Tag Archives: Dialogue

The Red Pen: Stating the Obvious that Obviously Needs Stating

I’ve been wearing my editor hat again the last couple weeks, working with someone’s raw manuscript that is pending rewrite for resubmission. For confidentiality reasons, I apologize that I can’t be more specific than I am. What follows below are merely some overarching concerns that a rookie can easily overlook (hey, I’m one, too!) and sometimes get the Monkey’s head beating against the trunk of its tree:

1. Research – They say, “Write what you know,” but one doesn’t have to live in a place or serve in a certain profession, for example, to be able to research authentic details relating to such. Writing fiction doesn’t give the liberty to entirely fabricate a place or occupation if it’s one that actually exists. The internet is a beautiful place for research, as are books, site visits, and interviews with people in the applicable locations/fields. Be knowledgeable of your story’s setting and subjects and use common sense to discern what claims need to be fact-checked, then verify them accordingly. (see also “Settingcategory)

2. Narrative – Do NOT “tell” versus “show”! That is Writing 101. Your story shouldn’t read like an extended synopsis that lists events rather than describes them in such a way that immerses the reader. Don’t say that your character is making a facial expression that looks angry, show that his brows are furrowed and lips screwed into a menacing sneer. Don’t say that the room is filled with expensive-looking furniture, show that it’s cluttered with ornately carved oak chairs upholstered in embroidered silk astride side-tables trimmed in gold leaf (I don’t know if that’s “expensive” or just tacky…). And don’t say something in dialogue that you then paraphrase in narrative—communicate the info/insight one way or the other; to do both is redundant.

Also, avoid an abundance of character introspection. Readers really don’t need to know every single thought and motivation of your character. Make them privy, yes, if it’s from a certain character’s POV, but it’s also more interesting and vivid to visualize if you concisely show their body language and actions and let the reader reasonably infer some of what they’re thinking or feeling. Telling all on characters and the labyrinth of questioning they’re wondering their way through is tedious and doesn’t let readers form questions of their own that’ll make them keep reading in search of answers. Leaving something to the imagination not only indulges one of the joys of reading but can heighten a story’s sense of conflict and climax when the reader isn’t already in the know of everything. (see alsoDescriptive LanguageandSensory Detailscategories)

3. Dialogue. In keeping with the above, character conversation can come across as unnatural when too much information is shared by this means. Be subtle when doling out back-story or insight via dialogue, otherwise it’s blunt and awkward: your manipulations of story become too transparent, and the characters don’t sound like real people. (see alsoDialoguecategory)

4. Characterization. The above narration/dialogue factors are just as important to building a strong sense of character. Do your characters sound believable? Are you showing enough description of features, mannerisms, and personality such that your reader can visualize your characters (yet not so much that you’re telling readers everything about them and leaving nothing to the imagination)? And are you giving your reader reason to remotely care about them and whether or not they reach their goals? Without any of this, characters aren’t even two dimensional; they’re stick-straight lines. Boring. Flesh ’em out and make them more interesting with flaws if they seem too goodie-goodie or benign—or with redeeming qualities if they’re otherwise the Devil incarnate. No one likes a purely good hero or a purely evil villain. (see alsoCharactercategory)

5. Story Arc. Tensions need to rise as the story progresses. Not overly telling and giving everything away (as discussed above) will help contribute to this as readers speculate character motivations and future actions and reactions; scan and replace lengthy sections of introspection with concise, external descriptions of character body language/expression and leave readers to their own interpretations. Add complexity by interweaving relevant back-story and subplot(s). Foreshadowing is also a useful device for enhancing curiosity along the way as readers form predictions, but it will blow up in your face if the seeds you plant are too obvious! Don’t lead up to your big reveal only for your reader to go, “Uh, derr!” That reeks of anticlimax.

It’s not to say everything should be a surprise for the reader—it can be just as suspenseful when the reader already knows something the character doesn’t (like in horror movies when you know the killer is lurking right around the corner from the innocent victim), but only when it’s deliberately played to this effect. There’s a craft in pulling that off, so don’t think simply telling your reader everything and leaving your character in the dark is an easy shortcut—be discerning in what you share and withhold.

