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Kristen Lamb

Author, Blogger, Social Media Jedi

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Posts Tagged: dialogue

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For my regular peeps, you probably know about my favorite hostage guest contributor, blogger Alex Limberg. Today, he shines his spotlight at some basic dialogue problems we all know in one form or another.

Dialogue is one of the most powerful tools for storytelling. Dialogue is the difference between a cast of talking heads versus characters so real they are more alive to us than even people we know. Dialogue is the engine of plot, and coolest thing is?

We can mess with the reader’s emotions more than that crush in high school. But, though it seems so simple to use? It’s far from it.

So without further ado…take it away, Alex!

***

Here is the crazy thing about dialogue: It’s just pure, blunt, in-your-face words. With dialogue, there is no filter in between your characters and the reader.

When you describe an action, a setting or what your character thinks or feels, you, the author, are in the role of the messenger. You convey what is happening to the reader with your own words. Everything the reader senses, she senses through you.

But with dialogue, it’s very different.

When in your story little Bobby asks: “What’s bigger, the world or everything?” the reader will read exactly that phrase, “What’s bigger, the world or everything?” It’s like Bobby is talking right next to your reader’s ear, and you, the wicked author, are sitting in another place far away.

That straight-on nature makes it so hard to make dialogue lines sound good (well, it’s hard to make anything sound good in fiction writing, okay, okay, but mind you, this post is about dialogue…).

With dialogue, there is no place to hide.

No dense jungle of overgrowing language to cover you.

No big, solid rock of a character to overshadow your clumsiness.

No flashy action from another direction to distract the reader.

Nothing but the reader watching your dialogue like a hawk, coming down on your soft words mercilessly with his sharp peak, ripping your writer’s confidence apart… Ok, I’m getting carried away here, but you get the picture!

Especially when you start out, your dialogue will often sound clumsy. But it doesn’t have to be. Here are four basic mistakes almost everybody makes in the beginning stages of their writing – and how to avoid them and make your dialogue sound really smooth.

Just take care of these four things, and you have come a long, long way towards interesting and real dialogue.

And because I know dialogue flaws are often hard to detect for the writer himself, you can download a free goodie here to check your dialogue. It uses test questions, and you can also use it to make all other parts of your story tight and exciting.

1. All of the Characters Sound Like You

Newbie writers often let their characters talk however the sentences pop up in their, the writer’s, head. They don’t filter the dialogue lines through the character’s unique personality. Of course, all of the figures now talk like the writer himself.

With a little practice, that’s quite easy to avoid.

Think about who your characters are, one by one: What’s his age and sex? How did she grow up? What are his values? What’s her temper? What’s his personality?

When you really get into your characters’ heads, you will see that every single one of them demands totally different talk. They all use different vocabulary, different length of sentences, different power of expression, etc…

Mild-mannered Lady Bumblebee, who grew up on a castle, might say: “Would you be so kind as to give me notice for how much longer we have to ascend this questionable mountain?” Whereas hands-on lumberjack Burt, straight out of the woods, might say: “Damn! No end to that $%&* slope!”

Avoid making all the characters talk like you do.

2. The Dialogue is Filled with Commonplaces

Nobody reads fiction to see trivial phrases. In real life, a good part of what we speak consists of salutations, compliments, good wishes and other formulas. But in fiction, that’s annoying and a bore. Can you imagine how your audience would feel reading a scene beginning like this:

“Good morning, dear!” – “Good morning, darling!” – “Did you sleep well?” – “Yes, and you?”

They would feel bored, really bored.

In screenwriting, there is a rule that says “Get into the scene at the latest possible moment and out at the earliest possible moment.” In fiction, that rule is not so strict, because fiction readers can handle a pace that’s a bit slower. But keep in mind that you should always have a reason for every sentence you write.

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Superfluous words in a good story are like too much fat on a delicious steak – nobody needs it.

So what can you do?

Your first option is to just cut the formulas, nobody will miss them.

Your second option is to pack them into interesting, plot-driven dialogue, so they will seem like a natural byproduct and readers won’t notice. Take a look:

“Good morning, dear! Have you seen Georgie?”

“Oh my god, he should have been sitting on his high chair. Maybe he has sneaked outside, I’m gonna run and catch him. Good morning, darling!” [kisses him on cheek]

Avoid boring your readers with trivialities.

3. Your Characters Speak Logically, Not Emotionally

If the characters in your story always reply exactly “on point” to what the other one just said, your dialogue will feel very constructed.

In the real world, us humans talk first and foremost from our emotions. Our answers are often just emotional reactions deeply colored by our personalities; they are not precise, to the point replies.

Imagine one part of a couple asking the other one to go walk the dog. A logical reply would be something like: ”It’s your turn today, honey; I did it yesterday.”

But let’s make that character answer according to her feelings. She would say something like: “Why is it always me who has to walk the dog?” (annoyance) “Always the same old story!” (anger) or “And you want me to pick up the slippers for you too?” (with a slight grin; annoyed amusement)

You can make your dialogue vivid and realistic by letting your characters talk after their feelings, not after logic.

Avoid too “correct” and stilted dialogue.

