7 Tips: How To Write Better Dialog

So why am I writing a piece about dialog? There are two main reasons. First, I’ve noticed that even some of the best writers, i.e, those who can craft a great plot, create great characters, and write beautiful exposition, can write wooden dialog.  Sometimes the dialog doesn’t sound like the character, but rather like the author holding up cue cards.

Second, I’m a far cry from Shakespeare, but I almost always receive compliments on my #dialog from critique groups and beta readers. In college, my creative writing credits were in screenplay #writing, and I think that’s where I developed good dialog skills.

So here are #writingtips to help you out, if you find yourself struggling. Please pardon my occasional extreme examples, I just can’t help it.

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Original Photo – Statues by Tim Evanson used under CC License – Chat Bubble Modifications by E. San Giacomo

1. Forget yourself and let the character do the talking

Remember, the reader will continue to read because the character is interesting. Therefore, bury your own ego and let the character say the things they would say under the circumstances. Of course you have to factor in the aspects of the character, like their age, gender, and education.

And the Lord ascended the mount, and upon seeing the gathering crowd, he turned to his disciples and said,”Yo Pete, got enough grub for all these folks to chow down?”

2. Forget the long speeches

Even if your character is giving a speech, remember to break it up with beats, like adjusting their posture, dramatically pausing, or taking notice of the crowd’s reaction. Dialog really needs to be short and snappy and complemented with actions.

Here’s a sample of a character giving a speech from my yet unpublished #ShortStory Little Red Revolution. Notice how I break up the speech.

John stood tall at the podium. “So the company has the nerve to call the latest contract an offer.” He shook his head. “Well, where I come from it’s called an insult!”

The crowd applauded and cheered.

“No more zeroes for our mining heroes!”

While John stirred hearts and minds, he saw a pasty-gray looking man skulk over to a dark shadow cast by a staircase along the back wall. With everyone’s attention fixed on the podium, John knew that he was the only one who took notice of the strange man.

This is quite different from the John Galt speech in Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand. It’s about 80 pages without a break.

3. Forget about grammar

Notice that I said grammar and not punctuation. Dialog has to be properly punctuated in order to be understandable. However, people do not speak in grammatically perfect sentences. Learn to ignore your word processor when it’s warning you about sentence fragments and other errors. “Okay?” See, that’s not technically a complete sentence, but it will work as dialog.

4. Don’t forget that you’re writing literature

When one character says something that makes the other character surprised, taken aback, or fumble for a quick response, show some sort of reaction other than another line of dialog.

“I‘m your father.”

“Really? I never would’ve guessed.”

“And I murdered your mother.”

“Let’s go get a burger and talk about the good old days.”

5. Don’t use forms of address

People just don’t talk like that, especially family members. I’ve seen it way too often where each character starts or ends their dialog by addressing the other character by name.

“Bill, I’ve got something to tell you.”

“I’m all ears, Bob.”

“Bill, promise you won’t get angry.”

“Only if you keep repeating my name, Bob.”

“I don’t do it all that much. Do I, Bill?”

“You certainly do, Bob.”

“Well Bill, I learned it from you.”

Of course there are times to use it, like a commander spouting orders, or a formal setting, or anger and frustration.

“Dammit, John,” Phil said as he threw the folder on the desk. “How many times do I have to explain this to you?”

6. Don’t forget to read and watch

Many self-help authors always remind us that a good writer does a lot of reading. True enough, but you can also learn something by actively watching a movie. Don’t underestimate the abilities of quality screen-writers when it comes to dialog. I can’t list all of them, but consider the following…

“The Thing” The original from 1951 by Howard Hawks and Christian Nyby.

“My Favorite Wife” (1940) starring Cary Grant and Irene Dunne

“Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” (1969) d. George Roy Hill, starring Paul Newman and Robert Redford

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***Ragged Souls on Amazon***

7. The dreaded info-dump dialog

This happens when a writer tries to create too much back story and character description through dialog.

Brandon held out his hand and showed the little box to Susan. Her eyes brightened at the sight of the gold foil wrapping and the intricate red ribbon adorning the gift.

“On this day, July 15th, 2014, I’d like to present this gift to you on our thirtieth wedding anniversary,” Brandon said.

“As a retired English teacher, I appreciate your proper use of an indirect object pronoun after a preposition,” Susan said.

“Perhaps you should sit on the green chaise lounge and open your gift. It matches your eyes and accents your red hair.”

“Oh yes, remember? It was the robbery at the furniture store where we bought this lounge that started your career as a private detective.”

Of course I’m sure there are many other examples that you can use to fine-tune you own dialog. If you can think of a few more, please share.

