Check it out! Go on. It’ll make you laugh.
Check it out! Go on. It’ll make you laugh.
Today, we’re going to focus on tips for writing intimate love scenes. Or more specifically, how to effectively insert (see what I just did there?) descriptive phrases like:
“He grabbed her bare shoulders, caressing them with the kind of longing one only reserves for fresh-baked bread …”
“She de-pansed him in one quick motion, opening a floodgate of memories from freshman gym class…”
As you can see, this is a genre I am intimately familiar with because, as I’ve said before, you need to write what you know. And believe me, when it comes to intimacy no one knows it better than myself. That said, as a personal favor to 50 Shades author E.L. James, I will actually NOT be offering insights regarding the the ins-and-outs (See how I did that?) of writing descriptive lovemaking scenes. The reason is because her latest book, “14 Shades of Puce” is due out later this week, and she is concerned many of you would recognize some of the techniques I would be discussing today.
In short, that “fresh bread” example wasn’t something I pulled out (are you following these?) just willy-nilly (Did I mention subtlety is important?)
So instead, we will turn our attention to a different aspect of romance and writing. If you’re a serious writer who also happens to be in an equally serious relationship, I have news for you: We all know about your love triangle! That’s right! Don’t try to deny it. We know you’ve been spending a lot of time together. And yes, they get your heart racing too because, when things are going right, there’s nothing quite like it. Now, before I inadvertently send someone off to confess an affair they think may have happened because they woke up at a neighbor’s New Year’s Eve party clutching a pair of party favors in a suggestive manner, let me put your fears to rest. In this case we’re talking about your writing Muse; that voice of inspiration that whispers sweet somethings that just have to be written down.
In the case of those party favors… Just don’t ever let it happen again.
Some of you might be asking:
What If I’m not in a serious relationship?
Or What if I’m single by choice because I AM serious about my writing?
Or Did my mother call you again?
Whether you are seeing someone on a regular basis or have temporarily stopped seeing anyone due to irregularity, being a writer means you are already in a serious relationship with your Muse. And like any relationship you want to see flourish, you need to do your part in providing opportunities to help it grow. If one or more of the following statements could be made by your Muse, it’s time to make some changes;
1) You never take me anywhere — As I’m sure E.L. James would agree, an integral part of any relationship is exploring new things. With your Muse, however, I’m talking about actually leaving your home/apartment/bonds and getting out to experience new sights, sounds, scents — things that can inspire you and your Muse. Or at the very least provide experiences you can file in a mental cache and refer to later. In addition, consider taking some photos and jotting down your impressions in case, like mine, your “mental cache” is more like Snap-Chat.
2) I need to be romanced a little first — It’s easy to fall into a pattern of groping at your Muse, getting what you want and then — at least in the case of many men — falling asleep at the keyboard. Much like having a lover, there is a certain amount of foreplay involved when “seducing” your Muse. Even if yours is slutty like mine, the seduction process — i.e., your writing preparation routine — is important. My writing foreplay involves making a cup of java that is best described as a liquid Coffee Nip, then putting on my headphones to listen to AC/DC, checking and responding to any comments on my blog and Twitter account, then getting to work on whatever I’m writing. If I can’t finish a piece I’m working on, I always leave off in the middle of a sentence. That way, when I come back to it, I can start right out with some momentum by finishing the thought I had. Your Muse will appreciate you coming back to finish what you started.
3) I think your Mom hates me — If your Muse tells you this, it’s a good indication you might be spending too much time together. If nothing else, it’s time to take a break and re-evaluate your relationship. Possibly with the help of professional.
Whether you’re in a love triangle or monogamous relationship with your Muse, it needs to be nurtured and appreciated.
It’s the little things you do on a daily basis to express your appreciation that will keep your relationship strong, supportive and continually inspired.
Oh, and the same applies to your Muse, too.
There’s nothing quite like staring at a blank page, knowing that with a few strokes of the keyboard you will transform a landscape devoid of life into a living, breathing thing of your own creation. There’s also nothing quite like finishing that fourth cup of coffee only to find that same blank page staring back at you.
