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?

9+

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!

2+

Listening to Your Characters


“I hear voices in my head, and if I remember correctly, I always did.” — Stephen King

By P.J. Parrish

So I’ve got my protagonist Clay Buchanan at a critical point in the story. He’s just done something awful, faced his “mirror moment” as James Bell calls it. And now he’s sitting in a dive bar, two sheets to the wind, thinking about what has brought him to this crisis.

My fingers are poised over the keys, waiting…

Waiting for him to tell me what is on his mind.

((((Silence))))

Clay? You there, buddy?

(((Cickets)))

Dude, I really need you to talk to me.

(((Goin’ dark)))

Oh man, is there anything worse than characters who won’t talk to you? It doesn’t often happen to me but when it does, it brings my writing momentum to a screeching halt. It is something I can’t just “write through” and hope I can go back and fix it later. Because when a character refuses to reveal himself to me, refuses to let me inside to hear his thoughts, I lose the heartbeat of my story.

Most writers, I think, hear voices in their heads. Yes, we visualize our stories, seeing the action unreeling in our heads like movies. But we also hear the speech and thoughts of our characters, as if we are mere conduits for voices that seem to have lives of their own. Writing is, after all, just “a socially acceptable form of schizophrenia,” according to E.L. Doctorow.

Hearing voices is on my mind of late not just because of my recalcitrant character Clay. But also because I read about a fascinating project called Hearing The Voice. As part of medical project on auditory hallucinations at Durham University in the UK, researchers are surveying novelists about how they experience their character’s voices. They’ve gathered info from more than 100 authors, including Hilary Mantel, Virginia Woolf and Charles Dickens.

And here you thought you were the only “loony” one.

The questions are intriguing: What does inner voice actually “sound” like? What is like to hear your characters or subjects out loud? What do writers do when they can no longer “tune in” to their inner voice? (Hello? Anyone want to interview me?)

Here are some interesting findings:

  • Writers tend to “experience their primary and secondary characters differently.  They have a sense of “inhabiting the interior life” of their protagonist and of looking out at the world through their eyes. But they report that secondary characters tend to be experienced visually.
  • Many writers are unable to “see” the faces of their protagonists. The main character often registers as a blank – or, in one case, pixelated like a censored photograph.
  • Writers’ engagement with their inner voice, and the role it plays within the literary-creative process, changes radically over the course of their careers. Early on, they report little separation between their own thoughs and those of characters. Over time, however, writers report that the inner voice becomes more complex, taking on echoes of other voices harvested from life and literature.
Now all this is fun for academic types, but what can we mere writers glean from it that’s useful as we face the task of creating full-blooded, idiosyncratic and memorable characters? Let’s break it down.
First, I am not talking about “the writer’s voice.” That is your style, the quality that makes your writing unique to you. It conveys your attitude, personality, and way of looking at the world. I’m talking about your character’s voice. This is the speech and thought patterns of your narrator and others who orbit around him or her. Each character you bring alive on the page must have her own distinct voice. It is one of most vital – and maybe difficult – elements of great fiction. No two characters should sound alike.
You make your characters’s voices come alive on the page two ways: through dialogue and through thoughts (sometimes called interior monologue). No two people talk (to others or themselves) the same way. Every person has his own distinct vocabulary, rhythm, dialects and tone. Other things that make voice unique: age, geography, intellect, education level, and — yes, I’m going there — gender.
A teenage girl living in the farm town of Morning Sun, Iowa, is not going to sound the same as a elderly Creole dockworker from New Orleans. A British solider in World War I is not going to sound the same as an American Vietnam vet.  If they do, well, you the writer are not listening.
I’m reading a terrific book by Thomas Cook called Sandrine’s Case. (It was an Edgar best novel nominee last year but Cook’s stuff is always good. His characters live on after you close the book). Here’s one dialogue snippet:

“Worked up?” I offered a vaguely contemptuous snort. “I feel like Meursault in The Stranger.

“Be sure you mention that to the press, or better yet, the jury. I’m sure they’re all great fans of postwar existential French literature.”

Which one is the supercilious college professor and which is the lawyer whose wife sends him to work with tuna sandwiches in bags? And here’s another:

“My grandfather would have shot you with one of the dueling pistols I still have,” he said. “But I fear I lack the courage required to defend my honor.”

This is another professor but in the legato rhythm, ripe vocabulary, and fey tone, Cook has conveyed volumes about this man’s background (genteel Southern) and personality (timid cuckold).

Here’s another example, this time from one of my favorite movie scripts:

Crash Davis: After 12 years in the minor leagues, I don’t try out. Besides, uh, I don’t believe in quantum physics when it comes to matters of the heart.

Annie Savoy: What do you believe in, then?