Stiff Conversation 2

4. Boring. Boring. Boring. Your Dialogue is Just Boring.

Even if all the characters have their unique voices, your dialogue will also have to follow its primary purpose: To entertain!

Maybe you and your characters are just reciting the program of the plot too mechanically. Maybe there are no quirks, no detours, no fun, no suspense.

How can you solve this problem and inject something interesting?

For one, make sure your characters fully show off their personalities. The more they express their thoughts and feelings, the more material you will have to insert interesting bits of “dialogue within the dialogue.”

You can keep your dialogue juicy by introducing little “side topics.” Say the scene is about a guy buying a gun. Within the dialogue between him and the shop assistant, he gets sidetracked and enthusiastically depicts his new pink whirlpool to the assistant.

Remember, small detours can be entertaining, but they have to add something, be it suspense or fun. And they have to stay small and not take over the dialogue.

Avoid dull conversation in your scene.

Wow Your Reader With Intriguing Dialogue

You can often see these four typical mistakes in dialogues. With a little practice and a watchful eye though, you will eliminate them from your writing forever and craft dialogues so thrilling and authentic, your reader will swallow them like cotton candy.

Your characters will take on a life of their own and your audience will be swept away by their struggles and will just have to keep on turning the pages.

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Alex Limberg is blogging on ‘Ride the Pen’ to help you boost your fiction writing. His blog dissects famous authors (works, not bodies). Write gripping dialogue with his free ebook “44 Key Questions” to test your story (contains a to-the-point checklist to test every aspect of your story). Shakespeare is jealous. Alex has worked as a copywriter and on movies. He has lived in Vienna, Los Angeles, Madrid and Hamburg.

So what do you have to say to all of this?

Which character was the most difficult to get to talk for you so far? When your characters open their mouths, is it a pleasant experience? Do they dare to copy each other’s dialogue? Do they have the right to remain silent? Will you use anything they say or do against them in a court of law? If they can’t afford an attorney, will one be appointed to them? Do they have good breath?

I love hearing from you!

Let’s get a dialogue going… ha!

To prove it and show my love, for the month of APRIL, everyone who leaves a comment I will put your name in a hat. If you comment and link back to my blog on your blog, you get your name in the hat twice. What do you win? The unvarnished truth from yours truly. I will pick a winner once a month and it will be a critique of the first 20 pages of your novel.

ANNOUNCEMENT!

Making Money with FREE is tomorrow and there is still time to sign up. Our job as authors is tougher than ever, but I have a class to help with the business side of the business. I will be teaching about the most common mistakes writers use with FREE and teach how to use FREE for advantage.

As a BONUS, my friend Jack Patterson who’s sold over 150,000 books in less then four years is going to also teach how to rock a newsletter, how to tame Amazon and all kinds of other author insights into the toughest question we have…. HOW do I sell MORE BOOKS?

All WANA classes are recorded and the recording is free. The class is easy, convenient and from home and if you miss? We gotcha covered with the recording. So I hope to see y’all there!

 

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So last time we talked about the basics in regards to dialogue and once we grasp the fundamentals—like proper punctuation—we then can focus more on elements of style. How we deliver the dialogue.

We can tell a lot about people by the way they speak. What people say or don’t say speaks volumes. As the writer, it is our job to understand our characters and to know who they are and how they think. We have to master the art of empathy. If we don’t, our dialogue will all sound like US talking. Writing, in many ways is a lot like method acting. We have to crawl inside the head and the psyche of our cast.

Not as easy as it might seem.

Dialogue done well is the stuff of legends though. Think of favorite movies. Why do we love them SO much? Very often…dialogue.

My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die.

Social Roles—The Broad Strokes

I live in my apron only usually no makeup and hair in a scrunch-ee

Whether we like it or not, most of us will fall into some kind of social category with the way we speak. The way we speak will tell others a lot about who we are, our job, our background, level of education and even where we exist socially.

Don’t believe me?

How many of you were once young and wild and free and swore you would never be like your parents? Then one day you heard, “Because I said so, that’s why” fly out of your mouth?

“Why can’t you just do it the first time?”

“I didn’t ask you if you wanted to do it.”

I am bee-bopping along and suddenly hear my mother….

“Well, Spawn, when the mind is stupid, the body suffers.”

Shoot. Me. Now.

No matter how much we try, we are helpless in the face of mimesis. But, that isn’t such a bad thing. This actually makes it easier to do what we do. Since we’ve been around moms, we know how they talk. We can emulate the lingo. We know how teenagers, grandparents, grouchy neighbors, picky librarians, and con-artist family members all talk.

Through these “roles” we gain the broad strokes of what a character should “sound” like. This will help our characters ring true in the mental ear of the reader. There is nothing wrong with having characters who fit into a tidy box. They can still be interesting and unique even in that role.

Yes, I am a mother and I say all the stuff I swore I would never say.

No is just a part of life. 

I also play XBox with Spawn and say things like, “Burst-fire! Conserve your ammo!” “You can’t kill a zombie like that!” 

