We’ve all slogged through novels with boring, predictable, or chit-chat dialogue. In many genres, dialogue makes up half of the novel, so dialogue can make or break your bond with readers. You can learn how to craft purposeful, quotable dialogue, by discovering and applying techniques used by screenwriters and playwrights. The 4-week Crafting Memorable Dialogue Workshop offers ten practical lessons to apply immediately to your work in progress.
The lessons present: • discovering when and when not to use dialogue • infusing a scene with the right level of conflict • employing text and subtext • creating suspense • transforming the predictable • cutting to the chase • individualizing characters through speech markers • applying the stimulus/response pattern for clarity • using three types of tags to show goals, motivations, and conflict • and formatting and punctuating dialogue properly.
After teaching this popular workshop for ten years, I cut back on how often I offer it because of writing commitments. This will be the only time it’s available this year.
“The lessons were exactly what I needed to know and I can’t wait to go through my WIP (work in progress) and apply my new knowledge.” Debbie Curtis
“My eyes are
well and truly opened now. I shall read and reread your notes on dialogue.” Roseanne
“I love your teaching style and your charts are particularly helpful for quick reference.” Sharon Lightsey
Registration opens on July 22. The workshop is hosted by Romance Writers of America’s Online Chapter. The fee for non-members is a mere $ 15.
With 1 million books are published each year, how do readers find books by new authors like me? Discoverability. They can’t find what they can’t see. Word of mouth is always the best form of advertising. And may God bless my enthusiastic readers for reviewing my first two books on Amazon and Goodreads and all the social media platforms I don’t use or understand. These loyal readers have helped me get regular royalty checks from retailers in the U.S., Canada, Australia, and Japan. But still, with one million other books coming out each year and over 13 million already available, how do I help readers find my books? Marketing experts suggest a tagline can help.
I would rather get dental work than figure out the mysterious world of marketing. Advertising gets expensive quickly and I don’t know how to measure whether or not the ad worked. I’ve done Goodreads Giveaways, and Facebook ads. I’ve searched for popular reviewers/bloggers who like suspense stories. All the time spent clawing my way up the steep learning curve of marketing takes away from time spent writing. Hence, book three is a year late–so far–in the publishing cycle. Yes, yes. I should have written the whole series before publishing the first book. One hard ard lesson learned. Hindsight 20/20.
Then, David Ivester spoke at the Florida Writers Conference in Altamonte Springs. Okay, I didn’t stalk him, but I did attend his workshops and asked him lots of questions afterward. I confessed my hard-learned lessons and failures at marketing and he didn’t laugh. He cringed. We set up an appointment to review my website and to suggest steps for book three. I now have a publicist to guide me through the landmines of marketing. Please, keep this man in your prayers as he explains marketing to me in small, simple words.
While rewriting the last half of book three, I put his advice to work. David advised me to develop a tagline for my Compass Crimes Series. A tagline should evoke an emotional response, indicate the genre and tone of the book, create reader curiosity, and stick in the reader’s mind. North of the Killing Hand is a 107,000-word novel. South of Justice is a 96,000-word novel. The Compass Crimes Series features a crime, a strong woman protagonist, and characters who are prominent in one book appear in minor roles in the other books. The West book is in development and the East book is a bare outline. In all, the series will have 390,000 to 400,000 words.
“Distill the tagline down to 10 words,” David says. Ten. Words. I’d rather get a root canal, thanks.
Having wrestled with scene cards, cork boards, Post-It Notes and other tools to organize a story, I found one that works for me. In the interest of full-disclosure, I am a plotter and a visual learner. Partly this storyboard concept comes from the four-act structure, part of it comes from my infatuation with crime investigation boards shown on television. (Please don’t say detectives don’t use these. I want to believe…)
Using an easel stand and the largest magnetic marker board that my husband will abide, I plot using 4 X 6 index cards–one scene summary per card. The card names the point-of-view character, the setting, the character’s goal, motivation, and the conflict, ending with the character’s goal for the next scene. When plotting the story structure, I usually prepare the scenes in chronological order. Later, I arrange them in the order of telling to structure the story for greater impact and pacing. For example, rather than front load the story with events that happen in a character’s childhood, I move those scenes later in the story as flashback or backstory.