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My Last Newspaper

I was on my way to work one morning and as I passed by a newsstand I saw the huge, bold headline: Catholic Priest Sex Scandal. The priest’s picture was plastered across the entire front page.  He was a very popular priest and well known, since some newspapers had done human interest stories about him prior to that headline. Perhaps that was the reason for the press’s extra viciousness concerning this incident.

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St. Nicolas Roman Catholic Cathedral by Jennifer Boyer used under CC License

A few weeks later I purchased a copy of the paper, wanting to see the box score from a Yankee game. As I flipped through the pages and scanned the headlines I saw something very disturbing on page 17.

In a small article, nestled among many other small articles that would constitute a page of clippings, was a follow-up story about the #priest.  Apparently, all charges against him were dropped.

An NYPD spokesman said the child involved had been prompted to tell a story because the parents were looking for a cash settlement. The police became suspicious when the child kept changing his story. Detectives questioned him for a statement three times, and not once did he ever give the same answer. When pressed, the parents admitted to prodding their child to make a false claim.

What a group of forthright, just people are journalists and #newspaper editors. Shouldn’t they have put that priest’s portrait on the front page again with a bold headline proclaiming his vindication? Yes, they should have. You know it and I know it. So how could the press not know it?

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Earth Day by Deb Stgo used under CC License

I believe they knew the right thing to do. However, why should they run a story when there was probably something more sensational that day?  Also, why run a story that speaks of your own sensationalism and errors?

I think it’s sad. Have you ever seen anything similar?

Special Thanks to Don Charisma. His #blog Post “Do Journalists Tell the Truth” dredged up this memory.

#Writetip: An Author Needs Beta Reads

Face facts, without a group of beta readers, your editing is incomplete. You can only do a certain amount of self-editing, at least 2 or 3 passes over your writing before you need the aid of some fresh eyes.

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Open Book by Honou used under CC License

The best would be fellow authors working as a small support group, or a local writer’s guild that has a critique group. You can even try to create an on-line network of fellow #indieauthors.

Here’s what I’ve discovered about beta readers. They can point out things that just passed over your head. Those types of errors are easy for a writer to make because everything is clear to the writer, and sometimes it’s hard to put yourself into the mind of a person who knows nothing about your plot and characters.

When I presented the #shortstory Little Red Revolution to my critique circle, I thought that my main character’s attitude was clear.  However, the readers understood and perceived his anger and displeasure, but then questioned why his attitude changed so rapidly. I never intended for anyone to see a change until the final paragraph of part I, but all of the readers thought that the change occurred four pages earlier. Why? Because I had failed to clearly explain that the character also expresses his anger through sarcasm.

The readers thought he had become comical too quickly, a change that I did not intend. I’ve altered it based on their feedback. A good beta read can give your work a final polish and quality that the general reading public expects from a traditional publishing house.

Have your beta readers given you some insightful commentary?

Rolling the Flash Fiction Dice

I’ve decided to be a bit more of a traditional author instead of an #indieauthor in the trenches. I’m not talking about changing the route in everything I do, but rather just one aspect, flash fiction.

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Find Dice Collection for Assemblage by Costanza used under CC License

I was never a big fan of #FlashFiction until a member of my critique group introduced it (yes Stewart, I’m talking about you). He’s quite talented in the flash venue, and I admit to being somewhat intrigued with a new outlet for my musings.

So what’s a writer to do with a new format? The answer is obvious, start using it.

I’ve penned two flashes so far called “Everyone’s a Winner” and “A Generous Man”. I really do not wish to include either of them in a small collection because neither fits in with my planned releases. I also do not want to give them away because the indie market is overflowing and bloated with free give-a-ways (another subject best suited for a future blog rant).

Therefore, the logical conclusion is to read about query letters, submission guides, and get ready to play the waiting game.

Have you ever attempted a more traditional publishing route?

WordPress Stats: Seeing is Believing

In a previous post called “The Blog, the Tweet, and the Facebook Page,” I mentioned that creating a relationship with other bloggers is a must. I came to that conclusion based upon the behavior of those who followed me on various social media outlets. I also mentioned that I really didn’t push or spend a lot of time on #Facebook. Also, when it comes to blog stats, I usually only checked the “out-clicks” to see how many people were exiting my #blog by going to my Amazon, Nook, or Smashwords.

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My Social Network by Luc Legay used under CC License

But I had a jaw-dropping revelation when I looked into my WordPress stats the other day. Facebook was the source for the most referrers, i.e. where someone was when they decided to click into my blog. The second was Search Engines, then Google+ and Twitter. Why are these stats surprising? Because I usually spend the most time promoting my blog on Google+ and Twitter. When I thought about it, it didn’t take long to figure out why this happened. I use Facebook in the same way that I blog, taking the time to visit other pages and leave commentary rather than promoting my own stuff.