Sure, you may have typed several sentences — or maybe even the same sentence several times — in hopes of gaining some kind of momentum to carry you over that first hump, but the cursor repeatedly stalls out in the same spot, leaving you with the same blank page after riding the “delete” button back to the beginning.
Hey, that’s why it’s called a “cursor.”
I’ll be honest. I don’t necessarily subscribe to the notion of writer’s “block,” which suggests some kind of blockage — such as a cheese wedge or too many butter biscuits — restricting movement through a hypothetical colon of creativity. Although there are some books in print that offer evidence to support at least part of the colon theory, I prefer to think of the writing process as cells in a battery; when they are fully charged, things start easily. But if the alternator belt slips too much or the terminals get corroded, you end up without enough juice to turn the engine. Because we are writers and not mechanics, and because that last sentence exhausted the full extent of my automotive knowledge, I will sum up my analogy with this: When your battery is low, you get a jump, right?
Writing is no different. Continue reading
I’m going to open with a simple truth:
Step one to being a writer: Write!
That advice seems pretty straight forward. The kind of obvious straight forwardness that carries you with complete confidence toe-first into a brick. Like most advice we’re given, the wisdom behind it is simple; the problem comes in the execution.
And while there are countless books out there offering tips on everything from how to get inspired and avoid writer’s block to the kinds of foods that promote creative thinking (which, judging from what I read, you will be doing mostly while on the commode), all of those books essentially come down to one universal truth:
Nothing promotes and stimulates writing better than…
You guessed it:
But let’s suppose you don’t want to become an alcoholic? Does that mean you’re not truly committed to being a writer? Could it jeopardize your dream of becoming a novelist, columnist, short story writer or inner city tagger?
Let me answer those questions by answering the single most important question you’re probably asking yourself right now:
Has HE been drinking?
Of course not. At least not yet.
I have four children, remember?
Regardless, my point is that the other universal truth to writing is this:
The fastest way to jumpstart the writing process is to put your fingers to the keyboard and just start writing.
I purposely sat down to write this post without any preparation. I did this to 1) challenge myself, and 2) because I really had no idea what I was going to write anyway, so it seemed like a good plan. To that end, I started putting words on the screen.
Did I take a wrong turn or two?
But the beauty of writing is that — like the Kardashians — nothing is permanent, and you can easily fix imperfections by injecting or removing the things you don’t like. And many times, what you thought was going to be a wrong turn or dead end leads to a doorway you hadn’t expected — or at least a window you can jump out of.
Especially if you walk in on Bruce Jenner getting a body wax.
OK, in an effort to move on quickly from that image, how about a show of hands from anyone who has ever found themselves staring at a blank screen with their fingers poised over the keyboard, even if they have applied my advice?
Seriously, I’m watching, so get them up.
I ask this because, in spite of my advice, there are still times when you need to jump-start your jump start.
Something I’ve discovered from writing a daily blog is that the interaction with other writers on blogs and websites — whether replying to a comment or leaving one on another writer’s site — is a great way to grease the creative process.
… Great, just when we had gotten past that image of Bruce Jenner…
Anyway, starting your day with some social interaction at your computer not only gets you into writing position at the keyboard, but can get the creative process started by reading others’ work, getting inspired by it, and formulating responses or comments in a creative frame of mind.
Warning: Set a time limit!
As I can attest, it’s easy to lose track of time, or become so caught up in commenting and replying that your momentum is carried in the wrong direction. I usually give myself until I finish my first cup of coffee.
Which, by the way, I have switched from the giant 128-ounce Big Gulp size to a standard mug. Not only because I was using it as an excuse to blog until noon, but also because I discovered my bladder only holds 120 ounces.
Bottom line, once you’ve established a writing routine, solidify it by putting words on the page — whether for your actual writing project or during a social network warm-up — each time you sit down at the keyboard. Before you know it, your writing will be waiting for you in your mental queue at the same time each day.
Assuming you can get the image of Bruce Jenner out of your mind.
Again, my apologies for that.