Your big revelations can likewise be a let-down if your characters’ own responses fall flat. Think about what you’re wanting your readers to anticipate, to get excited about, and make sure you deliver it in a commensurately enthusiastic fashion. If there’s a big secret out there that your reader knows and is dying for your character to find out, is the character finding out in an exciting and unexpected way? Or is, for instance, another character just explaining it in a straight-forward conversation, garnering a reaction as enthralling as, “Oh.” (see alsoStory Arccategory and, more specifically, Pacing Your Pages” Parts I & II)

6. Other: Plot Elements (in general). Map out all the major and minor elements of your plot and subplot(s) alike and make sure every piece of them flows/connects logically. Ensure not a single important question they could raise is left unanswered if it’s vital to understanding and believing in the story. Loose ends that leave something to the imagination or tease for a sequel are one thing, but overlooking major gaps in how a character got from Point A to Point B (just because you want them to get there for the sake of driving the story forward in other ways) undermines a story’s entire credibility. Don’t just say something happened if it’s not entirely logical for it to have happened and assume your readers won’t notice, that they’ll just take your word for it. If something is complicated whether you like it or not, do the work to figure it out; stop writing and start reasoning through it (via outline or time-line, perhaps). Do more research if it’s necessary. And if it’s not working, accept it and change it to something that will.

Readers’ disbelief can only be suspended so far; you have to earn their trust if they’re going to follow the journey you want to take them on. Even the most fantastical of story-worlds need plausibility (working within the rules/parameters the author so designs for those worlds if it’s not the one we actually live in), so the reader must understand how plot events feasibly come to happen and tie together for the story to be realistic and identifiable.

Speaking of “Uh, durr!” and “Oh,” that’s probably your reader-response to all of the above. But you’d be surprised what we writers can’t see in our own writing that we so clearly do in others. As the author, the mental full-picture we see tends to automatically fill the gaps of the written story that our readers otherwise trip into. With that in mind, never underestimate a pair of fresh eyes; it really does pay to have others read your work. So toughen that skin and git ‘er done! Constructive criticism has groomed the Monkey’s own fur into a nice thick and glossy coat. 🙂


Are YOU Talkin’ to ME?

We all have them.  Those heated exchanges (or ones that are on their way to becoming heated) when we bite our tongues rather than spew what we’d really like to say.  Well, I must say I’ve gotten much, much better at speaking my mind over the last decade, so it’s hard to think of any recent times I’ve muzzled myself (quite unfortunate for my husband)…but still, there are times when we’ll do it for whatever reason:  to be tactful, to spare feelings, or maybe just to save time until we can regroup and come back with a better debate strategy.

The Prompt:

Page 24 of Room to Write asks us to think back to an argument when we’ve held back.  Let it all out now, considering what you censored or reworded at the time.  Develop it as a dialogue in which you likewise speculate how the other person may have responded.


I’m going to cheat on this one.  I’ve been trying to dig up some great conflict from my youth, but it isn’t coming to me right now.  The first hot topic that does come to mind, however, is one that I addressed three years ago by writing a letter that I knew I would never end up sending.  The file name I’d saved it under was, “If I Ever Have the Nerve to Send it,” so I could at least have it at the ready if need be.  The act of writing it out was in itself therapeutic and, as of this year, perhaps financially rewarding.  I’m still waiting to hear the latest update, but as of March I signed a release to have the letter included in an anthology entitled Best of Unsent Letters (I’m doubting the intended recipients would discover it under my pen name). We’ll see.  Maybe publication is delayed.  Maybe they forgot about me.  At any rate, until I know, I can’t share it here, but if it gets posted on their corresponding blog, I’ll retroactively add the link so you can see what spiteful things I have to say when someone crosses my family. “NOBODY puts Baby in the corner!

