Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ Category

Quotations in Writing, or: Unashamedly Exploiting Readers’ Emotional Reactions to Other Books

September 2nd, 2014 | Uncategorized | 0 Comments

brick green no smile b:wI went to the movies over the long weekend (twice, actually) and found myself tearing up over a TRAILER, for goodness sake. Now, it’s fairly easy to make me cry in a movie– I’m a sucker for a good montage underscored by emotive music– but I never cry over a trailer. Well, almost never. One out of four, at the most. Anyway, the guilty trailer this time was for “Interstellar,” and for the first 3/4 of it, I wasn’t really even sure what the movie was about other than a bleak future and Matthew McConaughey as an astronaut, and I definitely didn’t think I was emotionally involved, but THEN Michael Caine started reading Dylan Thomas’ poem “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night” in a rich British voice over dramatic shots of peril and an emotive soundtrack and all bets were off. The manipulative folks who put that trailer together were able to tap into the existing emotional ties I have to that piece of poetry and suddenly, I saw their story as ten times more compelling and profound. Well played, trailer-makers.

In the same way, authors who effectively quote or reference other works of literature in their stories are able to draw on my existing set of emotions towards that work and manipulate me (in a good way) into a heightened feeling of connection with a story or camaraderie with the author. Obviously, quoting or referencing a superior piece of work is not going to trick a reader into thinking that a crappy story is actually brilliant or profound (I probably wouldn’t have cried had the Michael Caine voiceover accompanied a compilation of funny cat videos), but when used naturally in an already-strong story, it can be an effective device for creating a deeper bond between your reader and a story/character, or even between your reader and you as the author.

As a reader, I’ve encountered this many times– a rom-com protagonist constantly references Jane Austen, a novelist prefaces his book with a line from Shakespeare, a heroine is inspired to rebel against her ultra-controlling society after being inspired by a line of poetry from a forgotten age, etc. In cases where the writing/story is otherwise bland or forgettable, these literary references or quoted lines merely illuminate the inferiority of the original material by comparison, and though I greet these references fondly in the moment, they don’t draw me into the story any further or make me care any more about the characters. When, however, a reference or quote is paired with excellent writing, or factors largely in the plot or framing of the book, the author reaps the benefit of having all my existing feelings on the referenced work carry over (to some extent) to his writing. The following examples are just off the top of my head, and some aren’t too well known, but the fact that I can remember these and many more from my personal reading speaks volumes on the way a well-placed reference or quote can create a stronger connection with your story or characters on the part of the reader.

  • Criss Cross, by Lynne Rae Perkins. This middle-grade novel opens with the “What thou seest when thou dost wake, do it for thy true love take” line from Midsummer Night’s Dream, and this sets the scene for the achingly lovely and funny coming-of-age stories connecting the various characters in the book.
  • Matched, by Ally Condie. This dystopian YA title takes place in a future in which society has whittled all the creative content in the world down to 100 carefully chosen songs, poems, and stories preserved for people to experience, the idea being that when people have too much content around them, they fail to appreciate any of it– all other stories, poems, and songs have been destroyed and are illegal. When the protagonist’s dying grandfather gives her two illegal poems, the strange new words excite in her both passion and a curiosity about what other beauty has been lost to civilization as a result of the sameness imposed upon it. The two poems, “Crossing the Bar,” by Alfred Lord Tennyson, and the above-mentioned “Do Not Go Gentle,” fuel her growing dissatisfaction with the status quo and give her the courage to stand against her society, and their repeated use serves to link the reader with the unfamiliar environment of the story.
  • Inkheart, by Cornelia Funke. The whole Inkheart series is a valentine to book lovers, taking place in a universe where books quite literally come to life and people actually enter into the world found between the pages of a book. As such, each chapter is prefaced by a themed-to-the-chapter quote from popular books and poetry. Each chapter heading that comes from a familiar book not only serves to set the tone for the chapter to come, but incites in the reader the excitement we feel when we discover that we have a favorite book in common with an acquaintance; a feeling of camaraderie and connection and of being understood which causes the reader to connect even more deeply to the story and the author going forward.

Though by no means a device which fits all books or should be forced in a story in an attempt to forge a connection with a reader, quotations and references to other works can help a reader “make friends” with a story and its author in a lasting way. If you have a poem or book or author you’re particularly passionate about, or which you found yourself drawing on for inspiration while writing a story, consider whether there might be a natural place to let your reader in on that connection through a preface quote or an allusion on the part of a character.

Is Writing Lonely? Nah… (a guest blog)

August 29th, 2014 | Uncategorized | 4 Comments

Writing has the potential to be a lonely endeavor.

