Tag Archives: Dialogue

Library Writers Group: Dialogue

5 Oct

A post about writing! These seem to be harder and harder to come across on my blog and I apologize for that. My class ends in mid-November and I want to use the second half of NaNo to get a jump-start on editing my YA novel. I’ve got a guide-book that I’m going to go through to help me and I’m excited to get back to it.

ANYWAY. Writing group. Before I get into our topic, I wanted to share some advice. Our library offers courses through Gale Courses that you can take for free (because libraries are awesome) online. One of our members said she was looking through them and saw one for writing fiction. She’d paid money to take the same class at a local community college! Just a reminder to ALWAYS look at your library resources first.

This month’s discussion was about dialogue. We’ve all read bad dialogue and good dialogue but there’s not a great way to define what’s good and bad. ‘You know it when you read it.’ Real dialogue is not fun to read. When we speak, we use a lot of filler words (“um, like, so, hm,” etc.) and there’s a lot of fluff that we add to make for polite conversation and small talk. In fiction, no one wants to read this! Our characters should be perfectly spoken and never bother to start a conversation asking about the weather unless it moves the plot forward.

Our moderator gave us a list of ten tips to help write better dialogue. You can read the full list here. I wanted to highlight a few in this post.

1.   Read dialogue aloud. I do this a lot! My husband probably thinks I’m crazy but it helps me so much. I get inflection, tone, and a good sense of pacing. I know when my characters are going to pause in their speech. Even when a conversation is supposed to be staccato, I know where breaks would be and it helps me visualise how they’ll stop and re-start the conversation.

2.   Don’t use dialogue to convey exposition. We felt this was overdone in internal dialogues more than anything else. Relying on internal dialogue to let the reader know how the character feels is a sign of weak writing and I’m very guilty of this. It’s the biggest ‘telling’ thing I can think of. My general rule is to avoid internal dialogue as much as possible.

5.   Having a character stumble over words, leave off sentences, and repeat him/herself is realistic but use it sparingly! It adds emotion to a moment well. In addition to the tip on this list, we also thought a well-placed ellipsis can add a nice effect.

7.   Using ‘said’ is fine. This one was debated. Some stood by that using words other than ‘said’ as dialogue tags make the writing more interesting. Some said to use other tags more sparingly as it can weigh down the text. People tend to read over ‘he said’ and ‘she said’ with no problem and it doesn’t distract from the flow of the story. We talked about using names to help mix up a conversation of ‘he said’ and ‘she saids.’ Even using paragraph breaks in a dialogue helps you avoid the ‘saids.’ Though we were warned away from using too many epithets. No one wants to hear about the ‘reddening blonde’ for pages and pages.

8.   Use arguments to create tension. One piece of advice we talked related to this one is that each character should have a goal in a conversation and should pursue that goal. If they’re not pursuing their objective, the character and plot are not developing and the scene should be cut.



9.   Think about how a character sounds. A non-native speaker might have a small bit of an accent or misuse a grammatical rule. As long as it’s legible and accurate (don’t perpetuate any false stereotypes!), it can help add depth to the character. Another part of this is making sure your own speech quirks don’t end up in every character of your novel. The characters should all sound different!

10.   Characters don’t have to answer each other. Sometimes, it’s best to let the reader figure out what should have been said or what was left out. Sometimes a question needs to be asked but not answered.


We did a short prompt to practice what we were learning. It was fun and I encourage any of you who want to try it to link back here so I can read it!

Write two quick character sketches (age, occupation, gender, general personality and emotional state). Write a few lines of dialogue with no tags and no narration. See if a reader can guess the character sketch from your writing.

That’s all I’ve got this time around. Let me know if you have any additional tips.

Until next time, write on.

You can follow me on Goodreads, Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and Instagram. I’m available via email at SamAStevensWriter@gmail.com. And as always, feel free to leave a comment!


Saturday Writers Group: Pacing, Detail, and Dreams

31 Jul

You know I’ve been writing a lot of book reviews when this meeting was 28-June and I’m just writing about it now. I realize I could just not tell you these things, but we might as well be honest with each other, right? I think so. The weekend writers’ group I’ve joined got together and helped me go through a story I’ve been struggling with one more time. While we talked, I took away a few other nuggets of information that I want to explore here with you.

