Happily Ever Afters Are Just A Book Away

Happily Ever Afters Are Just A Book Away

Monday, April 20, 2015

Cast of Characters: Part Four, Dialogue

In the character series so far, we've talked about casting characters, giving them names, and developing them using a worksheet and interviews.

Today, I want to talk about talking.

Don't write terrible dialogue. Because it's terrible. Yet hilarious.

Characters are people, or sometimes animals or aliens or some other creature, but the point is they're living beings who communicate with each other. Way back at the beginning of this discussion I pointed out that a story without characters is pretty boring. Likewise, a story with characters who don't interact and talk to each other is equally boring, making dialogue an integral component of storytelling.

What is dialogue supposed to accomplish? 

1. Characterization and voice.
2. Reveal characters' relationships.
3. Move story forward.
4. Increase tension.
Tyrion:  Getting all four purposes in one line of dialogue.

What does dialogue look like?

The mechanics of dialogue are pretty simple: 1) Indent every time a new character speaks; 2) put spoken words in quotation marks; 3) punctuation goes inside the quotation marks (comma if you're using a dialogue tag, period if you're not). So it looks like this:

          "Come in, " Jessica called.

          The door opened and Ginger walked in. She looked at Jessica, looked at Wyatt, then back to Jessica, before biting her lips to stifle a laugh. She failed miserably. "Did I interrupt something?" she asked.

          "No," Jessica said, trying for aloof. "What can I do for you, Ginger?"

          "Seriously? You're going to be that way?"

          "What way is that?"

          "Pretend professional, when your bra is crooked, your hair's a mess, you're flushed, and your lips are swollen. And Dr. Sexy Pants is all smug over there." 

How to do it well:

There's a lot of crappy dialogue out there, but if you consider these tips, yours won't be.

1. Showing not telling.

I know, you hear this a lot. It's like white noise in the background, you hear it so much. But in this case I mean don't just say, "and then they went to lunch."  Write the scene. Use dialogue as an opportunity to show who the characters are and how going to lunch  moves their story forward.

2. Ground the dialogue in a scene.

In order to avoid the ping-pong of back and forth talking heads, break it up with actions and reactions from the characters.

3. Make sure all the dialogue is necessary.

Small talk is tedious and boring, so get in late and leave early. You don't need all the 'hi' and 'bye' chitchat.

4. Don't monologue.

People speak in short bursts, not long sweeping speeches so keep dialogue short and crisp. It'll keep readers from skimming.

5. Make it real, not realistic.

It should give the impression of real speech without the choppiness and hesitation. Use realistic-sounding clear sentences, but remember, people speak in contractions so try to avoid stiff-sounding standard English.

6. Use silences and avoidance to convey meaning.

 If a character doesn't respond to another's question, or changes the subject, that can convey tension or relationship issues. If one character says "I love you," and the other doesn't respond, you know there's something up.

7. Avoid exposition as dialogue.

Characters don't talk about stuff they both already know, so avoid dialogue like this:

“Hey, remember Grandpa lived on a farm in Oklahoma where he raised chickens until a tornado wiped out the whole place and then he went to live with Uncle Billie-Bob in Texas?”

8. Differentiating characters

Be sure your characters' personalities are expressed in their dialogue. Are they funny? shy? tactless? That should come across. Try taking out all the tags and reading the dialogue out loud. Can you tell which character is which?

9. Slang/accents 

Less is more here, folks. It's tempting if you're writing a Scottish hero to go overboard on the wee bairns, ye ken? Same for ethnic slang or dialect. If you overdo it, it can come across as unintentionally comical, offensive, or just plain difficult to read.

Any excuse for a pic of Jamie Fraser...

10. People don't say each others' names in every line of dialogue. 

People just don't talk like this:

   "Hi Bob, how are you."
   "I'm fine, Sarah, how are you?"
   "Well, Bob, I'm fine, thanks for asking. What are you eating for lunch, Bob?"
   "I'm glad you asked, Sarah. I'm having a PBJ on rye. What are you eating, Sarah?"

11. Be sparing with exclamation marks. Too many makes it sound like a bunch of 13-year-old girls talking to each other. OMG! 

Places to Study Dialogue

I just threw a bunch of tips at you, but where can you see them in action? Study them? 

 - Read a play! It's all dialogue. See how dialogue and character interaction makes the story come alive.