The template on the left describes what goes on the card. On the right is an example.
I use the back of the cards to jot important details. Say, the main character is transitioning through the five stages of grief [denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance], then I mark on the back of the card which stage the character is in. This reminds me how to shape the character’s state of mind and perspective of the world during that stage.
While writing the first draft, scenes combine into chapters. In a romance story one scene could be told from the woman’s point of view, and another from the man’s to create a chapter. Even if the action is simultaneous, they will appear as separate scenes, one following the other.
These scene cards stick magnetically on the story board along the timeline (a line drawn horizontally across the middle of the board). The scenes involving the antagonist appear above the timeline, protagonist’s below. This helps me track who is doing what and when. I watch for gaps in action, because neither the antagonist nor the protagonist should disappear from the story for too long. The protagonist’s scenes are linked by cause and effect or scene and sequel, like dominoes they follow a logical flow of action. Ditto for the antagonist. Using magnetically attached cards makes moving them easy. This encourages creativity.
By separating the story lines of the protagonist (hero) and the antagonist (villain), I can easily see if one character’s scenes dominate the story. Whichever character has the most point of view scenes becomes the focus of the story. Who’s story is this? If the villain has more scenes then the story becomes his, an anti-hero story. Which character do you want the reader to cheer for? Then be sure that character has the most time with the reader.
To my colleagues who write by the seat of their pants–those freaks of mental agility who do all this in their heads–let’s agree that readers don’t care how we produce great stories. All the reader sees is the final result. To my colleagues who buy fancy plotting software, or stick Post-It Notes on walls, may you find a way to efficiently plot so you can spend more time writing and editing. For anyone interested, here is a PDF example: Plotting with storyboard Enjoy!
Once the urge strikes to compose a novel, I draft a rough outline and launch into research. For my third novel this meant learning about boats–specifically Trawlers. Part of the story takes place on a trawler, so I needed to understand how they operate, navigate, smell, sound, look, and where to hide a body on one.
Using online research helps only up to a certain point. Cost, size, models, speed, and other performance facts about boats are readily available online. To fully capture the experience of being on such a boat, my BFF and her husband invited me to ride along. Meet hosts Caryn and Paul Frink. (South of Justice, book 1 of the Compass Crimes series, is dedicated in part to my BFF.)
Trawler Hosts Caryn and Paul Frink
For five days and four nights, I bunked in their guest cabin. The perfect hosts, they introduced me to life aboard the Seeker, a 37-foot, 22,600 pound, diesel-powered Nordic Tug 37. Aboard the Seeker, I learned the difference between seawater, fresh water, grey water, and black water (eeew). Captain Paul also explained the navigation equipment, maps, and the basic systems that keep the boat running smoothly whether powered by the engine or powered by the giant yellow power cable used while docked.
There are many key differences between piloting a boat and piloting an aircraft. The boating maps are huuuuge and very detailed. Navigating canals and waterways means watching for red and green signs with numbers, called markers. The markers guide boats through the deeper areas so boats don’t run aground. “Red, right, return,” became my mantra. Binoculars in hand, I tried to help find the markers as the horizon pitched up and down. The Seeker chugged along at a top speed of 8 knots. The Cessna 210 I fly cruises at about 175 knots, so yeah, boating is slower. More leisurely.
The trip began in Naples, Florida at the city dock made of wood. At lunch in Tin City, we saw a pelican try to swallow a beer can. Other pelicans even tried to steal it from him. Not the brightest creatures. I think they’ve become accustomed to human handouts. We traveled an inner passage of waterways south to Marco Island which had a floating cement dock. From there we headed into the Ten Thousand Islands between Marco Island and Everglades City.
The constant rocking meant learning how to walk differently. At first, I staggered like a drunk, but by the end of the week walking around became easier and less bruising. Paul and Caryn helped me resolve a few key issues with the plot of my next book. It involves a kidnapping, a trawler, and a navy brat who refuses to be a victim.