To make up for lack of creativity this fine, lazy Sunday, I’ll throw this out there.  When I do have a bone to pick but not the commensurate nerve to say it to the applicable person, I have a habit of carrying out the exchange in the mirror.  Of course, this could mean that I’m senile.  Regardless, I ended up incorporating this into one of my character’s list of quirks to rationalize why she (me) does it. Here is the draft excerpt of such a scene:

She really did spend inordinate amounts of time standing [at the bathroom mirror].  Not cleaning it, Heaven forbid, nor was it time reserved for inspecting pores or removing blackheads from her small, upturned nose; most of the time, she spoke in whispers.  Whenever her brain felt the size of a walnut or, conversely, enlarged to the point of bursting with thought, she just vomited out the swirling words and conversations verbally, wishing she [could] deposit them in a physical, external reservoir where they could be left behind and visited when desired, rather than confronted involuntarily and often when unprepared.

Eyes locked on her own, the visual reminded that her identity did lie in something more than just her own awareness.  Her presence meant something.  Her absence meant something.  She was here, in your face, and she mattered.

And so, she resumed—partially whispered, partially mouthed—the conversation she’d recently begun in her mind, a monologue finally telling John how she felt about their relationship and threatening him with how much her absence would absolutely matter to him.

“I’d feed you the ‘It’s not you, it’s me,’ line, but it’s not not you, and it surely isn’t just me.  It’s both of us and our mutual inability to ‘get’ each other.”

The figure opposite her served as an acting coach, giving Margaret feedback on her body language as she fine-tuned the script to perform later.  Satisfied after thirty minutes that she’d thoroughly convinced her reflection with her eloquent articulation, she was too exhausted and bored with the effort to even consider repeating the words to John anytime soon.  Such was the way with all the actual face-offs that never actually happened, especially because she’d lose her nerve without her reflected self as guide.


So…for whatever that was worth.  I’ll try to get my mind back in gear next time to churn out something new.  How about you?  What have you left unsaid?

Walking the Talk

My previous post addressed beginnings of stories/novels, yet before I get to endings, it is worthwhile to comment on the dialogue that might not only span all the in-between but, in fact, could very well be our means of beginning and ending if utilized effectively.  Yet again, I am drawing from the specific advice proffered at the writing conference I attended last weekend (sponsored by the organization Room to Write), lessons we may have learned time and again through various sources, but that I found particularly insightful when distilled during this focused workshop.

To begin with, dialogue is essential to a successful novel because it:

– teaches us about characters and what they might be feeling the second they open their mouths through tone, accent, dialect, and word choice.

– conveys information

– moves the story forward and quickens its pace

– gives immediacy/brings readers in by appealing to senses of sight and sound

– creates white space, which gives us a chance to visually “breathe”

To maintain this significant impact of dialogue, we must therefore keep the following in mind:

– When using dialogue to convey information that we do not through narration, keep the information provided brief.  Otherwise, it may come across as more than would be natural in a conversation.

– Voices engaged in dialogue need to be distinguished from one another—

* Test this distinction by reading dialogue out loud.

* Consider overdoing sense of voice (e.g., through dialect or word choice), as you can always go back and take it away.  Spelling phonetically or using curse words to add color to a character’s voice can be effective in distinguishing him/her, yet it can also be distracting from what they’re actually saying.

* With this previous point in mind, be aware that while dialogue more closely resembles natural speech, even in the best of books it is not exactly the same as we would really talk…and that’s okay.  Again, it may be due to avoiding distractions in exact pronunciation or errors in grammatical syntax (we don’t obey convention 100% when we talk vs. write).  Yet I also feel it may relate to the artistry of language that we might infuse through our characters’ speech—think of the TV series Mad Men…those characters certainly do not speak like ordinary people, but there is something clean and lyrical in everything they say that is a joy to listen to and truly raises the program to a higher plane of thought and reflection.

* Not every line of dialogue needs to be tagged.  This is more easily done, though, when only 2 characters are involved and it’s easier for the reader to track who is speaking the alternating lines.

* Regarding tags, you are better off using plain and simple “said.”  Also, avoid adverbs—whatever description you could provide of how a character says something should already come across through the dialogue itself.

– Incorporate the “business” that goes with the dialogue. (In the excerpt we read from Ian Rankin’s Let it Bleed, for example, one character prepared a cup of coffee for the other as they conversed.)  In doing so, you will:

* help the reader “see” the scene by bringing in movement and showing versus telling through the characters’ actions

* reinforce the reality of the situation, make it more authentic to real life

So, talking of talking, I’ll stop my yammering on this topic.  It is a critical one, though, to writing an effective, engaging, and believable piece, so bear these pointers in mind while also just having fun with bringing your characters to life when you grant them the gift of individual voice.