Writing well is never, not one time, about going it alone. Writers need people. We have friends who help us brainstorm, listen to our rants about characters with lives of their own, or shake their heads when a plot twist is the most cockamamie idea ever considered. We have family members who endure weird facial expressions and odd body gestures as we attempt to describe the actions of our characters. Many of us have agents, who have assistants, who seek out opportunities, all the while challenging us to dig deeper in our storytelling. If we’re published, we have editors and cover designers and marketers and publishers and… well, you get the point.

Writing is not a solo profession. If you are trying to fly the story-conjuring plane alone, you’re gonna crash and burn. As a Christian writer, I liken this journey to Paul’s analogy of the church as a body. Some are hands, eyes, mouths, feet. He gives every one of his children a talent or job. Ephesians tells us some are apostles or prophets or evangelists. In Romans, we find some have the gift of service or teaching or exhorting. Every book you read, or write, has a body of people who have fashioned its design.

Without my friends to help me brainstorm, my readers might miss out on a terrific idea to improve the plot. Without my family, I might lose hope when the middle muddles together. Without my agent, I might miss a terrific opportunity. Without my editor, my scene might not be clearly written.

You get the point.

If your heart is tugged with the desire to tap fingers to a keyboard but you’re trying to go it alone, stop right now. This very minute. Join a writing group. Go to a conference. Talk to family and friends. Seek out people who will encourage your journey. We’re told in Hebrews to spur one another on toward love and good deeds. You need others.

Writing has the potential to encourage bonds of friendship you’d never dreamt possible.



Jennifer Collins Johnson has written nineteen Heartsong Presents novels, plus another novel, a novella, and multiple short stories for various publishers. Her most recent novel, Arizona Cowboy, releases September 1. She’s married to her high school sweetheart, and together they’ve raised three of the coolest daughters on the planet. Even added a pretty nifty son-in-law to the crew. She’s a member of American Christian Fiction Writers and has the best group of brainstorming buddies ever. Check out her website at You can reach her at

Writing Effective Dialogue: Part 6, Accents and Dialect

August 20th, 2014 | The Writing Craft, Uncategorized | 5 Comments

brick green no smile b:wToday’s post is dedicated to Lois Gladys Leppard, author of the Mandie books. If you weren’t a preteen girl in the 90s, you may not be familiar with the Mandie books, but they were a middle-grade series set at the turn of the century about a teenage girl living in North Carolina, and their chief charm, if I remember correctly, was that Mandie was rich and there were a lot of descriptions of her dresses. Yeah, they weren’t the deepest literature, but I DEVOURED them as an 8-or-9-year-old. Twenty years later, I couldn’t tell you much about what happened in the series (other than what her dress looked like for President McKinley’s inaugural ball), but one thing about the writing has stuck with me all this time.


The series is set in North Carolina, and various characters (the servants, in particular) were written as speaking with a strong southern accent. The way you knew they spoke with a strong southern accent was that practically EVERY line of dialogue spoken by those characters had the accent written into it phonetically, to the point that you sometimes had to sound it out to figure out what Liza was saying. “Yous sho’ did, Missy Manda! Now don’t yous go gittin’ that dirty, you heah?” This is a made-up line, but it’s representative of the way the “strong southern accent” was written into the dialogue. Did it clearly communicate the speech patterns/pronunciation of those characters? Mmmmyes, but was it also distracting and clunky? Also yes. I’m probably remembering the extreme examples, but the point is, if that method of conveying an accent/regional speech style was conspicuous enough that I picked up on it as a 9-year-old and remember it 20 years later, it was probably a bit overdone.


Now, Ms. Leppard is off the hook, both because in writing for children she probably felt she needed to be a bit more obvious than if she were writing for adults who had a better idea what a southern accent sounded like, and because Mandie’s clothes were pretty, but I’ve read too many manuscripts were the author didn’t have Ms. Leppard’s excuses and in which an overdone dialect or written-in accent completely overpowered what was actually being said in the dialogue. An author can convey a character’s style of speaking or an accent without using every cliche specific to that regional dialect or writing out every word phonetically by keeping the following guidelines in mind:


