Like most English majors, I always wanted to be a writer. But marriage and children and life on the farm kept leading me down other trails. It wasn’t till 2000, when I took a brief (six meetings) course titled Writing Fiction That Sells, that writing a novels began to seem like a manageable project. And when the instructor told me that I didn’t have the passion it takes to write a novel, it seemed not only manageable but necessary.
Eight novels (one never published) later, here I am. That course was my springboard, and I’ve gone on to teach as well as to write. I’m living proof you don’t need a MFA or some sort of connections to sign with an agent and a major publisher (Bantam Dell.) I’ve enjoyed sharing, through classes and workshops, some of the lessons I’ve learned—many from that single class, more from trial and error, still more from my students.
Maybe some of you writers out there will find these lessons useful.
The Golden Rule of writing fiction is SHOW, DON’T TELL. It’s the difference between watching events unfold and reading, after the event, a factual account of what happened. Most of what follows is meant to help you show, not tell.
We should see the setting as the characters move through and interact with it—not simply as a backdrop. Opening a book or chapter with pages or even paragraphs of description is risky—it worked for writers in the past but with today’s increasingly short attention spans, it is, as I said, risky.
That said, the reader needs enough description to know more or less when and where the story is taking place. Extra points for including sensory detail beyond sight. The sofa was blue. Okay, but how much better to tell us that the blue velvet upholstery was sticky and smelt of peanut butter. Or whatever.
The protagonist, your main character, should have something they are driven by—solving a mystery, getting revenge, finding a mate, making a success of their business, whatever. Their back story can be revealed gradually, explaining why the character is thus driven. Your protagonist should be someone the reader will like or identify with or be fascinated by—anything that will make the reader want to find out what happens next.
Sometimes characters present themselves and just start talking. That lasts for a while but when the fountain dries up, I like to stop and explore this character’s back story–what shaped them, what’s hidden in their past, their strengths and their weaknesses. NOTE—well rounded characters have both. And no one is ALL good or ALL bad. The creepiest hired killer may love and care for his aged mom. And the most virtuous churchgoer may cheat on his taxes.
How well do you know the characters in your work? You probably begin knowing their name, age, sex. You should probably let the reader know these barebones early on unless there’s a reason to conceal them. How about ethnic heritage. physical description, marital or romantic status, education, occupation, childhood? All of these help a reader understand and become involved with a character. Then there are things like the character’s taste in music, books, food, etc. And the character’s past experiences – whatever will tell your reader more about what moves this character. Important to note that even the writer may not, early on, know all there is to know about a character. As you write, the character will tell you more.
Beware of INFO DUMPS.
Info dumps usually happen near the beginning of a book when the author is trying to cram in a lot of back story—more than the reader actually needs to know at the time. All we need in the beginning is a compelling reason to go on reading about the main character. We probably don’t need to know where the protag was born, grew up, went to school, what his parents did, who his siblings were, what his favorite sport was—if you put that all in one paragraph, unless he’s filling out some strange questionnaire, that’s an info dump. This information needs to be fed to the reader in small doses and as it becomes relevant.
Some novels are heavily weighted toward dialogue—others, less so. It’s important in either case to make your dialogue realistic and to use it to further your story, not just to fill space.
Beats and tags identify your speakers.
“And this one is just right!” Goldilocks gulped down the tasty porridge. BEAT
“Who’s been eating my porridge?” growled Papa Bear. TAG
There’s nothing wrong with using tags like He said, she said—these tags tend to disappear in the reader’s mind. Don’t stretch to find synonyms (he enunciated, she retorted) to avoid said unless they are really adding to the meaning (she growled, he whined.)
Talking Heads occurs when there is a long stretch of dialogue during which we don’t ‘see’ the speakers.
“So what do you want to do?” asked Alice.
“I don’t care,” Tom replied.
“Ice-skating? Or shall we go to the rodeo?”
“Boring,” Tom groaned. “Let’s take the hovercraft over to the island.”
“Oh, no, there are eels in the hovercraft! Why don’t we work on adapting Handel’s Messiah to ragtime?”
“We already did that last week.”
We hear what they’re saying but it could be a podcast. Sprinkle a few BEATS into this dialogue and now we can see what’s really going on.