The first was pacing as it pertains to dialogue in particular. A story that’s pure dialogue is boring (unless done purposefully) because there’s no movement. Consequentially, a story that’s all movement where the characters don’t speak can be dull because we’re stuck inside one character’s head. There’s a way to pace dialogue and action to stay away from both. I found a passage from the but I’m reading, The Creation of Eve by Lynn Cullen.

“The seedpods were quite interesting,” said the King. “They are said to be quite nutritious, though they do look a little off-putting.”
I gazed at the shriveled brown stalks
“What is the name of the ridiculous weed?” asked Dona Juana.
The King patted the Queen’s neck as she turned to look. “I believe,” he said, “they call it ‘maize'” (254).

I think this is a great example because it helps the reader see that though the conversation is between the King and his sister, Dona Juana, there are other people around; people who are moving and interacting with what’s going on, even though they’re not talking. We have our narrator, Sofi, who is gazing at the stalks, and the Queen, who is walking with her husband and curiously turning around. Without the action in this scene, we have only a conversation between siblings and the other characters are ignored. With only action, we can’t sense the tense silence the Queen and Sofi are keeping (if I’d expanded this, you would see how tense it is! But I’ll leave some mystery so you read it.).

The next thing we talked about was the balance of detail and brevity in flash fiction. I brought a piece that was originally limited to 1000 words and ended up being closer to 700. A few people recommended adding details about what the two characters looked like or description of the setting, but I wonder if that’s too much for a 700 word piece. So I ask you, Reader; What’s a good balance of brevity and description in flash fiction? Have you read any pieces that you think show a good example? I’m tending to lean toward less description myself, but I tend to do that in all my writing, be it flash or novel length. I’ll be interested to see what you all think.

The final think we talked about was basing a piece on a dream. I think there are several ways to do this, and I have my preferences. I think inspiration for fiction from dreams can be really good. I know several authors who were inspired to write their pieces based on something strange from a dream. Nothing wrong with that. I think our subconscious can give us images that we feel a need to share with the world.

However, I see a limitation to this. The piece that comes from a dream needs to make sense. I don’t like when writers re-tell their dream, either in prose or poetry. To me, you need to be answer a writers question of why something is a certain way or if it represents anything. The answer ‘That’s how it was in my dream’ isn’t enough for me. What’s your opinion on pieces based on dreams?

Until next time, Reader, write on.

You can follow me on Goodreads, Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and Instagram. I’m available via email at SamAStevensWriter@gmail.com. And as always, feel free to leave a comment!

Novel Girls: Time Period, Education, and Coincidences

10 Feb

We had yet another lovely night with the Novel Girls! This might be one of our last times for the four of us to get together before Sonia moves away for her job. We hope she’s able to come back soon! In the mean time, we’ll have to brave our way forward while sending her the sections we’re going over.

Speaking of Sonia, two of the points I want to cover up while we were talking about her piece. The piece takes place in the mid-20th Century, she said around the 50s or so. I recognized instantly that it was a historical piece and Sonia did this really well with time-period specific vocabulary. I think our favorite was ‘doll dizzy.’ However, it was hard to narrow when in the early/mid-century the setting was. She’ introduced Frank Sinatra to establish that it was later than 1940, but where in the 1940-1950s era, we didn’t know. Did it really matter? No, the story was strong. But it could have helped. I’ve thought of a few ways to help establish a historical setting.

  1. Use period-appropriate words.
  2. Describe the dress, cars, music, etc. that define the era.
  3. Reference a great historical event that has recently happened. If it’s famous enough (moon landing for example), this will give readers a solid guess at the year.
  4. Birth/death year of a character and their age so readers can do simple math to figure out the year.
  5. An idea my friend John suggested: Refer to social customs and mores from the period. For example, a woman being alone, a shoulder or ankle being considered a scandal. We associate these customs with a specific part of history. (Thanks, John!)
  6. If all else fails, but a date stamp in the work or in the summary of the piece.

Can you think of some other ways to establish a time period in historical fiction writing?

The other thing that came up while reading Sonia’s piece was the education level of a character. When plotting characters, this is usually something a writer thinks about. If someone has dropped out of high school versus having a PhD, there will be aspects of their life and personality that are hugely different. Usually vocabulary, lifestyle, and occupation do well to describe this, but Sonia’s piece being historical fiction, this was made more complicated. The vocabulary seemed off because of the period, not because of education. The occupation of her character was a huge help to understanding this, but it came into the piece later. Lifestyle was a bit confusing because the exchange rate and cost of things isn’t immediately re callable to the reader. Here are just a few ideas I have to help establish education level.

