Deep Dive into Craft: First Page Critique

I’ve got a special treat for you today. This Brave Writer submitted their first page for critique. Check it out. My comments will follow.

Lucky Lynx

Eduardo’s gun gleamed in the evening light as he tucked it into his shoulder holster.

“This guy Luckee ain’t a threat’,” he scoffed, as he pulled his jacket closer. “He’ll fold like the rest, we just gotta push him.”

Carlos shook his head. He didn’t take his hands off the wheel as the battered Ford Bronco jounced over the pothole-ridden street. “You know Hector Flores, ran with Familia Michoacana?”

“What if I do?”

“He gone. Double-crossed Luckee in a deal. Next day, his bank accounts disappeared.  Two days later, cops pick him up for murder. He’s up for fifteen at Riker’s.”

That made Eduardo sit up. The seat’s rusty springs made a creak.

“Hector never offed no one!”

“That’s right.” Carlos turned the Bronco down a side street. “Luckee hacked into the cops’ database. Swapped evidence with a gang-banger, pinned it all on Hector.”

“You’re messing with me, primo. This nerd a magician? I ain’t believing that shit!”

“Don’t matter what you believe. This guy can erase lives with a click. Don’t cross him, cousin. Keep that nine-iron under your jacket.”

Eduardo shifted in his seat.  The gun was a reassuring weight against his side.

The Bronco’s motor slowed to a grumble as Carlos pulled into the parking lot behind an old warehouse. The building’s broken windows and boarded-up doorways glinted against the sunset. The SUV’s headlights illuminated a group of four men standing next to a pair of Dodge Chargers. The lot’s outer fence ran close behind them.

Carlos put the vehicle in park, shut the motor off, and got out.  Eduardo followed suit. Their steps sounded abnormally loud in the sudden silence as they walked up to the fence.

Three of the four men watched warily as they approached.  The fourth one took a step forward. A pale face jutted out from beneath a black hoodie sweatshirt.  The sweatshirt hung loose around a lean, slender frame.

“The package is up against the fence, twenty yards to your right,” he said, in a young, high-pitched voice. “Either of you can pick it up and verify I’ve delivered what you want. If it checks out, then you’ll pay the agreed amount. You will not exit the premises until we signal that we have counted the bills.”

“Fine. I’ll pick it up,” Carlos said.

Eduardo scowled at the hoodie-wearing figure.

“You’re just a kid.”

A pause. “The name’s Ti. And yeah, I’m a kid. A kid who scored you your shipment.”

Brave Writer did a terrific job with this opener. S/he has a firm grasp of POV and the dialogue is easy-going and natural, though at times it took me a moment to figure out who was speaking. Easy fix, which we’ll get to in a moment. Because Brave Writer has the basics down, this gives us a great opportunity to dive a little deeper into craft.

First, let’s compare Brave Writer’s dialogue with my favorite craft book for dialogue: How To Write Dazzling Dialogue by James Scott Bell.

In Chapter 3, Jim gives us a checklist for what dialogue should accomplish.

  1. Dialogue Should Reveal Story Information.

But only reveal enough information for the reader to understand the scene. Everything else can wait.

Dialogue is sometimes the more artful way to reveal story information. But here’s the key: the reader must never catch you simply feeding them exposition!

Jim gives us his two top tips…

First, determine just how much exposition you really need. Especially toward the front of your novel. Here’s one of my axioms: Act first, explain later. Readers will wait a long time for explanatory material if there is solid action going on.

In fact, by not revealing the reasons behind certain actions and dialogue, you create mystery. That works in any genre. Readers love to be left wondering.

Second, once you know what you need to reveal, put it into a tense dialogue exchange.

In other words, hide the exposition within confrontation.

For the most part, Brave Writer succeeded in this area. But the punctuation causes confusion. For example…

“You know Hector Flores, ran with Familia Michoacana?”

“What if I do?”

For clarity try something like: “You know Hector Flores? [That dirtbag who] ran with Familia Michoacana.”

“What if I do?” doesn’t sound right to this particular reader. Simple and direct works best. Example: “That dude? Punk. He’s lucky I didn’t—”

“[Anyway,] he’s gone. Double-crossed Luckee in a deal. Next day, his bank accounts disappeared. Two days later, cops pick him up for murder. He’s up for fifteen at Rikers.”

Rikers Island has no apostrophe, Brave Writer. Do your research! It took me all of two seconds to confirm. Details can make or break a story.

Careful of run-on sentences, too. Example: “He’ll fold like the rest, we just gotta push him.”

Those are two sentences that should be separated by a period.

  1. Dialogue Should Reveal Character.

We can tell a lot about character by the words they use. Jim gives us another checklist to keep in mind.

  • Vocabulary: What is the educational background of your characters? What words would they know that correspond to that background?
  • Syntax: When a character does not speak English as a first language, syntax (the order of words) is the best way to indicate that.
  • Regionalisms: Do you know what part of the country your character comes from? How do they talk there?
  • Peer groups: Groups that band together around a specialty—law, medicine, surfing, skateboarding—have pet phrases they toss around. These are great additions to authenticity.

Did Brave Writer accomplish this task? Let’s find out… 

“Hector never offed no one!”

“That’s right.” Carlos turned the Bronco down a side street. “Luckee hacked into the cops’ database. Swapped evidence with a gang-banger, pinned it all on Hector.”

“You’re messing with me, primo. This nerd a magician? I ain’t believing that shit!”

The vocabulary, syntax, regionalism, and peer groups are all represented. Yet, something still feels off. If we look closer, Eduardo’s dialogue works really well. It’s Carlos’s dialogue that needs a minor tweak. “That’s right” is too on-the-nose. A more natural response might be, “No shit. But get this.” The rest of this short exchange works well.

Quick note about nicknames. If “primo” is the name Eduardo uses for Carlos, then be consistent. Don’t use both, especially on the first page. After all, we’re inside Eduardo’s head. If he doesn’t think of Primo as Carlos, then the reader shouldn’t either while we’re in his POV. 

  1. Dialogue Should Set the Tone (and Scene) 

The cumulative effect of dialogue on readers sets a tone for your book. Be intentional about what you want that tone to be… First, the way characters react to their surroundings tells us both about the location and the people reacting to it.

Brave Writer nailed this part. We know exactly where we are, and the tone is consistent. Great job! 

  1. Dialogue Should Reveal Theme

Certainly, many writers do care about message, or theme. The danger in dialogue is to allow the characters to become mere mouthpieces for the message. This is called getting “preachy.” The way to avoid this is to place the theme into natural dialogue that is part of a confrontational moment. As with exposition, a tense exchange “hides” what you’re doing.

With such a small sample, it’s difficult to determine if Brave Writer accomplished this task or not. Just keep it in mind.

Aside from dialogue…

Sentence Variation and Rhythm

The Bronco’s motor slowed to a grumble as Carlos pulled into the parking lot behind an old warehouse. The building’s broken windows and boarded-up doorways glinted against the sunset. The SUV’s headlights illuminated a group of four men standing next to a pair of Dodge Chargers. The lot’s outer fence ran close behind them.