Let me be clear for a second, I am not a spammer (and never have been), on Google+ and Twitter. However, when I look back at all of my tweets and Google+ posts, most of them were promotional. I think it’s time to switch gears and use the rest of social media in the same way as I’ve been using Facebook and blogging.

You may experience the same if you go into your WordPress bar graph (site stats for last 48 hours), then look at the referrer’s box and click summaries. You can view your referrers for different time periods as well.

O.K. now that you’ve looked, what did you find out about your stats?

#Writetip: The Plausible Plot

Chapter 14 “Fork in the Road” of my upcoming #fantasy novel The First Light is now complete. However, after getting that first draft down on paper comes the point where I look it over for any glaring errors. Yep, I found one.

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“Fork in the Road” by Jack. Used under Creative Commons License.

A minor nemesis skulks away from a caravan in the middle of the night, and the next day the heroes must decide where he went, and whether to follow. I can hear readers thinking, “Well why didn’t they (our heroes) follow his tracks?” or “If it was dark, why didn’t they go after him at dawn?” Also, there’s the condition of the road itself. “Is it muddy, paved, dry baked dirt, or loose powdery dirt?” And of course, “If he’s skulking away, why wouldn’t he go across country?”

The fact is I failed to address any of those issues. This wouldn’t be classified as a plot-hole, but might well leave a reader feeling that the story isn’t plausible.

Rest assured that these issues have been addressed and explained, without creating a bulk of exposition. It was interesting to work my way through them, to really think about the capabilities of horses and wagons, and the logistics of travelling alone on a dangerous road.

As for Chapter 14, there is no literal fork in the road; I used the term figuratively. The main character’s next course of action is a major decision, from which there is no going back. Another fork is the relationship between my MC and a minor character. Will their romance survive their first lovers’ quarrel? I haven’t decided yet.

So it seems like I’ve come to a fork in the road as well. Isn’t it interesting when author and character are experiencing the same things?

What kinds of issues have you faced in making your novel completely plausible and hole-free?

The Special Language of #Fantasy

If you’re either a reader or an author of fantasy then it’s a probable bet that you’ve read The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien. You may remember with a smile words like taters, olyphaunt, pipeweed, and eleventy-first. It was this precise nature of playing with words that brought Middle-Earth to life in a very special and unique way.

tolkien

“J.R.R. Tolkien, Da Morto” by Daniele Prati used under Creative Commons License.

As part of fantasy world-building, other authors must do the same but in our own way. We should learn from Tolkien and create a #writingtip for our usage. However, we must define what is special about the words. Firstly, you just can’t make up some strange word that is going to act like a speed-bump to the reader. You didn’t need a glossary or a long winded description to recognize “pipeweed”. You knew what it was and recognized Tolkien’s playfulness the second you read it.

Now, the world-building in Science Fiction can be a little different. Remember the tachyon particles from Star Trek: The Next Generation, and how often they were used in the series? People had no idea what a tachyon was; yet, their nature never really had to be explained. #Sci-Fi fans (including myself) just accepted it.

I’ve set out to accomplish the same type of playfulness in the world-building of Tyrhennia in The First Light. Take a look at a scene as two characters have breakfast at the Sword and Anvil Tavern in the city of Mentiria:

Daggorat leaned forward. “You should write a book about the common speech of the three kingdoms. Especially tavern slang.” Cyril responded with a negative grunt. Then Daggorat said, “Back home in Easterly, flatcakes and bangers are roundcakes and porklogs. It could be an interesting book.”

“Certainly not,” Cyril said. “Judging from the intellectual capacity of those three nobnoggins that we refer to as kings, such a treatise would probably start another great war.”

Did you pick up on the meaning of flatcakes, roundcakes, porklogs, and nobnoggins? Readers in the U.K. will recognize banger as sausage, while U.S. readers may not. However, from the use of porklog, the reader should be able to infer the meaning of sausage. Of course, The First Light is not laced that heavily with this type of vocabulary. You’ve just witnessed its most concentrated use in Chapter 1. I don’t do this again until another tavern scene in Chapter 7 and again in Chapter 14 when some characters are studying a map. I couldn’t use the word “geography” in the world of Tyrhennia, so I made up the word “tyrhenostrophy”. How do you feel about word-play for the sake of world-building?

Thank You NaNoWriMo for Chapter 14

The April version of NaNoWriMo struck a few days ago. I admit that I didn’t get anything done on the first of the month. However, over the past few days I finally put the finishing touches on Unlucky Chapter 13  and have since broken into a streak. I’ve completed a major chunk of Chapter 14, called Fork in the Road.

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‘NaNoWriMo Day 3’ by MP Clemens used under Creative Commons License

Within this chapter, I’ve created (what my editor and I believe to be) some of the best comic relief in The First Light. Yes, there are reasons to giggle and snort in previous chapters, but this scene is much more extended than the other punch lines dabbled here and there.