Crash Davis: Well, I believe in the soul, the cock, the pussy, the small of a woman’s back, the hanging curve ball, high fiber, good scotch, that the novels of Susan Sontag are self-indulgent, overrated crap. I believe Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone. I believe there ought to be a constitutional amendment outlawing Astroturf and the designated hitter. I believe in the sweet spot, soft-core pornography, opening your presents Christmas morning rather than Christmas Eve and I believe in long, slow, deep, soft, wet kisses that last three days. [pauses then winks and walks away]

Annie Savoy: Oh my. Crash…

Nuke LaLoosh: Hey, Annie, what’s all this molecule stuff?

In this exchange, we find out all we need to know about the intellectual level of these two baseball players.

Maybe we should also take a quick look at the mechanics of how we convey character’s voices. Dialogue mechanics are pretty straightforward. But I find some inexperienced writers have trouble with interior monologues. Maybe it’s because dialogue is SHOWING, but to convey a character’s thoughts, you must move into narrative mode, which technically is TELLING. And many writers believe that will slow things down too much. I disagree. A good interior monologue  gives the reader a window into a character’s soul. Yes, you can convey what a character is thinking or feeling through speech, facial expressions and movement. But sometimes readers also need to “hear” what is in their heads and hearts. It cements the emotional bond.

Interior monologues can be short or long. Short ones are one- or two-sentence thoughts inserted into an action scene or dialogue. Long interior monologues can go on for paragraphs or pages and because they slow the pace, you have to be careful where you put them.

Another mechanical consideration: Do you use “I thought” or “he thought” or do you simply signpost a thought with italics? I like to use both. Here’s a sample from my WIP, the thoughts of my stubborn character Clay:

YOLO. It was a dumb name for a restaurant, he thought. But then when he glanced at the matches he had snagged from the hostess he saw that it stood for You Only Live Once.

He ordered a Martin Mills bourbon. Hundred bucks a shot, but he wasn’t paying. He took a sip, closing his eyes in pleasure at the caramel taste.

Carpe diem, baby.

I used both techniques in the same interior monologue. Why? Clay’s thoughts about the restaurant are illuminating but sort of mundane, so I think “he thought” is sufficient. But by setting the “carpe diem, baby” off in itals, I am trying to say something unique about Clay’s rather louche personality. It’s a grace note, a kicker, an extra beat. If you use this, I recommend you set it off on its own line. And use it only for special moments or emotion, humor or info. By all means, write:

Oh God, what have I done? 

But never:

 I think I’ll have egg salad for lunch.

Some moments call for you the writer to directly “speak” what is on the character’s mind. I call this intimate interior narrator. You don’t use itals or attribution but when well rendered, the reader feels a psychic connection with the character. 

Alex stared at the back of Buchanan’s head, a spasm of disgust moving through him, like that time that rapist had reached through the bars of the Tallahassee jail and grabbed his arm, grinning and saying he had never touched that little girl. Alex had gotten the man off. Two months later, he quit his public defender job and signed on with a small Orlando firm specializing in corporate law. It wasn’t only for the money. He just wanted to feel clean.   

Even though this is me, the writer, in narrative mode, I am deep within my character’s psyche as he has a key memory, hence the slightly run-on stream-of-consciousness rhythm. If I were in an action scene, however, the rhythm would be staccato and tense.

And speaking of my characters, Clay decided about a half-hour ago that he was going to start talking to me again. Originally, I  had thought his mirror-moment had left him depressed. Then I thought it had left him angry. Well, I realized it was neither. I was confused about his motivation and well, I wasn’t really listening to him.

Now I can’t shut him up. So if you’ll excuse me, I’m going back to chapter 22 before he decides to clam up again.

 Carpe diem, baby.