  • Use phonetic spellings sparingly. Ending just the occasional “-ing” word with an apostrophe will suffice to put that “darlin’” southern drawl in a reader’s ear, and will ensure that the reader does most of the work of “translating” that character’s speech into the right voice and accent.
  • Use regional vocabulary sparingly. There’s a big difference between how a British person actually talks and the American idea of how we THINK he talks– I once read a manuscript in which the dreamy main character from England spoke like the Monty Python caricature version of a British aristocrat– “What ho,” “right-o,” “spiffing,” and “cheerio” were sprinkled liberally through his dialogue, and made it impossible to take him seriously as a romantic lead. Don’t write in cliches; do your research, listen to or watch as much dialogue spoken by actual Irish or South African or Bostonian or New Jersey speakers as you can, and then let a few well-placed terms or words set the tone for the majority of the dialogue.
  • Describe a speaker’s style of speaking. Though it’s certainly possible to overdo this one, it’s perfectly legitimate to describe a speaker’s voice or style of speaking a little when he or she is first introduced. If you tell the reader that a character spoke “with a curious lilt to some of her words, and he remembered that she had lived the first half of her life in Ireland,” it lets the reader fill in this blank for himself without your messing with the spelling of any dialogue or throwing in conspicuous Irish slang just to make sure they know that this character’s speech sounds a little different.


If you’ve written a character who speaks with an accent or in a regional dialect, make a point of asking your beta readers how well you conveyed that style of speaking, and whether they were ever distracted by phonetic spelling or obviously regional slang. And if you write for children, I hope your work will be enjoyed half as much as I enjoyed reading those Mandie books from 1992-1994, overdone accents notwithstanding. Thanks, Lois Gladys, for inspiring today’s post, and for being my first “favorite author.”


I think this will be the last post in my series on dialogue; if you have any lingering questions or issues you wish I’d address, please leave a comment and let me know– I’m happy to extend my farewell tour if it turns out there’s more to say on the subject. Thanks for reading!

Writing Effective Dialogue: Part 5, Character Voice

August 12th, 2014 | The Writing Craft, Uncategorized | 2 Comments

brick green no smile b:wI did a lot of theater in high school and college, and still act in local productions from time to time– I know some people would rather lick a battery than perform onstage, but I think it’s some of the most fun there is to put on a costume and pretend to be someone and somewhere else for a couple hours, and theater is one of the few socially acceptable ways to do this as an adult. Having spent so much time performing and teaching theater, I’ve played (or been forced to play) some pretty dumb games in the name of “character development,” many of which, I’m convinced, existed for no other purpose than to entertain the teacher who, bitter that his own acting career didn’t pan out, derived all his joy in life from watching teenagers pretend to be earthworms and vending machines. A couple of those theater exercises, however, bore a remarkable similarity to the kind of brainstorming that authors can do to fully flesh out their characters, and a fully fleshed-out character is going to have a more distinct voice on the page, and, by extension, will “speak” more compelling dialogue.

One of the theater exercises we’d do during high school was to interview each other in character using a list of biographical questions designed to make the interviewee put some thought into her character’s history and life. Answering these questions for your characters forces you to think about your character as a 3-dimensional person with a past instead of just a puppet in the scene you’re currently writing, and a 3-dimensional character is always going to have something more interesting to say than a puppet.

Consider answering the following questions for each of your main characters. You might be surprised how giving some thought to seemingly trivial information about a character’s past, even information that may never come to light in the novel, informs the way their dialogue develops.

Character Interview Reference Sheet

Age? This will inform the kind of slang the character uses, the references he makes, how he interacts with other characters of various ages, etc.
Where was he born? Where did he grow up? This information can help determine if a character speaks with any kind of an accent, what regional vocabulary he uses, what weather/landscape he grew up with and how he reacts to his current location, etc.
Where is he living now? Does he fit in with his current location, or is he a fish out of water? How does the way he speaks differ from the people around him? Does his vocabulary differ? (e.g., he says “soda,” everyone else says “pop.”)
Family? Did he grow up with educated parents? Brothers who taught him to cuss? Grandparents who spoke with an accent? Who taught him to talk and what kinds of habits might he have picked up from them?
Education? High school? College? Law school? A character’s education influences his vocabulary, his syntax, the references he makes, the references which go over his head, etc.
Economic status?
Religion? Might affect how a character speaks when he’s angry, how much he curses, how he responds to certain situations or topics of conversation.
What’s he passionate about/bored by? What topics will he turn to when making dinner conversation on a first date? Which subject will make him roll his eyes when his father-in-law broaches it? What is he excited to talk about? What conversation topics bore him to tears?

There is no minimum and no limit to the questions you can ask yourself about your characters. The point of this exercise isn’t to give you busywork or yet another way to procrastinate, and SHOULDN’T be used as a quick-reference sheet for creating cliche dialogue (e.g., “Let’s see, this character is from Georgia? I’ll make him talk like Foghorn Leghorn!”), but the better you know your characters, the more convincingly you can put their voices on the page (or stage).

Writing Effective Dialogue: Part 4, Punctuating Dialogue

August 6th, 2014 | The Writing Craft, Uncategorized | 4 Comments

brick green no smile b:wIf you’re new to the blog, you may have missed my previous scintillating posts on writing effective dialogue. Today’s topic is slightly less scintillating but just as important to creating readable dialogue which draws the reader into the story rather than pushing him away.

