudgy fingers stabbed holes in his pancake.
“Hey.” Molly narrowed her eyes at him, “We don’t hate church.”        

(6) You don’t need dialogue tags because you know which character has spoken by the way that they speak: by the words they choose to say. 

What else do you think makes up good dialogue?

Monday, June 16, 2014

Don't splice and dice--your commas that is!

What on earth do you mean? I'm talking about the comma splice.

What is it?

This is when a comma is used to splice two independent clauses like so:

"Jane sprinted as fast as her legs would take her, the sound of zombie feet pounded in ears."

Or try this one:

Jane enjoyed cookie-crumble ice cream, she had a weakness for anything with cookies.

What's so wrong with this: it is not the job of the comma to join two main clauses. The correct grammar usage would be to use one of the following:

(1) You could use a period to separate the two complete sentences:

Jane sprinted as fast as her legs would take her. The sound of zombie feet pounded in her ears.

Jane enjoyed cookie-crumble ice cream. She had a weakness for anything with cookies.

It is the periods role to separate two complete sentences.

(2) Or, if the sentences are closely related, you can use a semicolon to connect them:

Jane sprinted as fast as her legs would take her; the sound of zombie feet pounded in her ears.

Jane enjoyed cookie-crumble ice cream; she had a weakness for anything with cookies.

(3) Or, in some circumstances, you can use a coordinating conjunction to fix the comma splice:

A comma and a coordinating conjunction can join two independent clauses. The following words are coordinating conjucntions: and, but, or, yet, not, so, for

I had to slightly tweak the first sentence to make it work, so you would get the idea:

Jane sprinted as fast as her legs would take her, but the sound of zombie feet still pounded in her ears.

I know comma splices sneak into my writing all the time, and are something I keep an eye out for during editing. How about you? Do you suffer from comma splice syndrome?

Sunday, June 8, 2014

The Em Dash and all of it's glorious uses

The basics, what on earth is an Em Dash?

It is a dash the size of the letter M (would you believe that's how it got its name?). Microsoft word will create an em dash for you when you put two dashes together as such --. Do not put in a space before or after the em dash.

I will look at a FEW common uses here (there are a couple more):

The em dash can be used to signal a break in thought or tone:

Take a look at how F. Scott Fitzgerald used it in The Great Gatsby: "I lived at West Egg, the--well, the less fashionable of the two, though this is a most superficial tag to express the bizarre and not a little sinister contrast between them." On that note, and completely unrelated to this post, check out Hemingway's criticism of F. Scott Fitzgerald's Tender is the Night--it will make you feel better about your critique partners feedback.

Okay lets get back to it, here is another example of the em dash used where there is a break in thought: The trees stretched high into the sky--Jane wondered if she'd ever seen trees so tall.

If the quote itself is interrupted the em dash will go inside the quote:

"Jane run, before they--" a shrill scream shattered the otherwise silent night. It was too late.

It can be used to break the quote with narrative as such:

"Jane run"--he pointed behind her--"they're almost over the wall."

It can be used where you have an abrupt, startling appositive or where you want to emphasize the appositive:

First lets look at an appositive without the em dash, rather it is is punctuated with commas:
Jane, a skittish teen who faints at the sight of blood, stood on wobbly legs as the red liquid pooled around her.
Now with em dash emphasis:
Jane--a skittish teen who faints at the sight of blood--stood on wobbly legs as the red liquid pooled around her.

To set off parenthetical fragments (or sentences) especially where it relates to the main thought:

Jane ran--desperate legs sprinting as fast as they could, her arms swinging for momentum--targeting the back-seat of the waiting truck.

To summarise the previous series:

Guns, explosives, knives--those were Jane's favourite weapons.

Use of the em dash:

So how often should the Em dash be used? This is probably personal preference, however, I think because the em dash can be a powerful tool of emphasis you don't want to be using it all the time--especially because it can be quite jarring to read when used too frequently.

How about you, how often do you like to use the em dash? 

Saturday, June 7, 2014

Voice and POV (a case of what's right for the story)

Not so long ago I struck an issue that was causing me MASSIVE writers block. Sure I felt a bit burnt out from writing 40,000 words in three weeks (outside of my FT job)--but, the thing that really got me resisting even going near my laptop to write (CUE: distracting TV show), was whether my MC's voice was strong enough in third person POV.

I was in the middle of writing a scene that should have been exciting, it had stakes, it had conflict, it had tension--what it did'nt have was my MC's personality. Which FREAKED me out. Why? Because in earlier scenes I could see the MC in everything, how SHE felt when she saw the setting, how the setting was affected by her mood, how the people she interacted with were affected by how SHE was feeling. And then I looked at the scene I had just written. There was no personality on the page at all, it was a dry explanation of facts that my character was seeing or doing--it was clinical, and cold. A check-list, if you will, of setting and action that was happening to my MC, and not experienced through my MC.

Thanks to the invaluable insights and help from Susan Dennard with this super handy post: Changing a draft from third person to first person (please read it to see why and how Sooz decided to change from third person POV to first person POV for her novel Something Strange and Deadly) -- I was able to see where I was going wrong and ways in which to improve.

If you've read the link you will see my original question to Sooz was whether I had the wrong POV (still something I am pondering) because I considered the MC's voice to be weak (or wavering at that point in the story), however instead I've been learning  HOW to bring a strong voice into third person POV. Yes there will always be a little more distance in limited third person POV than first person POV--this is built in because first person is seen through the MC's eyes (I could smell the roses) whereas third person is being narrated (she smelt the roses)--though if you use third person limited you still see/hear/touch/smell/taste from the POV character and have internal narration.

The main lesson that I took away is that in order to have a strong voice for your MC you need to write everything (the setting, the action, their reaction to other characters) with their personality infused into the words that you choose. For example, a MC that is a six year old child would look at a playground (the setting) entirely different to someone with their earphones in just walking through it to get to the shop on the other side. If you were describing that setting with no voice, perhaps these two characters would look at the setting in a similar way: a dry check-list--green grass, swing-set, slide (and not infused with how excited a six year old may be to go playing in the park or how the person wearing earphones only sees the gravel from the path under his feet). This is a pretty simple example but you get the idea.

If you struggle with Voice you're not alone, let me know if you have any tips or strategies you use to help you bring out a strong MC voice.

Here are some links to some great resources on Voice and/or POV here:
**Note not talking about author voice here (just character voice).