Dialogue Writing Techniques

When I was in high school and college, I was involved in theatre. I was never pretty enough to be one of the leads. Not ugly, mind you, but not pretty, either. Plus I was quite shy. I did a lot of stage work, which my busy hands loved, but often got a bit part in the plays as well. Perhaps because I spent so much time behind the scenes, my biggest dream in high school was to write a play — a grand play, a play to be remembered. That dream has not been realized yet. But plays have mostly to do with dialogue. (Oh, okay, the stage hands have a lot to do with “setting the stage,” if you will–providing appropriate props, costumes, and sets. But let’s stick to the actor dialogue for now.)

For me, writing dialogue has never been a problem. There were the plays. But also, as a kid lying in bed at the dark of night, I used to have dialogues with people who weren’t there. You know. Coming up with that better comeback than I had during the day. Or imagining a conversation between a boy I liked and me.

One of the techniques I use today for dialogue:

Picture the face of your character. This could be done in your mind, or with a photo or magazine (what are those?) picture or an actual small figure. Decades ago, we used to play D&D, so I have over one hundred metal characters to pick from. You could also use stuffed animals. Think of the distinct characters in Winnie the Pooh. I have also pictured my characters as different animal with their traits. The large and strong, but silent and loyal elephant. The sneaky, gang-like dingo. The sparrow who is many, and argue like crazy.

Picture your characters and then put them together at a party, or going on a quest, going to algebra class together when the fire alarm goes off, etc. Even if your own story doesn’t have a scene like this. You can get to know who they are better in other situations. What are their reactions to events, to each other? What do they say?

I’ve also been known to talk into my iPhone. I put a space between the dialogue lines to distinguish the different characters, or adding the person’s name who’s being spoken to. I later cut and paste it into my story and add all the other stuff, like grammar and punctuation, like tag lines, like emotional reactions, like a view of the setting to keep the characters grounded. I also have carried a notebook and pen as I walk the house, physically writing out the dialogue or scenes. It’s that eye-hand movement and charges up to the brain thing.

Whatever technique you use, make your characters distinct.

Off to play with some D&D figures.

Power Outage – End of World

Our electrical power went out two Sunday mornings ago at 12:30 and again at 5:30. It was 24 degrees out. My first thought was I hoped my hubby backed up his sermon. My second thought was to bring in a couple of gallons of water from the garage to warm up to our 62 degree house temp for cleaning up, since we’re on well water which requires electricity to get the liquid into the house. No electricity = No water.  Then, when I looked out of every window to see not a single light anywhere, my third thought was IT WAS THE END OF THE WORLD! Of course, with me revising one of my stories which is an apocalypse tale, it wasn’t hard for my mind to slip into what survival items I would need for a three-week walk to our grandchildren’s house three states away. Wait. We’d have to go around, not through, Chicago. After all, if it was the end of the world, we would have to avoid urban zombies, too. So make that a four-week walk.

I write historical fiction (a time of no electricity). I write fantasy (a place of no electricity). In reality, in my 20’s I did a lot of backpacking. Our seven week honeymoon was all tent camping except four nights in hotels. It’s not difficult for me to plan for and imagine an extended walk like this — until I remembered we had half a tank of gas in our car, which might well get us past Chicago, if the roads weren’t blocked with abandoned vans and semis…and zombies. So, that would amend the time to just two weeks of walking through an everyone-for-themselves crazy world. Oh, and my heart was nearly breaking for our son 3,000 miles away in Arizona whom we’d never-ever see again.

At 6:20 a.m., the power came back on and all was well-ish.

Just so you don’t think I’m normally this mental whack-o at something as simple as a power outage — I mean, some writers are mental wack-os, I’m told — I must assure you that I was sick and my head was, I was certain, twice its normal size with plugged ears, sore throat, deep cough, runny nose and eyes, and sickly marshmallow-brain thoughts. The world didn’t end. I got healthy again (physically and mentally) followed by another cold. And I get to see our extended family again. (Hurray.)