In this one paragraph every sentence begins with “The,” which dulls the image you’re trying to convey. By varying the sentences you’ll draw the reader into the scene. Let the writing work for you, not against you.

Example:

Carlos veered into the back-parking lot, and the Bronco’s motor slowed to a grumble. Broken windows, boarded-up doorways, the headlight’s cast cylindrical spheres across the skewed faces of four men huddled next to a pair of Dodge Chargers. A chain link fence acted as an enclosure to keep this deal from going south—no one could escape unnoticed.

It’s still not great, but you get the idea.

Also, don’t rely only on sight. Add texture to the scene with smells, sounds, touch, and taste. Could there be a harbor bell in the distance? What might that sound like to Eduardo? Is he nervous and chews on his inner cheek to the point where blood trickles onto his tongue? Drag us deeper into the scene by forcing us into that Bronco.

Clarity

We never want the reader to wonder who’s speaking. An easy way to fix this is to move the dialogue up to the cue.

So, instead of this:

Eduardo’s gun gleamed in the evening light as he tucked it into his shoulder holster.

“This guy Luckee ain’t a threat’,” he scoffed, as he pulled his jacket closer. “He’ll fold like the rest, we just gotta push him.”

Try this:

Eduardo’s gun gleamed in the evening light as he tucked it into his shoulder holster. “This guy Luckee ain’t a threat’,” he scoffed, as he pulled his jacket closer. “He’ll fold like the rest. We just gotta push him.”

Or simply substitute “Eduardo” for “he.”

This raises another issue, though.

Would Eduardo really notice the sunlight gleaming off his gun as he’s holstering the weapon? Not likely. Remember Jim’s #2 tip: Dialogue Should Reveal Character. What I’m sayin’ is, you need a better opening line. We’ve discussed first lines many times on the Kill Zone. Check out this post or this one. For scene structure tips, see Jim’s Sunday post.

I better stop there. All in all, I think Brave Writer did an excellent job. The characters are real and three-dimensional, the tone is dark and pensive, and the dialogue keeps the scene active. I’d definitely turn the page.

The question is, do you agree? How many of you would turn the page to find out what happens next? What did you like most? How might you improve this first page even more?

9+

The Curse of Expository Dialogue

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

There are times when I need ten minutes of The Three Stooges. You know what I’m talking about. You’ve spent a long day writing some tough pages. Or you were bottled up in your cubicle at work, untangling your boss’s mess. Or maybe you were caught up in the latest news cycle, and you find yourself neck deep in the blues.

That’s what the Stooges are for. You don’t have to think. In fact thinking is precisely the wrong thing to do when watching the boys.

Now, I know the Stooges are not everyone’s comedic cup o’ noodles. Moe is often hard to take. Anything could set him off and get you a slap in the face or, worse, two fingers in the eyes. I had my run-ins with bullies as a kid, so Moe always made me uncomfortable (in real life, Moe Howard was a delightful man—who I met—and a great storyteller about the film business and the history of the Stooges).

But there is always Curly to save the day by giving us a nice, hearty belly laugh. (When Curly suffered a stroke in 1947, he was replaced by his and Moe’s real brother, Shemp. Most of my kid contemporaries didn’t like Shemp, but I did. While no one could ever replace Curly, Shemp is funny in his own way.)

Anyway, the other day I was in need of a respite from brain work and went to a Stooges short I’d recorded on the telly. It was We Want Our Mummy (1939). As you might guess, it’s about the boys, playing detectives, going to Egypt to try and find a mummy on behalf of a museum.

Well, the opening made me laugh, but for another reason. It was a full-on example of expository dialogue. Of course, these were short comedies that were produced like pancakes, and had absolutely no pretensions about being anything else. Still, it provides me with an illustration for teaching purposes.

The short begins in a museum of ancient history. Two professors in stuffy garb speak to each other in the Egyptian Room.

Prof 1: Bad news. The police aren’t able to find any trace of Professor Tuttle. His disappearance has them completely baffled.

Prof. 2: That ruins our hopes of ever finding the tomb of King Rutentuten. Professor Tuttle is the only man alive who knows its exact location.

Prof 1: First Professor Dalton dies mysteriously, and then Tuttle disappears. Something terrible happens to anyone who tries to explore that tomb. I’m telling you, it is the curse of Rutentuten!

Prof 2: But unless we secure the mummy of King Rutentuten, our entire collection is worthless. We must find Tuttle!

Prof 1: Well, I’m doing the best I can. I sent for the three best investigators in the city. And they are our last hope!

Okay, King Rutentuten is funny. But the dialogue, as you can see, is there merely as set-up material. It’s blatantly obvious, and I’m sure the writers, Elwood Ullman and Searle Kramer, snorted as they wrote the lines.

But in our fiction, such dialogue is a drag. It always sounds phony, which turns the reader against you. They are investing their time (and perhaps some discretionary income) on your book. You want them into the story, not catching you in a cheat.

The primary way to avoid this is: Do not have characters reveal information that both characters already know. Here’s a ham-fisted example of what I mean:

“Sally! I didn’t expect to find you here at Central Market.”

“I often come here at lunchtime, Molly. Doing research for the senior partners at Dewey, Cheatham & Howe really creates an appetite.”

“Does your husband know his petite, thirty-year old wife enjoys greasy hamburgers?”

“Bill? What he doesn’t know won’t hurt him. Being a cop on the street, he has enough to worry about.”

Ouch. Most of the time you’ll find such dialogue on the opening pages of beginner’s manuscripts. They think they have to get a bunch of exposition out there so the reader will understand what’s going on. Not so. Act first, explain later.

On the other hand, dialogue can be used to reveal information when the info is hidden within a tense exchange.

Let’s say the key bit you want to reveal is that Sally is married to a cop. The scene might go this way:

“Sally! What are you doing here?”

“What does it look like?”

“I’m just surprised. A hamburger?”

“So?”

“You’re usually so careful.”

“What do you want?”

“Are you meeting Bill?

“No.”

“Is he on duty?”

“Is that your business?”

“Got to be hard.”

“What?”

“Being a cop’s wife. Nervous time. I can understand—”

“Thanks for your concern. Can I finish my meal in peace now?”

So relax about exposition, and get your characters into more arguments. Readability will go up, and reader trust in you as an author will not be compromised. And you will be able to sit back and utter a satisfying nyuck nyuck nyuck. (Further dialogue techniques may be found here.)

For giggles, you can watch the opening dialogue below…and the rest of the short if you so desire. Excelsior!

We Want Our Mummy (1939) from Patrick J Mele on Vimeo.

8+

Rendering Dialects and Accents in Dialogue

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

One of the most frequent questions I’m asked about dialogue is how to render dialect and accents without bogging down the text with phonetic indicators and apostrophes all over the place, as in:

“Say, Mose, ah reckon there’s a-gonna be a shootin’ or a hangin’ over ’ta the saloon.”