For the sake of time, let’s just assume all of you remember what those tools were and, in a series of uncontrollable outbursts, begin shouting out:
No, the third tool is RELATIVITY — not Cuervo. Even though I think we can all agree Cuervo does have a way of making even the most abstract things seem relevant.
In this case, however, Relativity means ensuring the reader can relate to what we’re writing about. This is especially true when it comes to personal experience and family anecdotes. For example, that hilarious story about how Aunt Frida got mad and stomped through the garden won’t be nearly as entertaining to readers as it is to you unless, like you, they already know Aunt Frida was a mule. I realize that’s an overstatement, but unless you take time to lay the foundation of your story in a way that involves the reader, they will likely sit down and refuse to follow.
As for Timing and Truth, they’re pretty self-explanatory. In a nutshell, Timing is the use of punctuation and sentence structure to create a rhythm that enhances your storytelling, while Truth is exactly that: writing about what you know and, whenever necessary, doing the research to educate yourself about a topic before presenting it to your readers. For example, when I wrote about the first wedding proposal in space, I prepared myself by going through NASA’s extensive astronaut training program.
OK, fine. But I did do my research before writing about how awful the food would be at a space wedding, with puree’d roast beef and cedar-plank salmon from a tube, and how throwing rice would be a big mistake since, thanks to zero gravity, the wedding party would spend the rest of the evening surrounded by clouds of floating rice. And how do you spike the punch when it’s served in a squeeze box?
Now that we’ve re-summarized those first three important writing tools, here are two more:
Vocabulary seems straight forward, right? A knowledge of words. But more important than knowing a lot of words — or big words — is knowing the perfect words. Think of it as the care you put into choosing the words to express your love for someone. Or quite possibly while trying to get out of a speeding ticket. In either case, there’s a lot riding on your word selection. One wrong word, or too many of them, and you could find yourself in hand cuffs. (I realize for some of you that might be the objective in the first case, but just play along.)
Let’s take a look at the last sentence a few paragraphs ago, about educating myself at NASA. What if I had written it like this:
…when I wrote my column on the first person to propose in space a while ago, I learned about the subject by participating in the astronaut program at NASA.
Here’s what I went with:
…when I wrote about the first wedding proposal in space, I prepared myself by going through NASA’s extensive astronaut training program.
1) “…when I wrote my column” versus “…when I wrote about…” In the second instance, I’m assuming you already know it’s “my column.” I wanted to avoid another “me” reference and also improve the flow.
2) “…on the first person to propose in space a while ago…” versus “…the first wedding proposal in space…” We all know it’s a person who is proposing since there has been no reference to aliens or talking animals, so I didn’t feel it was necessary to refer to “the first person” proposing. Instead, I went with “first wedding proposal in space” since the proposal is the subject. Now, if alien or talking dog proposals were common place, then yes, I would make sure to clarify it was a person proposing. Hopefully to another person and not a talking dog. And I chose to completely drop “a while ago” because it really doesn’t matter when I wrote it, and trimming it cleans up the sentence.
3) “…I learned about the subject by participating in the astronaut program at NASA” versus “…I prepared myself by going through NASA’s extensive astronaut training program.” To get to the action of this sentence, I dropped “learned about” and “by participating in” and combined it into “preparing myself by going through,” then moved “NASA” closer to the action as a way to bring those two images together much faster. From that point, I built on the satire by describing what I did as “extensive astronaut training.”
Are you having flashbacks from eighth-grade sentence diagramming? Sorry about that. I hope the breakdown was helpful in offering at least some insight into the thought process of choosing the right words or, if nothing else, why my daughter won’t let me anywhere near her book reports.
Our last writing tool, Economy, is directly related to Vocabulary because choosing the right word can often mean fewer words. Economy is big part of the revision process, when you take a hard look at what can be eliminated from the literary structure you have created while maintaining its integrity. While this isn’t as important in novel writing, it is critical for columnists, short story writers and journalists. Every story requires being as concise as possible by using an economy of words. Ironically, as I say this, I just realized the current word count makes this my longest post ever.