But I think I’d better hurry up and finish the revision on my apocalypse tale so that at the next power outage I can figure out how to successfully battle dragons in our backyard or stampede my family to safety with the unicorn herd. That is, I’d only imagine things like that during a power outage if I’m sick again. When I’m heathy and think things up those very things, it’s okay because then it’s the writer’s creative imagination working.

Does anyone else have odd mental images or thoughts when you are sick? I think we can take those and work them into our stories. Seriously.

Identifying and Setting Priorities

When we were younger, my husband and I used to say two things stopped us from doing many things we wanted to do: time and money. As we’ve gotten older,  we’ve added a third thing: energy.

Identifying what you do

Make a percentage of your waking hours and mark off: 1) what you do which takes up your time in a day or week; 2) what you spend money on in a day or in a week (or month); and 3) what you feel enthused about doing in a day or week.

Analyzing what you do

Look at your percentages. What do you spend time and money and energy on which is necessary (e.g., shelter and food)? IIs your present square footage of living space what you need or what you want? Do you eat out because you appreciate the treat, because you don’t like to cook, or something else? And what do you spend time and money and energy on which refreshes and renews you? What do you really want to do to spend your time and money and energy?

Prioritizing what you do

The last question above should be your goal for how to spend your time and money and energy. Never forget your dreams. There may be times when you can’t do anything else (e.g., pay for school or medical expenses). But through it all, keep your sights on your vision. And keep on writing, which, if you’re reading this blog, I hope is a priority.

NaNoWriMo? More Like NaNoBooHoo

I was going full steam that first week in November — way back four weeks ago. I not only reached my daily word counts, but exceeded them. Then big-time disaster struck. I needed to sub something to one of my critique groups. I know. I know. I should have just passed and given them the week off of critiquing so I could continue on with my on-fire-hot-word-count-writing. What I subbed to my crit group was chapter 11 of a 26-chapter book which was “finished.” Revising it to send to them, turned my mind totally on that piece of writing, so I revised it to the end. Of course, I felt it was dynamically written, so I started looking into editors and agents. That done, like having postpartum blues, I crashed. I started writing “NaNoHaHa” in emails. About the same time I’d accepted a school storytelling assignment. I explained I only had 1800’s outfits and 1800’s stories. My contact said it wasn’t a problem. They were just kindergarteners. But in my former teaching brain, I thought, “Kindergarteners who know the 200 year difference between a Pilgrim’s outfit and a Civil War outfit. So I started making a Pilgrim outfit and researching the era. Yes, this was indeed a bit distracting. Then there was leaving the state for the weekend, and this last week, company in from out of state for the week.

So I decided not to cheat on the NaNoWriMo word count, except for adding four revised chapters from “that other novel.” I uploaded what I had, but I still didn’t win. This year. It felt more like NaNoBooHoo than anything to do with a month of writing.

I just need to say, that for anyone else who didn’t make the 50,000 word count this month, no worries. It’s only a challenge, so don’t beat yourself up. There’s always next year. Be sure not to give up on your novel, either. Keep working on this year’s NaNo project until it’s completed, so by November of 2015, you’ll be excited and fresh and rearing to go on your next novel.

Balancing Your Writer’s Life

Ah. Writing. There are so many ideas, so many characters, so much internal and external conflict to wrestle with. I love getting my thoughts down onto paper or up onto computer screen (and drives). It feels wonderful to accomplish such a feat with so many other non-writing-related activities pressing in all around.

Wouldn’t it just be grand if writing was all there was to a writer’s life?

But it’s not all there is.

Of course, there’s the mental struggling with plot and character, and the writing it all down (or typing it). Writing is a very romantic career, and I don’t limit that to genre. There’s so much more. There is research, and revisions, and critique groups, and more revisions, and more research. There’s setting the story aside to decide later it needs a full rewrite. And checking your story word for word for silly little errors. Then you must search what to do with your completed story — agent, editor, self-publish, alternate, or trash it.

When your story is published, of course, you go on to writing your next story. That’s a given. While that happens, you also must coddle your already published toddler.

What does this coddling entail? Updating your website, being “visible” on social media sites, printing business cards for live encounters. There are book signings, speaking engagements, and follow-up, including evaluations, to all. To each of these coddling suggestions, I could write chapters.