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Thus, even though a lot of what I say would be very prototypical “Mom Talk” there are elements of how I speak that make me unique within that subset. Not all moms shoot for sport, practice Jiu Jistu and randomly quote Monty Python. Spawn’s mom, however, DOES.

But this is is when we get into the…

Character—The Fine Strokes

Moms say things many other moms say, but each mom is unique. That is the case with most characters. If we don’t take time to really think about who each character IS, we can run the risk of a character sounding like a stock character.

Recently I read a YA and only finished it because I paid full-price. But the biggest reason I had a tough time getting into the story was that all the characters were blasé.

Each character talked like a stereotype. The broad strokes were there, but there was no nuance. Thus, I was left with a cast of characters who were utterly forgettable.

How do we get fine strokes?

Can we buy some on eBay?

This is a tough one to answer. The fine strokes can take years to master. We have to learn to be excellent listeners. We have to learn how to look beyond what people are saying. We have to become masters of empathy and we must study people. Beyond this, though, what is it that transforms a plot-puppet into a 3-D person?

I believe it is in our idiosyncrasies and our contradictions.

Idiosyncrasies 

An Idiosyncrasy is a peculiarity that is specific to one person. For instance, last time I mentioned the no-no about having every character speak in full sentences. Most of us don’t speak in full sentences so it rings untrue when everyone is using full sentences. BUT, some people DO speak in full sentences. That would be an idiosyncrasy and it’s one that is used regularly to convey highly intellectual characters—Ie. Dr. Sheldon Cooper.

A character who is foreign might not use contractions. A character who has OCD might always repeat verbs. A character who is advanced in years might never answer directly, but always answer in colorful parables.

I wrote a really funny character who constantly used malapropisms.

You just don’t cheat on your wife. When you get hitched, you promise to be faithful. You know. Monotonous.

We all have sayings and filler words that are unique to each of us. But adding these subtle details, now we have characters who are far more dimensional.

So we might have a mother who is saying all kinds of mom-like things…only she is unique because she is bad about smashing words together and speaks in hyperbole.

Eat your vegetables and don’t correct me. It’s very condensending.

Condescending.

I know what I said, Mr. Smarty Pants. Hurry up before I trade you to the Jones family for a puppy. At least the puppy would have some respect.

Add Some Layers

Remember that most humans are actually a unique blending of experience and roles. Yes, we might have a mom who is talking like a mom, but what else is she? A mom who is a Japanese violinist would probably talk differently than a mom who is a cop and grew up in Brooklyn.

Culture

Culture impacts a lot more than we might realize. I was born in Texas, but reared by a Yankee mom who is very direct and no-nonsense. I have run into all kinds of trouble with Southern women who feel I am rude. Conversely, I get short with Southern women because I am aging and don’t have time for all the niceties.

My roommate in college was from Georgia and we went round and round and round. She’d say:

Roommate: Kristen, do you think the trash needs to go out?

Me: Nah, looks good to me *keeps going*

Because her culture dictated it was more polite to hint and suggest? I missed most of what she wanted because I was always direct. If I wanted someone to take out the trash, I simply asked.

But here is an extra lesson in dialogue. Just from this example, can you see how conflict can arise simply from expectations? She believed she was asking me to take out the trash and believed that I was ignoring her. Conversely, I couldn’t figure out why she wanted an opinion on the state of our garbage so often. Why didn’t she just ask me to take it out? I would have happily obliged.

Self-Image

How does your character feel about him/herself? A low self-image might make a person a people pleaser. Maybe she is always agreeing with everyone and terrified to have her own opinion. Maybe the character talks too much, tries too hard, never asks about others.

If a character is selfish, he might brag all the time, or have to outdo everyone else in the conversation.

That’s great you caught a fish, but you were on a lake. Now go deep sea fishing. That’s real fishing. I once struggled with a fifteen foot shark for three hours….

Maybe the character is always interrupting others. Maybe the character uses profanity or quotes bible verses all the time. Or both.

Contrast

Sometimes we can use dialogue to make contrasts. Contrasts are very interesting and say a lot about our character. A great example would be Elmore Leonard’s character Boyd Crowder (refer to television series Justified). Now, Boyd fits into a broad-stroke category of a hillbilly. He has a deep southern accent, works with his hands, drives a ratty truck, wears boots, and drinks like a fish.

But what makes Boyd a fascinating character study, especially for dialogue, is he is unexpected. He is a fascinating contrast. Though he is a redneck (and plays this up for his own ends) he uses a twenty-dollar word when a ten cent one would do. He speaks very colorfully. If you ask him the time, he will tell you how to build a watch.

Not only is his speech idiosyncratic, but it is a very unique contrast. One usually doesn’t expect a hillbilly to use words most of us would have to look up in a thesaurus.

Show Don’t Tell

Dialogue is HUGE, HUGE, HUGE for Show Don’t Tell.

Instead of telling us a character is a certain way, SHOW us by how she talks and what she says.

A gossip.

“Now, for the record, I’ve never seen her drink, but she always looks so tired. My brother-in-law always looked that way because he was throwing them back in secret.”

A self-involved jerk.

“Sure, Babe. After I meet with my client, how about I meet you for that cute little college thing you’re doing. What was it again? Art history?”

