Best-selling author Stephen King once said, “Good dialogue is a delight to read. Bad dialogue is deadly” (181). As readers, we can readily agree, but if you’re like me, an author intent on improving her craft, you want to know how to write dialogue that is a delight. You’re seeking guided practice—some rules. Here are seven insights I’ve gleaned from Janet Burroway, the author of Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft.
*Develop an ear for how people talk. Listen to conversations everywhere you go. Take mental notes. “The trick to writing good dialogue is hearing voice. The question is, what would this particular person say? The answer is entirely in language. The choice of language reveals content, character, and conflict, as well as type” (49). But as you are composing your characters’ interactions, remember that dialogue isn’t not the same as idle chat or small talk.
*Cut the slack. Just tell the important bits. When my kids were small and I was a working mom, I used to watch soap operas to relax, but I didn’t have a lot of free time. From observation I theorized only one big event happens in each episode. Between big events, the characters simply react to the smash-up event that occurred. I’d fast forward though scenes searching for the pivotal scene–until the characters looked stressed, a gun went off or a car crashed, you get the idea. Then I’d slow the recording and watch. We as writers want to focus our dialogue on the big or important moments in our character’s interactions while skipping the rehash and small talk. Burroway points out that dialogue isn’t merely transcribed speech. It’s distilled speech, the interesting bits that inspire listeners to lean in closer. Edit out the boring bits and focus on what isn’t being said as much as what is. In other words, work the conversation so that it become more than merely the words the characters are saying (47).
*Write double or triple duty dialogue. When composing characters’ interactions follow Sloane’s Law–compelling dialogue should always do more than one thing at a time. If it doesn’t, it’s too sluggish or passive to work in fiction (47). What is meant by doing more than one thing? Well, Burroway says, “Because direct dialogue has a dual nature—emotion within a logical structure—it’s purpose in fiction is never merely to convey information… it needs simultaneously to characterize, provide exposition, set the scene, advance the action, foreshadow or remind” (47).
*Be careful when you use summary or indirect speech. Know why you’re switching the narrative to quick summary or retelling. Although you can employ summary or indirect speech to explain events readers already know, don’t skip over the heart of the scene or the important event. Make sure that’s in direct speech, so that readers feel immersed in your characters’ significant drama (47).
*Don’t use dialogue to info-dump. Don’t allow characters to talk about they both know merely to pass along information to the reader (52). At best, it’ll read false. At worst, it will sound like you’ve crammed words into your characters’ mouths. As you already guess, this pulls readers out of your story.
*Know what your characters want and pitch them against each other. As toddlers we learn to talk and use communication to get what we want. As adults, we’re practiced at using speech to persuade or argue for the things we seek. “David Mamet suggests that people may or may not say what they mean, but always say something designed to get what they want” (54), and fortunately, in fiction, characters don’t always want the same things. Conflict piques readers’ interest and advances story.
I’ve saved my favorite suggestion for last.
—When writing dialogue, make change your mantra. Your dialogue becomes action if it inspires change (53). When there’s the possibility that characters’ conversation will lead to something happening, or a shift in the character’s thoughts or circumstances, readers feel involved.
Writing dialogue that delights readers isn’t an easy, but it’s essential to selling stories and something we can and should strive for. I hope
I’ve helped you on your writing journey. For more awesome insights on writing, consider checking out On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft by Stephen King and Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft by Janet Burroway.
Burroway, Janet, et al. Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft. University of Chicago Press, 2019.
King, Stephen. On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft. Hodder, 2012.
by: Mia Jo Celeste
Mia Jo Celeste comes from a family of writers and English Teachers, so it’s no surprise she’s both a writer and a teacher. Currently, she’s pursuing a Master of English at Mount Mary University.
Your characters are the heart of the story, so you want them to be right. What do they look like? What do they wear? What is their occupation? What manners and mores are typical for their times?
When you decide on what time frame you have set for them, and where, it will tell us who they are. Much of the past, stations in life defined people. In your research you have to get to know your characters well. You have to find how refined people lived and contrast that with the merchant and artisans. Also, you have to study the servant and country laborer and, finally, the poor and criminal class. Most countries and times have these varied groups of people. Even though you may not include all these groups into a story, it would help for a well-rounded vision, to know about each and their attitudes about others outside their circles.
Depending where your characters are placed, there are standard racial characteristics in different parts of the world. There weren’t many blue-eyed blondes that met Columbus’s men in the new world. However, places along waterways that for centuries had been used as ports of trade between nations, may have people of many nationalities living there. Countries who waged war for land would often incorporate the population into their empire and some would be moved to the capitols as slaves. Here again, it depends on time and place where you set your story on what racial groups would be living there.