0

The Fastest Way to Improve Your Novel

Over the years, after looking at countless manuscripts at writers’ conferences, I’ve come to the conclusion that there is one thing that can sink or elevate a manuscript right from the jump.
That thing is dialogue.
If it is flat, sodden, unremarkable and (worst of all) sounds the same when coming out of different characters, there’s a letdown. Readers may not analyze it that way, but will feel it subconsciously. The dialogue becomes one of those “speed bumps” that lessens reading pleasure.
You know who really notices? Agents and editors. To save time, most of them will turn immediately to the first chapter of a proposal, to see if the writer can write. Dialogue is one way they can tell.
If your dialogue is crisp, filled with tension, and unique to the characters, the industry pro immediately gains confidence in your ability as a writer.
Which kind of makes dialogue important, don’t you think?
And that’s why I’ve written this book:
Dazzing Dialogue-cover_digital
It is available as an ebook for $2.99 at:
In this book I’ve tried to pull together everything I’ve learned and taught about writing dialogue. The nice thing is that the techniques do not have to be housed in the blubber of irrelevant text, war stories, rants, and veiled self-promotion. I’ve always preferred reading––and teaching––nuts and bolts, techniques that can be easily understood and immediately put to work.
We start out with a definition of dialogue. I like what the noted playwright and screenwriter John Howard Lawson said: “Dialogue is a compression and extension of action.”
Knowing just that much will go a long way toward making sure you don’t write irrelevant talk.
The book covers the essentials of dialogue, like tension and story weaving. There are abundant tools you can utilize right away, like the voice journal and the parent/adult/child method for instant conflict.
And something I haven’t seen anywhere else. I’ve put in a section on all the punctuation rules for dialogue in fiction. This can be used as a simple reference guide when you’re unsure how to render dialogue in your manuscript. Like, does the punctuation always go inside the quote mark? (Yes). Is there always punctuation? (Yes). What about semi-colons in dialogue? (Maybe you can guess what I have to say about that!)
And I’ve included some great examples from novels and film. Like this nugget from Charles Webb’s novel The Graduate (basis for the classic Dustin Hoffman movie). Here young Benjamin Braddock is at the hotel desk, getting a room to begin his affair with Mrs. Robinson. He is quite sure that everyone in the hotel will find out what he’s up to. Notice how much inner tension is rendered by the dialogue alone.
“Yes sir?” the clerk said.
“A room. I’d like a room, please.”
“A single room or a double room,” the clerk said.
“A single,” Benjamin said. “Just for myself, please.”
The clerk pushed the large book across the counter at him. “Will you sign the register, please?” There was a pen on the counter beside the book. Benjamin picked it up and quickly wrote down his name. Then he stopped and continued to stare at the name he had written as the clerk slowly pulled the register back to his side.
“Is anything wrong, sir?”
“What? No. Nothing.”
“Very good, sir,” the clerk said. “We have a single room on the fifth floor. Twelve dollars. Would that be suitable?”
“Yes,” Benjamin said, nodding. “That would be suitable.” He reached for his wallet.
“You can pay when you check out, sir.”
“Oh,” Benjamin said. “Right. Excuse me.”
The clerk’s hand went under the counter and brought up a key. “Do you have any luggage?” he said.
“What?”
“Do you have any luggage?”
“Luggage?” Benjamin said. “Yes. Yes I do.”
“Where is it?”
“What?”
“Where is your luggage?”
“Well it’s in the car,” Benjamin said. He pointed across the lobby. “It’s out there in the car.”
“Very good, sir,” the clerk said. He held the key up in the air and looked around the lobby. “I’ll have a porter bring it in.”
“Oh no,” Benjamin said.
“Sir?”
“I mean I—I’d rather not go to the trouble of bringing it all in. I just have a toothbrush. I can get it myself. If that’s all right.”
“Of course.”
Benjamin reached for the key.
“I’ll have a porter show you the room.”
“Oh,” Benjamin said, withdrawing his hand. “Well actually I’d just as soon find it myself. I just have the toothbrush to carry up and I think I can handle it myself.”
“Whatever you say, sir.”
To which I can only say, “Go thou and do likewise.” And I hope my book will help you along the way.
Speaking of dialogue in your own fiction, what do you have to say? Who writes some of your favorite dialogue?
0