My mantra has always been that family comes first. That said, it’s often difficult to find time to write when you have babies to care for, toddlers, work which pays bills, school activities, church activities, social activities, house, yard, etc. Surely, there are at least 33 hours in any given day, right? And who needs sleep? Yet, somehow, the writing bug wiggles deeply into people who work and have families and family activities.

Family always comes first, which means sometimes writing must be put on hold.

Writing demands discipline. You can finish stories one sentence at a time, or as Anne Lamott puts it, bird by bird–writing during your children’s nap times, and then compartmentalize it while you focus on other aspects of life, like your kids.

Discipline is also required for all the published book coddling. Organization of sales for tax purposes, keeping track of  your PayPal account with their automatic withdrawals, remembering to update your domain name each year (or every third), contacting places to speak, putting together talks and PowerPoint presentations for the various requests, making your author name and book title visible both on social media and face-to-face, advertising, press releases, media kits, updating everything and often…

Is there no end to what an author today must do?

The short answer is no. So prioritize your time and what needs to be done. Focus. Be a disciplined person. Write. Market and promote. But most of all, hug and spend time with your loved ones.

But Cessation — The Case of Too Many Buts

So…when I started in on yet another revision of a manuscript, I noticed I’d started a sentence with the word “But.” I acknowledge occasionally I begin sentences with “but,” but it’s not necessarily intentional or even voice. It’s just how I speak. My voice. But still, I know I shouldn’t translate sloppy speech into my writing.

So, I did a Find and Replace to discover there were too many buts in the manuscript to even list them. I’m not sure how many, but it sure must be a lot. So I started at the beginning. An hour later, the Find and Replace let me know there were 92 buts left in the remaining five chapters. NINETY TWO! But I didn’t let the large number daunt my but cessation. I was on a but mission. I continued to the end of the manuscript, deleting nearly every one, of course, leaving in a handful of someone necessary ones, for everyone ought to be entitled to a few if, ands, and buts. To my relief, I discovered I’d tagged on a second manuscript in the same file. So, huge sigh.

So, if you find, too, are a but addict, my suggestion is to use the Find and Replace to tighten your writing. So go get rid of your buts!

(One revision mission accomplished. So now I think I’d better go to the beginning and do a search for all the times I use “so.”)

Michigan Signs (for the balance)

After my post about British Signs and Street Crossings, I started thinking how someone from another country coming to upper Michigan would react to some of our signs here. For example…

There is the infamous Michigan no-brainer: “Do Not Pass When Opposing Cars Present,” a sign I always go by too quickly to whip out my iPhone for a shot. It is for a two lane road opening to a three land road on a hill. The third central lane is for passing coming up the hill. But if no one’s in that lane, feel free to go into it to pass your slow downhill car in front of you.

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There’s the caution sign that the road ends…before you drive into Lake Michigan.

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There are the “Icy Bridge” or the newer “Bridge freezes before road” signs.

Hotels up north warn to be on the lookout for falling icicles (even in summer?) or instructing guests to not use hotel towels to wipe down sleds, or no snowmobiles allowed through the parking lot.

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A central Michigan truck company placed this sign on the back of their truck:

IMG_9156  But you had to drive up real close in order to read it.

Is this sign for a zoo? Or to be on the lookout for mating wildlife (X-ing)? Or is it a misspelling and polite way of indicating a nudist camp crossing ahead?

Cadillac, MI

Other states have their own peculiarities. When we lived in South Dakota there were official signs like, “Next Rest Area 365 miles” or “Do not cross road when flooded” or my personal favorite, a series of old pickup tires hung on fence posts in the Black Hills with the white words painted on them: “No Hunt.”

In defense of signs in England, we’ve all got our own local signs which may bring a smile or questioning look to outsiders. Mostly they’re used to keep us safe, I suppose, or on the flip side, not get sued.

So when you are writing your real or make-believe worlds, be aware of your region’s culturally different signs intended to help or guide, not confuse people.

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Little England. Big America.