In many ways, this is similar to the racial descriptions. Where you are in the world you can see in the native clothing styles. For the average person, if you lived in the far northern climes, for centuries you would have used furs to keep warm. Europeans, most Asians, the Middle East, and North Africa developed weaving cloth out of animal hair and plant fibers centuries back. The rest of the world used animal hides sewn together or plant material strung together in various ways.
Class had a lot to do with what people wore. Upper class had the refined clothing with imported materials, embroidery, beading and jewels worked in. It was usually dyed different colors from exotic plants and animals. Purple, for example, was regarded as a royal hue because it came from the ink of the squid, which was difficult to get. Merchant and artisan classes had less money for the rare, but their clothes were of high quality and professionally made by the guilds. The poor had hand spun and woven materials that were probably made by the women of the family from the animals and fiber plants they had. They would be natural color or dyed by plant matter.
There is a wealth of information on clothing from the mid-nineteenth through the twentieth centuries with the advent of photographs and movies. If you look on the web or in the library, there is much devoted on clothing.
The earliest jobs were probably hunter, toolmaker, food gatherer, textile, and cooking equipment maker. I’ve heard about the world’s oldest profession, but I think food and shelter would have come first.
As the ages went by, people learned how to smelt metal into useful objects. Instead of gathering wild plants, people started farming plants and animals for food and material. Carpenters and masons were building shelter and business structures. Then you have the intangible jobs of government, clergy, and scientists. Storytellers and musicians were the entertainment arts for a long time. Somewhere in that time, servants and slaves were doing the menial tasks for the wealthy.
Things really started to change when people started to make machines to do labor for them. First harnessing animal power, then wind and water made jobs faster and easier to do. The Industrial Revolution, around 1800, changed many things with its steam and combustion engines. With that came many different jobs that tied into the traditional, as well. You can find what was going on and how people were working in many different time frames by looking on the internet and in the library for life in the countries and eras you’re researching.
It’s true, what was acceptable in manners years ago has changed and will change again. I’m sure you’ve heard the statement, “acting like a caveman.” Before civilization came along, people lived in natural shelters, ate what they could find, wore little or no clothes, and men grabbed any females they desired. If they needed something they didn’t have, they would steal or kill for it.
As people started living in cooperative communities, the necessity for rules and the enforcement of them became important. Out of all that came the manner of treating your fellow human being. With few exceptions, men became the lawgivers and enforcers and because if that, for many centuries, women and children were treated like possessions. In the middle ages, women who were born in noble families were pawns to raise a family’s status. The oldest son would inherit everything while the younger ones were led to the military or clergy. Merchant and artisan classes were surprisingly freer than many in the nobility, as they could choose their course within the township and amass a fortune if they worked hard. Here again, men were the leaders of the guilds and women could only help their husbands in the businesses. This was the norm until women started coming into their own in the twentieth century when women started getting the vote in different countries and working independently in jobs other than owned by the family.
Many of the social manners started in the eighteenth century that we’re familiar with. Treating a lady with deference and respect lasted well into the twentieth century. You can find old rules in etiquette books from the time you’re working on to get some idea on how your characters treated each other. And remember, different countries had other social rules. So to be accurate you’ll have to check that out, as well.
by: Ilona Fridl
Ilona Fridl was born in the Los Angeles area of Southern California, where she lived the first twenty-one years of her life. In high school and college, she took Journalism and Creative Writing. She moved with her family to Milwaukee, Wisconsin where she met her husband, Mark. They started a locksmithing business and raised a daughter to adulthood. All the while, she dreamed about being a writer, but she hated typewriters. In the nineties, they purchased their first computer, and she never looked back. With some articles and short stories under her belt, she started her first novel. The eighth book is just being released by The Wild Rose Press. She is a member of Romance Writers of America, and a student of AllWriters in Waukesha, Wisconsin.
It’s Promotion Thursday for July. Check out where you can find our WisRWA authors this month.
The 2019 WisRWA Write Touch Conference is over and it’s time to start looking ahead to Chippewa Fall’s October 2020 Retreat. That’s right, instead of a workshop, we’re holding a retreat.
Yes, we’re going to be doing some writing so plan to bring your work-in-progress; but it’s NOT just about work. There’s going to be lots of fun, too. There will be games and prizes, good food, drinks for those who like to imbibe some, and plenty of opportunities to have a good time with other writers. As you all know from other workshops and conferences, romance writers know how to have a good time.
Everyone’s going to be assigned a brainstorming group. How many groups and how large will depend on attendance. Groups will be made up of a mix of attendees and subgenres, because sometimes the best ideas come from someone totally different than ourselves. So, if you’re stuck on your plot, have characters who just won’t behave, or hate your title, bring that with, too. You might find your answer in your group.