“So what do you want to do?” Alice ran her finger along Tom’s well-muscled arm.
He caught her hand in his, brought it to his lips, and nibbled gently at her fingertips. “I don’t care.”
Alice managed a breathless whisper. “Ice-skating? Or shall we go to the rodeo?”
“Boring,” Tom began to stroke her thigh, letting his hand creep a little higher with each pass. “Let’s take the hovercraft over to the island.”
“Oh, no, there are eels in the hovercraft!” Arching her back, Alice began to move to the rhythm of his caresses. “Why don’t we work on adapting Handel’s Messiah to ragtime?”
Tom looked up from removing her lacy panties. “We already did that last week.”
BEATS are a terrific way to add action to your dialogue.
More Important Dialogue Tips
- Don’t overdo the expletives – unless your character absolutely bloody calls for it.
- Careful about having characters call each other by name too often. In real life, the main reason you might call someone by their name is a.) when you first see them “Hi, Mindy!” b.) When you’re angry “Okay, Billy Bob, we’ll just see what the sheriff says about what you just done.” Or c.) in the midst of passion. “Oh, my god, Tiffany, don’t stop!”
- Using exclamation points means you probably need a word like “shouted.” “Help! Help!” he said – doesn’t work, does it?
- Break long speeches as soon as possible so the reader doesn’t get lost. “Well,” said Mordecai, leaning back in his chair, “it’s a long story but it started just a few days ago when I was having my teeth cleaned. The dentist was obviously nervous about something and, though I was unable to speak, due to the various implements lodged here and there in my oral cavity, I couldn’t help noticing . . . .”
- In dialogue, use . . . for a voice trailing off.
“Gee, I don’t know . . .” Mary looked around the room as if hoping to discover the answer somewhere on the wall.
- Use an em dash for interruptions.
“Good grief, Maurice, I don’t see how—”
- As soon as you have more than two people in a conversation, it gets tricky. And if you have a bunch of people, it’s even harder. You have to keep accounting for where everyone is—even it they’re not talking. Sometimes it’s easier to send extra character out of the room or at least out of the conversation. (He sat on the sofa, saying nothing but listening to Sol and Katina argue.)
- Most people use contractions when they speak—don’t instead of do not, etc. Your dialogue should reflect this if it’s to sound real.
- The very best way to see if your dialogue rings true is to read it aloud.
So what’s your book about? A spoiled Southern belle on a Georgia plantation in the 1800’s? Not enough. The answer to this question must go beyond setting and characters; it must include Stuff Happening! THERE MUST BE CONFLICT–and conflict doesn’t mean just fisticuffs and car chases—conflict can be completely psychological. What follows are general rules and, as always, to every rule, there’s an exception. I’m sure you could think of successful books that break one or more of these rules.
- Plot is the main story of your book – you might sum it up in a sentence. (With murder mystery, it’s fairly simple: Mr. Green was murdered and Miss Pink, who has been hired to find out whodunit, nabs the murderer.) Some writers figure out in advance exactly what will happen at every step. Some even make a story board, listing scene by scene. Others take a more organic approach, getting to know their characters and what they want and seeing what grows out of this. Like so many things, it’s what works for you. But there must be conflict, there must be obstacles, and there must be a resolution.
- Make sure all characters who will play major roles are introduced or referred to in the early chapters. No prince on a white horse riding in out of nowhere to save the day in the closing chapters, unless we’ve known of or at least suspected his existence.
- Begin with action, establish conflict, then fill in back story. Put your main character at risk or in some dilemma of some sort. And make sure that your readers like/identify with/be fascinated by that character in some way, so that they will be emotionally invested in the story and want to find out what happens.
- What’s in a SCENE? A novel is made up of scenes. Each scene contains one or more characters, doing something (action) somewhere (setting.) Every scene should move the story in some direction – forward, back, or even sideways into a temporary dead end.
- Everything that’s important should be revealed in a scene, in dialogue or action – not in narrative.
- BUT don’t pile scene, on scene, on scene. Give readers a rest with a little narrative here, a little description there.
- Build momentum with chapter length. In the last part of the book, chapters can grow shorter as action builds.
- Have several threads going.