It was only upon our return to the United States that I realized how big America is. I mean, I knew ahead of time that England was about the size of the state of Michigan, but everywhere I looked on our return was . The driver’s lanes here are wider. The sidewalks here are wider. Even the wastepaper baskets and toilets are bigger. In England, it was obvious who were Americans by their big (loud) voices. Yards, if they exist, are tiny.  Distances between major cities are shorter over there. Semi trucks are shorter in the UK, and even on the motorways for several days, I saw no doubles or scary triples like in the USA. And upon our return, I was surprised to notice how physically big Americans are. I guess my eyes had merely overlooked that fact before, or been adjusted to the sights. But coming home, it seemed that every store I entered, I found big people — big compared to thin Englanders. (Of course, you can find some skinny Americans, and you can find some plumb Brits.)

Therefore, it’s my casual observation that England is little and America is big.

Relating this information to writing…what is the feeling of your setting? Is it large and roomy or elbows-tucked-in small? How would your main character respond growing up in a roomy land v.s. a crowded one? Or feel visiting one the opposite type of setting?

Play with your characters. Play with your setting. Write, rewrite, tweek.

Restaurants, Cafes, Pubs — Eating out in London

London is a crowded place. It’s been that way for over a thousand years. Consequently, the buildings are flush to each other on the block. The eateries also tend to be must smaller than the restaurants we in America are more familiar with. For instance, you could fit 3 restaurants into the space of one fast food chain restaurant here. Indoor seating is about for twenty people, max. There are often four or so small tables with chairs along the front of the restaurant or cafe on the sidewalk.

Screenless windows and doors are left opened during business hours. In a ten-day period, I only saw three bugs. They must come out at night or something in order to pollinate the plants.

Pubs are dark on the inside, but in summer, it’s light until 9:30, GMT. Again, the inside seating of pubs is quite limited, but crowds can stand outside. We had a pub about fifty yards from our hotel door. (We had a small room six floors above the front door.) We’d pass this corner pub each night to go to a small grocery story a couple blocks away for our next day’s picnic lunch. Along the windows outside the pub (and other pubs have this as well) and on the quieter side street is a narrow metal shelf wide, enough to place a drink upon. The sidewalk was shoulder-to-shoulder people, about six times more people could stand outside there and socialize than sit down inside.

Another thing I noticed besides outside seating (and standing) was that people in London sit on steps or on lawns. Going through Hyde Park on a Sunday afternoon, we found thousands of people sitting on the grass, either eating or merely socializing. The pond area of the Victoria and Albert Museum was so crowded with people sitting on steps or grass that we had to slowly weave our way through them.

Although it’s no longer legal to sell food for pigeons, there are still many pigeons around, and they are there to snatch up any fallen (or intended) crumbs from the human eaters. We ate at the Raven Cafe in the Tower of London. There was only outdoor seating. Pigeons danced on our feet, begging for treats. Pigeons also apparently have the right of way in England. We had to duck more than once to avoid flying pigeon during our stay. The whoosh of wings brushing my hair is still vivid.

I must close by saying that the taste of the food in England is exceptional. I didn’t have a bad spoonful of anything during our entire time in this lovely little country.

 

Raphael’s Tapestry Cartoons, London, UK

My husband and I sat on one of the benches inside the Victoria and Albert Museum (more affectionately known as the V&A). My mind knew I was admiring rare works of art indeed. In front of me, hanging from the walls were several of the 13 feet by 17 feet designs Raphael used to make the tapestries for the Sistine Chapel in 1519. I wish I could attach a photo, but no photos were allowed in this particular room of the museum. The figures were life-sized. It was artistic and colorful. A wonder to behold.

However, I’m thinking that perhaps it was from being tired from visiting so many new places and experiencing so many new things that I kept grinning away in that room. I mean — cartoons? Well, yes, I understand that the word is an Italian word for “large sheets of paper,” but why did I keep trying to look to see something funny? Decades of hearing that word and thinking of an entirely different meaning. That and being exhausted. That’s why.

We sat and studied Raphael’s tapestry cartoons. They are amazing to be sure, but not really funny.