There will be times when we break from our groups and go off to our own little corner to write. This is where you put into words the inspiration you received from others. I know, you could do this at home but you might be surprised how much more you accomplish at a retreat. The Chippewa Falls area does this every year and I write so much more when I’m with the others. I think it’s a combination of inspiration and accountability. No one wants to be the one to say they frittered away the time and accomplished nothing, when everyone else made their goal.
And don’t forget, this is when WisRWA holds its annual meeting.
Because this is a retreat and not a workshop, it’s being held in a retreat center (think large house) and not a hotel. It will be a very economical weekend get-away. There are no built-in costs for speakers, editors, or agents. And you don’t have to consider the added cost of a hotel room on top of conference space. There’s a full kitchen so we don’t have to cover the extra cost of catering, only food. (The logistics of food will be determined at a later date.) Paying for an over-priced glass of wine at a noisy crowded bar? No! We can bring our own. So start putting together your car pools and plan on attending.
Just one thing: Because this isn’t a hotel with many rooms to offer, attendance is going to have to be capped. The place we’re hoping to contract sleeps 40 in 10 bedrooms (no bunk beds) and there are 4 bathrooms. And it’s easy to get to, about 13 miles south of Eau Claire. Once we sign, a link will be shared so everyone can see just how nice this is going to be.
by: Jane Yunker
Jane Yunker has been a WisRWA member since 2015 and the Chippewa Falls area contact since 2016. She is a blogger, published poet, and published short fiction writer. Her romantic women’s fiction novel, “Mary Bishop”, finaled in the 2016 Fab Five competition’s historical category. She is currently working on her second novel, “The Healing Heart”, which finaled in the 2018 Fab Five competition’s historical category. She grew up in Wisconsin but spent almost thirty years living in Rochester, New York, before returning to Wisconsin in 2011. She currently lives in St Croix Falls with her husband.
Jane is also a member of the Wisconsin Writers Association (WWA), and the Romantic Women’s Fiction (RWF) online chapter of RWA.
Congratulations to the following WisRWA members on their new releases this month.
Iron & Aqua by Amy McNulty
From time to time, I take a moment to reflect where I’m at in my life and where I want to go. During one of these reflections, I read about habits of successful people. You should know I define success not only as financial stability, but also about our journey as individuals and what we give to the world.
As I read, I became aware how discovering what my ten rules for success are, also complimented my journey as a writer. It takes a strong determination to reach our goals as writers. We have days where our “real” life takes over our writing times or days we feel like giving up. Or how about the days you feel as though you’re just spinning your wheels in your writing career. It’s easy to become frustrated if you feel you’re not meeting the milestones you thought you would have already reached.
A technique I developed over time to combat this was to pick out a small or big goal each day to take a step toward my ultimate goal. By breaking up the larger task into smaller chunks, it helps me feel more successful when before I know it I’m able to cross things off my list.
We all reach milestones at different paces and need to forgive ourselves if we feel we should have been farther along our writing path. Taking time out periodically to reflect also helps me keep moving through what I fondly refer to as “my writing adventures”. After all, we have to protect the reason we started down this writing path in the first place. We love to write romance with happily ever after endings.
The following are my 10 rules for success which I follow to keep myself on track.
Life has a way of pulling us off track and I have found these rules help me keep moving forward toward my goals. What are your 10 rules for success?
Lisa Romdenne is a member of RWA (PRO) since November 2014 and WisRWA member since September 2015 (served as WisRWA President 2016-2018). She writes western romance under the pen name Lianna Hawkins and is presently working on a historical western romance series. THE BOUNTY’S CATCH, book two in her Runaway Outlaw Series, won the historical category in the 2019 Utah RWA Great Beginnings Contest.
I joined WisRWA in January of 2014. I can honestly say, it was one of the smartest things I did on my bumpy, winding road to publication. Meeting fellow writers, industry professionals, and taking countless workshops on the romance genre all contributed to what successes I have had.
The most valuable of all that WisRWA has to offer is the Fab Five Contest. I’ve been a contestant twice (lost once, placed once), I’ve judged twice, and I’ve been a coordinator twice. This year, Natalie Alamo and I managed the contest and I couldn’t have teamed up with a better person. Each year, I grow as a writer because I participate in the Fab Five Contest.
Natalie and I have been working on ideas for changing and, ideally, improving the Fab Five Contest. The contest is not broken, but there are ways in which it could function better for the contestants and for the volunteers. The motivation for trying something new evolved from a combination of things: examining successful contests in other RWA chapters, judging issues related to diversity and training, as well as the acknowledgement that every once-in-a-while it’s time for a change. So, don’t be surprised if Fab Five get an overhaul next year.