“Ah reckon yer right ’bout that.”

“Ah reckon the whole town’s ’bout ’ta ’splode.”

“Reckon so.”

“Yep, this shore is a day of reckonin’.”

Or a conversation between an Alabama farmer and a New York writer:

“Thar’s a far out yonder.”

“A what?”

“A far.”

“Oh, you mean fire.”

“Ah said far, didn’t ah?”

Too much of this is going to wear a reader out. That’s why heavy dialects and accents in dialogue are out of favor with editors and readers. (Note: A dialect is based on word choices particular to a region; an accent is the “sound” of the speaker when saying the words.)

But what if you do want the character to have a heavy accent? Be clever about it. Give the reader an indication of the speech pattern the first time the character speaks, then use a few sprinkles of it every now and then as a reminder.

For instance, you can do a dialect-heavy first line and then pull it back in subsequent lines. Liz Curtis Higgs does this in Thorn in My Heart, a novel set in 18th century Scotland. A local shepherd greets a lost horseman with:

“D’ye ken whaur ye’re goin’, lad?”

You have to look that over a couple of times, but that’s what Higgs wants you to do. The heavy brogue is now implanted in our minds. After that she keeps the odd spellings to a minimum.

You can also use straight narrative to tell us what the accent sounds like. This was Stephen King’s choice in Pet Sematary. At the beginning of the novel, Louis Creed and his family have just moved to a little town in Maine. There they meet a neighbor, an older gentleman named Jud Crandall, a native of the region. Here is part of the introductory conversation:

Crandall nodded. “Course you are,” he said, which came out: Coss you awe.He glanced at Rachel. “Why don’t you take your little boy and your daughter over to the house for a minute, Missus Creed?”

Instead of making the pronunciation part of the dialogue itself, King tells us directly what it sounded like. The dialogue then proceeds without phonetic spellings. But the sound is now in our heads. We can “hear” Crandall in his unique fashion.

A few paragraphs later, King drops in a reminder:

“Not at all,” he said. “Lookin forward to having young ‘uns around again.” Except the sound of this, as exotic to their Midwestern ears as a foreign language, was yowwuns.

It’s interesting to note that for the word Lookin King does not use an apostrophe. This is true throughout the novel when gs are dropped. I like that. It doesn’t bother me a bit, and actually is pleasing to the eye.

I brought this up with a group of writers recently, indicating that if I ever wrote a Western, I’d like to give that a try. But one of the astute younger scribes reminded me that there are typo hunters out there now who will downgrade their reviews over such things.

Good point. So if I ever write Day of Reckoning I reckon I’ll be puttin’ in them little marks.

Thus, for dialects and accents:

  • Keep odd spellings to a minimum.
  • Do some of rendering up front to plant the sound, then minimally after that as a reminder.
  • Use well-chosen regionalisms. For example, the Scottish shepherd would say Aye instead of Yes, and Lass instead of Woman.

If ya feel a bit o’ sharin’ comin’ over ya, then be doin’ it in the comments, if ya please.

 

 

7+

Short Chapters and Lots of Dialogue

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

Last week commenter Alec asked: “JSB, I’m reading your Ty #1 book at the moment (I’ve read thru Chap. 36). I’m struck by two things – the amount of dialog and you seem to be using and chapter breaks to move time along … Do you recommend shorter chapters with the intent being that each chapter reflects a scene or a conversation? I looked and this book has 127 chapters.”

Several years ago I was having my teeth cleaned (stay with me, Alec, this will connect) and the hygienist asked what I did for a living. I told her I was a writer. (Such conversations invariably lead to the person asking something like, “Oh, have I heard of you?” Which leads, also invariably, to a furrowed brow and some sort of negative response.)

“Oh,” she said. “Have I heard of you?”

I gave her my name.

Her brow furrowed. She said, “Hm, I don’t think so.”

Shocking.

As she put the little bib on me, she asked, “Have you heard of James Patterson?”

“Sounds somewhat familiar,” I said.

She leaned over conspiratorially and said, “I know his secret.”

“Do tell,” I said.

“He uses really short chapters.”

So that’s it! So simple! Short chapters = millions of copies sold!

I’m only half kidding. For Patterson really did popularize the short chapter method for thrillers. Indeed, much of the time he takes what would be a traditional chapter of, say, 2k words or so, and breaks it down into three or four shorter units. The last line of a unit will have some sort of read-on prompt and there you have it—a page turner. It’s kind of worked for him.

In the early 2000s, as Patterson sold more and more, I began to notice the chapters of other thriller writers getting shorter, too.

Which was aces with me.

Writing in Scenes

I’m a movie guy. I grew up devouring movies on the tube. There was a regular program called The Million Dollar Movie on a local L.A. station (Channel 9, I think it was) and they’d show the same movie each night for a week, and twice on Sunday. I’d sometimes take in the same movie four or five times.

For my first official date I took the girl to a movie. It was a really romantic one, too. Willard, a horror movie about killer rats. (I should mention that this was also my last date with said girl.)

Still with me, Alec?

When I found out you could actually major in film studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara, I was all in.

I’m drenched in movies, and indeed it was a movie that reawakened in me a desire to try to write and sell stories.

Naturally, being from Tinseltown, I started with screenplays. I really learned about structure and dialogue and writing tight scenes via screenwriting.

Part of what got me a contract to write legal thrillers was the acquisitions editor telling me that I wrote “cinematically.”

Heck, I couldn’t help it.

I began my fiction career writing in traditional chapters, of a certain minimum length. Then one day I picked up a book by the hardest of the hardboiled, Andrew Vachss. It was Dead and Gone, and I loved his approach. No chapters. No numbers. Just scenes, some long, some short, set off only by white space and a drop cap. Here’s a screenshot of the first page:

What I loved about this was how liberating it felt. This was permission to write in pure cinematic style.

So when I began writing Try Dying, the first in my Ty Buchanan legal thriller series, that’s how I did it. In deference to the publisher, I did number the scenes. But the point is that writing this way means a scene can be as long or as short as it wants to be. No padding required. It also lets me easily control pace. I can put in a short scene that is rapid-fire action, or quiet emotional reflection, depending on how I want the book to feel at that point.

There are lots of possibilities so long as the reader is never lost on POV.

And that’s why I write in scenes.

Lots of Dialogue

Alec also mentioned the amount of dialogue, implying that it seemed, well, like a lot.

That’s because it is. I write thrillers and noir, and dialogue plays a major role in both. But I also love writing dialogue. Again, the movie influence. (See all those “zingers” from Friday).

So assessing the quantity of dialogue is the wrong focus. The only question is, does it work? The Fletch books by Gregory Macdonald, for example, are almost entirely dialogue. And they work as both mysteries and entertainments.

In addition, dialogue helps pace because it creates white space for the readers.

And dialogue is the fastest way to improve your novel. When an agent or editor (or reader, for that matter) sees crisp, orchestrated dialogue, they immediately gain confidence in the writer. That’s because they see so much flabby, plain-vanilla dialogue in their submissions.