Y’all get the gist. Now go have fun with it!

All of this is to say that dialogue is one of the most powerful tools for showing who a character is, who they are hiding and maybe even who they could be with a little help from us (Writer-God). Next time, we will dig a bit deeper into dialogue. Who knew there was so much to this? What are your thoughts? What other suggestions do you have for authentic-sounding dialogue?

I LOVE hearing from you!

To prove it and show my love, for the month of SEPTEMBER, everyone who leaves a comment I will put your name in a hat. If you comment and link back to my blog on your blog, you get your name in the hat twice. What do you win? The unvarnished truth from yours truly. I will pick a winner once a month and it will be a critique of the first 20 pages of your novel.

August’s WINNER is lonestarjake88. Please send your 20 pages (2500 words) to kristen at wana intl dot com in a WORD document. Double-spaced and one-inch margins and CONGRATULATIONS!

For those who need help building a platform and keeping it SIMPLE, pick up a copy of my latest social media/branding book Rise of the Machines—Human Authors in a Digital World on AMAZON, iBooks, or Nook

lonestarjake88

Image courtesy of Flikr Creative Commons

Sorry to be away so long. Been a weird couple of weeks getting Spawn ready for the BIG K—Kindergarten. Uniforms and doctors and immunizations and vision/hearing tests (and yes, apparently he CAN hear, he is just ignoring us). I am still unaccustomed to so much quiet. For those who are curious, YES I was going to homeschool, but we found a super cool private school where he is in a class of TEN and he loves it. He was getting lonely and kept asking to go to school so he could be with other kids, so I figured we’d give it a shot. So far so good.

He is now Spawn, The Most Interesting Kid in the World….

The Most Interesting Kid in the World...

Back to writing…

Today we are going to talk about a subject that I don’t think I have ever blogged about. Dialogue. Great dialogue is one of the most vital components of fiction. Dialogue is responsible for not only conveying the plot, but it also helps us understand the characters and get to know them, love them, hate them, whatever.

Dialogue is powerful for revealing character. This is as true in life as it is on the page. If people didn’t judge us based on how we speak, then business professionals would bother with Toastmasters, speaking coaches or vocabulary builders. I’d imagine few people who’d hire a brain surgeon who spoke like a rap musician and conversely, it would be tough to enjoy rap music made by an artist who spoke like the curator of an art museum.

Our word choices are reflective of WHO we are. Dialogue can not only show age and gender. It can elucidate level of education, profession, personality, ego, wounds, insecurity, and on and on and on.

In fact dialogue is so powerful that one way we know we have done our job as a writer is when we can remove all dialogue tags and the reader still knows which character is talking. This said, there are a LOT of newbie errors I see when it comes to writing dialogue and that’s what we are going to talk about today.

#1 Punctuate Properly

When it comes to dialogue, we need to make sure we are punctuating properly. This might seem like a picky matter, but improper dialogue punctuation is a quick way to end up in a slush pile. If a writer doesn’t yet know how to punctuate dialogue correctly, then most agents (or even readers) simply aren’t going to commit any more time. Also, if you are paying good money for an editor, they have a hard time getting to the MEAT of your story if they are spending all their time fixing disastrous punctuation.

When I get samples from new writers, I see a lot of this:

“Have a nice day” she closed the door and that was when Kristen had to spend the next few hours repairing punctuation.

“Have a nice day.” She closed the door blah blah blah….

OR

“Have a nice day,” she said. She closed the door blah blah blah…

The comma goes INSIDE the end quote mark and then we add a tag. If there is NO tag word (said, asked) then we insert a PERIOD.

DO NOT use actions as tags. Why? Because actions are actions…not tags.

“Have a nice day,” she closed the door said.

For all the neat ways dialogue is punctuated, refer to a handy dandy Strunk & White 😉 ,

#2 No Weird Dialogue Tags

This goes with the “no action tags” idea.

“I have no idea what you mean,” Kinsey snarled.

“You know exactly what I mean,” Jake laughed.

NO.

Characters can say things or ask things but they can’t smirk, snarl or laugh things. Again, when agents, editors, or even savvy readers see these strange tags, it is a red flag the author is green.

#3 Stick to Unassuming Tags

When using tags, keep it simple— said, asked, replied (maybe). Why? Well, I hate proffering rules without explanation so here goes.

Simply? When we add those creative tags on the end, we are coaching the reader. Our dialogue should be strong enough alone to convey the tone we want. When we coach the reader, we are being redundant and more than a tad insulting to the reader.

“You have some nerve showing your face,” she spat.

See what I mean? By adding the “she spat” I am essentially telling you that I worry you aren’t sharp enough to know this character is upset.

But, I am betting the dialogue alone—“You have some nerve showing your face”—was plenty for you guys to give the appropriate tone of voice in your head. I really didn’t need to add the “she spat.”

I know that keeping to simple tags seems harsh, but if we have done our job writing dialogue, the tags will disappear in the reader’s mind. The dialogue will simply flow.

Additionally, if we write using Deep POV, we don’t even need/use tags.