- Main plot – Will Mary Lou ever escape from her demanding old mother and carve out a career as a concert violinist?
- Subplot – Why did Mary Lou’s father leave home eight years ago, taking only a bright yellow throw pillow and a change of clothes? Where is he now and what was on that postcard Mary Lou’s mother tore up and swallowed? Another subplot – Is Mary Lou’s music teacher interested in her for more than just her skillful fingering? And another – what about Brad, the hunky tympanist? Is he about to dump Mary Lou for the new second fiddle at the Asheville Symphony?
- Keep the reader’s attention. Don’t get bogged down in description and/or conversation that isn’t leading somewhere and advancing the plot. (I rely on my own sense of boredom—I’ll be writing along, having a great time with character and setting description, sparkling dialogue, etc. and suddenly I’ll realize Nothing’s Happening. Time to Make Something Happen. Therefore, I often shift gears in the middle of a chapter or a scene.
A student once told my class “When I’m reading and the book describes something, I just skip over it looking for something to happen.” That was a good reminder for me. I love description, both reading and writing it and I’m not going to leave it out. But I am going to keep in mind the reader who’s looking for plot advancement. One thing that will keep your story moving along is putting obstacles to be overcome in your protagonist’s way.
- Avoid flat chapter or scene endings. You want the reader to want to be pulled onward by some unanswered question or unfinished business.
- Leave out the tedious stuff. Too many beginning writers get lost in reproducing the tedious minutiae of everyday life. If your character is brushing his teeth, unless there’s a killer behind the shower curtain or ground glass in the toothpaste, or you’re purposely highlighting the tedium of his life, this is NOT a scene to spend time on. In fact, why put it in at all? Remember, every scene should advance the action. But if you’re committed to good oral hygiene, you can say something like Ephraim brushed his teeth and, grabbing his Glock from the bedside table, headed out the door.
- Build toward some final scene (climax) in which your protagonist resolves the problem at the core of the plot. This final scene can be stretched out over multiple, short chapters. The final scene is, obviously, in the final third of the book. But there need to be some other exciting events — one or two in the first third of the book and two or three in the middle.
- MILK IT!When you reach one of these exciting scenes, milk it for all it’s worth. Show it in real time, blow by excruciating blow. (My first editor introduce me to this concept—where originally Elizabeth might just have leapt out of the car with the rattlesnake under the seat, Kate taught me to have her fumble with the recalcitrant seat belt for a few paragraphs first.)
Here’s a hypothetical example of a moment of high tensions being prolonged. Suppose you have a character who is running away from someone, don’t just write “She ran along the road and flagged down a passing car with friendly people who gave her a ride home.”
That’s TELLing, not SHOWing. And it’s wat too short for tension to build—it’s over before it’s begun.
Instead, in this scene the character should run, slip and fall, get up, run some more—always alert to the following footsteps growing ever closer. We should hear the sound of her breath, feel the sweat on her body. She should try to flag down a car only to have it zoom past her (we should feel the wind and dust as it passes, smell the exhaust); she should keep running, slowing because of being out of breath or a stone in her shoe or something.
All the time, the pursuer is getting closer. Maybe she passes a house and sees someone in the front yard but when she calls to them, that person scurries inside and slams the door shut. And the pursuer is getting ever closer.
This could go on for quite a bit (I’m sure you could think of more stumbling blocks in her path) before the friendly car comes along. When it does, it could slow and she would think she was saved.
Then it could speed back up and go on. And she would despair. Then at last, she could see its brake lights go on and it would back up and the driver would ask if she wanted a ride.
That’s milking it!
- And last of all: SHOW, DON’T TELL.
Writer’s Tool Kit
There are numerous excellent books on writing out there. The two I always recommend are Strunk and White’s Elements of Style—a classic–and Chris Roerden’s Don’t Sabotage Your Submission—a deceptively breezy, nuts-and-bolts guide to self-editing. My students have always found it invaluable—as do I.
Especially if you’re writing a series, I suggest you keep a simple list of characters: name, date of birth, physical description, quirks—just enough to remind you what color eyes someone has so they don’t change. Names of places and businesses are useful too.
