Call Me

I love it when editors call. Some editors call because they want a woman’s perspective on my hobby—aviation. Only six percent of pilots are women, so I’m kind of a novelty. Some editors call for reprints on essays or articles that made them laugh. Some editors call because they want an article on a topic a staffer doesn’t have time to write. In 2003 a call came from an editor representing a magazine that I’d never written for, nor queried. He explained that he was preparing the special annual edition of WaterFlying magazine for the spring and would I consider writing an article on Jack Brown’s Seaplane Base in Winter Haven, Florida? The edition would feature seaplane bases and schools around the world. Okay, so this editor called because he needed a writer in Winter Haven. When asked how he learned about me, he said he’d picked up my business card from a writing colleague who could not accept the assignment. Okay, so I’m the SECOND choice, but not too proud to accept a hand-me-down. He offered $500. I knew the place well enough to avoid the second pot of coffee of the day. I knew the people, like the Japanese pilots who gathered on the back porch to photograph alligators, and the instructor Rennie who wrote THE book on seaplane training. The owner, Jon Brown, lived on my block. I knew the myths and legends and history of the base that was, coincidentally, celebrating its 40th year of operation. Familiar and newsworthy, this place taught stick and rudder flying in cloth-covered, slow-moving aircraft. This place humbled Air Force fighter pilots and thrilled private pilots. Brown’s Seaplane Base sat on the lakeside edge of the Winter Haven airport. It was where I learned to fly. As one of the few, the cheap and the brave who learned to fly a land plane at a seaplane base, this story felt like mine to tell. The editor didn’t care that I had never taken a lesson in a seaplane. He wanted me to capture the people and the place. Astronauts, celebrities and foreign pilots learned to fly seaplanes at Brown’s. Commander Kenneth Bowersox emailed from the International Space Station to his favorite instructor—at Brown’s. The fraternity of instructors at Brown’s connected seaplane pilots from around the globe and many dropped in for coffee and storytelling. Brown’s appeared in the credits of movies. On a trip to Alaska, my husband and I signed up for a seaplane ride over a glacier. The pilot had taught at Brown’s. Who could call such a fun assignment work? The gang gave an odd mix of reactions when interviewed since they knew me as a pilot and friend instead of as a writer. Somewhere between “spell my name right” and “is this on the record?” they shared their passion for the base. The instructors described the “Armstrong” starter on the J3-Cub as I dutifully jotted notes. It was only later when I saw them hand-prop the cub that I knew I’d been had. The dears. These are the same guys who tried to explain to me the tradition of cutting out the back of a shirt when someone solos. For women, they said straight-faced, they cut out the front. After the article appeared in WaterFlying magazine the gang at Brown’s gave me their sign of approval—they asked when the next article would be published. They, too, liked seeing their names in print (anywhere but the Post Office). I queried Pipers magazine because the seaplane base relied on Piper aircraft for 40 years of training. Pipers gladly bought the reprint. With guilty pleasure, I cashed the checks. After these articles were published, hurricanes Charley, Frances and Jeanne all passed within fifteen miles of Brown’s Seaplane Base. Frances took off the roof. Frances is also the name of the owner’s wife. Do you think I’ll let this aviation news pass without reporting on it? I’ve done the background research, I have the clips to show about the base. Lemme see. Now which aviation magazine would pay the best for such a story? Call me shameless, call me published. Call me if you’re an editor. __________________________ Joni M. Fisher, author of South of Justice, is a writer and an instrument-rated private pilot who lives in Central Florida and North Carolina. She is a reporter for General Aviation News when she isn’t working on her Compass Crimes Series. See her website: www.jonimfisher.com.

Writing an Article or Blog

Writing an article or blog for publication involves selecting a topic, narrowing the topic, gathering research, perhaps interviewing content experts, and then finally writing a draft. Think of each article, essay, or blog as exploring an idea. An idea is a topic or subject combined with an approach or slant. Find the idea that matters to you to pursue and develop. For example, if the theme or topic or subject of your writing is music, then the slant or approach to the topic could be “How to Compose Music with an iPad.”

ideaDevelop a statement that captures your story idea in 25 words. Post this where you can see it to keep your focus. Find the fresh perspective or slant or attitude toward this subject. Target your ideal readership by demographics (age, education, location, income, experiences). Why should this target reader want to read your article?