The Fastest Way to Improve Your Novel

@jamesscottbell

Over the years, after looking at countless manuscripts at writers’ conferences, I’ve come to the conclusion that there is one thing that can sink or elevate a manuscript right from the jump.
That thing is dialogue.
If it is flat, sodden, unremarkable and (worst of all) sounds the same when coming out of different characters, there’s a letdown. Readers may not analyze it that way, but will feel it subconsciously. The dialogue becomes one of those “speed bumps” that lessens reading pleasure.
You know who really notices? Agents and editors. To save time, most of them will turn immediately to the first chapter of a proposal, to see if the writer can write. Dialogue is one way they can tell.
If your dialogue is crisp, filled with tension, and unique to the characters, the industry pro immediately gains confidence in your ability as a writer.
Which kind of makes dialogue important, don’t you think?
And that’s why I’ve written this book:
It is available as an ebook for $2.99 at:
For those of you who like writing books in print (so you can highlight physical pages) I’m working on that version now.
In this book I’ve tried to pull together everything I’ve learned and taught about writing dialogue. The nice thing is that the techniques do not have to be housed in the blubber of irrelevant text, war stories, rants, and veiled self-promotion. I’ve always preferred reading––and teaching––nuts and bolts, techniques that can be easily understood and immediately put to work.
We start out with a definition of dialogue. I like what the noted playwright and screenwriter John Howard Lawson said: “Dialogue is a compression and extension of action.”
Knowing just that much will go a long way toward making sure you don’t write irrelevant talk.
The book covers the essentials of dialogue, like tension and story weaving. There are abundant tools you can utilize right away, like the voice journal and the parent/adult/child method for instant conflict.
And something I haven’t seen anywhere else. I’ve put in a section on all the punctuation rules for dialogue in fiction. This can be used as a simple reference guide when you’re unsure how to render dialogue in your manuscript. Like, does the punctuation always go inside the quote mark? (Yes). Is there always punctuation? (Yes). What about semi-colons in dialogue? (Maybe you can guess what I have to say about that!)
And I’ve included some great examples from novels and film. Like this nugget from Charles Webb’s novel The Graduate (basis for the classic Dustin Hoffman movie). Here young Benjamin Braddock is at the hotel desk, getting a room to begin his affair with Mrs. Robinson. He is quite sure that everyone in the hotel will find out what he’s up to. Notice how much inner tension is rendered by the dialogue alone.
“Yes sir?” the clerk said.
“A room. I’d like a room, please.”
“A single room or a double room,” the clerk said.
“A single,” Benjamin said. “Just for myself, please.”
The clerk pushed the large book across the counter at him. “Will you sign the register, please?” There was a pen on the counter beside the book. Benjamin picked it up and quickly wrote down his name. Then he stopped and continued to stare at the name he had written as the clerk slowly pulled the register back to his side.
“Is anything wrong, sir?”
“What? No. Nothing.”
“Very good, sir,” the clerk said. “We have a single room on the fifth floor. Twelve dollars. Would that be suitable?”
“Yes,” Benjamin said, nodding. “That would be suitable.” He reached for his wallet.
“You can pay when you check out, sir.”
“Oh,” Benjamin said. “Right. Excuse me.”
The clerk’s hand went under the counter and brought up a key. “Do you have any luggage?” he said.
“What?”
“Do you have any luggage?”
“Luggage?” Benjamin said. “Yes. Yes I do.”
“Where is it?”
“What?”
“Where is your luggage?”
“Well it’s in the car,” Benjamin said. He pointed across the lobby. “It’s out there in the car.”
“Very good, sir,” the clerk said. He held the key up in the air and looked around the lobby. “I’ll have a porter bring it in.”
“Oh no,” Benjamin said.
“Sir?”
“I mean I—I’d rather not go to the trouble of bringing it all in. I just have a toothbrush. I can get it myself. If that’s all right.”
“Of course.”
Benjamin reached for the key.
“I’ll have a porter show you the room.”
“Oh,” Benjamin said, withdrawing his hand. “Well actually I’d just as soon find it myself. I just have the toothbrush to carry up and I think I can handle it myself.”
“Whatever you say, sir.”
To which I can only say, “Go thou and do likewise.” And I hope my book will help you along the way.
Speaking of dialogue in your own fiction, what do you have to say? Who writes some of your favorite dialogue?

0

Key Ways to Layer Depth Into Your Scenes

Jordan Dane
@JordanDane





I’d been writing for awhile before I heard the term “layering.” It was a writer craft thing I was doing instinctively in my rolling edits, but I’d never heard it called something specific until I attended a writer’s craft workshop and saw examples.
 
Most scenes are written in a bare bones fashion, like erecting the framework of a house before the walls are finished. The general structure creates a flow of what is happening in the scene, but usually the depth is lacking in things like character development, setting, body language, action, and reaction. Since I had limited time at my former day job to think about my writing, I would break away for lunch on some days and focus solely on dialogue like a script. I wanted the voices of the characters and what they said to be strong and not be trite or too conversational. For scenes where there is conversation between characters, I found it easier to use the dialogue as my framework to hold the flow together.
 
The right amount of layering can enhance your voice, but there needs to be a balance. Every writer should come up with their own method for what works for them. Below are the highpoints to layering, from my experience. I’ve also included an example from my WIP, The Last Victim, with the layers added in highlights.
 
Key Ways to Layer Depth:


1.) Dialogue – Avoid chit chat lines. Even if you hear voices in your head (something you should talk to a doctor about), the lines should move the plot forward and mean more than talk about the weather.


2.) Setting & Senses – Dribble in a touch of setting to color the scene. (The scene below is sparse due to space for this post, but I’m a believer in an atmospheric setting. The mood was set in this scene earlier.) Be sure to utilize the senses of your characters to put the reader into the scene, triggering their senses.


3.) Body Language & Action – Frame the scene with key body movements and action to have the characters doing something. The scene below is tight for space purposes, but I am a fan of characters saying one thing, but their body language shows something else, like chess players not wanting to give away their next move. And with action, there is no time for too much internal monologue if bullets are flying. Stick with the action and explain later, in that case.


4.) Backstory – Backstory can be filtered into the book. A frequent mistake is the devilish “backstory dump” where the author expounds on details the reader doesn’t need to know all at once. Backstory dumps slow the pace. It’s best to sprinkle the backstory in throughout the story, sparingly. Give the essence, and even unravel it as a mystery, to enhance the telling of it when it’s necessary. Never underestimate the power of a good mystery.


5.) Introspection/Voice of Character – This is the fun part. Try to give your character an attitude about what he or she sees. That attitude will serve to reflect who they are, as well as the other people in the scene. Don’t waste a room description and make it seem like an inventory. Color the description by allowing the character to express what they think and make it fun or memorable.
 
 
Partial Scene – The Last Victim (WIP):
Below is basic dialogue lines to start a conversation between my FBI profiler and an Alaska State Trooper sent to help him:


“Alaska State Trooper, Sergeant Peterson. Justine. Are you Special Agent Townsend?”