I recall another date I went on where—

“Wrap it up, Jim,” he said.

“But it’s a funny—”

“Now.”

That’s a wrap.

13+

How Should a Character Say Nothing?

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

I had an amusing conversation the other day with another writer. She writes romance. I asked who some of her favorite authors are, and what they do that she likes.

Then she asked me about thriller writers.

“Have you read any Lee Child?” I said.

She rolled her eyes and huffed.

“What?” I said.

“I tried. But he kept writing Reacher said nothing …. Reacher said nothing. I just couldn’t take it.”

I had to laugh. Reacher said nothing has become a Lee Child signature. While he certainly didn’t invent this form of attribution (Hemingway used it, as you’ll see below), Lee has turned it into a personal trope. I’m sure he puts it in with a bit of a wink and a smile.

In fact, the phrase is now so familiar that the recent book by Andy Martin chronicling Lee’s writing of Make Me is titled Reacher Said Nothing. In the book Lee explains that Reacher “often says nothing. He shouldn’t have to be wisecracking all the time. He’s not into witty repartee. He’s supposed to do things.”

Nothing wrong with that. And though I personally love witty repartee, there are times when a character should stay silent.

How do we do that effectively? X said nothing is an option. I’ve certainly used it myself. But lately I’ve begun to consider other ways.

I often bring up Hemingway’s short story, “Soldier’s Home,” when discussing the telling detail. Krebs is a young man who has returned to his Midwestern home after serving overseas in World War I. Life can never be the same for him. He’s listless, doesn’t know what he’s going to do with himself. One morning as he’s eating breakfast his mother presses him to move on with his life. She even brings religion into the discussion.

“I’ve worried about you so much, Harold,” his mother went on. “I know the temptations you must have been exposed to. I know how weak men are. I know what your own dear grandfather, my own father, told us about the Civil War and I have prayed for you. I pray for you all day long, Harold.”

Krebs looked at the bacon fat hardening on his plate.

“Your father is worried, too,” his mother went on. “He thinks you have lost your ambition, that you haven’t got a definite aim in life. Charley Simmons, who is just your age, has a good job and is going to be married. The boys are all settling down; they’re all determined to get somewhere; you can see that boys like Charley Simmons are on their way to being really a credit to the community.”

Krebs said nothing.

Well there you go! Hemingway could have used Krebs said nothing both times, but I’ll tell you what: I’ve never forgotten that bacon fat hardening, and I first read the story way back in college. It is so stunningly evocative of Krebs’s inner life. Without it I don’t think the story would be the classic it is.

Let’s set up a sample exchange:

“So what about it?” Alex said.

“What about what?” Bill said.

“You mean to stand there and look me in the eye and pretend you don’t know what I’m talking about?”

Bill said nothing.

“You were there!” Alex said. “I saw you!”

Here, said nothing does its work and gets out of the way. Fine. But overuse may call attention to it, so let’s consider alternatives: 

  1. The action beat

The character can do something rather than say something.

“So what about it?” Alex said.

“What about what?” Bill said.

“You mean to stand there and look me in the eye and pretend you don’t know what I’m talking about?”

Bill blinked a couple of times.

“You were there!” Alex said. “I saw you!”

 

  1. The thought beat

With a POV clearly established, a thought can be a substitute:

“So what about it?” Alex said.

“What about what?” Bill said.

“You mean to stand there and look me in the eye and pretend you don’t know what I’m talking about?”

Uh-oh. He knows.

“You were there!” Alex said. “I saw you!”

 

  1. The perception beat

Like Krebs, the character can notice something:

“So what about it?” Alex said.

“What about what?” Bill said.

“You mean to stand there and look me in the eye and pretend you don’t know what I’m talking about?”

Bill looked at the scuff marks on the floor.

“You were there!” Alex said. “I saw you!”

So when a character is going to be silent, don’t just default to said nothing. Use variety, which is the spice of life, fiction, and all-you-can-eat buffets.

So what do you think? Chime in. You’re not allowed to visit TKZ and say nothing!  

***

 

Oh, and speaking of nothing, how about FREE? The ebook of TRY DYING, the first of my Ty Buchanan legal thrillers, is FREE at the Kindle store today and tomorrow.

12+

Don’t Let Your Dialogue Stray From Your Characters

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

Our first-page submission today is an opportunity to discuss one of the more common errors I see in beginning fiction. We’ll talk about it on the flip side.

JOE’S STORY

Chapter One

On a sunny October morning, Attorney Joe Morales parked his Lexus, carried his brown leather briefcase past a sweetgum tree sporting red, yellow, and orange leaves, and headed to his Dallas office. Inside the red brick building, he walked across the pink and gray granite floor, caught a whiff of the scents from a tasteful arrangement of marigolds and chrysanthemums on the counter, and waved to the clerk behind it. The smell of coffee wafted from the little restaurant down the hall.

Moving here to help his mom with his ailing father had its good points. Something interesting was always going on in Dallas. The energy-sapping summer heat didn’t last as long as it did in San Antonio.

His phone rang. Satisfied all the arrangements had been made for the deposition this morning, he answered. “Hello.”

“Joe Morales, this is Cash Carter, your opponent in the race for representative for the 104th District in Dallas County.”

“I know who you are.” His face and voice were all over billboards and TV ads. What did the guy want now? He’d certainly paid for several erroneous ads against Joe and kept him busy denying them.

“We need to meet to talk about the issues,” Cash said in his booming voice.

“Why? I have discussed them with voters in several town meetings.”

“Actually, I believe the main issue is your running for office.”

Man, the guy had nerve. “Why? I gathered over 5,000 signatures and paid the $750 filing fee.”

“You have no legislative experience, and you haven’t lived in the county much longer than the required one year. As a candidate for the more popular party, I have an excellent chance of winning, but you running against me is an embarrassment. You’re a pitiful excuse for a candidate. You should withdraw so you won’t suffer an ignominious defeat.”

Joe laughed. “I can’t believe you have the gall to suggest that. You must be scared you’ll be the one to suffer defeat at the polls. I intend to run and make things better for my future constituents, many of whom are Hispanic like me, so if you have nothing better to say, I’m going to hang up.”

“I suggest you rethink your position.” His opponent’s voice was now disturbingly quiet, but Joe heard every word. He frowned, searching for a good reply, then heard Cash say, “Things might get ugly. Goodbye.”

# # #

JSB: Since this scene is mostly dialogue, I’m going to concentrate on that aspect. But let me make a couple of comments about the first two paragraphs.

The opening graph is overloaded with description. There’s too much of it, so instead of creating a vivid picture it just all blends together. Do we need to know the briefcase is brown, or the floor pink and gray? I like that the author employs the underused sense of smell, but there are two smells here and they cancel each other out. Choose one. The coffee smell, probably, because it’s in line with the character at this moment. Please see my post on describing a setting.