Develop a headline and subhead.

Write your grabber lead sentence and keep it short, 8 to 15 words. Put the grabber fact or quote first. In journalism, this grabber is called a hook. Yes, as in fishing. You have to hook the reader to get him to read your article. Of all the reading material out there, why should the reader choose yours? Make it compelling, weird, funny, or deeply true to draw in the reader to whom your story should matter.

Develop your main points and state them at the top of clean pages. Jot facts, ideas, and examples to support the statement and so on for each page’s main point. List experts, sources for more research, myths and misconceptions about this issue, scripture or other references related to each main point.

Organize the structure or layout of the whole piece. What is the logical order of the main points? Which order will deliver the smoothest flow? Chronological? Outside to inside? Bigger to smaller? General to specific?

Write. Flesh out each main point. Keep sidebars in mind. What is the take-away value from each of these points? Think relevance and practicality for the particular readership of your targeted publication. Keep notes on how the article can be refocused for other readerships.

Step away from the desk. Go work on a different project. Come back later and read the article like a reader, fresh and objective. Trim excess. Readers are busy people, so show you value their time.

Edit, rearrange, delete, refine and hone everything to the focus of the piece. Read it aloud into a tape recorder. Listen to it. Polish it.

NOTICE THE ADVERTIZERS

Is there any way to tie their products or business into the story? Quote one of their experts? Don’t use them just to drop their name, but why pass up a willing source, a source that already ties itself to this publication? Do not use the advertiser or sponsor in a bad light or the article will get tossed or heavily edited. Publishing is a business, so respect the publisher’s business interests. The publisher is not going to bite the hand that feeds it. Nor should you.

Go deep into your topic to build a compelling read. Craft it like a story so it flows smoothly and is easy to follow.

Tom French, a journalist for the St. Petersburg Times, won a Pulitzer Prize for documenting the changes between his generation and another generation of students in high school. The series of articles he wrote for the St. Petersburg Times became the basis of his book South of Heaven: Welcome to High School at the End of the Twentieth Century. He took the facts, the people and the situation and told it like a story, using skills of fiction writing to present non-fiction.

When submitting your article or story, break the article into subheadings to make the editor’s work easier. Be sure to include sidebar information, such as statistics, facts, addresses for more information, national hotlines, or associations related to the topic of the article. Include a bibliography of sources to help the fact-checker verify every fact in the article.

Include a bionote (a one or two sentence description of you tied to the article) that includes your website or credentials. Most authors also include the title of their most recent book, especially if it relates to the topic of the article. The bionote generally appears at the beginning or end of an article to tell the reader something about the author of the piece. Here is an example bionote I used for a flying magazine at the end of a feature article on Jack Brown’s Seaplane Base: Joni M. Fisher is a journalist and instrument-rated private pilot who learned to fly land planes at Brown’s Seaplane Base in 1996. Contact her through www.jonimfisher.com.

FACTORS TO CONSIDER

TIME

What is the history of this topic, this person, this place? What is the historical perspective? What legends and myths are connected to this place? Where is the future headed? Extrapolate the trends and their potential impact. Who is predicting the future of this place, this topic, this technology? What does the man on the street believe? History has flavor.

SCOPE

Quantity, locale, diversity and intensity. How big is this anyway? Does the story reach beyond the local to the regional to the national to the global? Does it affect only one industry? How many different ways does this event, this news affect others? (Shutting down one major shipping port in the U.S. causes what?) How deeply does this news affect people’s lives? Does it affect the CEO and the hourly worker the same? Does it affect the elderly the same as toddlers?

VARIETY

Seek sources at different sides of an issue, but also at different levels of involvement. The academic may be an expert, but how much hands-on experience does he have? In proving a point, use different kinds of proofs. Facts, testimonials, quotes from experts blended together make a stronger point than three quotes from three experts or just listing fact after fact. Even if they all say the same thing, they say it in different ways so the repetition drives the point deeper home.

MOVEMENT

Can this story unfold from development to impact to reaction? Movement can grow from alternating opposites (like changing the focal length of a camera). Abstract/concrete, general/particular, broad view to personal example—shift the reader’s focus. What is the big picture and the telling detail? Take the reader into the story.