Not only did my hosts help me find the perfect spot to use in my book, but they took me there and we anchored overnight. The term ‘dead calm’ has new meaning for me. We found a remote spot that turned pitch black at night. The only sound at night was the glub-blub of water against the hull. Creepy quiet. It would have been peaceful if I had not been thinking about the book. Eventually, the boat rocked me to sleep.
Since we “crossed our own wake” on a mini loop, Caryn dubbed me a mini-looper. There is an entire society of Loopers, complete with a newsletter, blogs, and harbor hosts. They too, will play a part in the third book in the Compass Crimes–West of Famous.
The best part of the trip was spending time with Caryn, my dearest childhood friend. Thank you, Caryn and Paul, for putting up with a pesky stowaway who asked lots of questions and took notes and photos of all kinds of places. West of Famous is richer for this research.
Hubby calls it a vacation. I’m still calling it research. Ignore my tan.
As a career journalist, I had point of view thrashed out of me by professors, editors, and colleagues. “Unless you’re a columnist,” they’d say, “keep your point of view to yourself. Just report who, what, where, when, why, and how. Stick to the facts. Quote notable people from various sides of the issue and let the reader decide.” Right. Be objective, be ethically impartial. I silenced my point of view.
As an aspiring author, I had to rediscover the power of point of view and how to wield it in a story. Great stories embed the reader into the skin of the characters, to feel their pain, their joy, their fears, so readers can vicariously experience the story. Journalists Laura Lippman, Joan Didion, Hank Phillipi Ryan, Mark Twain, and Charles Dickens became successfully published authors, so it can be done.
To regain the ability to present a point of view, I started small—publishing essays. For a few years I wrote a column in my metropolitan Mensa group’s publication. Mostly humor, but a few touched on serious topics. Writing essays helped me find my voice and explore a point of view long suppressed.
During this training period, I read classics and best-selling modern fiction analytically. Oh, the power of point of view! Energized, inspired, and eager, I hammered out draft after draft of my Great American Novel, 96,000 words in later form. Next came the giant step of sharing this precious thing with outsiders, critique partners, my spouse, a few close reader pals.
They liked it, but…they couldn’t pinpoint what it lacked. They praised the dialogue, they loved the loveable characters and despised the antagonist, the setting was fine, and the pacing was fine. But. Shrugs.
Then Author John Foxjohn, a critique partner and former Army Ranger, said that I should show not tell. He said I needed to strip away the point of view filters. Wait. The what? Huh? He explained that I was telling things from the author’s viewpoint instead of showing them from the character’s view.
Point of view filters are signaled by sensory words, such as: thought, felt, saw, sensed, smelled, tasted, and heard.
For example, instead of writing from the author’s point of view: He thought Is that my little girl going on a date?
Write from the character’s point of view: Is that my little girl going on a date?
Strip away the point of view filter “thought” and simply write what the character is thinking. Instead of He wondered why she said that write Why did she say that?
Let’s do an example for the sense of touch. He felt tingling pain shoot up his arm.Tingling pain shot up his arm. See the difference? Which one seems natural and organic from deep inside the character? Which version seems to keep the reader at arm’s length from the experience?
And now an example from the sense of sight, the most overused sense in fiction. He could see three feral cats charging at him.Three feral cats charged at him. Think of this as the writer’s form of method acting. Get inside the character when writing. Write from the inside out. Stop labeling the sensations and describe them with such precise details that the reader understands without the label.
Use the details that evoke the sensation instead of naming the sensation. Instead of writing He sensed someone had been in his house while he was gone, show the reader the moved chair, the book opened on the table that was closed when he left. For example: He sensed he was not expected for dinner. That’s telling. How did he sense it? What specifically triggered that suspicion? Let the reader figure it out from a description of action or details. The hostess rushed to the table with a plate, glass, napkin, and silverware while other guests shifted their chairs.
Smell is the most powerful memory trigger and a sadly underused sense in fiction. Which is more evocative of memory? He smelled freshly baked brownies. Chocolate wafted from the kitchen beckoning him.
And lastly, the sensation of hearing. When tempted to write He heard the sound of gunfire and felt glass rain down, try Popopopop. Jake ducked under a table as glass shards rained inside the diner. Compare the following sentences. Phil heard church bells clang five times. The church bell clanged five times, reverberating off brick and pavement.