Fortunately, Hypocrisy isn’t one of the tools we will be talking about today.
Alfred Hitchcock once said everything in a movie must have purpose and propel the story. If it doesn’t, it needs to be eliminated — which could explain the number of murders in his films. In short, when it comes to Economy, think of Alfred Hitchcock.
But probably not while you’re in the shower.
Let’s face it, editing the second draft of your story or manuscript is like a visit to the proctologist: You want it to go quickly; you want to avoid too much grimacing; and you know before you get started there’s going to be too much crammed in. Yet statistics show that early detection of grammatical “polyps” is the most effective way to prevent the spread of bad writing.
But apparently not horrible analogies like this one.
However, I don’t think it’s a coincidence that if you remove the “p” and “l” from the word “polyp,” then add a “t,” you can spell the word “typos.” Or if you prefer, drop the “y” and you can spell “stop,” which I plan to do right now because, judging from the look on your faces, I’ve made my point.
Or possibly made you queasy.
Either way, I believe the second draft is the most important draft in the “three-draft process” I suggest every writer practice. And when I say “three-draft” process, I’m not talking about how many beers it takes to loosen up those typing fingers. I’m talking about the minimum number of drafts you should make of your story or manuscript before you push the “publish” or email button. That said, I’m not suggesting you can’t do more than three if that’s what it takes to make your manuscript the best it can be. But if you’re on the 20th draft of a five-paged short story you’ve been revising for the last three years, it’s time to ask yourself if 1) There’s alcohol involved, or 2) You’re purposely stalling.
I recently had a conversation with a blogger who is an aspiring writer. She confessed to having a 100-paged “work in progress” she’s been revising on a weekly basis for six years. Her plan is to make it available online as a self-published novella. When asked when she thought it would be done, she wasn’t sure.
“I think it’s time to consider forced labor,” I told her. “This baby is so overdue that, if it were a child, it would come out eating solid foods.”
[Official Disclaimer: I am not an actual doctor, although I have played one. Just not on TV.]
Inevitably, she realized she was stalling out of fear of failure; as long as her novella remained unpublished — and unread — the hope it would be a “big success” remained. As I mentioned last week, “success” is a relative term. What I mean by that is, if your family won’t even read it, then Yes: it probably stinks.
Ha! Ha! Just kidding! Who cares what your family thinks! Or if your own mom thinks your writing is “just a phase” that will pass like “that Star Wars thing” once you turn 50 in couple of years!
By the way, have you seen my shoes?
In all seriousness, the only failed writing project is the one that is never started. If you’ve completed one or more drafts of your manuscript then you’re already a success because you’ve beaten the odds by doing something many people talk about but never attempt — let alone finish. Think of it as making the world’s best submarine sandwich; whether or not anyone takes a bite, it’s still a great sandwich. Having others walk around with mustard stains on their shirts is just a bonus.
So if you’re carrying around a 9-pound, fully-developed manuscript, ask yourself what you’re truly waiting for and why. Be honest with your answer. Don’t let fear of failure keep your literary baby from entering the world. It may be time to start pushing for a delivery.
And be thankful I didn’t end this with another proctology comparison.
Ned Hickson is a syndicated columnist with News Media Corporation. His first book, Humor at the Speed of Life, is available from Port Hole Publications, Amazon.com or Barnes & Noble. His next book, Ned’s Nickel’s Worth on Writing: Pearls of Writing Wisdom from 16 Years as a Shucking Columnist is due out in late February.
By Ned Hickson
No doubt, many of you have begun formulating your New Year’s resolutions:
“I’m going to lose weight!”
“I’m going to drink less!”
“I’m going to change careers!”
“I’m going to stop referring to himself in the third person!”
Ok, maybe that last one was just me. Regardless, I think we can all agree resolutions are a great way to jump-start goals for personal improvement and life changes. At least until the end of February, at which point we often “re-evaluate” our goals and make “more realistic” adjustments to those goals by “dropping them completely.” For this reason, as writers, we need to be careful about the resolutions we make regarding literary goals, and in some cases we shouldn’t make them at all.