The second paragraph is backstory/exposition. I’m not opposed to bits of backstory in opening pages, and for practice’s sake I advise beginners to stick to three sentences of backstory in the first ten pages, all together or spaced out. This one has all three together. But they occur too early in my view, and do nothing to get me interested in the character. The first line is a too overt in trying to get us to like Joe. The second line is there only to tell us we’re in Dallas. The third only to tell us where Joe had come from.

All that information can wait. Act first, explain later. Let’s get Joe right into the phone call, and take a look at the dialogue.

First off, an attorney in a fancy office is not going to just pick up the phone and say, “Hello.” He will either be alerted to the call by a receptionist, or in some cases may take a direct call, but then would answer by saying his name.

“Joe Morales, this is Cash Carter, your opponent in the race for representative for the 104th District in Dallas County.”

“I know who you are.” 

One of the “speed bumps” I see often in beginning fiction is dialogue that does not sound natural because the author is using it to feed information to the reader. Most of the time it manifests itself by having characters tell each other things they already both know.

And that’s what’s happened here.

Cash Carter and Joe Morales know each other well. They’re political opponents and Joe’s been the subject of many Cash Carter ads already. So there is no reason for Cash to explain that he is “your opponent in the race for representative for the 104th District in Dallas County.” Joe knows that! And Cash knows Joe knows! The author is feeding us, the readers, the information, thinking we need to know it right now. We don’t. It can come in later and in a much more natural way.

“We need to meet to talk about the issues,” Cash said in his booming voice.

“Why? I have discussed them with voters in several town meetings.”

“Actually, I believe the main issue is your running for office.”

Good dialogue is compressed (unless there’s a reason for the character to be prolix). Three ways to do that are to eliminate fluff, cut words, and use contractions.

I define fluff as a needless word or two at the beginning of a sentence. Here, Why and Actually don’t do anything for us. See how much crisper this dialogue is without the fluff, with a couple of words dropped, and with contractions:

“We need talk about an issue,” Cash said in his booming voice.

“I’ve discussed the issues at the town meetings.”

“The issue is you running for office, sport.”

I added sport as an example of a simple way to add tension, another mark of excellent dialogue.

Man, the guy had nerve. “Why? I gathered over 5,000 signatures and paid the $750 filing fee.”

Again, Why is unneeded fluff. And once more the line smacks of exposition. Carter would know all this, and why would Joe bother to cite the filing fee?

Also, as much as possible, let the dialogue do the work of revealing the characters’ feelings. The line Man, the guy had nerve wouldn’t be needed if you had Joe say something like, “You gotta be kidding.”

“You have no legislative experience, and you haven’t lived in the county much longer than the required one year. As a candidate for the more popular party, I have an excellent chance of winning, but you running against me is an embarrassment. You’re a pitiful excuse for a candidate. You should withdraw so you won’t suffer an ignominious defeat.”

This doesn’t sound real to me. Would Cash really say “ the required one year” (something they both know!) or “the more popular party” or “I have an excellent chance” or “ignominious defeat”? If he’s trying to scare off Joe, wouldn’t he use more colloquial and colorful language?

Here’s a dialogue tip: Read it out loud, with feeling (like an actor). The sound will smack you in a whole new way.

“I can’t believe you have the gall to suggest that. You must be scared you’ll be the one to suffer defeat at the polls. I intend to run and make things better for my future constituents, many of whom are Hispanic like me, so if you have nothing better to say, I’m going to hang up.”

I hope you can see it by now that …many of whom are Hispanic like me … is a line for the readers.

Here’s another tip: when you catch yourself giving expositional dialogue to a character, see if you can put it in the other character’s mouth as part of tense exchange. For example, you could have Cash say something like, “You may think you got the Hispanic vote, Morales, but your skin ain’t gonna win this thing.”

“I suggest you rethink your position.” His opponent’s voice was now disturbingly quiet, but Joe heard every word. He frowned, searching for a good reply, then heard Cash say, “Things might get ugly. Goodbye.”

I have a hard time believing a candidate would think such a vague threat over the phone would be enough to get his opponent to drop out. (Another needless word is Goodbye. Especially after a threat. Just have the guy hang up.) Because of that, I have no feeling of threat here, and thus am not worried about Joe. And a major goal of the first page is to start the reader worrying!

Whew! Listen, writer, don’t be discouraged. I went into detail because dialogue is the fastest way to improve—or sink—a manuscript. Editors, agents, and readers all make judgments based in large part on how the author handles dialogue. The good news is there are some basic dialogue techniques that are simple to understand and employ. If you wish to dig deeper, let me modestly suggest a book on the subject.

Bottom line: It’s crucial to know your characters inside and out, and know what they would say in a given situation. Don’t ever let them get caught slipping information to the reader.

One last item: the title. Perhaps this one is temporary for purposes of the WIP. I hope that’s the case, because you can and should come up with a much better title. On that matter, see this helpful post by our own P. J. Parrish (Kris).

All right, Zoners, add your helpful comments for our brave writer!

10+

How to Talk Tough

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

Mickey Spillane

Those of us who write thrillers, noir, and crime fiction know that a huge part of our craft is tough talk—dialogue from the mouths of hardboiled protagonists, street hustlers, cops, thugs, hitmen, femme fatales, homme fatales, and other denizens of the dark side.

It’s not easy to do it artfully, for it is much more than littering the page with the F-bomb and its misbegotten progeny.

I saw a movie the other day, a highly-touted crime thriller. I won’t name it because I don’t like to put down other writers, but I will say the dialogue was pretty lame. What I mean is that there were a lot of F words tossed around without any originality or élan. Characters would just spout “F you” or “F that.” (But that’s how people talk in real life! you might be thinking. Well, you’re not writing real life. You’re writing fiction, which is a stylized rendering of life for an artistic purpose. Just recreating “real life” sounds doesn’t move the needle.)

So how can you talk tough without falling into the lazy lacing of platitudinous profanities? Let me suggest a few:

  1. Be Witty

This is the toughest (!) form of tough talk, but it pays big when you can pull it off. The master of this kind of gab, of course, was Raymond Chandler. His novels featuring PI Philip Marlowe are filled with snappy banter that works because (and this is the key) it is perfectly in Marlowe’s voice. It never seems to be a strain. Like this exchange in The Long Goodbye:

“See you around,” the bodyguard told me coolly. “The name is Chick Agostino. I guess you’ll know me.”

“Like a dirty newspaper,” I said. “Remind me not to step on your face.”

Or this from The Little Sister: 

“That slut. What does she say about me?” she hissed.

“Nothing. Oh, she might have called you a Tijuana hooker in riding pants. Would you mind?”

The silvery giggle went on for a little while. “Always the wisecrack with you. Is it not so? But you see I did not then know you were a detective. That makes a very big difference.”

“Miss Gonzales, you said something about business. What kind of business, if you’re not kidding me.”

“Would you like to make a great deal of money? A very great deal of money?”

“You mean without getting shot?” I asked.