I’ve gotten a lot of feedback from authors who say their biggest struggle in writing dialogue is punctuating it correctly, and I’ve read too many manuscripts where the author’s incorrect punctuation and/or indentation distracted me from the actual content of the dialogue.  The good news is that the majority of dialogue punctuation rules are very straightforward and easy to apply, so punctuating your dialogue doesn’t have to feel like some mystical roll of the dice if you take some time to familiarize yourself with the rules and practice using them. Here are some basic rules to remember when punctuating dialogue:

  • Always put periods and commas INSIDE quotation marks. It doesn’t matter if the quotation marks are single or double, whether the quotation marks are setting off dialogue, quoted material, or the title of a work; periods and commas go inside the quotation marks.
    “I love chimpanzees,” she said. “I’m also afraid of them.”
    Caesar looked around at the trees, and then back at Will. “Caesar is home.”
    “Take your stinking paws off me, you damned dirty ape,” he said angrily. (I watched “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” this weekend, in case you were wondering.)
  • Put colons and semicolons OUTSIDE quotation marks. These aren’t used as frequently in dialogue as other punctuation, but if you have occasion to use them, always put them outside quotation marks.
    Shakespeare said, “All the world’s a stage”; if that’s the case, we’re in desperate need of a stage manager.
  • Put exclamation points and question marks INSIDE quotation marks when they apply to a line of dialogue and OUTSIDE quotation marks when they apply to a sentence as a whole.
    “Why didn’t you write to me?” she asked.
    “Because I hate you!” he responded.
    How does it make you feel when you hear him say “I hate you”? –As it’s written now, the writer ends the sentence by quoting a non-question, but is asking a question with the whole sentence, so the question mark is placed outside the quotation marks so we know the speaker is asking a question. If the question mark appeared inside the quotation marks, it would change the meaning of the “I hate you” comment– “I hate you?” is not a declaration of hate, but a request for confirmation of information/an expression of incredulity.
  • Use single quotation marks to set off a quotation within a quotation or line of dialogue. A quote within a line of dialogue needs to be set off at beginning and end (don’t forget to close it!) with single quotation marks, and the rules for end punctuation are the same for these internal quotes.
    “You said, and I quote, ‘Be ready at seven-thirty.’ It’s seven-thirty. I’m ready,” she said, glaring at her mother.
    “How does it make you feel when you hear him say “I hate you’?” asked Dr. Harper. –the sentence from the above example was turned into a line of dialogue by enclosing it in quotation marks and adding attribution, so now the speaker is quoting someone else within his speech and that quote needs to be set off by single quotation marks. The line of dialogue as a whole, however, is still a question that Dr. Harper is asking, so the question mark appears outside the single marks around the quoted material, but inside the double marks around Dr. Harper’s words, per the rule above.

And always remember to begin (and indent) a new paragraph to indicate a change in speaker.

Of course, you’ll always come across sentences which are more difficult to know how to punctuate correctly, whether because the syntax is a bit more complex or because the setting affects the delivery of the dialogue (e.g., a scene where a character is reading from a letter or a newspaper), but in general, knowing these rules will let you write and punctuate your dialogue with confidence.

If you’re feeling confident and want to try out your quotation-mark skills, try this quiz hosted by Capital Community College’s grammar help page for some practice in using these basic rules. Feel free to brag about your awesome score in the comments, or to publicly admit your shortcomings– we’ll try not to judge you. If you’ve run into one of those tricky punctuation situations not covered by these rules in your own writing, post it and I’ll see if I can offer any clarity– if I can’t, I’ll just sit here quietly until another reader more knowledgeable than I pipes in with the answer, and then I’ll nod wisely and agree. As always, thanks for reading!

Writing Effective Dialogue: Part 3, Realistic vs. Natural Dialogue

July 29th, 2014 | The Writing Craft, Uncategorized | 1 Comment

brick green no smile b:wToday, I’m continuing my ongoing conversation on dialogue and discussing the difference between realistic and natural dialogue and the way each can strengthen or sabotage a story.

