Category Archives: dialogue in novels for writers

Tips for creating effective dialogue in your novels

“White Space”: What It Is and Why It Matters

Big dialogue bubble in a blue sky with a red question mark inside.Over at Writers in the Storm, an extremely useful writers’ site, Ellen Buikema touches on a topic I’ve seldom seen addressed in the many blogs I follow: how writers can use “white space” to make pages more inviting to readers. These pointers apply both to fiction and non-fiction (though, of course, there’s that anomaly, the academic article, with which I am very familiar and which I personally enjoyed practicing and responding to).

Maybe you need some white space now? Okay.

Paragraphing decisions and, as a comment mentioned, dialogue contribute to white space. I do notice, though, that too much white space can create a page that feels jumpy and encourages skimming rather than reading for nuance. I say this because I’ve just finished a book in which almost all the paragraphs were one or two lines with runs of short dialogue between. So I like Buikema’s response urging “balance in all things.”

Page 1 of King of the Roses in Adobe InDesign

I kinda like my balance here!

I find that I like books at both ends of that balance. Sarah Waters’ novels ask me to find my way through rich, dense detail, while many of my favorite mysteries, especially noir, choose the terse, keep-moving option.

What are your favorite examples of these choices?

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“Ah, That Was Easy!” — A Quick, Simple Trick to Make Your Quotes Stand Out – by Anastasia Chipelski…

Here’s a thoughtful discussion of an issue that confounds a lot of us: how to add “attribution” to quotations and dialogue. In other words, how to clarify who said what.
Fiction writers, I know, sometimes feel hemmed in by admonitions to stick with simple “says” and “said.” Anastasia Chipelski shares some thoughts on how to handle nonfiction attributions. Fiction writers can remember to use “action beats” to escape ponderous repetition of “said.”
“I’ll try to answer your questions.” Derek shifted in his chair. “If they’re not too hard.”
And exchanges between two people won’t need an attribution on every line.

On my other blog, collegecompositionweekly.com, I summarize articles from research journals. One rule I follow is always to attribute claims to the source, which prevents me from implicitly endorsing them as truth. So I rely on “argues,” “claims,” “contends,” etc. Sometimes I fall back on “writes” or “states,” which leave the claim in the source’s corner when he or she does seem to be offering a verifiable fact.

These decisions always take a lot of thought. I personally think colorful attributions should be used sparingly. Let the dialogue and the action do most of the work. Thanks to the Story Reading Ape, as always, for sharing a useful piece!

Chris The Story Reading Ape's Blog

on The Write Life:

As an editor, one of the first pieces of feedback I give to writers is to vary word choice and sentence structure. But there’s one place where I go in the complete opposite direction: quote attribution.

When I started managing a local alt-weekly five years ago, I inherited their style guide. I could change it, but I decided to give it a little test drive first.

A simple “subject says” is the best format for quote attribution

That style guide recommended that writers almost exclusively use a simple “subject says” format to attribute quotes. I bristled a little. Taking all the wonderful varied ways to frame a quote and jettisoning them in favor of “says” felt wrong, sparse and cold.

But …

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Show, Don’t Tell = Use Body Language

Some useful thoughts here about those little diction-level fits our writing can give us. I do suggest that we don’t go crazy about issues like this. It’s not worth torquing a sentence into an unreadable mess just to avoid “was.” But I am with Dan 100% on “look.”

Dan Alatorre

img_2351-19

This lesson is invaluable, so read carefully.

Wait, does invaluable mean no value or lots of value? Quick internet search… Okay.

Yeah, there’s gold in today’s lesson.

BODY LANGUAGE = GOOD

CRUTCH WORDS = BAD

Also, a way to find and deal with your crutch words. Didn’t know you had those? You do.

Tag, your manuscript is it!

First, let’s discuss dialogue tags: those little phrases that follow a section of dialogue.

“Run,” he said.

“Why?” she asked.

“There’s a T-Rex coming!” He exclaimed.

“Oh,” she said warily.

Okay?

One of my favorite things to do is to wait until a new author writes  “Why?” she asked and then I say, “Lose the tag, we know she asked – the question mark gave it away.”

It’s fun for…

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A Tool for the Bravehearted: 350 Dialogue Tags!

Derek Haines at Just Publishing Advice says you CAN use dialogue tags besides “said.” I’d personally be really careful, and for goodness sakes, be sparing. But this is a great list to have in your toolkit. Let me know what you think!

concept of reading and learning

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Punctuating Dialogue! Here’s How.

