Writing Tips: Dialogue

howtobebritish1Dialogue is (to point out the obvious) vital to a novel; it displays the voices of your characters and helps the reader get to know and care about the characters, understand their motives, their interrelationships, and distinguish each character’s point of view.  If you don’t get the dialogue right, you rip the reader out of the story, or worse – make them put down your novel and add your name to “never again” lists!  So, here are a few pointers and tips to keep in mind as you develop your characters and put words into their mouths:

1) Develop your characters well enough to make their voice distinct; do they have catch-phrases, or local dialects that influence their vocabulary?  Do they tend toward long or short sentences, or are they from a past time and place that had a different way of speaking?  Educate yourself if necessary in various modes of speech .

2) Dialogue is an illusion of conversation; but it’s also about what is not said.  Non-verbal actions reveal:

a) How a character says something

b) What a character chooses not to say, but inadvertantly reveals through actions.

c) Why the character says what they do.

Do they have particular actions when they are upset or aggitated that communicate their moods to the reader?  Do they bounce their knees when excited?  Does their body language confirm or contradict their verbal message?

3)  Fictional dialogue needs to cut to the chase; if there’s no point to the text (revealing motivation, character or plot point), then chop it!

4)  Avoid the trap of using dialogue as exposition (the proverbial villain’s monologue as he prepares to destroy the hero), but rather reveal essential information through action, or narration.

Explore your characters and develop their voices, and above all – keep writing!

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The Etymology of Hobson’s Choice

Thomas HobsonThomas Hobson (1544-1631) is still famous through the idiom, “Hobson’s Choice”, which means basically “take it or leave it”.  An innkeeper in Cambridge, England, he would hire out his horses (according to information at the Cambridge Guildhall, he had an extensive stable of 40 horses, which was a sign of vast wealth in those days!).  To avoid the best horses being favoured and thus worn out more quickly, he devised a rotation system that became known as Hobson’s Choice:  The horse closest to the entrance, or none.  The idiom is sometimes used erroneously to mean a choice between two equally good (or bad) situations or solutions (which is rather a dilemma, or Morton’s fork); but Hobson’s choice was really a choice between something or nothing.

I first came across the phrase when reading Frederick Hoffman’s “A Sailor of King George“:

I interrogated the next, who was a short, slight, pale-faced man. “And pray,” said I, “what part of the play have you been performing; were you ever at sea?” “No, sir,” said he; “I am a hairdresser, and was pressed a week ago.” “D——n these fellows!” said my captain; “they are all tailors, barbers, or grass-combers. I want seamen.” “Then,” said Captain N., who was the flag-captain, and had just come on board, “I much fear you will be disappointed. These are the only disposable men, and it’sHobson’s choice—those or none.” “The admiral promised me some good seamen,” returned my skipper, rather quickly. “Then I fear the admiral must find them,” was the answer, “as I have not more than twenty seamen on board besides the petty officers. The last were drafted a few days ago in the Defiance. Will you take any of these men, Captain W.?” “What do you think,” said my captain to me; “shall we take any of them?” “Suppose,” returned I, “we take twenty of them and the tailor; they will all fit in in time.” I then picked out twenty of the best, who were bad enough, as they were the worst set I ever saw grouped. Their appearance and dress were wretched in the extreme. I reached the ship before the hour of dinner with my live cargo. “What, more hard bargains,” said the first lieutenant, “we have too many clodhoppers on board already. The captain told me we were to have seamen.” “Captain N.,” said I, “assured our noble captain that the Defiance had taken all the A.B.’s.*” “D——n the Defiance!” replied he; “I defy Captain N. or anybody else to match those gentlemanly ragamuffins.” The master’s mates were called, and they were given into their charge.

Captain Frederick Hoffman. A Sailor of King George (Kindle Locations 2063-2077).

*A.B.s – Able-bodied seamen

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On Being Remembered

“If you would not be forgotten as soon as you are dead, either write things worth reading or do things worth writing.”

Benjamin Franklin

Time for Reading

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Details, details

commas 2

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March 21, 2015 · 10:08 am

Archetypes: Aphrodite vs. Dionysus

Throughout literary history, archetypes have been used to help us relate to characters, their stories, the morals of the tale and the paths they choose and why.  Understanding the archetypes helps to figure out how to portray a particular character; it keeps you on the “same page” as you write, as you develop characters, and try to figure out what makes them tick and where that ticking will take you and them.  Today I’d like to take a closer look at Aphrodite and her male counterpart, Dionysus.  I’ll give examples of these characters from films and books, relatable to most whether you like to read or prefer the visual experience of film.