Realistic dialogue is conversation that occurs exactly the way people talk in real life, complete with hems and haws, boring filler/minutiae, mundane back-and-forth, sound effects,  etc. The small talk and discussions over where to go for dinner that really do populate our everyday conversations usually serve next-to-no purpose in fiction, unless your purpose is to put your reader in “skim” mode for the rest of the book. I read all too many manuscripts where the author seems to have painstakingly transcribed real-life conversations directly onto the page in places where I have no need (or desire) to hear them. The pleasant small-talk at the beginning and end of a phone conversation, the back-and-forth between a husband and wife over breakfast, the dialogue with a waitress at a restaurant– these are all exchanges of dialogue that happen on a daily basis, but who wants to open a rom-com novel, get to the big date, and have to sit through the waitress listing the specials? Those exchanges don’t drive the story, and they usually slow it down. Unless an exchange like this reveals something important about a character– the main character’s date is incredibly rude to the waitress, or he orders four rare steaks and that’s when she first suspects he’s a werewolf, etc.– this sort of dialogue can be culled from a story and will never be missed.

Also falling into the realistic-dialogue category is dialogue punctuated with sound effects/hems and haws. The only thing more awkward than a character running into an ex while on a date with someone new is having to read their conversation in which every line starts with “uh” or “er.” You can communicate that a character is uncomfortable much more effectively (and cleanly) by telling the reader that he is fidgeting or won’t make eye contact, or that he keeps clearing his throat, or even by using one of those “said” alternatives like “stammered.” (Note: I said ONE! See my post on attribution. One is enough to set the tone for the whole exchange, especially when coupled with some description of the character’s physical demeanor. Don’t go crazy.) Don’t spend a lot of time trying to describe noises, either– while you may feel that it’s vitally important that your reader know that your main character said “Yeeeeek!” when she saw a spider, or that he hollered “RRRRGGGH” when he got shot in the leg, these “sound effects” generally come across as obnoxious and ineffective in actually conveying the fear or pain felt by these characters in those moments. Your story is better served by telling the reader that “a scream from the living room brought Ted running. Chrissy was standing on the coffee table pointing at the floor with a shaking finger,” or that “a growl of pain escaped from between his clenched teeth as she pried the bullet out of his leg”  than by including the scream or the growl as an actual line of dialogue. Let the reader’s imagination do the work of creating the sound effects rather than attempting “realistic” exclamations.

Once you’ve weeded the “realistic” dialogue from your manuscript, turn your efforts to writing natural dialogue instead. Natural dialogue has to do with a line of dialogue’s believability– are characters speaking in a way that’s believable for the time period, their age, their education, and their personalities? I’ve read a lot of dialogue supposedly spoken by modern teenagers which contained really archaic phrases or slang, and seen quite a few modern characters whose syntax was extremely formal; in both cases, the dialogue strikes me as unnatural because it isn’t believable that these characters would speak this way. If there’s a reason a character speaks a certain way– the teenage character is obsessed with 80s movies and that’s why he uses 80s slang, the main character has an IQ of 270 and his formal syntax is an illustration of how his extreme intelligence alienates him from his peers, etc.– make sure it’s clear to the reader, and keep in mind that even if you have a good reason for it, unnatural dialogue can still distance the reader from a story or character simply because the reader finds it distracting or difficult to connect with, so you may want to use it sparingly.

Natural dialogue also has to do with whether you’re allowing dialogue to occur in places and on topics where it makes sense or whether you’re forcing a conversation/monologue in order to divulge information to the reader. There’s a great scene in The Great Muppet Caper where Diana Rigg as Lady Holiday tells the receptionist (Miss Piggy) that she’ll be lunching with her brother Nicky. What could have been a single, naturally-occurring line about where she’ll be during the lunch hour segues into a monologue about how her brother is an “irresponsible parasite who squandered his half of the inheritance and has categorically no prospects– not that he’s grateful, he still gambles, incurs bad debts, uses my charge accounts, eats my food, and borrows my cars without asking permission. And certainly he’s not to be trusted– I wouldn’t even put it past him to try to steal my most valuable and largest jewel, the fabulous baseball diamond… Still and all, he is my brother.” Miss Piggy, the total stranger to whom Lady Holiday just poured all this out, understandably asks, “Why are you telling me all this?” To which Lady Holiday shrugs and replies, “It’s plot exposition. It has to go somewhere.” Don’t make your characters be Lady Holiday. If it doesn’t make sense for characters to be conversing about a certain topic, find another place for your plot exposition.

I’m getting to the end of my series on dialogue– if there are any problem areas or questions about writing effective dialogue you’d like to see discussed before I end the series, let me know in the comments. Thanks for reading!

Writing Effective Dialogue: Unnecessary Quotation Marks

July 22nd, 2014 | Uncategorized | 1 Comment

brick green no smile b:wI’m traveling today, so I’m postponing part three in my dialogue series for next week. I’ll probably talk more about correct use of quotation marks at some point in the future, but today I wanted to quickly warn you once and for all against using quotation marks for “emphasis.” You’ve all seen it on signage, a use of quotation marks that makes you “strongly” question the author’s “meaning.” If you don’t know what I mean, take a look at this fine collection of examples, courtesy of Distractify.