A single quotation mark.A single quotation mark.I wanted to write this, because I get so frustrated when I’m critiquing and I have to stop following the story line to correct the punctuation of dialogue. But I don’t have to write about dialogue because Reedsy has done it for me. If you’ve ever wondered, say, about what do with em dashes or how to punctuate a quote within a quote, it’s all here! Feast! The five basic comma rulesThe five basic comma rules

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Dialogue tags and how to use them in fiction writing – by Louise Harnby…

Here’s an excellent discussion, via Chris the Story Reading Ape, of one of the simplest and most useful tools in a writer’s kit: using and abusing “said” and other dialogue tags. I also note that “said” can control rhythm, acting as a strong beat at the end of a scene sequence or before a break. Try it!

Chris The Story Reading Ape's Blog

Dialogue tags – or speech tags – are what writers use to indicate which character is speaking.

Their function is, for the most part, mechanical.

This article is about how to use them effectively.

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“‘No’ Dialogue”??? What the Hey?

I was scrolling around today and found some good cautions for us all about creating realistic story lines in our fiction. I especially like the first warning: Stop having characters read each other’s minds by looking into their eyes!

It has often occurred to me that it’s not “the eyes” that carry emotion anyway. It’s the facial muscles around and below the eyes that make them cruel or sad or joyous. So note to self: be careful about using this trope.

Today, though, I especially want to pick up on the point that it’s okay if characters can’t always tell exactly what the other person is thinking.

Question mark in the clouds: What is "'No' Dialogue"?

Ambiguous communication opens the way for that revealing dialogue tactic, “‘No’ Dialogue.”

I’ve scoured the remains of my film-writing library (used only for one intense period in my writing life) looking for the book that introduced me to this terminology. You won’t find this phrase with search terms, which return sites about films without dialogue. In contrast, in “‘No’ Dialogue” one character refuses to give the other what he or she wants without ever quite saying so.

The technique delivers “subtext,” what’s really going on below the surface, without the characters having to stop the story to explain. At the same time, it builds tension, as the main character cannot get what he or she wants. Here are a few lines from that wonderful scene between Bud White and Lynn Bracken in L. A. Confidential (warning: I’ve ** the bad words, but you’ll still know what they are):

BUD

Miss Bracken, don’t ever try to f**king bribe me or threaten me or I’ll have you and Patchett in s**t up to your ears.

LYNN

I remember you from Christmas Eve. You have a thing for helping women, don’t you, Officer White?

BUD

Maybe I’m just f**king curious.

LYNN

You say “f**k” a lot.

BUD

You f**k for money.

LYNN

There’s blood on your shirt. Is that an integral part of your job?

BUD

Yeah.

LYNN

Do you enjoy it?

BUD

When they deserve it.

LYNN

Did they deserve it today?

BUD

Last night. And I’m not sure.

LYNN

But you did it anyway.

BUD

Yeah, just like the half dozen guys you screwed today.

LYNN

Actually, it was two.

Dialogue like this is a verbal contest—instant conflict—in which each character refuses to acknowledge what is actually being asked, which is “What kind of person are you?” because answering that question would set in motion a terrifying commitment. Yet we know from their refusals to state the obvious what it is that bothers them about themselves, what they’re struggling with behind the repartee, what they’re trying to deny.

In only one place in this exchange does Bud answer the question Lynn actually asks: “Did they deserve it today?” And when Bud finally answers, his tough-guy façade slips. “I’m not sure.” That uncertainty has been there all along, as she throws him off balance and disrupts his self-image. When his doubt emerges, it’s a surrender he didn’t plan and a giveaway to what lies ahead.

And note that we get this many-layered interaction between two people searching for the possibility of something more than what lies before them without a single reference to the look in their eyes.

Although many writing coaches don’t use the term”‘No’ Dialogue,” several suggest ways of incorporating this technique into your stories.

  • Janet Burroway, in Writing Fiction (I’m looking at the 5th edition), analyzes examples in which “[t]ension and drama are heightened when characters are constantly (in one form or another) saying no to each other.”
  • Lew Hunter, in Screenwriting 434, suggests “180-degree dialogue,” in which a writer looks for “the most obvious line a character can say,” then “flip[s] it upside down.” “See where that takes the moment,” he says.
  • Jack M. Bickham, in Scene & Structure, discusses “dialogue at cross-purposes,” in which “the antagonist either doesn’t understand what’s really at issue, or is purposely nonresponsive to what the lead character keeps trying to talk about.”

In my own case, when I’ve felt that a scene has really delivered at least some of the impact I hoped for, I’ve looked back to see that “‘No’ Dialogue” has played a role in that success.

Do you have favorite scenes where one or more of these versions of “‘No’ Dialogue” has served the story well? Share!

 

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