  1. Use contrast between those of high and low education level. Compare their clothing, spending habits, family situations, and speech patterns.
  2. The way other characters talk to your character can make a difference. I find that people with more education are quickly given more respect by their peers, no matter what job they’re in. If you have two people in the same job and one is a high school grad and the other is a college grad, the way someone would speak to the college grad might be.
  3. Reference the time a character spent in school. If your character has a masters, you can say that he is still paying off loans from working on his masters.more respectful than to the high school grad.

How else can you show a character’s education level?

While we were reading Katherine’s piece, she asked us if her fantasy seemed to far-fetched or if it was grounded enough in reality. We agreed it was very well grounded but talked about when we feel fantasy is overdone. The biggest thing we all agreed on is when things are too convenient. A door is locked? Good think your character knows just the spell to open it. Is there a large rock in the road? No matter for character who suddenly has super strength. On the flip side, when a character doesn’t use a power/skill/resource that they have in a situation where it would be very advantageous to use it, fantasy becomes equally frustrating for a reader. The classic superheroes are a good standard to look at when trying to find the right balance. They all have a weakness. Superman has Krypton and his love for Lois Lane. Wolverine has his own anger to deal with that can impede his decisions. If your fantasy characters have a good mix of abilities and weaknesses, I think there’s a solid chance of the fantasy seeming well grounded.

What do you find frustrating in fantasy writing?

We didn’t discuss this specifically, but I wanted to talk about the word ‘just.’ Most writers know that the word ‘just’ is a filler and doesn’t add anything to your writing except word count. Taking the word out of sentences makes them stronger 99% of the time. However, what about in dialogue? Do we use the filler word to make dialogue more lifelike? My husband was doing a transcription of his students the other day and we were laughing at how silly everyone sounded, using filler words like ‘just, like, kinda,’ etc. So, is using ‘just’ in dialogue more realistic, or still a filler? I’m personally an advocate for making dialogue as realistic as possible, and if the character is the type who would use filler words a lot, I think it should be used in the writing. What do you think? Does using the word ‘just’ in dialogue hurt the writing or make it more realistic?

If you have any suggestions for things we could discuss at our next Novel Girls meeting, drop me a comment, we’d love to hear from you.

Until next time, write on.

Novel Girls: Parallels and Contractions

29 Jan

I love when we have a Novel Girls night and all four of us can make it. It’s kind of the best thing ever. If you haven’t yet, please go check out Nicole and Sonia‘s blogs. They are both amazing. When Katherine gets a blog, I’ll link there right away.

We read Katherine’s piece first and she had dropped subtle hints to a popular piece of popular literature. I love how Katherine generally ties in fairy tales and magic to her stories and this was no exception as the piece she’d alluded to contains both. The question this sparks in me is if parallelism and references to a popular piece of literature helps or hurts the story. (Note- I’m not sure Katherine is doing this, it just made me think of it.) I remember a book I liked when I was young called Scribbler of Dreams. The plot summary compares the book to Romeo and Juliet. But that didn’t mean I enjoyed it any less or more. In some sense, I knew what was going to happen because of the parallel, but I was still surprised at every turn. Do you enjoy a piece less if it’s a spin-off, parallel, some other relation to a piece of well-known literature? Does knowing something is a spin-off of another work make you want to read it more? I’m personally a fan of spin-offs, such as Wicked.

This is more of a general question to you, Reader. We were wondering if someone had ever written something from a first person perspective, reflecting on them self and another as ‘they.’ Almost like an our-of-body experience watching yourself. Has anyone ever heard of this?

Katherine had a great way to relate when a paragraph break comes in when doing dialogue. We all know to switch paragraphs when we have two people talking (if you didn’t, you’re welcome) but knowing where the ‘he shrugged’ and ‘her eyes opened wide’ pieces of writing belong is something I’ve never had a clear rule about. Katherine’s mantra is ‘When the camera shifts.’ When the description applies to the first person to talk, keep it in the first paragraph. As soon as the description moves to the second person, switch paragraphs. I love this rule!

Our final point of discussion is something I’ve never known when to use. When should you use contractions in dialogue and when should you not? I’ve had it as a general rule that the non-dialogue parts of a story should be contraction free, but then what about when people are talking? I tend to say things out-loud to myself to see if they sound weird as contractions or to see how I would say a given sentence. Does anyone have a rule for when to use contractions in dialogue? Does it have to do with the education level of the speaker? Does age and time period play a factor? Please leave me with your thoughts!