Dialogues of Destiny

On page 10 of Room to Write, Bonni Goldberg informs us that, whether we’re intending to explicitly address it or not, our views on “destiny” inevitably come through in our writing.  I suppose on now considering this, it does seem avoiding it would be nearly impossible, as such a perspective would be firmly rooted in our worldview and how we approach setting our life goals.  Whether our belief in destiny is definitive or something we’re exploring, our characters will ultimately portray that belief or exploration themselves, even if to the contrary as our little Devil’s Advocates.  As a matter of fact, in one of the more recent chapters I’ve written, my protagonist does outright discuss her views on destiny with another character, so perhaps I was destined to get this writing prompt so soon thereafter, to help me revisit and develop that concept further.

The Prompt:

As for what today’s prompt does indeed ask us to do, we have two choices:

1)  Write about “destiny” for two pages; or,

2)  Write a dialogue between characters  from one or more of our pieces discussing their respective beliefs in destiny.

I’m opting for numero deux.  However, my spin on it is going to be as such–in homage to the recent passing of JD Salinger, my character will be speaking to none other than Catcher in the Rye‘s own Holden Caulfield.  I’m also going to conceal my character’s actual name for demented reasons known only to me.  Let’s call her, “Margaret” for now.


Seated on parallel wooden benches in the echoing open hall of a grand urban train station, Margaret is no longer able to ignore the penetrating glare  narrowly skimming her shoulder, fired from a bench directly in front of her.  Normally, she would retreat into the safe cavern of her shyness around strangers or move seats altogether, but she senses something troubled in this young man’s gaze akin to her own melancholy.  He doesn’t appear threatening; he is quite clean-cut and looking smart in a well-tailored overcoat.  It is only the red hunting hat that he dons that signals a mild alarm that something about him might be off.

Overwhelmed in fearful curiosity as to what his attention may be directed to at her side, Margaret summons the confidence to speak.

“Are you all right?”

Perhaps the ear flaps of  his hunting cap muffle the sound from reaching his notice.

“Are you okay?”

The young man’s eyes dart up with a start as he recognizes he’s being addressed.


“Sorry, I know I’m being random, but I was just wondering if there’s something near me that’s bothering you.  Hopefully, it’s not me.”

“How’d you be bothering me just sitting there?” he notes, trying to affect a blank expression, though unable to conceal an innocent bewilderment.

“I don’t know.”  Margaret reddens, feeling silly that she brought this all upon herself.  “I guess I might remind of you someone you don’t like.”  That sounds logical enough, she thinks.

Becoming conscious of his hat, Holden takes his turn to flush, and as he slides it back genteelly off his short, unexpectedly graying hair with his left hand, he extends his right over the back-rest to invite Margaret to shake it.

“Holden.  Nice to meet you.”

He’s a gentleman; and soft skin. “Margaret.”

“Sorry if I creeped you out and all.  It’s nothing to do with you.  I’m not a madman or anything, I was only looking at the graffiti.”  He gestures to a word carved in the wood a mere couple inches from her right arm.  “It’s nothing to do with you.”

Margaret interprets this repetition as a polite way of telling her to butt out.  “No, I’m sorry.  I didn’t mean to pry.”

Picking up on her embarrassment, Holden replies, “No, don’t worry, I don’t think you’re being nosy or anything.  I shouldn’ta been looking like I was staring at you and all.  I mean, I don’t mean to be rude.”

Seeking to get past this mutual awkwardness, Margaret rotates her head and leans forward to better read the carving.  “Destino,” she reads aloud.  Huh.

“Means ‘destiny,’ I guess.”  When Margaret doesn’t speak, Holden nervously rambles on.  “You know, I hate graffiti.  I hate messing up stuff that’s supposed to look nice.  Just the idea that some phony would sit there and have a goddam knife to pull out and slice into this nice varnished wood that’s here for everybody else too depresses the hell outta me.”  On observing her furrowing brow:  “Pardon me, ma’am.  Excuse my language.”