“I have no idea what you mean.” Kinsey refused to look at him and polished the wine glass so hard she wondered if she’d bore a hole clean through.

See how the character is DOING something that tells us the tone of the dialogue. Remember that communication is about 90% is nonverbal. Body language is a big deal.

Notice we are showing and not telling. Instead of spelling out that Kinsey is irritated, we have her DOING something that shows us she is ticked and trust the reader to fill in the blanks.

#4 Do NOT Phonetically Spell Out Accents

Yes, when we dust of old volumes of literature we see that the writers (I.e. Twain) wrote out dialogue phonetically to show the accent of the character speaking.

BUT…Herman Melville also spent over a hundred pages talking about whales for the same reasons. Most people lived and died in isolation. Travel was reserved for the very rich. Photographs and paintings were rare. There was no television, radio or Internet.

Just like Melville’s readers could live an entire lifetime without seeing the ocean (let alone a whale), Twain’s audience in Europe likely would never travel to the rural American South. Thus, they would have no concept of what a Southern accent “sounded” like. Therefore, in fiction, it was perfectly acceptable to phonetically write out how someone would have talked.

These days, if we are writing a character who has an Irish brogue or a Southern drawl or a Cockney accent, we no longer need to spell it out phonetically. The reason is that there has been so much entertainment (movies, etc.) that we know what an Irish brogue should sound like and when we “spell it out” for the reader, it makes the dialogue cumbersome.

#5 DO Feel Free to Use Unique Words, Expressions or Idioms

I write a lot of characters who are Texans. It’s true I don’t need to write out the Texas accent phonetically, but I can add in some terms and expressions to keep the reader “hearing” a Texan in her head without making my dialogue weird.

“Y’all won’t believe this. Delroy got a job. A J-O-B.”

“Who’d hire him? He’s useless as ice trays in hell. ”

Feel free to use a couple of words that convey an accent—ain’t, gonna, bloody—just avoid spelling it out in entirety or risk frustrating readers.

#6 DO NOT Have Characters Constantly Calling Each Other By NAME

I see this one a lot and it is seriously weird.

“Biff, what are you doing?” Blane asked.

“Why Blane, I am making a present for Buffy. You know how Buffy is about her birthday. What are you doing Blane? Are you having lunch with Beverly?”

Okay, so I am being a bit silly here to make a point, but how often do you call the other person by name when talking? Who does this? Worse still, who does this over and over and over, especially when there is only one other person in the room? Try this in real life.

Me: Shawn, why are you home so early? I thought you’d be at work.

Hubby: I had to run an errand, Kristen.

Me: Well, Shawn I have to run to the grocery store.

Hubby: Kristen, that is…

Okay, I am giggling too much. Y’all get the gist.

#7 Do NOT Write Dialogue in Complete Sentences

My above examples are kind of a twofer. Not only is the dialogue seriously strange with everyone using a proper name, but notice all the dialogue is in complete sentences. Most people don’t talk that way. If we do, we sound like a robot or a foreigner with a rudimentary grasp of the language.

Is it wrong to have dialogue in complete sentences? No. But usually it is ONE character who talks that way and it is an idiosyncratic trait particular to THAT character. Ie. Data from Star Trek or Sheldon from Big Bang Theory.

#8 Avoid Punctuation Props

Avoid overusing exclamation points and ellipses. Again, if our dialogue is strong enough, readers will “get” when a character is yelling or pausing. Especially avoid being redundant with the punctuation and the tags.

“Get out of my house!” she yelled.

Really? No kidding.

And remember…that…when we use…a lot….of ellipses…we are being annoying….not…….dramatic.

(And ellipses are only THREE dots and in some cases four 😉 . Refer to Strunk & White or here is a lovely article from Grammar Girl.)

#9 NO “As You Know” Syndrome

I love David Mamet and I really love his Letter to the Writers of The Unit where he tears the writing team a new one. I love forwarding on his advice, because no one says it better and this is just as true for novels as it is for screenplays. I’ve included the best lines about dialogue:

Look at your log-lines. Any log line reading, “BOB AND SUE DISCUSS…” is NOT describing a dramatic scene.

Here are the danger signals. Anytime two characters are talking about a third, the scene is a crock of s&%$. Any time any character is saying to another “AS YOU KNOW” that is, telling another character what you—the writer—need the audience to know, the scene is a crock of s&%$*. ~David Mamet

No brain-holding. We are in the drama business, not the information business.

Later we will talk about ways that we can use dialogue to convey character. What are your thoughts? Questions? Who are your favorite authors regarding dialogue? I adore Sue Grafton. Every one of her characters just leaps off the page. I love great dialogue and have been known to highlight it just to keep it. What about you? Or am I the only dialogue geek?

I LOVE hearing from you!

To prove it and show my love, for the month of SEPTEMBER, everyone who leaves a comment I will put your name in a hat. If you comment and link back to my blog on your blog, you get your name in the hat twice. What do you win? The unvarnished truth from yours truly. I will pick a winner once a month and it will be a critique of the first 20 pages of your novel.

Will announce August’s winner next time because I am still playing catch up.