- Watch a movie! It's better if you can do it with the screenplay in hand, but if you can't watch how characters talk to each other and make the story come alive through speech.
One of my fave movies.
- Read other books in the genre you write! Don't just read them, study them (but don't copy them).

- Read your dialogue scenes out loud! How do they sound?

- Eavesdrop on conversations!  This is a good way to see how not to write dialogue, because people speak in such a choppy, non-linear. It's amazing they ever understand each other

Finally: Dialogue TAGS

I'm saving this for a post unto itself because there's just so much to say, so stay tuned...

Did I miss any important dialogue tips? If so, feel free to share!


Friday, April 10, 2015

Literary Ink

My daughter and I did this on Monday:

mother/daughter ink

My husband said now that we have tats we're badasses (because nothing says badass like a tat that says "love"). 

Of course, tattoos aren't for everyone, though I have to say as a romance writer tatted heroes are kinda hot (you're welcome for not indulging in a spam of hot tattooed guy pix...unless you want that, in which case I can dedicate an entire blog post to it).

I've been considering getting inked for a while, and now that I've done it, there are several others I want to get. This is the next one:

451 tattoo
homage to Farenheit 451
I love this because it's simple, but says so much. Symbolic of the fight against censorship, specifically of books and words, but in a larger sense of ideas and people, I see it as a literary equivalent of NoH8.

When I was researching the 451 tattoo, I came across a whole slew of others inspired by books and literature. As an author, it warmed my heart and gave me hope for humanity that people could be so inspired by words and stories as to put permanent reminders of them on their bodies.

Here are some of the most interesting:

Great Gatsby (I'm not a fan of the book, but this is an interesting tat)
Still I Rise, Maya Angelou
Fellowship of the Rings
Cool combo of Hamlet and Nancy Drew
Chronicles of Narnia
Perks of Being a Wallflower
I found a lot of Harry Potter ink, but this one is pretty cool

This is similarly simple and adorable
From Ender's Game

Where the Wild Things Are
Literary Tattoos: Slaughterhouse Five Kurt Vonnegut So it goes.
Slaughterhouse Five
Not really "literature" but still fun!

hunger games
Of course, Hunger Games

Tattoo of Roland's Ka from The Dark Tower Series
From my fave series ever (The Dark Tower)...this one is tempting...
Anyway, you get the idea. There are as many literary tattoos as there are books and people who love them, which is pretty darn awesome if you ask me. If you were to get literary ink, what would your choice be?


Thursday, April 2, 2015

Cast of Characters: Part Three

Once you've given your characters a face and a name...then what?

I don't know about you, but before I can write a book about someone, I need to get to know them better.
Hi there, character. Who are you?

How do I do that?

Well, when Merissa and I first started writing together (years ago), she introduced me to her Character Worksheet. It's ghastly long and in-depth, and it gives me fits every time.

When I start a new project and I'm all excited about my shiny new characters (especially since at this point they have faces and names), I pull up this worksheet and....groan. It's hard work. It makes me think about my characters. Who are they? Where do they come from? What are their strengths and weaknesses? What are their flaws? What are their motivations?

Here's a peek at the form (I always insert a picture of the character at the top for reference):

Character Profile Worksheet

Working Title:

Story Setting:


Basic Character Statistics:

Socioeconomic Level as a child:
Socioeconomic Level as an adult: 
Current Residence:
Birth order:
Siblings (describe relationship):
Spouse (describe relationship):
Children (describe relationship):
Parents (describe relationship):
Grandparents (describe relationship):
Grandchildren (describe relationship):
Significant Others (describe relationship):
Relationship skills:

Physical Characteristics:

Eye Color:
Hair Color:
Glasses or contact lenses?
Skin color:
Shape of Face:
Distinguishing features:
How does he/she dress?
Habits: (smoking, drinking etc.)
Favorite Sayings:
Speech patterns:
Style (Elegant, shabby etc.):
Greatest flaw:
Best quality:

Intellectual/Mental/PersonalityAttributes and Attitudes:

Educational Background:
Intelligence Level:
Any Mental Illnesses?
Learning Experiences:
Character's short-term goals in life:
Character's long-term goals in life:
How does Character see himself/herself?
How does Character believe he/she is perceived by others?
How self-confident is the character?
Does the character seem ruled by emotion or logic or some combination thereof?
What would most embarrass this character?