“Sí,” she said thoughtfully. “There is also that to consider. But you are so brave, so big, so—”

“I’ll be at my office at nine in the morning, Miss Gonzales. I’ll be a lot braver then.”

Take your time with exchanges like this. Don’t force the issue. Play with the language. A different word here or there can make all the difference. I like the line from Lawrence Block’s short story “Headaches and Bad Dreams.” A detective is describing a suspect who is not exactly lovely to look at. “God made him as ugly as he could and then hit him in the mouth with a shovel.”

  1. Be Crisp

Tough talk is often clipped. It gives nice white space to the page, too. This was Robert. B. Parker’s preferred method. Here’s a bit from one of his Sunny Randall novels, Melancholy Baby:

“Sarah took a lot of drugs.”

“More than grass?” I said.

“Oh, yes. Hard drugs.”

“Like what?”

“I don’t know. I don’t use drugs.”

“Good for you,” I said.

“I graduate this June, and next year I want to be in a really good MBA program. I don’t want to do anything to spoil my chances.”

“So her drug use was disruptive?”

“Yes. She’d come in at night, late sometimes, and act crazy.”

“Like?”

“Like she’d be crying and seeing things and …” Polly shook her head. “Did you ever go to college?”

“I did,” I said.

“What did you major in?”

“Art.”

“Really?”

I could tell that Polly found that puzzling.

“How did you do?”

“I was a good artist and a bad student,” I said.

Go over all your dialogue scenes and look for words to cut. Replace some verbal answers with silence or an action beat. You’ll love the results.

  1. Be Over the Top

This is the opposite of #2. It should be done sparingly. But every now and then consider having one of your characters give vent with a paragraph or two of straight tough talk.

Mickey Spillane liked to do this. He of course invented the quintessential hard-boiled PI, Mike Hammer. But he also wrote stand alones. In The Long Wait (1951) the narrator, Johnny McBride, has been dragged in by the cops for questioning. McBride insults the cops (this will get him beaten up later) and tells them to inform him of the charges or let him walk. The lead detective says:

“I don’t know what kind of an angle you think you’re playing, McBride, and I don’t give a damn. The charge is murder. It’s murder five years old and it’s the murder of the best friend a guy ever had. It’s murder you’ll swing for and when you come down through the trap I’m going to be right there in the front row so I can see every twitch you make, and there in the autopsy room when they carve the guts out of you and if nobody claims the body I’ll do it myself and feed you to the pigs at the county farm. That’s what the charge is. Now do you understand it?”

Pick a tense moment of tough talk and put yourself inside one of the characters. Write a 200 word rant. Do not pause to edit. Come back to it later and review. Even if you only end up using one line, it’ll be a good one.

  1. Be Suggestive

As I said, tough talk does not have to be laced with expletives. You’re a writer. You have a whole palette of possibilities open to you.

Writers of the 40s and 50s often simply wrote things like: He cursed and walked out of the room. You know what? That still works. Readers can fill in the blanks in their own heads.

There are other methods. In Romeo’s Way I have a character, Leeza, who is young and foul-mouthed. Mike Romeo is trying to help her. She doesn’t want any. This character would definitely unleash a curse storm. But I didn’t want to lay that on the reader. So I did it this way:

She jumped back like I was the guy from Friday the 13th.

“I don’t think you’re safe here,” I said.

“What the h—”

“No time to talk. Come with me.”

I put my hand out. She slapped it. “Get away from me.”

“I’m on your side,” I said.

She began a tirade then, peppered with words with a hard K sound. She was a symphony of K. It was so constant and crazy, it hit my brain like woodpecker woodpecker peck peck woodpecker.

“Ease up,” I said. “There’s bad people who want you. Did you forget that?”

Woodpecker woodpecker!

“Your boss, one of your bosses, Kat Hogg, is in a car over there. Come with us.”

Leeza looked across the street. Then she turned and ran.

I said something that sounded like woodpecker myself and gave chase.

Dialogue, as I’ve said many times in workshops and in books, is the fastest way to improve a manuscript. So when it comes to tough talk, don’t be lazy about it. Be crafty.

10+

Dialogue – Ten Ways to Make it Real

Jordan Dane
@JordanDane

Recently I’ve been writing characters with unique regional accents or characters that I’ve had to invent how they speak, because they are unlike any other character I’ve ever written. When you create a character like this, you have to work doubly hard to “see” them and “hear” them in your mind.

Listen to real conversations. I especially love eavesdropping on teens, but as writers it is fun to be a snoop and hear the way people express themselves and their cadence. People often speak in fragments and laugh at one word asides. They launch into a diatribe and get interrupted by someone else. How do they react? If they come from a large family, I have a pretty good idea how they would react. But if they are an only child, do they retreat until the blustery winds of a blowhard die down?

It’s important to not only hear authenticity, but to also visualize it, without losing the fluid flow, pace, or clear plot points conveyed. Fictional dialogue must have a point, too.

1.) How well do you know your characters?
• Does it take you some writing time to get to know your characters? A good exercise is to write your character in first person to take them for a test drive, to get a feel for who they are and what matters to them.

• Live in their skin for awhile. Imagine what they look like, what they would wear. Create a photo image board from internet searches to flesh them out –in posture, eyes, attitude, swagger, dialect, education, job, sense of humor, etc.

• When you have a good feel for your main character, pair them with other fictional sidekicks or antagonists who will argue with them or cause conflicts and friction.

• Be careful to minimize slang or poorly spelled words or lots of bad grammar. Readers might have a problem with dialogue that is difficult to read throughout a book, but a smattering of regional color can be just the ticket to setting your world stage.

2.) Imagine Playing Your Character on Stage
When I “hear” voices in my head (from my characters, that is), especially if I’ve written them with accents or attitudes, it is fun to act them out. Do this by reading aloud and embellishing with your thoughts on how they sound. Reading aloud helps catch edit issues, but it can also help you create a cadence suitable for your character and give you insight into who they are.

Whenever I do readings at book signings (which I LOVE to do), I really get into the reading and become the character. I sometimes have my attendees close their eyes to focus on the story and trigger their imaginations, forgetting that they are in a bookstore. Often you can hear a pin drop when I finish and you get the real reaction from those listening when they open their eyes and return to the present from where they’ve been. Who knows? Acting out your character can help you “see” them in your mind – how they move or do hand gestures.

3.) In action scenes or tension packed scenes, make the dialogue sound real.
As an author would shorten narrative prose to give the reader the feeling of tension, suspense, and danger, it’s best to use short, concise sentences to enhance pace. Each line is like a punch in the gut to give the reader a visceral reaction to the change in pace.

Some passages may have longer lines of explanation or technical plot essentials, but keep those to a minimum if you want pace to lead the way. An expert in a dangerous situation would not suddenly turn into Mr Wizard to explain everything. They might get impatient and find a quick example or way of speaking to get their point across, while showing their frustration. How do they react under stress will show in their dialogue.

A long back and forth with punchy short sentences can let the reader sense the mounting tension, but if it goes on too long, it can get old, fast.