I love hearing from you so please leave a comment! Until next time, write on.

Novel Girls: Anticipation, Dialogue, and Short Stories

12 Dec

We had a novel girls meeting last Thursday and I’m just now getting around to talking about it. That should tell you how many book’s I’ve been reading and how busy the holidays have been. I forgot to take notes at the time, but there are a few things that stuck in my head and I remember well.

KK brought the next section of her WIP fantasy novel. I’m in love with her concept and was very excited to read it. Her story flashes between present day and an event that was set in motion exactly 100 years before that affects the present (yes, this is vague but I don’t want to give anything away before it becomes a best-seller). To me, there is a lot of tension to see what happens in the events 100 years before and how quickly (or slowly) they are developing because there is a deadline for something dramatic to happen. The reader starts knowing the date in modern times when the event occurs and counting the days down in the flashback would build anticipation for the dramatic turn of events. KK loved this idea and when she is done writing will be able to go back in and add dates.

This had me thinking about building tension in general. In many stories, there is a looming event; something the characters are preparing for or dreading. Sometimes the characters don’t see it coming but the reader does. In The Hunger Games (first book), it’s the games itself. In the over-arching series it’s the rebellion. For Harry Potter, we have a looming event of the Tri-Wizard Tournament in Goblet of Fire and we also have the series-wide event of the final battle with Voldemort. All of these events must be built toward, either within the book or within the series.

How do you build tension/anticipation in your works? What have you read that kept you waiting on the edge of your seat for a particular event?

We read another excerpt from my YA Historical Fiction novel. KK gave me some feedback that made me feel warm and fuzzy inside; she loved my dialogue. I see so many writers who struggle to write dialogue and it makes me feel great that someone found my writing not only believable, but good. I’ve included a sample of this below. This is a conversation between my protagonist, June, and her best friend, Marty.

“There’s a rumor that after the dance hall, you and Tony went out for drinks and you stumbled home with your arm slung over his shoulder.”

“After the dance hall, my feet hurt and I limped home with him supporting me.” She giggled.

“All right, another story is that you spend your time at the library plotting how you’ll get your revenge on Sarah Hamilton.”

“I spend our time at the library doing homework assignments and plotting with Tony how we can be a convincing couple.”

“Have you ever thought of getting back at Sarah?”

“Not particularly.”

“But don’t you hate her? Don’t you want to get even?”

June considered this for a second. “No. I’ve realized I wasn’t happy with Donny. I don’t think I was ever important to him.”

When I write dialogue, I say it all in my head and try to create it like it’s a film. I picture the characters and the space they’re in and then I have the conversation with myself. So, for the third line, it seemed natural to me that the filler ‘all right’ would be used. Marty would need a second to think about the next rumor he wanted to talk about. When Marty asks June if she hates Sarah, he starts the question with the word ‘but.’ I’m very well aware this is not proper grammar, but I’m going to argue very few of us speak with proper grammar. It’s what I would say. It’s what I picture my best guy-friend saying. It’s natural. Similarly, if I were June, I would take a second to respond to his question so I have June take a second to respond. For characters I don’t want to sound at all like me, I’ll think about what my co-worker or husband or friend might say. I’ve considered having someone read the dialogue aloud with me to see if it sounds the way I want it to.

The piece Nicole brought was a short story with two characters we’d already met in another short story. It made KK and I curious how the stories could connect and if it would be possible to make a complete story out of the character arcs. Since our fellow Novel Girl SG worked on a collection of related short stories for NaNo and I’m currently reading a collection of short stories (The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury), this got me thinking about the difference between a collection and a novel. SGs work and my current book have stories that focus on different characters in each story but have an overall theme or setting. Other sets of short stories, such as Hemingway’s Nick Adams stories and the ones Nicole is working on.

I want your opinion, Reader, on what makes a group of stories a collection? What is the necessary joining factor and how does this differentiate from a novel?

Unfortunately SG was unable to join us, but we did go to her place for a holiday part this past weekend. I mention it because we played a wonderful writers’ game. It’s called Storymatic and I think it would make a wonderful gift for any writer in one’s life. SG’s non-writing friends were not as enthused at first but started to realize how fun it could be by our second game. If anyone’s looking for Christmas present ideas for a fellow writer, check it out.

