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Saturday, May 31, 2008

Questions?

I'll be starting a new series on Show versus Tell next week, but if you have anything you want me to cover on any other topic after that, just post a comment here or email me through my profile.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Dialogue—use action tags to show emotion

Action tags can be great for conveying a character’s emotions without actually saying what the character is feeling. This is especially useful if you want to convey character A’s emotions, but you’re in character B’s point of view for the scene.

”You’re a bit red. Are you okay?”

“Of course. I’m fine.” He sloshed his straw up and down in his iced tea, making a few drops land on the table.


Obviously, he’s not fine, but he’s trying to make the character believe he is.

“Mr. Carrisford?” A woman’s voice called behind Jerry and Sue.

Jerry’s hand spasmed in hers. However, he didn’t turn around.

The woman hustled up to them. “Mr. Carrisford?” She touched Jerry’s arm.

He turned to her. “I’m sorry, you have the wrong person.”


Here, Jerry’s hand spasming tells Sue something isn’t right, despite what he tells the woman.

Take a look at your action tags in the manuscript. Do they do something besides tell the reader who’s speaking? See if you can make them convey emotion in addition to action.

Monday, May 26, 2008

Dialogue—make each character’s dialogue distinct

Ideally, you should be able to tell each character apart from their dialogue alone, without any qualifying names. Each character’s sentences should be said so distinctly that a reader could immediately know that line is the heroine and that line is the hero.

“Land sakes, Pastor Dave, what in tarnation are you doing with a gun? I thought pastors aren’t supposed to bear arms or somesuch as that. Do the deacons know you’ve got a firearm in your office? I don’t think they’d be very pleased.”

“Mrs. Cauffield, I don’t have time to explain.”

“Now wait a cotton-pickin’ minute. You’re not walking out of this office without some kind of explanation about why a grown man is heading outside with a gun in broad daylight with neither hide nor tail of deer around these parts, and hunting season months away. Pastor Dave! Come back!”


Many factors can contribute to a character’s distinct voice:

Sentence structure—some characters speak in fragments, others in full, proper sentences.

Word choices—some characters have a million dollar vocabulary, some only use simple words. Some characters use dramatic words, while others are more analytical. A character’s word choices should very closely reflect their personality.

Slang or dialect—in the example above, Mrs. Cauffield uses some colorful phrases which mark her as both an older woman and from the South. Be careful about dialect, don’t let it be so heavy-handed that the reader has a hard time reading it.

Sentence length—some characters will speak in longer, more wordy sentences, while others are more sparse.

Dialogue length—in the example above, Mrs. Cauffield obviously can’t shut her mouth while Pastor Dave is very tight-lipped (or unable to say much because Mrs. Cauffield speaks so much).

Sentence cadence—characters can speak in musical cadences, or staccato cadences, or rapid-fire sentences, or lazy sentences. This is more related to rhythm and pacing, and how the dialogue sounds in the ear.

So, there are lots of things you can vary to make sure each character’s voice is distinct.

Think about your characters and their ways of speaking. Think about how you can make that more distinct on the page. Then go through your manuscript and try to tweak their dialogue lines to make it more uniquely theirs.

Friday, May 23, 2008

Dialogue—vary sentence structure

Vary sentence structure so it doesn’t get sing-songy.

“How are you?”

“I’m fine.”

“That’s good.”

“How’s your mother?”

“She’s just peachy.”

“My dad arrived.”

“Yesterday?”

“Last week.”

“How’s he doing?”

“Enjoying himself.”


Aside from the fact this dialogue as absolutely NO CONFLICT, the sentence structure is unvarying. Here’s another example.

“I talked with the director yesterday.” He jerked his thumb toward the office door.

“I hope that it went well.” Her eyebrows rose.

“We got a lot accomplished.” He nodded enthusiastically.

“Did you make a decision?” She raised her pen to take notes.

“We decided to table it for now.” He shrugged and sighed.

“Who will you hire?” She scanned her list of candidates.

“It’s down to two people.” He raised two fingers.


Here again (aside from NO CONFLICT), the sentences are all about the same lengths, and each dialogue line ends with an action tag. The dialogue cadence is the same for the entire example.

“This is Felicia.” She adjusted the headset’s microphone closer to her mouth.

“Uh, yeah. I don’t know if you’ll remember me. This is, uh, Winnie.” The woman’s voice came out squeakier than Felicia recalled.