“Senior Special Agent, yes. Ryker. Thanks for meeting me. I’m here to search the residence of Nathan Applewhite. Deceased. We positively identified his body yesterday outside Seattle in the Cascade Mountains. He’s a victim of a serial killer my team’s been after.”


“It’s been on the news. Everyone on the island is talking about it. Word even got out about you coming here,” she said. “I was the one who notified his ex-wife. Too bad you didn’t stop whoever did it before he got to Nate.”


“The body count is fourteen. That’s why I’m here. This killer has to be stopped. Applewhite had a post office box for his mail, but I’m assuming he lives near here. How far is his place?”
 
 
Layers added for Setting/Body Language/Backstory:


When a vehicle rumbled to a stop behind me, I glanced over my shoulder to see a white Ford Explorer with the Alaska State Trooper blue and gold logo on the door. The words ‘Loyalty, Integrity, Courage’ were painted on the rear panel. I locked eyes with the trooper and nudged my chin in greeting before I grabbed my bag. By the time I got to the truck, the driver had boots on the ground, showing me an ID badge.


“Alaska State Trooper, Sergeant Peterson. Justine.” She grasped my hand. “Are you Special Agent Townsend?”


“Senior Special Agent, yes. Ryker. Thanks for meeting me.” I fished out my credentials and showed her.


Even off-duty and out of full uniform, Trooper Justine Peterson was clearly law enforcement. She carried a holstered weapon on her duty belt and had on jeans, well-worn hiking boots, and a navy polo with the Trooper’s emblem on it. Her windbreaker and cap bore the official logo, too. Clothes and weapon aside, the tall blonde had a no nonsense attitude and a slender body, lean with muscle. She had a penetrating stare that had sized me up.


“I’m here to search the residence of Nathan Applewhite. Deceased. We positively identified his body yesterday outside Seattle in the Cascade Mountains. He’s a victim of a serial killer my team’s been after.”


“It’s been on the news. Everyone on the island is talking about it. Word even got out about you coming here,” she said. “I was the one who notified his ex-wife. Too bad you didn’t stop whoever did it before he got to Nate.”


Justine had to know Applewhite. She’d called him Nate.


“The body count is fourteen. That’s why I’m here. This killer has to be stopped. Applewhite had a post office box for his mail, but I’m assuming he lives near here. How far is his place?”


 
Layers Added for Character Voice/Introspection:


When a vehicle rumbled to a stop behind me, I glanced over my shoulder to see a white Ford Explorer with the Alaska State Trooper blue and gold logo on the door. The words ‘Loyalty, Integrity, Courage’ were painted on the rear panel. I locked eyes with the trooper and nudged my chin in greeting before I grabbed my bag. By the time I got to the truck, the driver had boots on the ground, showing me an ID badge.


“Alaska State Trooper, Sergeant Peterson. Justine.” She grasped my hand. “Are you Special Agent Townsend?”


“Senior Special Agent, yes. Ryker. Thanks for meeting me.” I fished out my credentials and showed her.


Even off-duty and out of full uniform, Trooper Justine Peterson was clearly law enforcement. She carried a holstered weapon on her duty belt and had on jeans, well-worn hiking boots, and a navy polo with the Trooper’s emblem on it. Her windbreaker and cap bore the official logo, too. Clothes and weapon aside, the tall blonde had a no nonsense attitude and a slender body, lean with muscle. She had a penetrating stare that had sized me up.


If I were a fish in Alaskan waters, she might’ve tossed me back.


“I’m here to search the residence of Nathan Applewhite. Deceased. We positively identified his body yesterday outside Seattle in the Cascade Mountains. He’s a victim of a serial killer my team’s been after.”


The trooper’s expression turned harsh and unyielding.


“It’s been on the news. Everyone on the island is talking about it. Word even got out about you coming here,” she said. “I was the one who notified his ex-wife. Too bad you didn’t stop whoever did it before he got to Nate.”


The woman glared at me, without backing down. Although I hadn’t expected a show of hostility from someone in law enforcement, I didn’t take it personally. Hearing about a murder made it easy for those who knew the victim to lash out in frustration.


Justine had to know Applewhite. She’d called him Nate.


“The body count is fourteen. That’s why I’m here. This killer has to be stopped.” Since I needed her cooperation, I let her show of attitude slide. “Applewhite had a post office box for his mail, but I’m assuming he lives near here. How far is his place?”


The woman let her eyes drift down my body and back to my eyes again. It had been a long time since a woman made me feel like a porterhouse steak.
 
Since we have so many wonderful writer followers at TKZ, I would love to hear examples from your WIP for my favorite layer: Voice. Show me some attitude, TKZers.

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A Short Course on Dialogue Attributions

@jamesscottbell


“So what’s the deal on dialogue attributions?” the young writer asked.
“I’ll tell you,” said the wise old writer. “It’s not complicated, but it’s important.”
“I’m ready to listen!” the young writer asseverated.
The wise old writer slapped him. “Don’t ever asseverate anything again. Just listen.”
Make Said Your Default
An attribution is there to let the reader know who is speaking. The simple saiddoes that and then politely leaves. Some writers, under the erroneous impression that said is not creative enough, will strain to find ways not to use it.
           