Excerpt: The Darkness Within Him (Amazon Kindle Worlds)
When a startling vision triggered a memory Bram Cross thought he’d buried, an icy shard carved through his body The macabre and haunting face of his mother lurched from the pitch-black of his mind—her eyes, what she did.

No, I can’t do this. Don’t make me. He fought hard to stifle his childish, irrational refusal, but he had to say something.

“You’re an asshole. We shouldn’t be here,” Bram said. “Someone’s watching us. I can feel it.”

“Shut up. You’re paranoid,” Josh spat. “You said you’d come with me. Quit your whining.”

“Something’s not right.”

Josh stopped, dead still, at the mouth of the infamous tunnel. He stood on the spot where the mutilated, half-eaten bodies of dead rabbits had been found in 1904—killed by ‘Bunny Man,’ an insane prison escapee named Douglas Grifon. The bad omen made Bram step back, but too late. By sheer stupidity and bad luck, Josh had jinxed them both.

Josh glared at Bram as he reached into a pocket of his jacket.

“I brought insurance, courtesy of dear old dad. We’ve got nothing to worry about.” He pulled out a gun and grinned as if he had all the answers.

“Are you insane? Put that away.” Bram fumed. “I’m out of here. I didn’t sign up for this.”

Bram turned to go, heading back toward the car that Josh had parked at the trailhead, but his friend grabbed his arm.

“You’re not going anywhere. I’ve got the car keys. Man up, shit for brains.”

4.) Dialogue should intrigue and draw reader in. Don’t use it to explain or the lines fall flat.
Dialogue should enhance the action and add to the emotion and pace. If you take the time to explain an action, the dialogue will sound contrived. If you explain what the characters should already know, why are you doing it? Savvy readers know when the dialogue is meant for them and when it doesn’t add to the story, but detracts from it and slows the pace.

Think of endings where the villain goes through lengthy explanations to “tell” the reader what the book has been about. Old mystery formats are like this where Sherlock Holmes expounds on how clever he is by detailing “who done it.” If a certain amount of this is necessary, make it about a mind game between the hero and villain where they have a reason to “one up” the other with reveals, but keep it to a minimum and not at the expense of good dialogue.

5.) Interruptions can be good in dialogue.
Interruptions can focus a character, keep up the pace, or show a realistic way to direct the reader where you want them to do. Have your characters ask questions of each other to liven things up.

Excerpt – The Darkness Within Him
Ryker Townsend – FBI Profiler
After the kid undid the latch and the deadbolts, he opened the door enough for me to see the injuries he’d sustained in his fight with Mr. Whitcomb. Josh stared at me for a split second before he shoved the door closed, but I jammed my foot in the opening.

“Police. We just want to talk.” I pushed through the breach and he winced. “Are you Josh Atwood?”

He didn’t answer and backed into a small living room. Reggie and Jax walked in behind me.

“Hey, aren’t you supposed to show ID?”

I eyed Reggie and the detective indulged him with a show of his badge.

“But I didn’t invite you in.”

“That only works with vampires. Consider this a welfare check, Bueller.”

6.) Add tension in Dialogue by making your characters hesitate or stall.
Is one of your characters in charge or forceful? How does that manifest in the other character in the scene? Often dialogue is like a chess game where one person tries to outwit the other or get the upper hand.

When one character stalls or shuts down, and the conflict grows, that can read as very authentic. We all have little voices in our heads, especially when we are dealing with arguments or confrontation. Effective dialogue must have nuances like a dance choreography that flows naturally and reads as effortless. When the scene starts out, one character can suddenly change course. How would you reflect that? Conflict is always interesting.

7.) Cut out the unnecessary and keep your dialogue vital. No chit chat.
I often write dialogue first, like in a script, to flesh out the framework of a scene. Later I fill in the body language, action, internal monologue, but dialogue is vital to make the scene hold up. It’s what the reader’s eye will follow on the page. When I edit, I will tighten dialogue lines, especially in action scenes, to keep the lines flowing naturally.

8.) Punch up the dialogue with action or character movement in the scene.
Give the reader something visual to imagine as they read your scene. All dialogue scenes, where two characters sit at a table, can be mind numbing and boring. Make the scene come alive by giving them something to do, especially if it puts them at odds with each other. Make that action unexpected, like adding sexual tension in the scene below (excerpt from Elmore Leonard).

Even if you MUST put them at a table, give them something to do. I especially like body language where it’s obvious the characters are hiding something and have let the reader in on that fact. Or punch up a funny line with a physical habit to accentuate humor or give distinction to a character.

9.) Minimize tag lines and give characters unique dialogue so tags aren’t as necessary.
One of my edit reviews is looking at tag lines to eliminate ‘saids.’ I often replace a said with an action that attributes which character delivered the line.

Also keep in mind, if you have a number of characters in a scene, a well-placed ‘said’ can orient the reader and ID the character in a scene where it’s easy to get lost. Gender oriented lines can help distinguish characters, or the regional dialect, or even if one character has a certain type of humor. ‘Said’ is the kind of word that disappears in a reader’s mind, but if you string too many together, it’s like sending up a flare “NOTICE ME!”

10.) Reading authors who write excellent dialogue is important.
Real pros at dialogue make it look effortless. Get schooled. If an author makes dialogue work, try to understand why it works and how you can infuse that in your own style and voice. Here are a couple of examples:

 

Elmore Leonard Excerpt – From Out of Sight (U S Marshal Raylan Givens) – I can imagine this very visual scene with the sexual tension.

‘You sure have a lot of shit in here. What’s all this stuff? Handcuffs, chains…What’s this can?’

‘For your breath,’ Karen said. ‘You could use it. Squirt some in your mouth.’

‘You devil, it’s Mace, huh? What’ve you got here, a billy? Use it on poor unfortunate offenders…Where’s your gun, your pistol?’

‘In my bag, in the car.’ She felt his hand slip from her arm to her hip and rest there and she said, ‘You know you don’t have a chance of making it. Guards are out here already, they’ll stop the car.’

‘They’re off in the cane by now chasing Cubans.’

His tone quiet, unhurried, and it surprised her.

‘I timed it to slip between the cracks, you might say. I was even gonna blow the whistle myself if I had to, send out the amber alert, get them running around in confusion for when I came out of the hole. Boy, it stunk in there.’

‘I believe it,’ Karen said. ‘You’ve ruined a thirty-five-hundred-dollar suit my dad gave me.’

She felt his hand move down her thigh, fingertips brushing her pantyhose, the way her skirt was pushed up.

‘I bet you look great in it, too. Tell me why in the world you ever became a federal marshal, Jesus. My experience with marshals, they’re all beefy guys, like your big-city dicks.’

‘The idea of going after guys like you,’ Karen said, ‘appealed to me.’

 

John Steinbeck – Of Mice & Men

‘Tried and tried,’ said Lennie, ‘but it didn’t do no good. I remember about the rabbits, George.’