For those who need help building a platform and keeping it SIMPLE, pick up a copy of my latest social media/branding book Rise of the Machines—Human Authors in a Digital World on AMAZON, iBooks, or Nook

NaNoWriMo is kind of like Christmas for writers—suffering, drama, no sleep, heavy drinking and really bad eating habits. Also, we start talking about NaNoWriMo months before it actually happens.

If you are a new writer and don’t know what NaNoWriMo is? It stands for National Novel Writing Month and it is held for the duration of November. The goal is to write 50,000 words in a month.

In a nutshell, it gives a taste of what it is like to do this writing thing as a job, because for the professional writer? Every month is NaNoWriMo, so there is NO BETTER indoctrination into this business.

NaNo shapes us from hobbyists to pros, but we need to do some preparation if we want to be successful—finish 50,000 words and actually have something that can be revised into a real novel that others might part with money to read. Genre obviously will dictate the fuel required, but today we’ll explore my favorites.

Movies

I like watching movies to strengthen my plotting muscles. Unlike novels, screenplays have very strict structure rules. Also, it takes far less time to watch a movie than read a novel, so movies can be fantastic for practice (and also our goofing off can have a practical application 😀 ) .

Study plot points. Sit with a notebook and see if you can write out each of these major points in one to three sentences.

Normal World

First of all, in recent years, Normal World has become considerably shorter. Actually, it began that way. In Oedipus Rex, the story begins with the kingdom in a real mess. There is a plague upon the land and somehow the king is at fault.

It wasn’t until centuries later that writers at large stopped trusting the audience and Normal World went on and on and on and we followed a character from birth and then about a hundred pages in? Something went amiss and we finally got to the PROBLEM.

I believe this phenomena also coincided with when writers started getting paid by the word…. *raises eyebrow*

These days? People (readers) DO NOT have that kind of patience. Normal World is often seriously condensed or even missing.

But back to the movie you are watching for practice…

If there IS a Normal World (even a brief one) can you detail it in a sentence or two?

What was the character’s life like before it was interrupted by the BBT’s (CORE ANTAGONIST’S) agenda? I will use two divergent examples—World War Z and Steel Magnolias— to make my point and hopefully not spoil the more recent of the two. As far as Steel Magnolias? Y’all have had since 1989 to see it. Tough :P.

In World War Z, we meet a guy making breakfast for his family. He’s hung up some mysterious “old bad@$$ life” in order to be with his wife and kids.

In Steel Magnolias, we meet M’Lynn taking care of all the little details of her daughter’s wedding. She’s a Hover-Mother who takes care of the broken glasses, finds the right shade of pink nail polish, and stops Dad from shooting birds out of the trees. She’s a fixer and she’s in control.

Inciting Incident

This is the first hint of the BBT’s (Big Boss Troublemaker’s) agenda, the first tangible place it intersects with the protagonist’s life and causes disruption. Can you spot it?

In World War Z, we know from watching the background TV noise when they are having breakfast that a mysterious illness has already broken out. BUT, the virus has not yet directly intersected with the protagonist. When does this happen?

Jack and his family are in the car. He and his wife are on their way to take the kids to school when all hell breaks loose. It’s the first glimpse the protagonist sees of the looming threat, but aside from escaping with his family, he’s made no vested decision to get involved.

In Steel Magnolias the Inciting Incident happens in the beauty shop when Shelby’s blood sugars drop dangerously low and she goes into convulsions. Mom tries to help and Shelby swats her away (a hint at her future defiance). This is the first time the audience has met the BBT (Death/Diabetes manifested in the proxy Shelby).

Turning Points

Look for the major turning points in the movie. According to one of my FAVORITE craft books (Story Engineering) in Act One, the protagonist is running. He or she doesn’t know where exactly the conflict is coming from or precisely what IT is. Act Two, the protagonist is a Warrior. He or she has glimpsed the face of the BBT and fights back.

For instance, in World War Z, Jack knows it’s a virus creating “zombies” and he decides to return to the old job and fight. He agrees to search for Patient Zero in hopes they can find a cure.

In Steel Magnolias, M’Lynn shifts from Running (Here’s your orange juice. Have you checked your blood sugar?) to Warrior. Her daughter defies her and decides to get pregnant even though it could (and will) cost her life. Momma puts on full battle gear, determined to “control” her daughter’s fate. Diabetes has shifted from looming “controllable” threat to a ticking time bomb Mom still believes she can defuse if she just tries hard enough.

Act Three, the protagonist shifts from Warrior to Hero.

Darkest Moment

This is right before the turning point to Act Three. This is where EVERYTHING is stripped away from the protagonist and it seems all is lost. The DM is the catalyst that shifts our protagonist from Warrior to Hero. Anyone else would give up the “fight” and go home, but not our protagonist.

In World War Z the protagonist is critically injured, he’s lost his family, outside help, and he’s faced with a crushing setback. There is no Patient Zero, at least no “clear” Patient Zero. It’s a dead end and it looks like time has just about run out for humankind.

In Steel Magnolias Shelby dies despite all of M’Lynn’s tireless efforts to control. She realizes she has no power. She never was in control and now she’s utterly lost.