What’s the worst example of misused quotation marks you’ve seen?

Writing Effective Dialogue: Part 2, The Sooner the Better?

July 15th, 2014 | Uncategorized | 0 Comments

brick green no smile b:wIf you caught last Tuesday’s post, you’ll know I’m spending a few weeks talking about good dialogue in fiction– how to write it, how not to write it, how to recognize it, and who does it well.

One of the suggestions I often make when reading manuscripts is for the author to use dialogue earlier. In general, the more pages that pass without hearing a character speak, the more distanced I feel from her and the longer it takes for me to engage with/care about her. The most common source of this problem seems to be the author’s compulsion to tell the reader EVERYTHING he knows about a character right away. I’ve lost track of how many manuscripts I’ve read that started out with a literal biography of the main character from childhood to the events of the story– what she was like in high school, how many relationships she’s been in, what her friends are like, what her work history is, etc . While it’s important for the author to know all this so he can write intelligently about the character, the reader doesn’t need to find out all the background info at once (or ever, in some cases). My favorite way to get to know a character is to hear him talk and to see how he interacts with other characters and his environment; to be dropped in the middle of this character living and breathing rather than shown his baby album and medical records, and so I frequently encourage authors to examine whether they need to pare down their opening content in order to get to the first “live” scene sooner. Now, obviously I’m not saying there’s a hard-and-fast rule for how early in a manuscript dialogue should appear, or that you should manufacture some if it’s not a natural place for it, but how do you make that call? Though by no means a comprehensive list, here are some scenarios I’ve encountered where I don’t miss early dialogue.

  • First-person narration. In a book written in first-person, we get to hear one of the characters speak right off the bat– he’s talking to us even if we don’t hear him converse with other characters immediately, and we start to pick up on his voice and personality right away. Even in a first-person novel, however, it can get boring to be listening to a single character’s thoughts and voice for too long, so be careful not to get stuck in narration mode. A first-person narrator shouldn’t be used as an excuse to info-dump for ten pages. Examples of books which do this well include A Prayer for Owen Meany, by John Irving, To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee, and Rebecca, by Daphne DuMaurier. In each book, we spend pages, or even chapters, with the narrator before the first line of dialogue appears.
  • Vital description/background information. I’m not talking about the “Mary was popular in high school but never had a steady boyfriend” kind of background info, or the hair color/eye color/outfit of your main character, but description/background that immediately lets your reader know what kind of universe your story is taking place in and how to interpret the events that are about to take place. The opening chapter of The Scarlet Pimpernel comes to mind, in which five pages of third-person description and background info on the events taking place in Paris in September of 1792 precede the first line of dialogue. We don’t miss the dialogue, however, because the information we’re given is calculated to excite our interest in the plight of the aristos and make us aware of the dangerous world the story takes place in. A novel in which the context of the historical or geographical setting is vital to understanding the stakes of the opening events or the motivation of the main character may be better served beginning with compelling description or well-chosen history rather than a conversation manufactured for the sake of getting dialogue in early.
  • Establishing tone/author voice. Certain genres of fiction lend themselves to long dialogue droughts better than others. Suspense and mystery novels often open with a third-person account of a sinister event or a foreboding setting, and humorous novels can get away with pages and pages of even trivial description or meandering background info if the delivery is funny and helps establish the author’s voice and sense of humor. These tone-setting openings serve the same purpose as vital geographical or historical description; they help the reader to understand the universe in which the story takes place and what rules the author is going to be playing by which helps us connect to the characters more quickly when we do get to see/hear them.

Even though these exceptions to the “rule” of early dialogue are obviously used extremely effectively by many authors, the essentials of storytelling I referenced last week remain true: stories are told in action and dialogue. More specifically, characters are revealed through dialogue, and readers connect with characters through dialogue. If your novel starts with three or four pages of dialogue drought that don’t fall into one of the categories discussed above, you may want to consider weeding out the excess set-up and letting the reader see your characters in action a little sooner. It may keep an agent or editor reading longer!

I’ll talk more next week about naturally occurring and natural-vs.-realistic dialogue, but if you have examples of authors who do a good job drawing the reader into a story by using dialogue up front, or of authors who successfully delay dialogue use, share them in the comments.

Writing Effective Dialogue: Part 1

July 8th, 2014 | Uncategorized | 7 Comments

brick green no smile b:w“Stories are told in action and dialogue.”