This is almost always a mistake.
Readers don’t really notice said, even as it serves its purpose. Any substitute word causes the readers to do a little more work. (More on that below.)
On the flip side, it’s possible to use said in an abusive fashion. This is done sometimes in hard-boiled fiction, like this:
“Open the door,” Jake said.

“It’s open,” Sam said.

“You don’t lock your door?” Jake said.

“Not on Tuesdays,” Sam said.

“That’s weird,” Jake said.

“Weird is in this year,” Sam said.
In this case, saidis forced on the readers for no reason. It feels like you’re getting tapped on the head with a rubber hammer with every line of dialogue. So leave out the attribution altogether when it’s obvious who is speaking.
“Open the door,” Jake said.

“It’s open,” Sam said.

“You don’t lock your door?”

“Not on Tuesdays.”

“That’s weird.”

“Weird is in this year.”
Should You Use Asked? He Asked
There are some teachers who say you should never use asked after a question mark. It’s redundant, they say.
I find that a bit too picky. I use said after a question mark, but also asked sometimes, for variety. I have no rule about it. I use what sounds right at the time.
No one has complained yet.
Use Alternatives Only If Absolutely Necessary
On occasion, you may need to find a substitute word. Whispered, for example.
What about growled?Barked? Spat? Expostulated?
Be careful. Almost always, the tone of the scene and the words of the character should tell the reader how the words are being spoken. Instead of using a thesaurus, work harder at making the words and the action more vivid. Let’s not see this:
“Put that down!” Charles shouted with emphasis.

“But it belongs to me!” Sylvia declared.

“Put that down,” Charles repeated, a bit more sedately but still with insistence.

“You are such an insistent type,” said Sylvia bitterly.
Ouch. And sedately? Bitterly? That brings us to:
Kill Most Adverbs, But Have Mercy On Some
I’m not the Terminator on this one. I don’t go out on a mission to kill all adverbs and never stop until every one is dead. I do think it’s best to let the dialogue itself, and surrounding action, make clear how something is said.
But on occasion, if it’s the most economical way to indicate something, I may use an adverb. Even though writing sticklers may feel their knickers getting in a twist over adverbs, I write for readers. Most readers don’t care about the occasional adverb. Nor do they wear knickers.
Occasionally Put Said in the Middle 

Every now and then, just to mix things up, put said in the middle of the dialogue. Put it in the first natural spot. 

“I think I’d better leave,” Millicent said, “before I lose my temper.” 

If one character uses the name of the other character, for emphasis, you can break up the dialogue this way:

“Rocky,” Mickey said, “this is the biggest fight of your life, especially considering you’re now seventy years old.” 

Use Action Beats For Variety, But Not Exclusively
Because dialogue is a form of action, we can utilize the physical to assist the verbal. This is called the action tag.  
           
The action tag offers a character’s physical movements instead of said, such as in Lisa Samson’s Women’s Intuition:
Marsha shoved her music into a satchel. “She’s on a no-sugar kick now anyway, Father.”

He turned to me with surprise. “You don’t say? How come?”
The action tag can follow the line as well:
“Come along, dear.” Harriet spun toward the door.
Warning: this is notto be done every time in place of said. Some writers have attempted to write entire novels without once giving an attribution. But the problem is this: every time there’s an action, even an innocuous one, the reader forms a picture. Too much of this becomes labor, because the reader’s mind is asking for the significance of the picture. The reading experience begins to feel like a series of speed bumps on a road.

John crossed his legs. “So what are you going to do about it?”

Mary tapped her finger on the table. “I haven’t decided.”

John sighed. “Think about it.”

Mary reached for her drink. “I can’t think.”

John scratched his nose.

“This place is creepy.” Mary looked around the restaurant.

John cleared his throat. “Perhaps we shouldn’t have come here.”

See what I mean? Use an action tag only for variety, never exclusively.


The young writer looked at the wise old writer and said, “Is that it?”

“That’s it. Easy, huh?”

“Easier than I thought,” articulated the young writer, smiling wryly, tapping his finger on the table.

The old writer slapped him again. “Just for that, you pick up the check.”
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What’s wrong with said?

By Joe Moore

What’s wrong with the word said? Why is it that some writers, particularly new ones, feel that “said” is so boring they are compelled to find new ways to tag dialog? I think that said may be the best word ever invented. What other word can be used in any story with no adverse effects on the plot or characters? What other word is as transparent, invisible and nondestructive as said?

So if all that’s true, why do so many authors need to look elsewhere for a better word? It’s like a man married to the most beautiful woman in the world but decides to stray and cheat. Said is already the best choice; why go looking anywhere else? And in my opinion, straying from said too often will make the writing look amateurish.