Act Three/ Character Arc

How does the protagonist mentally shift over the course of the story? What was the critical flaw that would have held them back in the beginning, that would have made the protagonist “lose” if pitted against the BBT.

For Jack, he has to be willing to give up his family to save his family.

For M’Lynn, she has to admit she can’t control life or death in order to embrace the messiness of living.

How is the story problem resolved? 

Pay attention to the Big Boss Battle. How has the protagonist changed? What decisions do they make (or not make)?

What is the outcome? How is the world set “right”?

In World War Z, Jack’s sacrifice gives humanity a fighting chance. In Steele Magnolias we see little Jackson (biological grandson) running and picking up Easter eggs (there is NO mistake that this story is bookended by Easter). Resurrection through Jackson is what ultimately defeats Death. Shelby lives on through her little boy.

Beyond Plot—What Else to “Study”

Dialogue

Great movies have great dialogue. Study it. How do characters talk? When I get submissions, one of the major problems I see is in dialogue. Coaching the reader, brain-holding, and characters simply talking in ways that are unrealistic. For instance, most of us, when having a conversation, don’t sit and call each other by name.

“But, Bob, if Fifi goes base-jumping she could die.”

“Yes, Joe, but it’s Fifi’s life and if she want’s to be stuff on a rock, it’s her decision, not ours.”

“I agree, Bob, but I love Fifi.”

“Joe, then tell her. Fifi’s craving attention.”

*rolls eyes*

Details

The devil is in the details. Details are like truffle oil. A little goes a LONG way and what a flavor enhancer! We writers don’t need to be super detailed about everything (because when we emphasize everything we emphasize nothing). But, a little goes a long way for good or for bad.

Get the details correct and we will love you. Get them wrong?

*brakes screech*

I am a gun person. If your character reloads using a clip? I will toss the book across the room.

This is my BOOM-STICK!

Clips go in your hair. Magazines go in your gun.

I once read a book where the protagonist was putting the safety on her revolver. O_o

Unless the protagonist is a gun collector with some weird @$$ revolver only useful for collecting? No such thing as a safety on a revolver.

Shows me the author didn’t do some basic homework. Granted, details matter more in some genres versus others. Readers of a military thriller will be far pickier than those who read a high fantasy.

I recently had a writer who had me edit her first 20 pages. The story was excellent and had to do with a soldier in Afghanistan. Problem was, there were some main details that were simply wrong that were a pretty big deal (which I fixed for her). There was also a smaller, more obscure detail. The scene was set in 2004 and her protagonist was rescuing a fellow soldier from a burning vehicle. Unfortunately, the uniforms at that time were not flame retardant (a problem the military was forced to remedy in later years).  In 2004, the fabric would have melted to him and the scene (in reality) would have played out very differently.

Granted, this detail about the uniforms is something only a military geek would likely know. But, if the writer worked that in???? Mad respect from the discerning reader.

If you need to know details, use social media. There are all kinds of military folks, law enforcement people, gun experts, history experts, medical personnel and people who do martial arts who are eager to help writers get things RIGHT. I regularly have people write me about hand-to-hand, since I practice Brazilian Jiu Jitsu.

If you’re writing a military book, watch a friend play Call of Duty or Modern Warfare. Game designers use folks from Special Operations as consultants. They use DELTA Force, Green Berets, SEALS, etc for all the world-building, so why reinvent the wheel? Hollywood is notorious for getting this stuff dead WRONG, so if you want accurate military dialogue, games are better. Or, watch movies created by folks who’ve done their homework (I.e. Hurt Locker).

Setting

Movies are great for getting an idea of setting. Pay attention to the terrain and make notes. Work to be accurate.

Grossly inaccurate setting is distracting in books and film. I loved the recent mini-series Texas Rising, because DUH, I am a Texan. But the setting drove me BONKERS.

Just so y’all know, there are no Colorado-Large mountains anywhere near San Antonio.

*Kristen twitches*

So I hope all these tips will help y’all fill that muse to bursting and NaNo will be a LOT easier.

Another HUGE help for NaNo is a solid core story problem. I strongly recommend my antagonist class NEXT SATURDAY. If you’re not too strong at plotting? This class will make even the pantsiest of pantsers a master of story.

Anyway….

What are your thoughts? What are some things you do to prepare to write a novel? What movies have the best dialogue? Setting? Yes, I know I have ruined all movies for you. You will thank me later :P.

I LOVE hearing from you!

To prove it and show my love, for the month of AUGUST, everyone who leaves a comment I will put your name in a hat. If you comment and link back to my blog on your blog, you get your name in the hat twice. What do you win? The unvarnished truth from yours truly. I will pick a winner once a month and it will be a critique of the first 20 pages of your novel, or your query letter, or your synopsis (5 pages or less).

Before we go…. It’s BACK TO SCHOOL!:

Remember! THIS SATURDAY, I am running my Hooking the Reader—Your First Five Pages. Beginnings are crucial. As a long-time editor, I can tell almost every bad habit and story flaw in five pages. I rarely need over 20. This class helps you learn to see what agents and editors see and learn how to correct most common writing mistakes. I am offering additional levels if you want me to shred your first 5 or even 20 pages.