Many of you are probably saying, “Sure Ned, that’s easy for you to say!”
Oops, sorry — That was me speaking in third-person again. Still, I think it raises a good point: I’m fortunate enough to write full-time for a newspaper, so who am I to tell you not to set lofty goals for yourself when I’m living the dream my editor coincidentally calls her nightmare?
All I can say is that I’m the guy without a college education who spent 10 years cooking in kitchens before being
mistakenly hired enthusiastically added to the editorial staff here at Siuslaw News 16 years ago. I can tell you from experience that reaching this level of success, which includes not two but three readers from Florida who are willing to admit they follow this blog, only came after making several important realizations — and failures — regarding New Year’s resolutions and goal setting for my writing.
Here are my Top Three writing resolution mistakes:
1) Waiting for Jan. 1
What I came to realize after several attempts to “start and complete that novel” was that the mere fact I was waiting for a start date doomed me to failure. I can honestly say the best things that have happened to me in my life — including meeting my wife on Match.com, getting this job, actually starting and finishing a mystery novel years ago — didn’t come by way of setting goals; they came from acting on them instinctively and following through, regardless of the date. The decision to start pursuing your goals as a writer — whether it’s to start a blog or publish a blockbuster — shouldn’t hinge on the New Year.
The only exception might be writing for a calendar company.
So am I saying NOT to start pursuing your writing goals next Wednesday? Not at all. But you should probably ask yourself, “Ned, why are you waiting?”
Sorry, I’m still working on that “third person” thing…
2) Setting resolution goals that include things beyond your control:
There’s nothing wrong with wanting to write a blockbuster, land a book deal or increase blog followers by 1,000 or more. But don’t make them goals. Ultimately, just like the women The Bachelor will decide not to send home this season no matter how much you yell at the TV, you have no control over those kinds of things. As a writer, all you can do is focus on what you’re putting on the page and have faith in what happens next. The same goes for watching The Bachelor, which is why most of them eventually end up on The Bachelor Pad. In short, set goals that are within your realm of control — the most important of which is the quality of what you write. Like a successful restaurant, people don’t come because of the plate ware — they come for the food. Unless you work at Hooters. Which brings us back to The Bachelor…
3) Lumping too many resolutions together
“I’m going to lose 30 pounds, write a novel and give up bacon!” Let’s face it, if those are your resolutions you’re doomed once again. Why? While it’s true that resolutions are supposed to be difficult and life changing, even if you could drop 30 pounds and write that novel all in the same year, what’s the point if you can’t eat bacon? Whatever your resolution is, in order for it to be successful it needs your full attention. Remember that a root word of resolution is “resolute,” which means “determined and of singular focus,” and “lute” which is “a guitar-like instrument with a pear-shaped body.”
What does this mean? Clearly, writers who set resolutions for themselves should be “singularly focused” and should not simultaneously diet, even if they have a pear-shaped body.
In short, keep your resolution exactly that: singular. That way you can give it your complete focus and not be distracted by the success or failure of other goals you promised yourself.
My intention isn’t to dissuade anyone from pursuing resolutions into the New Year, or setting lofty goals for themselves. Though I had my share a failures with resolutions over the years when it came to my writing, I don’t regret them.
Except for that time I tried to learn how to play the lute…
By Ned Hickson
Being a humor columnist, I am often asked:
“Where do you get this stuff?”
“How did you even think of that?”
“Do you just make this [censored] up?
“Isn’t marijuana legal in Oregon?”
The answer to all of those questions is a definitive “Yes,” particularly on Ballot Measure 5. However, each of the first three include an important addendum that reads as follows:
“While the consumption of humor shall be made available to everyone regardless of race, color, creed or whatever they happen to be eating that may unintentionally exit a nostril, the distributor of said humor is required to provide a basic standard of truthfulness, therefore guaranteeing consumers a more pure grade of laughter. At least until they try passing mixed-berry yogurt through their nose.” Continue reading
This is the second part of a two-part post about earning a reader’s trust through effective character dialogue and active description — and how earning that trust means the difference between a reader taking a leap of faith or a flying leap. Here’s a brief re-cap from the first part of this post, which focused on three forms of dialogue: Narrative dialogue, fictional dialogue based on a real person, and “real” dialogue from a fictional character…
1) When writing narrative dialogue, don’t allow yourself to fall into “lecture” mode. Do You HEAR ME! Oops, sorry. You can do this many ways, including throwing a question directly into your narrative like this:
See what I mean?