So when an unfaithful author strays from a perfectly happy relationship with said, where do they go? They go to: exclaimed, murmured, screamed, whispered, pleaded, shrieked, demanded, ordered, cried, shouted, and my all-time favorite, muttered. If the dialog is so weak that the writer has to re-explain what emotions or motivations are being conveyed, there may be more serious problems lurking.

“Stop or I’ll shoot!” the officer commanded. Really? Does anyone doubt that “Stop or I’ll shoot” is not a command? Is it necessary for the author to assume that the reader is that dumb? In this case, no dialog tag is even needed. The officer raised his Glock. “Stop or I’ll shoot.”

Then there are the extreme dialog tags, the ones in which humans speak like animals. Here’s a fact: snakes don’t talk nor do dogs or lions or bears. I don’t believe that human speech should be tagged with the sounds animals make.

“I’m going to kill you,” he hissed. No he didn’t. First, it’s physically impossible. Second, it’s melodramatic. And it makes the character look silly. In a serious, dramatic moment, it can stop the reader cold and kick them right out of the story. If a writer wants to compare a character to a snake or dog, that’s fine. But humans don’t talk like snakes because snakes can’t talk. Don’t believe me? Try saying ANYTHING while hissing. Are people staring at you?

Then there’s the laughing and crying dialog tags. “I will defeat you,” he laughed. “I hate you,” she cried. No they didn’t. But here’s what could have happened: His laughter bellowed throughout the room. “I will defeat you.” Between sobs, she shook her clenched fist at him. “I hate you.” Wow, suddenly they don’t sound like carnival freaks.

Finally, there are the dreaded adverb tags. “I’ll get you if it’s the last thing I do,” he said angrily. “Thank you so much,” she said gratefully. If the character’s words are already filled with anger or gratitude, the writer doesn’t need to double-explain it. The reader gets it. Don’t insult their intelligence.

Remember, your characters’ power is in their words, not in how you tag them. If needed, said will do just fine. Or better yet, don’t use a dialog tag.

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Writing Dialogue – Tips

By Jordan Dane
@JordanDane



I’ve always loved writing dialogue. It’s the backbone to a scene for me. When I had my day job and had to sneak off to write during my lunch hour, I first fashioned the scene with dialogue, using it as a framework for the other layers. I wrote the lines like a screenplay. I usually only had time to draft a scene or two that I would work on once I got home.

The next layer would be the body language and how the scene would move between the lines, to add the nuance of the people being together to add more context. I’d also layer in setting. And the last thing I would add was internal narrative to give color to my characters. I called this method, BUILDING AN ONION FROM THE INSIDE OUT and it’s part of my FOR WRITERS resources page – the post on START WITH A BANG, IT’S ALL ABOUT PACE. I developed a sparse style that had a beginning, middle and close to each scene that usually ended with a foreshadowing or memorable image between the characters to add an element of pace. But the backbone to all of this was DIALOGUE.

Regardless whether dialogue comes easily to you or is a challenge to write, it is an essential element to a scene and a book. Internal dialogue adds color and voice to your work. And the dialogue between the characters can make each one distinctive and add rich context to the world you are building. An excellent example of memorable world building and dialogue that adds depth is Elmore Leonard.

If you have recommendations on other authors who have stood out in your mind for memorable dialogue, I would love to hear your thoughts. But here are a few four tips to start with:

DIALOGUE TIPS

1.) Make it Short & Sweet – Long, rambling dialogue can lose the reader. It’s my belief that the human eye needs the relief of the white page, otherwise you run the risk of losing the punch and pace. If you have one character with a long diatribe, I would suggest finding ways to break it up with discussion from other characters or action to give it pace and flow.

2.) Make it Real – Listen to real chatter between two people. They may use slang, contractions, or fragmented sentences. Too much slang can date the book or alienate a certain audience, so be careful not to pepper too much into your book, but learn what makes dialogue sound real by listening to others. Certain phrases, pauses, body language interludes can add depth here. Another way to listen to dialogue is focusing on the radio, the banter between DJs for example.

3.) Be Willing to Break Grammar Rules – Sticking strictly to proper grammar and the King’s English can make dialogue sound stilted and formal. Some characters demand real rule breaking, yet you may have one that is educated and proper. Seeing the contrast from that kind of character to a street kid, for example, can make the dialogue interesting, but the name of the game is to make each voice distinctive and interesting. It’s funny that I usually write dialogue without contractions, but have to go back and add them later. Not sure why that is, but it’s one of my edit reviews, to make sure the dialogue flows and sounds real.

4.) Read it aloud – I can’t stress how important I think this is. Read your dialogue aloud. If you stumble on certain words, change them. Make them roll off the tongue. You won’t regret taking the time and it will help with finding those pesky typos too.
 
DIALOGUE FORMATTING

1.) Start a new line when a new character comes on the scene. I also like to drop down lines to give more white space for the reader’s eye. So try not to embed dialogue within a paragraph of narrative.