“Hello, Winnie. Of course, I remember you. I’m so glad you called me back. I’ve been praying for you.”

“Yeah. Okay.”

“How’re you doing?”

“I’m not so mad at that hussy anymore.”

“Really? That’s great, Winnie. Much healthier for you.”

“Okay. If you say so. Anyways, it wasn’t her fault. Not really. But my ex . . . well, now, he’s a totally different story.”

“I’m glad to hear you’ve let go of your anger toward the woman.”

“Yeah. She may have enticed him, but he didn’t have to chase after her like a dog to a bone. But that’s okay. He’ll get his.”

“Now, Winnie, that doesn’t sound good. Surely you can see that plotting revenge isn’t good for you.”

The woman laughed. “Maybe not, but it sure feels good. Oh, he’s getting his all right.”

--From Bayou Judgment by Robin Caroll


Here, the sentences vary in terms of length, and each character speaks for different lengths of time, sometimes shorter, sometimes longer. The varying length makes for more compelling reading.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Dialogue—using tags beside said

You can use tags besides “said.” I know, some people would call that heresy, but it’s true.

Now, that being said, don’t go overboard—you don’t want your characters mumbling, chirping, drawling, squeaking, yelling, and hissing all through your book.

But an occasional action verb can add nuance to the dialogue by telling the reader how the line is said.

“If you keep it up, I’m going to smack you,” she hissed.


Here, the character is trying to not let people know she’s upset by pitching her voice down but still trying to convey her displeasure.

“If you keep it up, I’m going to smack you,” she bellowed.


The character has reached a point where she doesn’t care who hears her and wants the person she’s yelling at to stop whatever they’re doing.

“If you keep it up, I’m going to smack you,” she sang.


Here, the character is talking to a person old enough to realize the threat of her words even though the tone is sweet.

In each line, the atmosphere and flavor of the dialogue exchange changes depending on how the character says that line.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Dialogue—where you put your tags

Where you put the dialogue tag can make a difference with emphasis and pacing.

“Sure, I did it last week,” she said.
She said, “Sure, I did it last week.”
“Sure,” she said, “I did it last week.”

Readers tend to pause slightly at the sight of a dialogue tag, whether they know they doing it or not. As a writer, you can take advantage of that pause to add emphasis or subtly impact the pacing of the scene.

For example, if a scene is going a bit fast and you want to slow it down a little, a tag here and there can moderate the pace. A dialogue tag can slow the pacing of the dialogue, so it’s not just back-and-forth like a tennis match.

Example one:

“Jenn is totally freaking out,” Trish said.
“What brought all this on?” Venus asked.
“Well, Aunty Yuki had a doctor’s appointment today—”
“Is she doing okay?”
“Clean bill of health. Cancer’s gone, as far as they can tell.”
“So that’s why she’s taken over Jenn’s kitchen?”
“She took one look at me and decided I needed something to help the baby along.”


Example two:

“Jenn is totally freaking out.” Trish’s eyes had popped to the size of siu mai dumplings.
“What brought all this on?” Venus picked up the game controller.
“Well, Aunty Yuki had a doctor’s appointment today—”
“Is she doing okay?”
“Clean bill of health. Cancer’s gone, as far as they can tell.”
“So that’s why she’s taken over Jenn’s kitchen?”
Trish rubbed her back and winced. “She took one look at me and decided I needed something to help the baby along.”


I wanted to slow the pacing of the dialogue, so I inserted action tags to make the dialogue meander a bit more, rather than be rapid-fire lines.

Also, if you have a really killer line you want the character to deliver, you can add a tag—to effect a pause—to make the line have more impact.

“I would be happy to respond,” he drawled, “if you’d take a second to draw breath.”


The reader pauses at the dialogue tag, which sets the reader up for the sarcastic punch at the end of the sentence. Sometimes that small pause is needed for maximum emotional impact. And remember, dialogue is all about the emotion.

You can also use action tags for that pause.

“Of course I’ll do it for you.” She crossed her legs, then her arms. “As long as you’re telling me the truth.”


Here, the action tag not only conveys the pause in her words, it also conveys the subtle threat in her tone without using a tag like, she said threateningly.

Go through your dialogue scenes and make note of where your tags are. Do they convey the pause you want them to convey? Be judicious on where those tags go.