VOICE

Keep it as conversational as possible. Showing off your vocabulary will distance you from your readers. Write in the clearest way possible, as if you are writing to your best friend. Even if you are the world’s leading expert on the topic, you won’t reach people if you preach or dictate to them. Show, don’t tell. If your article seeks to convince people to take action, then do so with facts, testimonials, objective information. Write with honesty and heart and your readers will appreciate it even if they disagree with you.

Always, always satisfy the reader’s question—Why should I care about this? Make the article worth the reader’s time and energy. Pack it with solid value.

To read more articles like this, go to www.jonimfisher.com.

No TV Week 19

This week TV will not be a temptation because I will be occupied judging two national writing contests: The Daphne du Maurier Award for Excellence in Mystery/Suspense and the Tampa Area Romance Authors Contest. I am a first-round judge in these contests and a category coordinator for one. Writing contests help hone an aspiring author’s skills and provide bragging rights to winners. It’s been a long week of great reading and no TV.

Writing is such a solitary endeavor that writers crave feedback. For the most successful authors the feedback comes in long lines of readers seeking autographs at conferences and in big fat royalty checks. Feedback also comes through Goodreads reviews, Amazon reviews, newspaper and magazine reviews, and the joy of seeing a stranger carrying one of your books to the beach or through an airport. I suppose a similar joy would be for a musician to hear her song on the radio. stack of booksSometimes feedback will come from out of the blue.

After my airplane had repairs done on the radio system, a mechanic wiped off his hands and handed me the key with a bit of advice–he told me my novel had a typo in the second chapter. It took me a moment to process what he was talking about, because my book had just been published a week earlier. Even my mother hadn’t read it yet. I resisted the urge to hug him, but thanked him for buying my book.

Next, I dashed home, made the correction and uploaded the eBook again to Amazon. The majority of the feedback new writers receive comes from the critiques of family, friends, and colleagues. These can be harrowing, confusing critiques because while readers know what they like and don’t like, they often cannot articulate the specifics. One relative will say there is too much dialogue, another will say it needs more. Whereas a reader might say, “the ending ran too long.” Another writer is more likely to pinpoint that a scene is misplaced and would work better before the climax of the story. So contests serve that rarely-met need to get objective, detailed critiques with comments inside the body of the story.

And yes, contests also provide huge validation and bragging rights for finalists and winners. Beta readers, critique partners and agents provide feedback as well. In the case of critiques it is far easier to give than to receive. We can so easily spot the blunders, gaffs, and typos in someone else’s story, yet we struggle to see our own. A totally honest critique from one adult to another is worth years of wasted effort editing and rewriting. It takes courage and honesty to take a critique. That first time on that first big project any critique might feel like someone is calling your newborn ugly.

After deep breaths, a serious writer learns to listen, take notes, and consider how to use that critique to improve the story. Writers groups offer critique groups, but sadly, not all groups are created equal. Dare I say there are writers groups filled with hobbyist writers, dabblers, avid readers who don’t write, and folks who are exploring the idea of being a writer. You can generally spot them when they say they don’t read much, but they want to write a novel over the weekend. Others corner published authors with offers like, “I have this amazing story idea. How about if you write it and we split the royalties?” To such “writers” I explain the purpose and fees of ghostwriters.

Finding a group of serious career-minded writers usually entails joining a national organization. For a list of the largest ones, click on WRITER’S ORGANIZATIONS. Writer’s conferences can hone a writer’s skills through workshops and lectures and networking, and remind writers that there are others out there at the same skill level. Team up! The buddy system helps us slog through the hard times. So to writers, I say keep creating. To readers I say, thank you for turning off your TV once in a while. Thank you for supporting writers by buying books in any format. And thank you for your feedback, your reviews, and your encouragement.

Giving Thanks to Mrs. Cline

Mrs ClineBless you, Mrs. Margaret Cline, wherever you are for being an encouraging, brilliant English teacher from Dunedin High School in Dunedin, Florida. A grammar stickler, Mrs. Cline took me in after I was tossed from another English class for arguing with the teacher who insisted that y’all was a valid second-person plural pronoun. Egad.

While sorting through a file cabinet of old essays, I came upon this one from her class written umpteen years ago. Wanted to share it with the world as a testament to Mrs. Clline’s kindness and generous spirit.

This essay later served as the basis for a performance that put me in the winner’s circle of my high school talent show.