That’s all I’ve got for today, folks. Until next time, write on.

Novel Girls: Reaction and Editing

24 Sep

This edition of Novel Girls is well overdue!  I left town for the weekend right after Nicole and I last met and only now am finding the time to type it up.  We had our regular get-together and went over chapters from each of our stories.  I love how much we are able to encourage each other to keep writing and to keep editing!  I owe everything to these girls for keeping me going.  Our biggest piece of advice was on reaction of characters, which helps to lend itself to believable dialogue and pacing.

Let’s say my character receives a big piece of news, that her grandma is very sick.  The raw dialogue (no tags) might to something like this.

“Your grandma is very ill”
“Is it serious?”
“It will probably kill her.”
“How long, doctor?”
“It’s hard to say.  At most a year.”
“Thank you, doctor.  We’ll fight this to the end.”

Does this read as believable dialogue?  Not to me, it doesn’t!  The character’s transition from “It will probably kill her” to “How long” covers a range of emotions that a normal human would experience.  It’s what goes between the lines, the tags, description, and injected emotion that make this believable dialogue.  So, I try to use the five sense to brighten up the scene (some are more applicable than others).

  • Sight: Sight is a big one for this scene!  How does the character look when she receives the news from the doctor?  Is there a tear?  A trembling lip perhaps?  And the doctor: is he sympathetic or straight-faced?  And the setting of course; is the grandma there, her heart-rate monitor clicking away?  Is the character at home and is receiving a phone call?  All of these sights make the scene richer and more believable.
  • Touch: This helps us set the scene and the spatial relations.  Does the doctor touch her shoulder reassuringly?  Does the character run her fingers over her sick grandma’s knuckles?  All of these things are part of human reaction.
  • Sound: The beep of the heart rate monitor, the tone the doctor uses, the sobs of the character.  (I’m getting really excited here, I’m trying not to end every sentence with an exclamation point.)
  • Smell: Ever hospital I’ve ever been to has smelled like urine.  I have to imagine that this one would.
  • Taste: Ok, not really applicable here.

So let’s get down to it, shall we?  Combining sensory description, we take a Hemingway-eque conversation and add on some Hawtorn-ian description to come up with something perfectly in the middle.

The doctor sat down at the chair across from me.  We were both listening to the steady beep of her heart rate monitor and her raspy breath.  He didn’t surprise me when he said “Your grandma is very ill.”
I reach out and touch her hand, running my thumb over her white knuckles.  Her skin feels like tissue paper, so thin I could break it.  “Is it serious?”  I’m afraid to hear the answer and breath slowly to keep myself from sobbing.
He responds gently.  “It will probably kill her.”
I let the emotion run through me, shaking me from my very core to my fingertips.  He reaches out and grabs my forearm.  It’s good to have something solid when everything is changing so quickly.
“How long, doctor?”  I can only think about the number of times we’ll have to come back to this moment; the slow beep of machinery and the smell of stale urine on over-washed sheets.
“It’s hard to say.”  He pauses, face contorted as he tries to figure out how close I am to breaking down.  “At most a year.”
He lets me cry for a minute and hands me a tissue that is truthfully no better than thin cardboard.  I use it to wipe my eyes, black streaks of eye liner coming away and undoubtedly staining my face.  “Thank you, doctor.  We’ll fight this to the end.”  He squeezes my arm reassuringly and walks out of the room to let me figure out how to tell grandma she’s dying.

I don’t know about you, reader, but I’m a much bigger fan of the later.  The words between the dialogue show that the character is reacting with more than just her words and gives a better flow from one sentence to the next.

The other thing I wanted to talk about in this post is self-editing.  This is a little different from most other posts about how to self edit and is rather about how to stop self editing.  I can’t stop doing it!  This weekend, my husband decided to finally bite the bullet and read my manuscript.  We decided this would be best accomplished in the car on the way to Iowa out loud.  We only got through two chapters.

The frustration was that I kept stopping him, asking him to make a note about a sentence that didn’t sound right or somewhere that needed more description or a passage that needed to be completely re-written in general.  He got so frustrated from the break in the flow that he stopped.

Readers, I need to know if I’m alone in this!  Do you self-edit every time you hear/read your own writing?  Is there a way to get past this or is it a good thing?  Is being able to recognize my flaws a gift?  Please let me a comment and let me know how you deal with self editing!