‘The hell with the rabbits. That’s all you ever can remember is them rabbits. O.K.! Now you listen and this time you got to remember so we don’t get in no trouble. You remember settin’ in that gutter on Howard street and watchin’ that blackboard?’

Lennies’s face broke into a delighted smile. ‘Why sure, George, I remember that…but…what’d we do then? I remember some girls come by and you says…you say…’

‘The hell with what I says. You remember about us goin’ into Murray and Ready’s, and they give us work cards and bus tickets?’

‘Oh, sure, George, I remember that now.’ His hands went quickly into his side coat pockets. He said gently, ‘George…I ain’t got mine. I musta lost it.’ He looked down at the ground in despair.

‘You never had none, you crazy bastard. I got both of ‘em here. Think I’d let you carry your own work card?’

Lennie grinned with relief.

For Discussion:

1.) What dialogue craft skills work for you? Any tips to share?

2.) What authors do you like to read for dialogue?

Vigilante Justice – $0.99 Ebook – Published by Amazon Kindle Worlds

 

6+

The Random Dialogue Exercise

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

Here’s a little exercise I teach in my workshops: take one of your dialogue-heavy scenes. Go to the middle and select a line at random. Now, pull down a random novel from your shelf. Open to a random page. Flip around until you find some dialogue. Pick one line of that dialogue.

NOW: substitute the line you just read for the line you selected in your scene. THEN: figure out how to justify it!

NEXT: Tweak the line so it fits the character. FINALLY: Rewrite the rest of the scene. Do this as a way to create or explore deeper levels of story or character. You may end up not using the dialogue line itself, but you will have opened up new vistas in your story and given your imagination a chance to play.

But if you do use the line, here is a big benefit: It creates a surprise for the reader. And surprise is the greatest page-turning prompt of all. Predictability is dull. So throw the reader off every now and then with something out of the blue.

Another benefit: you can use this exercise whenever you hit bad old writer’s block. Don’t know where your story is going? Having trouble plotting the next few scenes? Not sure who a character is? Try this exercise and get the mental pistons firing again.

Here’s a clip from my current WIP:

“Isn’t the view gorgeous?” she said.

“You better get right to it,” Dylan said, “because this is the last time we meet.”

“You can’t mean that.”

“I’m prepared to walk away.”

“I don’t think so, dear.”

“Watch me.”

“You haven’t even seen what I have.”

“I don’t care—”

“Or heard.”

“Heard?”

“So many things. You can be happy. We can be happy.”

“Look, you’re sick and you need help.”

“Don’t—”

“I know people. I can get you help.”

Now I perform the exercise. I’ll show you what I came up with using four very different novels off my shelf.

Using a line from An American Tragedy by Theodore Dreiser (1925):

“Or heard.”

“Heard?”

“So many things. You can be happy. We can be happy.”

“Look, you’re sick and you need help.”

“Oh, it doesn’t amount to anything, really. We just quarrel, that’s all, once in awhile.”

From The Gods Themselves by Isaac Asimov (1972):

“Or heard.”

“Heard?”

“So many things. You can be happy. We can be happy.”

“Look, you’re sick and you need help.”

“Sexually?”

From The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett (1929):

“Or heard.”

“Heard?”

“So many things. You can be happy. We can be happy.”

“Look, you’re sick and you need help.”

“Yeah, she had it tucked under her arm when she paid me.”

From L.A. Requiem by Robert Crais (1999):

“Or heard.”

“Heard?”

“So many things. You can be happy. We can be happy.”

“Look, you’re sick and you need help.”

“Well, we’re going to find out, but right now we’ve got a maniac to get off the street.”

Well now! Each one of these lines takes us in a different direction, doesn’t it?

The first one gets me thinking along the lines of Psycho, and multiple personalities.

The second one gives me a whole new aspect of character.

The third one is so obscure I have to do some more cogitating. I try to figure out why this woman would have been paid, and by whom. That’s a whole new plot point! That she could be working with someone. So I spend a few minutes jotting down ideas about that. Also, what did this mystery woman have tucked under her arm?

Since I’m writing a thriller, the last example really got my imagination scrambling. Which is, of course, the point of this exercise.

If I decide to use one of these lines, I’ll tweak it to make it consistent with the character’s voice.

But, after all this, I may just go back to the way I had it before. But wouldn’t that be wasted effort? Far from it! Because the writer’s mind is always stronger after this kind of workout—lithe, supple, and ready for action … hmm, maybe I should write a romance.

But not now, because I’m in the middle of my WIP and I’ve got a maniac to get off the street.

There are innumerable fiction writing exercises and prompts to jump start your writing sessions. What are some of your favorites?

10+

A Bear Won’t Eat What A Bear Can’t Smell: When Real Life Provides the Dialogue

 

(purchased from IStock)

I’m currently living in the limbo that inspires fear and loathing in many writers, and drives others to query random Magic 8 Balls with the seriousness of a sugar-drunk eight-year-old at a slumber party: I have a manuscript on submission. For the sake of my sanity, let’s step away from the constant checking of email, the extra glass of wine after dinner, and the cold-sweat certainty that there should have been One More Edit before it went out.

So, tell me things, please. Specifically, I want you to think about the sayings you have in your family. They might be well-known sayings, or something you and your siblings picked up from a long lost television episode that stuck with you for whatever reason. Or it might be a saying whose origins are lost to history, but you still use it. These sayings don’t necessarily have the gravitas or moral spin of an aphorism, but when you use colorful or shocking or sweet sayings occasionally and appropriately in your dialogue, they immediately give your reader important information about your characters.

I’ll start. Here are some that show up again and again in the Benedict family, or came from my childhood:

People in hell want ice water. (my dad)

Smooth move, Ex-Lax. (also my dad)

Sleep tight, don’t let the bedbugs bite. (my mom)

We like the moon, because it’s close to us. (this video is at least 10 years old)

Biggie fries, biggie drink. (no comment)

Pretty makes up for bad. (this showed up around the time my daughter was five)

Pretty is as pretty does. (this one gives me the same hives it gave me when was five)

Does a bear poop in the woods? (dad, again)

Is the Pope Catholic? (yep, dad)

A bear won’t eat what a bear can’t smell. (from a Saran Wrap commercial–could only find the ad with a tiger)

Measure head size before ordering. (appropriate whenever, well, ordering something–I picked it up from an Elmore Leonard novel)

Same poop, different flies. (from husband’s family)

Cam down, Linwood. (MIL’s family–she said she has no idea where it came from)

Hold ‘er, Newt. She’s headed for the barn! (also from MIL’s family–she doesn’t know where this is from either. but I did find versions online)

Scratch your ass and get happy. (heard this at a family reunion–acquired it immediately)

These three came from workshop students:

It’s a poor ass rabbit that only has one hole. (meaning is fairly obvious)

You can’t look up a hog’s ass and tell the price of lard. (heh)

She’s a real Corinthian. (wish I’d written down the origin of this one–so many possible interpretations)

Your turn!

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