Snoring Oak

When Mrs. Cline reads poetry in class, she challenges us to close our eyes and imagine seeing life from a different perspective. Her voice had a lulling rhythm to it and the next thing I knew I was standing in a forest.

I tried to walk, couldn’t and looked down to see what my feet were stuck in and I saw roots and bark. No kidding. I was a tree. Okay, so I’ve found that different perspective my teacher talked about. About the time it got boring a little dog wandered over to me. And hey, no, stop that, ewwww. Do I look like I need watering you little fleabag? How disgusting. I didn’t feel right until the next rain. Guess that’s what the saying means about feeling right as rain. Looking around I was as tall as the five-year-old oak in the back yard. Oak is cool, much better than being a whiner like Willow. Weep, weep, weep. She’s a one-tree pity party day and night.

One day two kids climbed up in my arms and the boy told a joke.

He said in a squeaky voice, “knock, knock.”

The girl said, “Who’s there?”

So the boy said, “Ida.”

“Ida who?”

Then the boy blurted out, “Ida like to kiss you” and then he got her in a lip lock.

She slapped him off the branch and called him Booger. Well, Booger didn’t seem to mind the slap so much because he stayed to help her down and off they went.

For seasons after that the other trees called me Love Nest, then one autumn Booger came back talking to himself. His voice was deeper and he had hair on his face, but it was him. He walked right up to me and cut a heart and initials on my side. A tattoo at my age? My mother would kill me, but then I looked around and realized I was pretty much on my own. That was terribly sad. The crows aggravated my depression when a huge flock of them landed on me and held a screech-off contest and dropped you know what on me. Hey, put your fertilizer on the ground, I said, but I guess I don’t speak bird because they kept at it all day.

Near dusk that little dog approached me. Yeah, like my day couldn’t get worse with the noise and the feathers and the bird poop, but the dog did the strangest thing, charging and leaping up my side and sliding down with his nails. He did it three times before he got some real traction on my mossy side and oooooooh that felt so good when he dug into that moss. Suddenly, he got really barking mad. Would you believe the whole flock thrashed out of my upper branches like the dog was going to get them? What birdbrains and what a good little doggie. Yeah, okay, take a victory pee, you earned it. Whatever.

Booger returned with Slap to show her my tattoo. Guess Slap liked it because she kissed him which led to cuddling which was followed by Booger gathering bright red and pumpkin orange leaves for Slap. She held them up to the sun and smiled. The colors were awesome, so I looked around to see which oak dropped them. I looked up into a rainbow of gold, red and orange that outnumbered the greens and browns, discovering these colors were mine. It was a short-lived glory because they fell off leaving me bare-bark naked.

Eventually, of course, everyone else was bare too which made it less embarrassing, everyone, that is, except a Fir tree to the north. There he was still fully green after first snowfall. He bragged about his stamina, completely ignoring the fact that he shed all year. Yeah, buddy, like that layer of needles just happened to blow in and land under you. Willow told me I was being cruel then she wept about it. Sure, I felt bad about it, but later that winter when the guys with the chain saw came and cut him down I felt truly horrible. After that nightmarish sound stopped and Fir fell to the ground, I told him I was sorry I needled him. He laughed. Willow forgave me.

By spring I was almost as tall as the other trees and sprouted more leaves with each shower. Summer brought back Booger and Slap wheeling a small cart with a tiny screamer in it. Looked just like a one-tooth version of Booger. Seeing little Booger made me sad. I whispered that I wanted to know where I came from. The elm nudged me with a limb and told me to look to the north. There beyond the Fir stump was a mammoth oak tree, broad and sturdy like you could pick up the earth using it as a handle. The elm explained that the giant oak was the granddaddy of all the oaks in this forest and that I came from him or one of the other oaks that had came from him. We were all related.

That knowledge changed my view of life. Even squirrels don’t bother me since I calculated that they planted more of my acorns than they ate. Real joy came when we trees noticed little bristly sticks poking up through the ground around Fir’s stump. The forest filled with joyful leaf-clapping laughter.

I felt a tugging on my shoulder and wondered if Booger was putting up a rope swing for his little screamer. It was Mrs. Cline’s hand.

“Have you been paying attention to the poem?”

It never pays to lie to a woman who looks over her glasses at you. The truth blurted out. “No, but I have been thinking about seeing things from the perspective of a tree.”