I don’t remember a whole lot from my fiction writing classes in college– judging by the notes I scribbled in the margins of my carefully-preserved notebooks from that era, my attention during these classes was mainly focused on what items I needed from the grocery store and the correct ear-to-head ratio of a classic Mickey Mouse outline. That being the case, it stands to reason that my various professors must have all hit the “action and dialogue” rule pretty hard for it to have broken through the hungry-doodling haze and stuck with me all these years. While all the poets reading this are already clamoring that I’ve forgotten narrative/description, let’s run with this simplified definition of story for a few weeks while we talk about crafting effective dialogue. I’ll be talking about the role of dialogue in storytelling, achieving balance between action and dialogue, and common dialogue problems and how to avoid them, but today, I thought I’d tackle one specific element of dialogue which has the potential to derail even the most eloquent exchanges of dialogue: attribution.

Attribution is the means by which a writer informs the reader who said what and (sometimes) how they said it. What I’ve noticed after reading millions (more or less) of manuscripts is that someone can actually be pretty good at writing dialogue and still be lousy at attribution; the two don’t necessarily go hand-in-hand. The good news for these writers is that bad attribution habits are pretty easy to recognize and to break, once you’re aware of them. Most attribution offenses I see fall into one of three camps:

1. The “said” synonyms. Answered, retorted, chortled, whispered, exclaimed, muttered, queried, replied, agreed, voiced, uttered, pronounced, laughed, joked, lamented, groaned, mourned, insisted, demanded, raged, fumed– there are literally dozens of synonyms for “said,” and yes, sometimes one of them is just the tool you need to establish the tone of a scene or the delivery of a line of dialogue perfectly. Characters are perfectly free to mutter, demand, and groan from time to time. The synonym syndrome becomes problematic, however, when you decide that every use of the word “said” is a missed opportunity for telling the reader exactly how a character delivered a line– why would I settle for telling someone that the witch “said” something when I could tell them that she “cackled” it? You can almost see the evil glint that comes into my eye as I imagine the possibilities for controlling my readers’ imaginations– after all, I’m supposed to be painting a picture, right? Why wouldn’t I tell a reader exactly which shade of blue I’m using and exactly how thick my brushstrokes are? The problem is that these evocative verbs can start to overwhelm the actual dialogue when used excessively. Consider the following exchange:

“Did you follow me here?” he demanded.

“Yes, but only because I love you!” she quavered.

“Ha! You don’t know the meaning of the word,” he scoffed.

“I never thought you could be so cruel,” she whimpered.

“Oh, for heaven’s sake, don’t cry!” he groaned.

Now, ignoring the fact that this soap-opera dialogue is TERRIBLE and obviously created solely to serve as an illustration, what you notice as you read this exchange is that the longer it goes on, the louder the attribution verbs shout for attention. The kind of picture-painting done by these words is lazy and melodramatic– demand, scoff, quaver, groan! These poor characters sound like they belong on a music hall stage with a campy piano underscore and boo-hiss cue cards for the audience. Much better to put a little more effort into making the speaker’s tone clear via the actual words he’s speaking than to take the shortcut of trying to over-control the reader’s experience of the dialogue.

Now, if you’re like me, at some point in your English education a teacher gave you a writing exercise in which you were instructed to “add color” to your writing by replacing every instance of “said” with a more descriptive verb, and this was fine for 6th grade when we were all learning the power of words to paint a picture, but I think the lingering effect of that exercise has been to scare some writers away from using “he/she said” too frequently. While you certainly can overuse it, it’s also true that “he/she said” has become nearly invisible to readers because of how frequently it appears in writing, with the result that writers can use “he said” pretty freely to provide necessary attribution which won’t interrupt or distract the reader.

2. The adverb addiction. This one is similar to the “said” synonym problem in that it’s a habit authors fall into when they’re attempting to hyper-regulate the reader’s experience of the dialogue. I blame our “screenplay consciousness” for this one– people in this culture tend to watch a lot of TV and movies, and the trickle-down effect is that many writers tend toward describing exactly how a line is delivered rather than letting the content of a line connote the tone and delivery. This tendency is even more distracting than the evocative-verb habit, and can really interrupt the flow of a scene. Consider our star-crossed lovers:

“Did you follow me here?” he asked angrily.

“Yes, but only because I love you!” she said urgently.

“Ha! You don’t know the meaning of the word,” he said derisively.

“I never thought you could be so cruel,” she said brokenly.

“Oh, for heaven’s sake, don’t cry!” he said impatiently.