Friday, May 16, 2008

Character growth versus likeability

I blogged at Seekerville yesterday about something I learned from my editor about Character growth versus likeability.

Update: Sorry about that, the link is fixed now.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Dialogue—how many tags

Use dialogue and action tags to eliminate confusion about who’s talking, but don’t use so many that they distract.

Example one:

“Jenn is totally freaking out,” Trish said.
“What brought all this on?” Venus asked.
“Well, Aunty Yuki had a doctor’s appointment today—”
“Is she doing okay?”
“Clean bill of health. Cancer’s gone, as far as they can tell.”
“So that’s why she’s taken over Jenn’s kitchen?”
“She took one look at me and decided I needed something to help the baby along.”


This example could use a few more dialogue tags or action tags to help the reader understand who’s speaking. By the end, it’s getting confusing keeping track of who’s saying what.

Example two:

“Jenn is totally freaking out,” Trish said.
“What brought all this on?” Venus asked.
“Well, Aunty Yuki had a doctor’s appointment today—” Trish started.
“Is she doing okay?” Venus interrupted.
“Clean bill of health. Cancer’s gone, as far as they can tell,” Trish said.
“So that’s why she’s taken over Jenn’s kitchen?” Venus said.
Trish replied, “She took one look at me and decided I needed something to help the baby along.”


The interchange is too bogged down with character names and dialogue tags that aren’t necessary for the reader to figure out who’s talking. Visually, it’s too busy. You want your dialogue to be clean, but not confusing.

Example three (this is how it is in the book):

“Jenn is totally freaking out.” Trish’s eyes had popped to the size of siu mai dumplings.
“What brought all this on?” Venus picked up the game controller.
“Well, Aunty Yuki had a doctor’s appointment today—”
“Is she doing okay?”
“Clean bill of health. Cancer’s gone, as far as they can tell.”
“So that’s why she’s taken over Jenn’s kitchen?”
Trish rubbed her back and winced. “She took one look at me and decided I needed something to help the baby along.”


Here, I have exactly three action tags for seven lines of dialogue. In my opinion, that’s a good rule of thumb—not too many tags, not too few. Most people can keep track of who says what without dialogue tags for about 3 or 4 lines, so here, I have four tag-less lines between lines with action tags.

How many lines you can have without tags also depends on how long the dialogue lines are, so don’t take the 3 or 4 lines rule as law. Use your own judgment and your critique partners to determine if things are getting too confusing without tag lines.

Go through your manuscript and see if there are places you can eliminate dialogue tags. Then, after you do that, see if there are a few places where there are too many lines without tags, and add one or two in. This method of culling first and then carefully adding some tags in later is usually best, especially if you tend to have a lot of tags when you write your first draft.

Monday, May 12, 2008

Advice for novelists

I was honored to be part of C.J. Darlington's blog post series on "If you could say one thing to aspiring novelists, what would you say?" (I forgot to post this earlier when the blog post first came out.)

My answer to C.J.'s question

Friday, May 09, 2008

Writing the Multi-Ethnic Romance Novel: Asian American

I was over at Kaye Dacus's blog, where she asked me to write about writing Asian American novels.

Wednesday, May 07, 2008

Unique character descriptions

You are a writer. You can think of a better way to describe your heroine than “sprightly.” Your town drunk can be something more original than “uncouth.” You can find a more unique way to convey the fact that your hero is “handsome.”

BE ORIGINAL. And yes, I am yelling.

I am the first person to admit I don’t always have original descriptions, mostly because I am not as gifted as other writers. But I TRY.

Here, for your inspiration and jealousy, are a few descriptions I got from a friend who read Stephen Hunter’s novel, Hot Springs:

... a largish old man in a lumpy suit, beaten-to-hell boots and a fedora that looked as if it had been pulled by a tractor through the fields of Oklahoma, who seemed to do a lot of spitting.

Her accent was sugar-dipped, like a fritter hot on a cool Southern morning, and he placed it as either from Georgia or Alabam.

Camy here: Isn’t that just amazing? I feel inspired and ready to be original, myself.

Monday, May 05, 2008

The Nature of Emotions

A friend forwarded this website to me that gives a very interesting, visual take on emotions:

The Nature of Emotions by Plutchik

It's only two figures and they're pretty self-explanatory. I thought this might be a good tool for anyone working on writing with more emotional intensity or emotional subtlety.

Friday, May 02, 2008

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