Conscious of her expression, Margaret tries to shake it off flippantly.  “Oh!  No, no.  Not at all.  Takes a lot to offend me, trust me.  I was just thinking about what you said.  I totally understand.”

Encouraged, Holden continues.  “It’s just that I see this stuff everywhere, and it depresses me, if you want to know the truth.  I saw a goddam ‘F*** you’ written on a wall in my little sister’s school, for Chrissake.  I hate that.  It’s lousy to write something like that in a kid’s school.”

Margaret grins inwardly at Holden’s critical cursing about cursing, and  she finds her interest piqued by this complex youth approximately half her age.  It seems he might be game for waxing philosophical for a brief while, at least to kill time.

“Well, I’m not a fan of graffiti either, but you have to admit this is a nicer form of it.   I mean, maybe the person wasn’t ‘phony’ at all, but seriously contemplating what that word means.  Maybe they were celebrating that their destiny had just been fulfilled, or praying so.”

“Believing in destiny is phony.  There isn’t any such thing, and anyone who tells you otherwise is a goddam phony bastard himself.”

“You’re quite cynical for your age!  I take it you see yourself as the master of your own fate, then?”

“I don’t think I’m the master of anything.  We’re all stuck falling through this phony world, laughing at jokes we don’t even think are funny and taking an exam or doing work that we’re brainwashed to believe is important and stuff, and for what?  Money?  Reputation?  Pay a dime to dance with a pretty girl?  None of it adds up to a pile of beans when all’s said and done.  We work ourselves to the bone to end up dead, and then what?  We can’t take it with us.  No, I’m no master of anything.”  Just then, Holden looks off into a realm of thought invisible to Margaret and quiets to almost a whisper.  “I’d like to be.  I think I could be.  If I could just catch those crazy kids when they came falling.  I could be the master of that.  I really think I could.”

Trying her best at interpretation without being too invasive, Margaret asks, “You’d like to help those that can’t help themselves.  The ones that Destiny hasn’t been kind to?”

“I know it sounds crazy, like I’m some sort of madman and maybe I am, but I can’t stop thinking about those kids.”  He raises his red hat back to his head as though unconsciously and pulls it over his ears snugly.  “Goddam graffiti.”

Though she has no clue what kids he’s talking about nor where they’re falling from or why, empathetic soul that she is, Margaret attempts to soothe Holden by relating the best way she can.  “I feel that way, too, sometimes.  That life can be random, and we just have to keeping rolling with the current with our heads above water as best we can.  But overall I think that flow might still be taking us somewhere, with or without our consent.  Or not.  I feel for others’ disillusionment, too, and would like to think someone would be there to catch me if I fell.”

She doesn’t expect it when Holden looks her directly in the eye just then.

“Too late,” he shakes his head.  “But don’t worry, because it’s too late for me too.”

Margaret is perplexed at the seeming sage quality in this kid.  “How so?”

“We’ve grown up.  We can’t ride the carousel anymore.”

Margaret lowers her eyes.  “I don’t think we should give up on ourselves just yet.  I’m not giving up on me, anyways.  I think Fate has something in store for me yet.”

“So you think you can still do anything about it?”

“Yeah.  Well, I’d like to think so.  I mean, I do believe in free will.  More than just tossing my hands up to the skies and saying, ‘Ah well.  So be it.'”

“You’d sounded more like you believed in destiny before.”  Holden is looking at her skeptically now, sizing up her capacity for phoniness.

“I do.  I guess I’ve just always figured we still operate ‘freely’ within that larger structure already put in place—by God, or whatever you might or apparently might not believe in.  What I’m trying to say is that I personally think we have an ultimate destiny, even if the paths we take to get there and the experiences along the way are for the most part controlled by us.  There might be those ‘little events’ planted here and there for a purpose, then, like occasional guideposts or guardrails to keep us on track.”

Peering at her stoically from beneath his cap, Holden does not look convinced.

Margaret presses on with the proverbial college-try.  “I remember reading somewhere, in someone’s blog, that that was their theory on deja-vu, that what we see that feels so familiar are actually signs that we’re on target…like on some level we’ve already lived out our destiny, and what we see as deja-vu is the playback, in brief clips, to show us that what we’re doing, at that exact point in time, is exactly what we’re supposed to be doing and where.”