Narrative “dialogue” should be just that: Narrative that makes your reader feel included or acknowledged in the conversation, which builds trust.
2) Dialogue from a real person within a fictional context requires thinking of your dialogue as a caricature, making sure to include specific details of the person’s speech pattern — choice of words, cadence, vocabulary — that are recognizable as theirs. Just like how a caricature artists relies on key physical traits that distinguishes one individual from another, you must do the same when sketching out dialogue representing a famous person. Especially if they have big ears.
3) Writing character dialogue that rings true and earns a reader’s trust really comes down to one basic principle: Consistency. Though you’re writing about a fictional person, readers will recognize when you’re not being “true” to the character. That’s because, when we meet new people, we instinctively study them to determine how far the relationship will extend. Acquaintance? Confidante? The same goes for character dialogue. Readers study it and quickly form an opinion. If the character’s vocabulary isn’t consistent, or they speak in bullet points one minute then in long Shakespearian soliloquies the next, you’ll lose your reader’s trust.
‘Tis truth I speak.
Now that we have recapped three key points about dialogue, let’s talk about defining a character and building your readers’ trust even more through active description. So what is active description?
POP QUIZ! The term “active description” refers to:
a) When a writer who is seeking to lose weight and get published writes their novel while riding a stationary bike
b) Long paragraphs describing the sweat-filled pores of someone doing something exhausting.
c) Using a character’s subtle actions and habits to help define them and break up monotonous dialogue tags, such as “He said,” over and over again in a repeatedly repetitious fashion many times.
(Please explain your answer on the back of this blog.)
If you picked “C,” give yourself a gold star and bring this blog with you to the front of the class. If you picked either “A” or “B,” give yourself a gold star anyway because no one fails here. Unless it’s me doing a face-plant while pole dancing.
Active description is a way to add another level of believability in a character through the subtle nuances of how they move, their body language and actions. It’s also an effective tool in breaking up dialogue patterns that quickly begin to feel contrived. Lastly, it relays information about the character in ways that feel natural to us in actual conversation. Remember: What is being said is only half the conversation. The other half is the non-verbal communication happening at the same time. The more you can capture that feeling in your writing, the more believable your characters will be.
I realize that was an entire paragraph without a single quip or bodily function joke, but I assure you it’s really me talking. Which is why I can offer this snippet from my Long Awkward Pause “interview” with Kevin Spacey as a way to show how active description can help quickly sketch a character — fictional or otherwise — and establish a believable pace for their dialogue. For the “interview,” I met Spacey at a nacho bar called Casa de Papitas (House of Chips) in Hollywood…
He then graciously offered me a seat before settling into his, legs crossed, one arm resting on the chair-back, leaving the other free to rummage through the chips basket. It was clearly my signal to start the interview, which I opened with the question I’m sure is on every LAP reader’s mind.
“Why did you agree to an interview with us and be a guest on our upcoming podcast? I mean, it seems either one of those would be bad enough.”
Spacey smiled and examined a chip, then popped it into his mouth. “Did you ever see the movie Albino Alligator?” he asked, referring to his directorial debut, which grossed $339,000 and cost $6 million to make.
“I think we all did. Everyone at LAP thought it was great.”
“Bingo,” said Spacey.
Before I could ask my next question, a waiter approached the table for our order. Spacey, noted for his Hollywood impressions, chose to forgo the nacho bar and order from the small menu as Clint Eastwood.
“I know what you’re thinking,” said Spacey, who squinted and began speaking through clenched teeth. “Will he order the number six chimichanga platter or only five. In all this confusion I sort of lost track myself. So I gotta ask myself: Do I feel lucky?”