Kim Novak,  Vertigo

Kim Novak, Vertigo

Aphrodite was the Greek goddess of love, pleasure, beauty and procreation.  Like a coin, there are two sides to the character:  The Lover (or seductive muse), and the Femme Fatale.  On the Lover’s side of the coin, there are characters such as Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman, or Ginger on Gilligan’s Island.  The positive side of this character motivates others to improve themselves.  The flip side of that coin are seen in Sharon Stone’s portrayal in Basic Instinct, Kim Novak’s character in Vertigo, or the Bible characters of Salome or Delilah.  On one side you have a character that is nurturing, attractive, seductive and at the core often good, while the Femme Fatale is seductive with often quite dark ulterior motives.  Sean Young’s character in Blade Runner is a good example of the Seductive Muse; she forces Harrison Ford’s character to examine his own sense of humanity by her mere existence.

Mr. Willoughby, in Sense & Sensibility

Mr. Willoughby, in Sense & Sensibility

Dionysus is her male counterpart:  His two sides are the Woman’s Man, and the Seducer.  Either way, Dionysus needs women in his life.  He loves women; on the positive side, he loves to make women feel loved.  The flip side is abuse in one form or another, with darker motivations behind his love.  Fifty Shades of Grey is a touchy topic right now; on one hand it’s immensely popular, and on the other very harshly condemned as glorifying abuse, violence and manipulation in the guise of relationship or love.  I tend toward the latter view, as did the main actor in interviews during his junket (he often found himself apologizing to his co-star after their scenes, which speaks volumes about his instincts of what’s right and wrong, and Shades definitely crossed that line for him and for a growing number of critics).  Other examples are Mel Gibson’s character in What Women Want – his character makes the arc from the negative side to the positive; Cary Grant’s character in An Affair to Remember makes a similar arc.  Leo DeCaprio’s Jack in Titanic sits firmly on the positive side of the coin, and makes for a memorable and loved character.  Count Dracula is a typical Seducer, as is Jane Austen’s character of Mr Willoughby in Sense and Sensibility.

There are many other archetypes; if you’d like to know more on the topic, check out Victoria Lynn Schmidt’s 45 Master Characters.

Keep writing!

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Standing Up for Sitting Down

No, this is not an article about the pros and cons of the position you take while writing; but as a writer, I am fully aware that my job is mostly a sitting one… it’s hard to walk around writing or typing and not fall down the stairs.  But there are a lot of pseudo-scientific articles circulating recently about how sitting is the worst thing for your body.  I have news for you:  Stress about worrying if you’re sitting too much is far worse for your body than your actual physical posture.  Sit comfortably, sit straight and relaxed, and write creatively; take occasional breaks by getting up, moving around, stretching, and getting a hot cup of tea for the next round of writing!  For a good dose of sarcasm on the topic, click on the image below!

Standing-Desk-Measurements

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Writing Tip: “Sense” Your Scenes

I try to read a book a week; it’s usually on a Saturday, when I have time to sit down and read a good chunk at a time.  This past weekend I read a book which prompted thoughts around this concept of “sensing” a scene, and reading it aloud to hear any howlers that might have crept into the writing.  The author of that book obviously did neither, though her editor might have told her to beef up descriptives – so they were clumped all together, staggering me as a reader to a halt while I tried to figure out the context of the pages of descriptives before remembering what the characters were doing there in the first place, and often the dialogue sounded very stilted (e.g. using “vocalized” instead of “shouted” – the latter of the two would have fit into the character’s time and place far better) – a good reading-aloud editing session might have done wonders for the novel.

SensesThis image is one I have printed out on a card and hung near my desk when writing; it reminds me to apply all of my senses to a scene, to enrich the imagery and draw the reader in.  Describe the sights, smells, sounds, feelings and taste of a scene; make it a sensory experience and it will be far more memorable; this is done through sentence structure and the pacing of those elements, but sometimes also through “camera angle” – looking at the scene from a particular perspective.  How does your character feel in the moment?  What are their perceptions?  Does a smell remind them of something or someone?  Here are a few tips to achieving these goals:

  1. While adjectives are useful for adding colour or depth to a sentence, think of them as pepper; too much can spoil the scene.  If using more than one to describe a noun, familiarize yourself with the rule of order for adjectives.
  2. Use action verbs rather than passive/being verbs with adverbs.  E.g. “She stumbled down the hill” rather than “She went unsteadily down the hill”.
  3. Most importantly:  Read your sentences and scenes aloud!  I cannot stress this enough – if it sounds choppy or stilted to your ears, or doesn’t sound like something your character would say or do, then change it!

Writing is a dynamic process, and being a writer means constantly striving to improve oneself – building vocabulary and learning how to use words effectively, building your knowledge through research, studying, and reading, reading, reading!  Keep on writing!

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