“I don’t know what a ‘blog’ is, but that’s an interesting thought.  It really is, no kidding.  I get those sometimes, too, those deja-vus, but I don’t tell anybody about them or anything because those Pencey crooks’d think I was a damn sissy and knock my lights out.   They really would.  But still, I get them.  The deja-vus, I mean.  I figure they only mean that I’m crazy and all.  Like my brain is on the fritz.”

“I don’t know if we’ll ever really know what they are, but I think it’s safe to say they’re not a sign of insanity.  Whatever those ‘Pencey crooks’ say, it happens to everyone, even them, whoever they are.”

“They don’t matter anymore.  Never did, really.  You’ll probably think I’m crazy for saying this and all, but it’s my kid sister that’s got everything figured out, if you really want to know the truth.”  Holden instantly appears to glow from within at the mention.  “That kid kills me, she really does.  You would like her.  I mean, it’s not like she’s perfect or anything, but she’s really likable.  Old Phoebe’s the real deal.”

Margaret smiles kindly at the sibling sentimentality.  “So, do you think Phoebe would believe in anything like Destiny?  Does she not need you to catch her?”

The corners of his mouth turn down a perceptible degree.  “No.  She doesn’t need me for anything at all.  All I do is let her down, but I don’t know what I’d do without her, though, that’s for sure.  That kid’s pretty much got it figured out, she really does.  She’s not going to need to rely on Destiny or anything because she’ll make her own.  She’ll grab the goddam reins of that carousel horse and get it to race around the other way.  I really think she could do it, too.  If she wanted to and all.”

“Holden, if you can believe that of anyone, you can’t be a total fatalist.  Surely you can believe it of yourself, then.”

Holden eyes Margaret up and down, only just then noticing that she’s an attractive woman.  He always did like them older, but this time he isn’t feeling sexy about it.  He isn’t quite sure what he’s feeling, except that it’s the same sensation that dissipates through him when he is hanging out with his sister.

“Old Phoebe,” he says, pretending to ignore Margaret’s insight.  “She kills me.  She really does.  If I could stuff it all and put it behind a pane of glass, I’d do it.  I would.  That’s the problem with Destiny, you know.  She moves life forward, closer to being older and supposedly wiser and all that crap.  No, we’re all just tumbling through space, even Old Phoebe.  Some’ll get a softer landing than others, is all.”

Holden does not so much as jolt a fraction of a millimeter when the loud speaker unexpectedly blares its announcement of a train ready to depart its platform.  Margaret, conversely, is thrown from the jumbling and intersecting thoughts coursing through her mind in the wake of Holden’s words, the speaker’s static-y proclamation slicing through her reflection with familiarity.

“Oh my God.”  She leaps to standing.  “My train.  Holden, I have to go.”

Margaret knows she needs to flee with hyper-speed to make her train, yet the morose energy surrounding Holden is compelling.

Holden, young gentleman that he is, likewise rises onto his feet and removes his hat with a modest bow.  “Ma’am.”


“Margaret.  Meeting you just now has been sort of like–“

“Destiny.  I know.  Holden?”

He extends his right hand out for her to shake.  She makes a motion to meet it when the loud speaker bombards them again.  Distracted from thought, she operates on instinct and embraces him firmly.  On reluctantly disconnecting, she sways back and, on pivoting on her heel toward the direction of her platform, she rewinds the movement only to seize the red hat out of Holden’s hand.  Reshaping it with her fist, she finds solace in the body heat it has retained.  She briefly brings it to her lips to offer a fond peck–closing her eyes to inhale its fibers simultaneously–before affixing it back on Holden’s head.

On resuming her pivot, she turns her head counter to the spin to ask again, “Holden?”


“Catch me.  If you can.”

Holden, the warmth of his hunting hat trickling down to consume his entire being, sucks at his lower lip for a second.

“I’ll try.  I really will.”

He offers Margaret a quasi-salute behind her back as he watches her meld into the masses that carry her like a current toward her next destination.


* sigh *
Rest in peace, Mr. Salinger.
Find peace in unrest, Holden.  (And you, too, “Margaret”)

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