“A tree?” Her eyebrows rose and she gave me that look she gives to poor excuses. She said, “You can use that inspiration for tomorrow’s writing assignment.”

So I did. Ta da.

And I earned an A.

Bless you, Mrs. Cline. Great teachers like you are heros, unsung, underpaid heros. May God richly reward you for your generous, loving kindness. You helped me survive high school.

Dialogue: When Characters Talk the Talk

Mounted Police Officer and HorseRemember the last time you read dialogue and it didn’t sound genuine? Something was off, odd or not quite believable? Perhaps the wording did not suit the character. For example, unless a man is a decorator, painter or artist, he won’t point to a color and call it sage. In general, men tend to label colors by the eight colors found in the Crayola crayon set they used in kindergarten. Oh, and by the way, more men than women are colorblind, so some men are even more limited in their ability to describe colors. So when a character doesn’t sound believable, often the writer failed to conduct enough research for the character to talk the talk.

The reader wants to fall into the story, to be transported into a different world, to experience things not readily available in her life, whether it is a world of horror, danger, mystery, romance or adventure. It’s up to you to make sure your characters realistically represent their profession, trade, hobby or craft. If your English butler talks like your rural American firefighter, then it’s time to dig deeper.

GATHER BASIC INFORMATION

If your story involves characters in a specific career, then research it. You can learn basic information about any legal job from the Occupational Outlook Handbook, compiled by the U.S. Bureau of Labor and Statistics, at http://www.bls.gov/oco/ . For hundreds of different types of jobs, the Occupational Outlook Handbook describes: the training and education needed, earnings, expected job prospects, what workers do on the job, and working conditions. In addition, the Handbook gives job search tips, links to state job markets and more. Armed with the basics, you can then learn more about how your character speaks.

DO FIELD WORK

If at all possible, go to places where your character would go.  Find a friend or relative who does this kind of job. Listen to how they speak and what they say. At the end of their work day, what hurts? Hands, head, feet, back, ears, eyes? If your hero is a trucker, go eat at truck stops and listen. What do they talk about? How do they express themselves? What specialized vocabulary do they use? Jot down unfamiliar terms and words to look up later. What are the trends and technology that have changed their job over the years? Prepare questions and offer to buy a few of them lunch so you can ask about their work. People rarely turn down the chance to talk about themselves. Many will share stories about their life. Find one who can serve as your go-to expert.

COMPOSE A LIST OF INTERVIEW QUESTIONS

What more do you need to know about your character’s type of work? Write factual questions, to get information, to open discussion. Write personal questions, to elicit anecdotes, to reveal personality and character. Examples: “What’s the most unusual case you’ve ever had?” “What other careers interest you?” “What hobbies do you enjoy?” “What would you like people to know about your profession?” and “What myths and misconceptions do people have about what you do?”

FIND AN EXPERT

If you can find an expert in the field to interview, then do it.

If your character’s career is an unusual profession (airtraffic controller, coroner, animal trainer, circus performer, etc), then contact the publicity representative for an organization of the profession. Another source for locating experts on a topic is ProfNet or Professors Network. This free service is used by journalists worldwide to locate public information officers in government, business and academia. Send in your request to profnet@vyne.com and be sure to state your purpose for the information.

CONDUCT AN INTERVIEW

In person interviews work best, but phone interviews can also work. Ask for permission to record the interview, if you plan to record it. I write for magazines, so I tell subjects that I flunked shorthand and would like to record the interview so I can quote them accurately. The high-paying magazines require a written transcript of interviews, so I use that reason, but let the subject know why you are interviewing him and how long the interview will take. Time yourself and stick to the time limit you gave.

When I interview subjects, I always ask whom they would recommend for me to talk to for more information. I also ask if I can email with more questions if I need to. Most folks agree to follow-up questions. When my article is published or reprinted, I always send a copy to my interview source with a thank-you note. So far, I haven’t published a novel, but I would gladly name names of people who helped me in the front of the book and send them a copy with a thank-you note.