I make family trees for my main characters, including birth, marriage, and death dates. It’s easy to get confused without a guide. It’s also nice to know that there are relatives waiting in the wings to be drawn into the story, should the need arise.
Nature Journal – I keep a photographic record of what’s blooming at what time of year in my neck of the woods, the setting for all my novels. Maybe lots of folks wouldn’t notice but I know some who’d fling the book out the window if I were to have daffodils and daylilies blooming at the same time here in western NC.
You can download a calendar and a chart of moon phases for the times that the story takes place and avoid having a full moon on two consecutive weekends.
I made a timeline for my Marshall/Madison County—beginning with early settlers at the moment but I hope eventually to push it back to before the coming of the white man. I use a kind of double entry system—real events, such as the coming of the railroad, the Trail of Tears, the Civil War are in bold, and fictional events in ordinary type.
Over to one side in my tool kit is a local phone book—an excellent source for names that suit my county—and a good way to make sure I’m not naming a real person. I also keep lists on my computer of names from obituaries and birth announcements and sports events. I divide these lists up by eras. There weren’t many girls being named Retha or Sophronia in the 1990s, just as there probably weren’t many Britneys or Hunters or Tiffanys back in the early 1900s.
In a folder on my computer, I keep a list of interesting turns of phrase: such as the woman who was avoiding dairy products because she was “lack toast and intolerant.”
I have a loose-leaf notebook with pictures torn from magazines of people who come close to what I imagine my characters to look like, as well as pictures and/or floor plans of their houses. I draw rough maps of various fictional locales—here again, to keep me from blundering.
And finally, as I work, I keep a chapter by chapter listing of day, weather, moon phase, point of view, and major plot point in that chapter. Very useful to avoid things like hevy rain one day and a character scuffling down a dusty path the next.
It’s taken quite a few years to assemble my writer’s toolkit — and I wouldn’t be without it. I can’t imagine writing a series without one.
A few years ago I led a workshop in which several works in progress used dialect–Appalachian, African American from Southern antebellum days, Irish, German, and maybe a few more. The following is the result of my trying to address various concerns the writers had about the use of dialect.
Dialect is tricky—it can add a lot to the richness of a story, or it can annoy, baffle, and irritate the reader till he or she flings the book across the room.
I had one critic call my use of dialect in one of my early books “demeaning.” At the same time, I’ve had numerous readers thank me for writing characters who talked just the way their grandparents spoke. I disagree with the demeaning accusation. I happen to believe that the language of my older neighbors, the same language I tried to reproduce, is musical and evocative. “I wouldn’t trust that man in my meathouse with a muzzle,” one neighbor told us when, during the Watergate hearings, we were discussing President Nixon.” Or, from another neighbor, “I was weedeatin’ down in the ditch when a great big gorf rat like to run up my britchie leg.” I almost swooned when I heard that—the first time I’d heard britchie leg outside of the old song “Cripple Creek.”
You don’t want to turn your characters into caricatures; at the same time, I don’t see the point in cleaning up language—say, avoiding the use of ain’t, if that’s the way your characters speak. Your characters’ speech can tell us who they are. Think of Henry Higgins in My Fair Lady. He could probably listen to me and pronounce that I was educated, of a Southern background with hints of Alabama and Native Floridian overlaid by long time residence in rural western North Carolina. In my writing, set in rural western NC, I try to differentiate between the speech modes of the older generation, their children, and their grandchildren. It’s easy for me—I just think of various people I know or knew– a lot of them are gone now—and ask myself How would Mearl say that? And what about her daughters who have more education and more dealings in the outside world? And Mearl’s grandchildren, whose language is influenced by television?
The first thing to say is that, unless the reader is familiar with the people of whom you’re writing, you can get away with some flagrant misappropriations. BUT, if what you’re writing is being read by the same people you’re writing about, expect to get called on it. I can’t really speak to the authenticity of, say, Irish and German accents because I’m not familiar with them, beyond the popular representations thereof. But if you’re writing about a place near me, I’m going to have a more critical ear.
That said, the important thing is to SUGGEST a mode of speech rather than try to replicate it. Use speech patterns instead: Reckon why he did that? or Reckon why he done that?
Mark Twain and others of his time wrote with an almost phonetic attention to the pronunciation of words. That really won’t work today.