2.) Keep tags simple but clear. With too many lines strung together, the reader can lose track of who said what. But if there is only one man and one woman, there’s no need to use their first names over and over. The generic ‘he’ or ‘she’ said will suffice. And overuse of adverbs and too many repeats of body language/movements can stick out to irritate an alert reader. For example, instead of a simple ‘he said,’ an author might make the mistake of using ‘Joe chortled mockingly.’ (Oy, the overwriting and too much repetition can wear on a reader. The basic use of ‘he said’ becomes part of the background white noise and not a distraction that could pull the reader from the story.)

3.) Pepper in a name once in a while, to remind the reader who is talking. After pages of ‘he said,’ they could forget who was speaking, especially if it’s two people of the same gender. Then, using first names becomes more important. Or use a generic description of the character to break up the pattern of first names, something like ‘the detective said.’

If you have any tips on writing dialogue and what works for you, or authors who write noteworthy dialogue, please share your thoughts with your fellow TKZers.

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The Case of the Thin Man and the Soft Opening

Here is today’s first page:
The thin man bent down and scooped up a handful of burnt red sand from a beach that no longer existed. He let the coarse bits spill from his palm and into a small glass vial, a calm smile spreading across his wrinkled face.
The man crouched in silence as he capped the vial, looking out over the horizon of the Galapagos archipelago as the sun set across them, orange tendrils stretching out between the clouds.
“It’s hard to believe that such a magnificent place as this is now virtually wiped off the face of the earth,” he said, still looking out into the distance.
He spun around a moment later when no reply came, cocking his head to the side. “Don’t you think, Agent Ward?”
Agent Eli Ward turned his attention toward the man and nodded in agreement. “Certainly,” he replied, tugging at the neck of his stuffy crimson uniform. Though it was near sunset and the air smelled of oncoming rain, the weather was muggy.
“That it is…” the man pondered, inserting the vial into a round slot in the large metal box beside him. The box held several other vials, all filled with different sorts of minerals. “Things sure are different  in our day and age, aren’t they? Not as simple anymore.”
Eli withheld his reply and glanced at the device on his wrist, tapping at its glowing display. It was slightly larger than a deck of cards, secured to him with an elastic band. “Dr. Vanderbilt, we’re on a tight schedule, I must insist…”
“Yes, I know, I know,” Vanderbilt replied in disappointment. He pushed himself to a stand, closing the lid on his collection of vials. He lugged the box up with a small grunt and came alongside Eli.
Eli tapped the display a couple times more. “Alright,” he said. “I think we’re ready. Let me see yours.”
Vanderbilt held his arm out to Eli, who took it. The device on Vanderbilt’s wrist was smaller than that of Eli’s, about the size of a digital watch. Since it received commands remotely from Eli’s device . . .
***
We start off without knowing who Vanderbilt is. He is called “The thin man” (a designation that should be reserved only for William Powell). But Vanderbilt’s identity is revealed a few paragraphs in. So why is it kept a mystery for six paragraphs? There’s no need for this.
Unless you want to create an ongoing mystery about who someone is, use their name up front. This is especially crucial for this piece, because we are not in a close POV. We are looking at this scene through objective and distant lenses. It would be much better if we were deep inside either Vanderbilt’s or Eli’s head throughout.
But I’m confused as to who the main character is supposed to be. The first four paragraphs make it seem this scene belongs to “the thin man.” But since he would not think of himself as “the thin man,” we’re either in an omniscient POV or with another character.
The only other character is Eli. But since he was not paying attention to the thin man, he can’t have observed what was going on in the first four paragraphs.
We are therefore in omniscient POV by default. Omniscient POV is not much in style anymore, save for epic length historical or speculative fiction. In what I am assuming is a thriller, it’s virtually non-existent. For good reason: Readers of a thriller get invested in it in direct proportion to their care for a character in trouble.
Every time a reader starts a novel, he’s asking (subconsciously) Who am I supposed to follow? And why?
We don’t get answers to those questions here.
This is also what I call a “Here we are in sunny Spain” opening. That is, it feels as if it’s mainly for set-up. Information is being given to us unnaturally. For example, this bit of dialogue:
“It’s hard to believe that such a magnificent place as this is now virtually wiped off the face of the earth”
This doesn’t sound like what the characters would really say to each other. It’s the kind of thing each character already knows. Dialogue such as this is the author feeding information to the reader, and true characterization suffers.
So here are my suggestions:
1. Whoever is the main character in this scene, use close 3d Person POV throughout. Everything from inside that one character’s head.
2. Cut these two lines of dialogue and adjust accordingly:
“It’s hard to believe that such a magnificent place as this is now virtually wiped off the face of the earth”
“Things sure are different  in our day and age, aren’t they? Not as simple anymore.”
  
Other thoughts?
***
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Pretty good is no longer good enough, whether one wants to be published traditionally or make a buck self-publishing. For writers interested in a 2 day intensive workshop designed to get your fiction to the next level and beyond, I’m coming to Austin, Nashville and Cincinnati this year. Details may be found here

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