VET YOUR MANUSCRIPT

Though this isn’t done in newspaper or magazine work, you can ask your source to read your book and tell you if the behavior and dialogue rings true. You are not handing control of the story to the expert, but gaining his opinion. It could prevent a simple goof up. I once had an interview subject tell me he was going to use the Armstrong starter on his seaplane.  When he demonstrated it, I realized he meant he was going to hand prop the plane. If I had published that the Piper Cub used an Armstrong starter, every pilot reading it would have laughed at my gullibility. I vetted the article with my husband, who has a seaplane rating. He alerted me to the joke. I kept the Armstrong starter in the article, but used it to show the rogue nature of seaplane pilots.

Because I am working on a suspense trilogy with an FBI agent hero, I discovered that manuscripts, plays, and screenplays that involve characters who work for the FBI, can be reviewed by the Investigative Publicity and Public Affairs Unit of the FBI to ensure an accurate portrayal of the FBI. A sign-off (showing that the manuscript has been vetted) from this unit would be helpful for marketing. This unit prioritizes work based on the likelihood of publication, so be sure to note if the manuscript is under contract with a publisher or producer.

FBI Headquarters

Publicity and Public Affairs Unit, Room 7257

935 Pennsylvania Avenue N.W.

Washington, D.C. 20535

(202) 324-3000

Website: www.fbi.gov.

Doing all this work to make the character dialogue sound real might seem extreme, but the top fiction writers create believable characters because they either have familiarity with the character’s work or they have conducted thorough research. Though she probably never worked as a coroner, Tess Gerritsen can draw on her medical degree to create the character Maura Isles. If you want your dialogue to ring true, to reveal deep character, first you have to research what makes your characters who they are. Get to know them so well that you can tell when they are walking the walk and talking the talk.

_____

This article first appeared on the SavvyAuthors.com website. They are revamping their website, so I am posting it again to keep it available.

Dialogue: Abused and Misused

Angry, Frustrated WomanPeople recognize terrible dialogue when they hear it in movies, or on television or read it in books. It comes off wooden, robotic, confusing, lecturing, boring or in some way artificial sounding. Examples abound in B-grade movies, comic books, soap operas, and probably in the last book you refused to continue reading. Don’t be that writer.

Dialogue is NOT conversation put on paper.

Imagine that instead of writing a novel, you are writing a play or a screenplay. By their nature, these are dialogue-driven works and as such, soar or sink by the quality of the spoken interaction between the characters. The most common blunder in writing dialogue comes from trying to reproduce normal conversation. I dare you to go record random conversation at the mall and then transcribe it. It is gibberish. Stammering, unfinished sentences that leave the listener hanging on a word, interruptions, rambling, redundancies, slang, misuse of language—these are the hallmarks of normal conversation.

Think of dialogue as value-added, condensed, poetic, crafted simulations of conversation.

Learning how to craft dialogue well matters because up to half of a novel is dialogue.

In general, in literary fiction, the ratio of narrative description and dialogue runs low on dialogue. Literary fiction tends to present story through a character’s inner life, with longer sentences and longer paragraphs that emphasize the beauty of language and imagery, rather than on the action of the story. When a story encompasses a decades-long history, it demands the use of narrative to summarize, interpret and present the events within. Examples: Faulkner, Dickens, Kingsolver, Tolstoy, and Michener.

In commercial fiction, or genre fiction, the ratio of narrative to dialogue runs closer to 50/50. Readers of commercial fiction prefer the immediacy of experiencing the story over the look-back-at-one’s-life kind of story. Because of the influence of television and movies, reader’s attention span has grown shorter and this, too, affects the narrative/dialogue ratio. With almost half their story presented through dialogue, genre fiction writers benefit from developing this aspect of their craft. Examples: Elmore Leonard, Irwin Shaw, Mark Twain, Richard Price, and Tobias Wolff.

Dreadful dialogue comes from using dialogue when narrative or exposition would work better.

When writers use dialogue to deliver backstory, present flashbacks, to reveal character’s thoughts and feelings, or to explain complex issues, history, or technical information, the dialogue suffers. It’s like a carpenter using a wrench to hammer in a nail. Sure, it can be done, but why work so hard with the wrong tool for the job?

Delivering backstory through dialogue is storytelling within a story. Generally, anything longer than three consecutive lines of speech by one character comes off as lecturing, so, even if your character is supposed to be a bore, demonstrate it once, then move on. Backstory should be sprinkled, not shoveled. Can you spread out the delivery of the details of backstory for revelations?