Try to get across the dialect or speech patterns by the phrases and sentence construction rather than oddly spelled words. You can also have an outsider comment on a soft Southern drawl, or Brooklyn accent, or Appalachian twang, or the fact that Miss Birdie pronounces chair as cheer. If English is your speaker’s second language, he may speak very precisely, no contractions, and sprinkle in bits of his own language.
Eye dialect is the term used for showing differences from ‘standard’ pronunciation by using alternate spellings (for example, writing holler instead of hollow or using apostrophes to represent omitted letters. A little of this goes a very long way. Over the course of my six novels. I used less and less. Often, I might use some just once in the beginning – as in Miss Birdie’s “Come on in and git you a cheer.” I spell get GIT and chair CHEER just this once, hoping to have instilled in my reader’s mind, Birdie’s way of speech. Subsequently– and Birdie says this more than once—I use standard spelling.
Especially watch out for too many of those apostrophes to denote dropped letters. A standard one is an apostrophe instead of a g – ridin’, ropin’, shootin’ – absolutely standard and I used a fair amount of this in my first book. But it began to seem awfully cluttered lookin’ to me and in the secondary story–which is set around 1901 and in which everyone speaks in dialect, I dropped the G but omitted the apostrophe. And in later books, I generally didn’t drop the g at all.
Instead of eye dialect, the things to focus on are diction, syntax, and idiom: word choice, word order, and characteristic turns of phrase.
DICTION (word choice) When we moved to our farm back in 1975, we found ourselves having to learn the language. You need to put some chat on that road so hit don’t gaum up come winter, we were told and left none the wiser, Eventually we realized we needed gravel on the road so it didn’t become a muddy morass when it snowed and melted. Traveling in England we had to remember that cookies were biscuits and potato chips were crisps and chips were French fries.
SYNTAX (word order) This is really useful if you’re trying to convey a foreign speaker. It’s wanting to go, I am could be Irish or perhaps Welsh, while Reckon what he meant by that? I’m ready to go everwhen. are some standard Appalachian twists of syntax.
IDIOM (turn of phrase) I collect Appalachian idioms, such as: I wouldn’t give her air in a jar, He bowed up and wouldn’t go no further. She’s awful bad to talk. He got right ill at his wife when she burnt the biscuits.
Nothing can substitute for being as familiar with the dialect as if you had grown up speaking it. I didn’t start writing till I’d already been in Western NC for a quarter of a century. I’d absorbed the sounds and had, on occasion, ‘passed’ as a native. But there are other ways of gaining greater familiarity with an accent – spending time with folks who speak like that, local radio, books by indigenous authors, recordings of story tellers using that dialect. Or a source – once I found myself writing that someone was ‘drunk as Paddy’s sow’ It sounded great but I began to wonder if it was something I’d actually heard – or something I’d read. I got up with (that’s some local idiom) Sheila Kay Adams – ballad singer and storyteller from my county and she said she’d never heard that but she had heard Drunk as an owl. Later I found the Paddy’s sow thing had come from the Patrick O’Brian books—English or Irish idiom. Of course it’s not a big deal – the majority of readers wouldn’t have known the difference. But I would.
In Under the Skin I have an English character, and as I wrote him, I realized my idea of Britspeak was somewhere between Monty Python and P.G. Wodehouse. So I enlisted the aid of a longtime English blog friend who agreed to read my attempt at this guy’s speech. He read and suggested a few minor changes. Here again, most readers wouldn’t notice. But for a few, there might have been some dreadful clangers.
Of course, if you’re writing about the past, you’ll have to rely on books of the era for the way people spoke. I read Civil War letters to get an idea of the speech of the time. Mark Twain’s books are rich representations of a certain way of speech, but the eye dialect is too much for modern day readers. The same for Zora Neale Hurston’s accounts by ex-slaves and many other writings of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. You can read them to get an idea of the way the speech sounded, then ‘translate,’ paying attention to diction, idiom, and syntax. Here again, less is more. And here, at least, you won’t have anyone to call you on authenticity.
Dialect is a sharp-edged tool to be used carefully. In the end, we must try our best to represent our characters fairly, honestly, and with the dignity they deserve.