“Well — DO you, PUNK?!?” I chimed in, then immediately regretted it.
The waiter gave me a nervous glance.
“A man’s got to know his limitations,” said Spacey.
To establish believability in this mock interview with Spacey, I opened up with active description that establishes his natural intensity and self assuredness in order to add credibility and believability to his dialogue — which is quick and direct. Just like the way he would eat his chip; no tiny bites, but in one quick pop. Also, by describing the way he took to his chair, by crossing his legs and throwing one arm over the chair back all in quick succession, the impression is of a decisive man who already knows he wants to leave one hand free for chips long before he sits down.
For contrast, here’s a snippet from another “interview,” this time with Clay Aiken. Once again, setting the tone with his actions lends credibility to his dialogue — and builds the kind of trust you need with readers in order for them to
buy your book take a leap of faith with you…
As I sat on the back of his bedazzled Vespa motor scooter, Aiken seemed to take pride in his city, as well as take corners so sharply I had to squeeze his waist. Though he formally announced his bid for Congress a week ago, Aiken told me more than once that he’s no politician.
“I’m no politician!” he shouted over his shoulder, then swerved to avoid a cloud of mosquitoes. “Woooo! Shields down!”
Some speculate that his run against Republican incumbent Renee Ellmers is a publicity stunt aimed at putting him back in the spotlight for the release of his next album, Aiken for Change, which coincidentally happens to be his campaign slogan. When asked about this, the American Idol star abruptly brought the scooter to a stop in a rundown South Raleigh neighborhood known for its high crime rate and low employment. He removed his helmet and raised a finger, prepared to reply with a well-thought rebuttal, then quickly put his helmet back on.
“Oh darn,” he whispered. “I didn’t mean to stop in THIS neighborhood!“
I hope this two-part tome has been helpful. If not, please blame Michelle at MamaMickTerry, who suggested this subject in an email when she asked, “Have you ever tried writing dialogue when you’re on pain killers…?”
Writing must ring true with readers for them to become emotionally invested. This is particularly important when it comes to fiction, where you are often asking readers to suspend their disbelief and buy into something — such as an eccentric character, over-the-top situation or random reference to the new iPad6® in hopes of getting a free one — that requires a leap of faith. In this case, your reader is making a “leap” over reality because they have faith that you, the writer, will keep them safely suspended until they land safely on the last page. Assuming, of course, your book doesn’t end with, “…Then there was a massive explosion and everybody died, including the basket of puppies.”
As with taking any kind of leap, you must first gain momentum through a series of confident and quickening footfalls along a solid foundation. This applies to your writing as much as it does, hypothetically speaking, to clearing the front fence of your home in order to beat your son to the restroom after a long car ride. Without the right amount of momentum, your reader could end up — again, hypothetically speaking — doing the splits on a picket fence.
The most effective way for a writer to build a reader’s momentum toward a solid jumping-off point is through writing that resonates with an underlying honesty. This doesn’t mean confessing how you re-named areas of Mrs. Flunkem’s 7th-grade world map with parts of the reproductive system. Although changing “Panama Canal” to “Fallopian Tube” is worth mentioning, hypothetically speaking of course. No, when it comes to honesty in fiction writing I’m referring to what I like to call the “Double-D” approach, and not for reasons you might think. In this case we’re referring to “dialogue” and “description” that ring true enough to establish believability — and lay the foundation of confidence your reader will need when asked to make that leap with you. This applies equally to completely fictional characters, real people written within a fictional context (such as my “interviews” with Kevin Spacey and Clay Aiken), and the persona we project on our blogs and social media sites.
Dialogue is used to convey many things, from mood to information, plot points to character profiles. Because writing dialogue is complex and deserves its own post, today I’m focusing specifically on ways to make your dialogue — whether character driven or as author narrative — ring true and build trust with your reader. In a later post, we’ll talk about the difference between “telling and showing,” avoiding too many “he said, she said” references and the common mistake of nonsensical “action” dialogue (“Then I’m LEAVING!” he yelled, slamming the door on her still-parted lips poised in reply…)
Also, for purposes of this post, the subject of “description” will be limited to building believability in your character by effectively describing their actions. We’ll save descriptive passages like “The sun was setting in the canyon like a giant navel orange into God’s fruit bowl…” for another time.