Examine your reasons for telling backstory through dialogue. Why is one character telling so much to another character? Would it be more dramatic and interesting to have the other character discover this information in bits and pieces and then confront the ‘telling’ character for more? Allow the listening character to challenge the teller to break up the lecture.

Presenting flashbacks through dialogue is also tricky. Flashbacks are internal. Is the flashback worth stopping the flow of action? When presented in movies, they can begin with a voice-over along the lines of “I remember that morning twelve years ago when I first met Mr. Adams….” The best use of a flashback is when the character has reached a point of utter confusion or frustration and he has to make a decision. To make that decision, he will think about things from his past for clues and answers. Think of a flashback as a question answered by memory. For example, the character asks himself—How on earth did I end up in this situation? When the character recalls the decisions he made that led to his current state, he reaches the point of understanding, which answers his question, and the flashback is over. He can then apply this insight to the present situation.

Revealing a character’s thoughts and feelings through dialogue seems artificial because thoughts and feelings are internal. Who is going to declare absolutely honest thoughts and feelings with others in a conversation? Okay, children do, but unless your character is a child, it could be ‘oversharing’. Leave that stuff for the social networking souls who post “Hi, brushed my teeth today. Sure didn’t want to go to class, but have a quiz in history class I have to take.” You might as well shoot your reader to put him out of his misery. There must be a compelling reason for a character to share personal thoughts and feelings. If such sharing is necessary for the story, keep it brief and dramatic, such as in a fight scene or in a highly dramatic moment. The exception for a character sharing his thoughts with another would be two or more people brainstorming together, or in group therapy, but even then, keep it brief.

Using dialogue to explain complex issues, history or technical information is a sure-fire way to drive the reader away. Unless you can make this dialogue an argument, don’t use dialogue. It does not sound natural to use dialogue to explain complex issues or technical information because long stretches of speech are lectures. If the reader needs to know the time, don’t tell him how to build a clock. Narrative summary works best here.

If a dialogue scene in your manuscript is there to deliver backstory, present flashback, reveal character’s thoughts and feelings or explain something, then change the scene to exposition.

Dialogue is designed to perform these functions:

  • Advance the plot. The inciting incident, key turning points, the climax and other important emotional moments have the greatest impact when the events unfold in front of the reader.
  • Build to a change in a relationship, a power shift, or a turning point in the action. Make the talk between characters matter. If the talk does not cause a change or mark a change, then why is it in the story?
  • Create immediacy. The reader experiences the conversation in real time, along with the characters. This allows the reader to feel part of the story by drawing her into the experience.
  • Reveal character. How a character expresses himself changes depending on who he is interacting with—spouse, child, boss, colleague, or adversary. Characters talk differently when under stress or in danger. A person’s character is tested when having to choose between doing the right thing and doing the easy thing.
  • Set the mood to create an emotional impact on the reader. It is better to make the reader cry than to make the characters cry. In dialogue, conversations can be elevated above the commonplace because the writer can craft the dialogue with imagery and precision. Characters can speak bolder, wittier and more insightfully than real people. Brief statements hold the greatest impact.
  • Begin or heighten conflict. It is human nature to desire to witness the action rather than hear about it second hand. If the conversation does not affect the relationship of the characters involved in it, then why is this conversation being played out for the reader? Show the fight scene.
  • Create suspense. The reader knows more than the characters because the reader is privy to all the conversations and actions. Stimulate the reader’s curiosity, raise questions. Characters lie and misunderstand one another in dialogue. The reader enjoys sorting out the liars from the truthful.
  • Move action along swiftly. When the reader goes down the page quickly, it gives the feel of fast action. Dialogue increases the pacing of any scene because things happen when characters meet face to face.
  • Reveal tidbits of the past. Use it like Hansel and Gretel, dropping crumbs to leave a trail. Lead the reader along.

Great dialogue does more than one of these functions at the same time. Make sure the dialogue carries its weight—that it does double or triple duty in the scene. Read your dialogue scene out loud into a recorder. When you play it back, can you hear clunky phrases? Are you gasping for breath in long sentences? Revise. Polish. Shorten.

You can craft dialogue that resonates with readers long after they put down the book. It takes effort, insight and aiming for deep character to make your dialogue memorable.

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This article first appeared on the SavvyAuthors.com website. They are revamping the site so I am posting this article here to keep it available.