All classes are recorded and the recording is provided FREE with purchase.

Can’t wait to see you in class and read your writing!

Les Edgerton
Les Edgerton

Today, is Les Edgerton’s last post in this series. We’ve been extraordinarily blessed to learn from him, so I hope y’all will give him a digital hug or round of applause. Les will soon be teaching on-line classes for WANA, so I’ll let you know when those are available.

Take it away, Les!

All of the points we’ve covered in this dialogue series are intended for one purpose only—to help writers avoid the red flags that improper dialogue can create for agents and editors… and readers.

And that’s what they are—red flags. That doesn’t mean that breaking any of these “rules” or conventions will doom your mss from being taken, but it does mean the presence of them can cast a negative light on your work. And, I imagine we all want to avoid that!

Also, there will be a great many examples of novels that break these precepts. There are many reasons for that. Contrary to popular opinion, novels don’t make it into print simply because they’re quality writing. There are many other factors at work. Factors that the writer may or may not have control over.

For instance, novels are published because the author has made a personal connection with a publisher. When an editor knows someone and likes that person, it’s not uncommon for that person’s book to be taken over another more worthy one. Happens all the time.

Or, an author may have had one or more successful novels already published and the current one may not be as good as the mss lying on the same desk as an unknown author, but the lesser quality novel will be taken. Again, happens all the time.

Sometimes, even though the novel breaks all kinds of rules, something in a novel like this may simply appeal to an individual editor. Maybe it’s the voice. Maybe it’s the setting—my first novel was taken by accident because of its setting. The Death of Tarpons had been rejected 86 times before I sent it to the University of North Texas Press.

That’s EIGHTY-SIX times!

That was in the days of snail mail submissions, where you had to pay the postage for the mss to the editor and also provide return postage. That was during a time when my family ate a lot of beans and really couldn’t afford to buy the tons of stamps I needed. I had made my mind up that once I reached 100 rejections, I would “retire” the manuscript.

What happened was that it landed on the desk of UNT’s publisher, Fran Vick. Unbeknownst to me at the time, UNT had never before published fiction. If I’d known that, I never would have sent it. Anyway, Fran’s secretary had unwrapped the day’s mail and as it by chance happened, mine was the first mss on Fran’s desk. Her normal routine when presented with a fiction mss, was for her to not even read it, but just stick a standard rejection notice in it and have her secretary send it back.

Luck was on my side!

As Fran related to me later (I’ve just revealed a happy ending and taken all the tension out of this, haven’t I!), her secretary was bringing her her morning cup of coffee and something happened where she had to remake the pot. That gave Fran an extra five minutes or so before she began her “official” day, so, for want of anything else to do, she picked up the first page of my novel and began idly to read it. If it wasn’t for her secretary’s failing to deliver her that cup of coffee, none of what happened next would have ever happened.

It’s what she read on that first page that induced her to keep reading. The novel was set in Freeport, Texas, the town I grew up in. Like most first novels, it was an autobiographical, “coming-of-age” novel (there’s a cliché for ya!). The thing is… Freeport was Fran’s hometown!

What editor can resist reading about their own hometown, especially when that town is a tiny burg like Freeport? A New York City editor, glancing at the first page of a mss and seeing it’s set in NYC isn’t going to be nearly as intrigued as an editor from Freeport, Texas reading a novel set in… Freeport, Texas!

As it turned out, Fran also knew my grandmother who was prominently on the page immediately and was instantly drawn into the story and read it all the way through, got on the phone, and offered to buy it.

So, there’s luck involved sometimes. Although, the book was well-written, so it also pays to be ready for luck when it appears. Fortune favors the prepared! The book went on to be well-reviewed and sold very well and earned a Special Mention from the Violet Crown Book Awards.

The point is, there are so many factors out of your control that can lead to or prevent publication. But, there are factors that you can control and among them are adhering to contemporary writing styles and conventions. And that is the impetus behind these precepts. To help you avoid many of the red flags that may prevent your mss from getting a fair and thorough reading.

Okay? Best of luck to all of you and your writing endeavors!

Blue skies,

Les

Les, THANK YOU SOOOOO MUCH. We really appreciate you taking so much time from your packed schedule.

I love hearing from you!

To prove it and show my love, for the month of April, everyone who leaves a comment I will put your name in a hat. If you comment and link back to my blog on your blog, you get your name in the hat twice. If you leave a comment, and link back to my blog, and mention my book We Are Not Alone in your blog…you get your name in the hat THREE times. What do you win? The unvarnished truth from yours truly.

I will pick a winner once a month and it will be a critique of the first 20 pages of your novelor your query letter, or your synopsis (5 pages or less).

And also, winners have a limited time to claim the prize, because what’s happening is there are actually quite a few people who never claim the critique, so I never know if the spam folder ate it or to look for it and then people miss out. I will also give my corporate e-mail to insure we connect and I will only have a week to return the 20 page edit.

At the end of April I will pick a winner for the monthly prize. Good luck!

Les Edgerton is the author of HOOKEDTHE RAPISTTHE BITCH and others.