Developing the habit of showing instead of telling takes practice. Watch for the labels, those sensory point of view filter words: thought, felt, saw, sensed, smelled, tasted, and heard. Hunt them down and eliminate them. Your readers will thank you for it, because they will enjoy a closer you-are-there experience in your stories.
This single change to remove point of view filters raised my fiction writing to the next level. The last great change was narrowing the story from seven points of view to three. Thank you, dear blunt critique partners for insisting that more isn’t better. Better to dive deeper into a few points of view than dance on the surface with many.
The next level will be learning how to describe the sensations of an emotion instead of labeling the emotion—well, now that’s world-class writing. I’m off to study Ann Hood’s Creating Character Emotions and research how the masters do this. Yeah, okay. I’m also off to read marvelously written novels. Let’s call it research.
When writing teachers, agents, and editors plead with writers to “show don’t tell,” beginning writers have no clue what this means. No writer is born with such knowledge. I had heard “show don’t tell” in workshops and conferences, and I had read it in books. It was through Author John Foxjohn’s coaching that the lesson finally embedded itself in my brain. In the spirit of watch one, do one, teach one, I pass along this hard-learned lesson to you.
In fiction writing, showing is preferred over telling, because showing allows the reader to step into the character’s life to experience the story as if first-hand. Readers enjoy vicariously living in the story, seeing the world through fresh perspectives. In the finest fiction, showing immerses the reader deeply into the character’s thoughts, feelings, attitude, and skin. This is called deep point of view.
To craft this experience for the reader involves cutting away the barriers between the reader and the character by showing the reader how it feels to be the character. ‘Telling’ words, such as words that label feelings, separate the reader from the story by reminding the reader that he is reading about something instead of experiencing it.
Let’s examine the labeling words that indicate the writer is telling instead of showing.
SHOWING OR TELLING IN POINT OF VIEW
When revealing the point of view character’s thoughts, feelings and physical sensations, beware of using these telling words. The following examples present the telling words used to label the senses and feelings of the point-of-view character.
He thought (or he wondered) who died and made her boss.
Instead write what he thought or what he wondered. The reader is already in the character’s point of view, so drop the label and show his thought.
Who died and made her boss?
He felt (or he could feel) tingling pain shoot up his arm.
Tingling pain shot up his arm.
He saw (or he could see) the car veer toward him.
The car veered toward him.
He sensed (or he could sense) the hostess was not expecting him, because she brought out a place setting and hastily added it to the table.
The hostess brought out a place setting and hastily added it to the table.
He smelled (or he could smell) the acrid stench of burning hair assault him.
The acrid stench of burning hair assaulted him.
He heard (or he could hear) church bells clanging eight times.
Church bells clanged eight times.
He tasted (or could taste) smooth chocolate melt on his tongue.
Smooth chocolate melted on his tongue.
Notice how simple and direct the showing sentences are? They feel active and alive instead of being described at a distance. You can hunt for the telling words (sensory labels) in your manuscript through the FIND or SEARCH feature of your software. Root them out!
WHEN TELLING WORKS BEST
There are times when telling works better than showing.
When dialogue REPEATS information given earlier in the story, retelling it will bore the reader. On the second encounter of characters discussing the same stuff—summarize. The reader would have skipped over it anyway. However, if the retelling offers a peculiar slant or lie about the events then play it out for the reader so the reader sees the retelling as a lie or misrepresentation. Otherwise tell it in summary.
When the content of the dialogue would BORE the reader, then summarize. For example:
Dear Mrs. Klinghoffer wedged herself into the bus seat beside sixteen-year-old Kenny and described her gall bladder surgery for the entire two-hour trip to Boston.
No matter how important it is that Mrs. Klinghoffer spoke to Kenny, who needs to relive the details of that conversation? Yes, this is telling, but the reader will thank you for not showing the entire gall bladder monologue. This also holds true for describing large bridges of time or place between events. If all that happened between one scene and another is that the hero drove to work, have mercy on the reader and summarize with something like–Later, when he arrived home….
While the differences between telling and showing appear minor, these differences either keep the reader at arm’s length from the story, or lure him into the world you have created. Make magic.