Now, obviously, in this rapid-fire exchange, the repeated use of adverbs is pretty conspicuous and you might be rolling your eyes at the idea that anyone would seriously write like this, but that’s the thing with a habit: one becomes less and less aware of it as it becomes more and more ingrained. I read plenty of manuscripts in which the author’s otherwise solid dialogue is weighed down with all kinds of superfluous adverbs in the attribution, slightly less obvious than my example though they may be. Like the “said” synonyms, the adverbs in the attribution are often unnecessary if the content of the dialogue is well-written. I don’t have to tell my readers that, “Oh, for heaven’s sake, don’t cry!” was said impatiently, or was “groaned;” even without knowing anything about this character apart from what is revealed in his earlier two lines of dialogue, we know that he’s not super happy with the person he’s talking to, he’s not feeling a whole lot of compassion for her (he laughs when she tells him she loves him), and that the “for heaven’s sake” idiom is generally used to communicate impatience or exasperation. The reader has already been given plenty of clues as to how to interpret his delivery, and is most likely going to interpret it as “impatient” without my having to label it as such. My general advice to adverb junkies is to go back through their manuscripts and ruthlessly slaughter nine out of every ten adverbs and take their chances with the reader interpreting the dialogue delivery for herself.

3. Accumulated attribution, or: the “said” better left unsaid. Authors who write long dialogue scenes or rapid-fire exchanges between two characters encounter this problem much more frequently than the author who uses dialogue sparingly. You don’t have to write too many page-long dialogue scenes before you get sick of attributing every line, and for good reason: it’s not necessary! If you begin a scene by clearly establishing the two speakers, there’s absolutely no reason to rudely interrupt your characters to throw in “he saids” and “she saids” when it’s perfectly obvious to your reader who said what. We’ll take my horrible example scene first: note how I can get rid of the majority of the attribution if I set up the scene properly.

Lucy drew back as Frederick spun to face her. His tone was sharp, hate etched in every line of his face. “Did you follow me here?” he asked.

“Yes, but only because I love you!”

“Ha! You don’t know the meaning of the word.”

“I never thought you could be so cruel.”

“Oh, for heaven’s sake, don’t cry!”

Because I establish clearly who’s present and who starts the exchange, there isn’t any confusion as to who’s speaking for the rest of the scene. As you can see, when the attribution disappears, the truly terrible nature of the dialogue stands out significantly more than it did when I was pulling the puppet strings of fancy verbs and bossy adverbs. Good dialogue, however, will function just as (or more) effectively without attribution, which brings us to your homework assignment for the week: if you were still reading at the end of last week’s post, I encouraged you to read some P. G. Wodehouse in preparation for today’s dialogue discussion. The Girl in Blue was the first Wodehouse book I ever read, and I still remember marveling at the PAGES of unattributed, brilliant dialogue filling that novel. Wodehouse’s characters are far too quick-witted to wait for some lumbering author to attribute everything they say, and so they don’t, the result being lightning-quick exchanges of banter, fast-paced arguments, and the unmistakable Wodehouse voice jumping off every page unmuffled by boring “he saids” and “she muttereds.” So if you want to read an example of how to do unattributed dialogue really well (or just want some hilarious, fabulously clever summer reading) hunt up a Wodehouse novel.

That’s it for this week! Which of these attribution issues bothers you most? Which one do you struggle with the most in your own writing?

You’re invited to a LIVE version of “Thursdays with Amanda”

July 2nd, 2014 | Uncategorized | 0 Comments

On SUNDAY, August 24, we’re going to try something new… a LIVE version of Amanda’s wonderful marketing information, set into a seminar format. Amanda and I will be in Nashville, at the Airport Embassy Suites, from 9 to 4, talking with authors about how to create a marketing plan for their books. Here’s what our outline looks like:

— The New World of Author Marketing — What’s Working (and not working) in Today’s Market
— Finding Your Audience and Reaching Your Readers
— Choosing the Tools You’ll Use to Promote Your Book
— Creating Your Own Personalized Marketing Plan
— Building Your Author Platform (we are bringing in a specialist to offer some advice and direction)
— Marketing with a Traditional Publisher vs Marketing Your Indie-Published Book

We’ll also be spending some time talking about working effectively with your publicist, and how to work with a freelance publicist, and we’ll get into a bunch of discussions on related topics — one of the most fun aspects of doing this type of seminar is the chance to talk with other authors who are going through the marketing process. But that’s our basic outline for the day, and we’d love to have you join us!

The cost is just $99 for the entire day, if you register in July (it will go up on August 1). Again, the focus of this day will be on doing something PRACTICAL — not on theory or on promoting a product. We just wanted to get authors together and have time to explore how an author can create his or her own marketing plan by focusing on ideas that actually work, so the emphasis will on on what an author can take and do, rather than on theory or philosophy. We hope you’ll join us. Please let me know if you plan to come by RSVPing me. Thanks, and we hope to see you in Nashville on August 24.

-Chip MacGregor