Emotional Characteristics:

Introvert or Extrovert?
How does the character deal with anger?
With sadness?
With conflict?
With change?
With loss?
What does the character want out of life?
What would the character like to change in his/her life?
What motivates this character?
What frightens this character?
What makes this character happy?
Is the character judgmental of others?
Is the character generous or stingy?
Is the character generally polite or rude?

Spiritual Characteristics:

Does the character believe in God(s)?
What are the character's spiritual beliefs?
Is religion or spirituality a part of this character's life?
If so, what role does it play?


What does this character want more than anything? 
What are the external conflicts/obstacles?
What are the internal conflicts?

How the Character is Involved in the Story: 

Character's role in the novel (main character? hero? heroine? Romantic interest? etc.):
Scene where character first appears:

Relationships with other characters:

1. Character's Name: -- (Describe relationship with this character and changes to relationship over the course of the novel).
2. Character's Name: -- (Describe relationship with this character and changes to relationship over the course of the novel).
3. Character's Name: -- (Describe relationship with this character and changes to relationship over the course of the novel).
4. Character's Name: -- (Describe relationship with this character and changes to relationship over the course of the novel).

Major plot points of the story:

How character is different at the end of the novel from when the novel began: 

Additional Notes on This Character: 

Long, huh?

But I fill it out for every major character including protagonists and antagonists. Why? Because it helps me write better characters. They become believable people, not just one- or two-dimensional cardboard characters. As authors, don't we want to write people that readers can relate to, who make readers keep turning the pages to find out what happens to them?

Another thing that's really helpful for getting to know your characters is to interview them. The worksheet is really good for fleshing out all the characteristics of your character, but sitting down and interviewing the character will help you get a feel for their voice and attitude. Tessa Conte did a great post (here) on the Relentless Writers blog about interviewing characters.

So, character, tell me about yourself...

The idea of interviewing is that there's no template for it. You "sit down" with your character in an imaginary setting and talk to them. It's freestyle. You write the conversation as it happens, and it's driven by who the character is and what you want to know about them. So the conversation I'd have with Isaac, the hero of the first book in my historical romance (he's a 30-something former Civil War soldier and ex-gunfighter) would be vastly different from the conversation with Jessica, the heroine of the contemporary romance I'm writing (she's divorced, mom of two teen girls, the director of a hospital medical records department, and four months from turning 40).

A conversation with Jessica might start something like this:

Margaret sits in her office, at one end of the couch in front of a bookshelf full of her favorite books. Jessica approaches.

MM: Hi Jessica. It's nice to meet you. You want to have a seat?

Jessica's dressed in dark jeans, boots, a blouse and blazer. She takes a seat at the other end of the couch and turns to face Margaret.

JJ: It's nice to meet you, too.

MM: Would you like some coffee?

JJ:  Sure, if it's no trouble. Black, please.

Margaret goes to the Keurig in the kitchenette and brews two cups of dark roast and returns to the couch, handing one to Jessica.

JJ: Mmm. This is great. Thanks.

MM: No problem. You're a coffee lover?

JJ:  Yeah. Coffee, chocolate...all the things we shouldn't love but still do.

MM: Eh. Life's too short to worry about that stuff.

JJ: (groans) Don't remind me. I'm facing forty and kinda freaking out about it.

MM: Midlife crisis?

JJ: God, I hope not.

MM: Why not? Isn't it kind of a rite of passage?

JJ: A midlife crisis means I'm halfway through. I'm not ready to be closer to the end than the beginning, thank you very much. Plus, it's just embarrassing.

MM: And cliche?

JJ: Yeah. (laughs)

MM: Don't worry. I've done forty and it's easier than you think.

JJ: Not if my friends have anything to say about it. They've decided the only way to get my mind off turning forty as a single woman is to turn me into a project.

MM: Oh?

JJ: Yeah. A couple of them think I need to get laid. They think casual sex will loosen me up and make everything better. The other two think I need to find love again, and that'll set everything right. Ugh.

MM: So what are they doing about it?

JJ: Shopping for men. I'll give them one thing, though. It's definitely got my mind off my birthday.

Anyway, the point is, talking to the characters gets me comfortable and familiar enough with them so I can tell their story.

And in the end, isn't that what's important?