Some say that author-gods shouldn’t be too cruel to their creations. Yet in chapter 14, my main character is having one of those days, from stinging embarrassment to comical frustration. Anyway, if it wasn’t for NaNoWriMo, and having to Tweet #amwriting, I probably wouldn’t have gotten this done during the week.

You see, I’m moving soon and this week was filled with emptying closets and creating garage sale, eBay, and keeper piles of stuff. And let’s not forget the roofers that came by to patch some shingles. A busy week did unfold, but thanks to NaNoWriMo, I managed to squeeze in precious writing time and get something done.

What are you working on this April? Has NaNoWriMo helped to motivate you too?

Indie Author Stigma (Part II)

Indie Authors have to be better

I’ve seen typos in some editions of traditional books. It is a rare phenomenon, but it does happen. How does a reader react to such an occurrence? They will probably react the same way that I usually do. I’ll blame the proof-reader, the editor, or the printer. The author is never blamed.

However, if it’s an ebook from a  self-published indie-author, guess who the reader will blame? That’s right, the responsibility for everything squarely rests on the shoulders of the author.

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Photo by Nic McPhee and used under the Creative Commons license

Just because a document can be easily uploaded, that does not mean it should or must be done. I can throw my cat out of the second floor window pretty easily. Does that mean that I should? Certainly not. There are no circumstances that would allow or justify such an action. Yet this seems to be the mentality among many indie authors. Judging from the quality  of the indie books that I’ve seen, I believe that I have made a correct assessment.

Many ebooks have been uploaded simply because it can be done. Therefore it serves as a sort of vain purpose. I wonder if they realize the damage they’re doing to the rest of us.

It has been my privilege and honor to blog, chat, learn, and teach with some other indies who work and strive in order to produce a quality product. Some I’ve met on-line like Diane Tibert, Therin Knight, Robert Hill, Wayne DePriest, Ben Garrido, Nonnie Jules, and Bruce Borders.

I also work closely in critique circles with other authors through the San Antonio Writer’s Guild, like Marilyn Hudson Tucker, April Grunspan, Charles Tate, Suzanne Daniels, Florence Wall, and Stewart Smith.  I can’t wait to read their material. They are all great authors and deserve respect.

Is it fair that after all of the intense work, that we should all be lumped into the same category with a bunch of amateurs who are merely masquerading as authors? What should be the strategy for High Quality Indie Authors to separate themselves from the rest?

Cream of Tomato Soup With Mushroom Sandwiches

One of the fringe benefits of having an Italian ancestry is never developing a taste for instant food. A side benefit of being an Indie Author is to be able to write about the wonders of the Italian kitchen.

This tomato soup recipe pairs wonderfully with a mushroom and fontina cheese sandwich.

Ingredients for the soup

10 plum or 5 beefsteak tomatoes

2 Tablespoons of Olive Oil

3 Tablespoons of Olive Oil

1 large onion

1 carrot

3 Cups chicken or vegetable stock (never beef)

1 Tablespoon fresh thyme*

1 cup of cream

Salt & Pepper to taste

* Dried thyme is potent so be careful if you substitute. Just add a pinch and adjust as necessary.

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Step 1: Quarter the tomatoes and remove the seeds. Toss the tomatoes in olive oil, salt, and pepper. Place in a 325 degree oven for 20-25 minutes.

Step 2: Heat the 3 Tablespoons of olive oil in your soup pot and cook the carrot and onion.

Step 3: When the onion and carrot are soft (not browned), add the stock and thyme.

Step 4: Add the roasted tomatoes, and any other juices into soup pot. Let the flavors mingle for a minute or two, then blend (use a blender, food processor, or immersion blender) to a fine consistency.

*Steps 1-4 can be done ahead of time.

Step 5: Bring the soup back to a simmer. Remove from heat and add the cream. Return to heat to keep warm until serving

This should yield 4 crocs of soup.

Ingredients for the Mushroom and Fontina Sandwiches

2 Tablespoons of olive oil

1 Pat of butter

2 Tablespoons of melted butter

½ pound of mushrooms

1 teaspoon of sage

Sliced bread

½ cup grated fontina cheese

Salt & Pepper to taste

Step 1: Slice the mushrooms* and sautée in the olive oil, pat of butter, sage, and salt and pepper until brown.

Step 2: Brush the bread olive oil and melted butter and toast in a dry pan. Remove and brush the untoasted side.

Step 3: Build the sandwich with the mushrooms and grated fontina cheese. Place the sandwiches into the dry pan to toast the outside and melt the cheese in the same process. You can press the sandwiches a bit with a metal spatula

*Remember to either rinse or clean the mushrooms with a tea towel.

Final Step: Buon Apetitto!