Dialogue: It’s one of the fastest ways to earn — or lose — a reader’s trust. Whether it’s your voice as a blogger or words spoken by someone in a story, you are essentially having a conversation with your reader asking them to “believe.” And just like that guy at your office who is always talking about his nights of crazy sex when, in fact, you took your kids to the dollar theater Friday night and saw him sitting alone watching “Frozen,” you know he’s full of Whoppers. The same goes for your readers.
Unless they’re too busy singing “Let It Go.”
Assuming they aren’t, possibly because they have been shot, here are three tips to writing dialogue readers can believe in:
1) When writing narrative dialogue, don’t allow yourself to fall into “lecture” mode. We don’t like it from our parents, teachers, bosses, ex-wives, etc., and readers don’t either. Always keep your reader in mind. Pause every few paragraphs or minutes, depending on how fast you type (total elapsed time for this paragraph: three days) and ask yourself, “If I was having this conversation on the street with a stranger, what would they be thinking right now? Would they have questions? What feedback would they have? If someone drove by on a motor scooter, would they yank them off and steal the scooter just to get away?” You are building a relationship with your reader and, as with any good relationship, the other person needs to feel acknowledged. You can do this many ways, including throwing a question directly into your narrative.
See what I mean?
It’s a way to break out of the lecture mode and invite them into the conversation. Another approach is specifically stating the question they might have…
I know what you’re thinking: Is he always this verbose, or is it the coffee?
Narrative “dialogue” should be just that: Narrative that makes your reader feel included or acknowledged in the conversation, which builds trust.
2) Dialogue from a real person within a fictional context is simultaneously easy and extremely difficult. I say this because, on one hand, you have the nuances of their dialogue pattern already established in television and magazine interviews; it’s simply a matter of studying the way they speak and incorporating it into the dialogue you are creating for them. On the other hand, if you get it wrong, every reader will know it immediately.
I’m not buying it. Angelina Jolie would never refer to her children as “My little sucklings.”
In this case, you have to think of your dialogue as a caricature, making sure to include specific details of the person’s speech pattern — choice of words, cadence, vocabulary — that are recognizable as theirs. Just like how a caricature artists relies on key physical traits that distinguishes one individual from another, you must do the same when sketching out dialogue representing a famous person. Even if you don’t regularly “interview” famous people like I do (at least until there’s an injunction), it’s a great writing exercise that forces you to analyze all the nuances of dialogue.
Or as Angelina Jolie would say, “Go ahead — Make my day.”
3) Writing character dialogue that rings true and earns a reader’s trust really comes down to one basic principle: Consistency. I purposely placed this after “famous person dialogue” because many of the same rules apply. Though you’re writing about a fictional person, readers will recognize when you’re not being “true” to the character. When we meet new people, we instinctively study them to determine how far the relationship will extend. Acquaintance? Confidante? If there are inconsistencies in their behavior, such as explaining how they own a Porsche dealership yet leave the bar driving a 1987 Ford Fiesta, we tend to question their honesty. The same goes for character dialogue. Readers study it and quickly form an opinion. If the character’s vocabulary isn’t consistent, or they speak in bullet points one minute then in long Shakespearian soliloquies the next, you’ll lose your reader’s trust.
‘Tis truth I speak.
So take time to determine the nuances of your character’s speech pattern in the same way you would with their physical appearance and backstory. Or backside. Or whatever.
This is officially the longest post of my life. If you’ve made it this far, I thank you for taking this leap of faith with me. If you didn’t make it this far, then I can call you a big jerk and you’ll never know.
Next week, we’ll continue with “Description,” and tips on how it can enhance dialogue and build trust with your readers that will make them want to take a leap of faith — instead of a flying leap.
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