My sincere thanks to the amazing and diligent category coordinators, the first-round judges, and the final judges. Congratulations to those who won and placed. You are one step closer to your goal. For those who did not place, I applaud you for putting yourself on the line and opening your heart to honest, well-meaning criticism. It’s scary and you are brave to have entered. I know you will benefit from the Fab Five Contest.
I’m honored to have participated for five years and plan to continue in whatever capacity I can. Fab Five is a satisfying endeavor because its purpose is to help unpublished authors achieve their dreams. What could be more rewarding?
by: Jennifer Rupp
Jennifer Trethewey is the pen name of Jennifer Rupp. She writes sexy, sweeping Highland romance combining on site research, wonderfully flawed characters, and a liberal dose of humor. Her first four historical romances from the Highlanders of Balforss series released by Entangled Publishing, have achieved critical and financial success. She has placed in numerous regional writing contests and is a member of Wisconsin Romance Writers of America, Chicago North Romance Writers of America, Wisconsin Writers Association, Red Oak Studios, and Chicago Writers Association. She is also Co-Founder and former Co-Artistic Director of Milwaukee’s Renaissance Theaterworks.
Let me start out by stating the thought of going to a three-day conference, by myself, without really knowing anyone else scared me silly. I’m relatively new to WISRWA, having moved from the metro Detroit area four years ago. But…I’m so happy I stepped outside my comfort zone and decided to make the investment in my career and go!
For me as an author, this year has been spent focusing on developing my craft and marketing. I found the sessions at the Write Touch Conference gave me a huge boost toward my goals.
On Friday (the first official day of conference), after arriving at the beautiful Hyatt Hotel in Downtown Milwaukee, I stepped into my first session with Agent Courtney Miller-Callihan. She provided insight into the romance market from an agent perspective. My big take-away from her session—Walmart is a big influence in the romance market, as they are the largest retail purchaser of romance. My next session was with Kimberly Brower, another literary agent, who presented information on what makes a good ‘hook’.
After a quick walk to the Public Market to buy lunch, I attended Mel Jolly’s newsletter session. My author newsletter was pretty much non-existent until Mel’s session. I’ve already put into use a lot of the information and tips I learned.
The day ended with an interesting Q & A with a panel of guest agents, authors, and editors. Dinner was held in the Vue, providing a beautiful view of the skyline of downtown.
Saturday morning was spent learning about emotional wounds from Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi. Yes, we all feel bad emotionally wounding our beloved characters but those wounds make for interesting and layered stories. I own their book, The Emotional Thesaurus. Attending a session with them in person was so educational. I really learned a lot from their presentation.
After lunch, I had the opportunity to pitch to an agent and editor. Both requested more material. I’m still waiting on replies but whatever the outcome, I felt the opportunity to meet one-on-one with them was a great experience.
Once my heart rate slowed back to a normal rate after my pitch appointments, I sat in on Lisa Cron’s Anatomy of a Scene. I purchased her book, Story Genius, and am currently in the middle of using it to create a deep profile for the main character of my next book. I highly recommend Story Genius if you don’t already have it in your writing tool box.
I attended another wonderful dinner in the company for some great authors, along with representatives from Literary Services, and enjoyed the keynote speech given by Maya Rodale. After dinner and enjoyable conversation, I did what most other introverts/bookworms would do and returned to my hotel room, looked over the cute gift basket I won at the auction, opened a bottle of wine, and read for a few hours before going to bed.
On Sunday, I ate a quick breakfast, packed my suitcase, and headed home, my spirit renewed. For the following week, I felt the lingering buzz of excitement from spending time studying my craft and meeting fellow romance authors.
I can honestly say the experience was such a great value. The cost wasn’t cheap, and I really debated if spending the money was a wise investment.
My conclusion—yes, yes it absolutely was! I made great new friends and learned from some of the best in our industry. Thank you to all the people who worked hard to make The Write Touch Conference such an amazing experience!
by: Laurie Winter
Laurie Winter is the award winning author of The Warriors of the Heart series, set in Wisconsin and Texas. Inspired by her dreams, she creates authentic characters who overcome the odds and find true love.
When not lost in the imaginary world of her stories, she enjoys time with her family, who are scattered between Wisconsin and Michigan.
Congratulations to the following WisRWA members on their new releases this month.
The Innocent Wife by Cici Cordelia
Saved Between the Sheets (Mutiny’s Rebellion) by Lina Jubilee
Everywhere I looked, a potential story scene loomed. Who was she meeting in that corner room? Why is she rocking out in front of everyone with her happy dance? That’s what attending the Write Touch Conference did to me. It inspired me to be creative and share my tales through the power of the written word. To paraphrase conference speaker and author Lisa Cron, we are wired to share stories.
I attended the Write Touch Conference to become a better writer. Like a sponge, I soaked in as much information as I could. I learned about story beats and crafting a scene. Marketing tips flowed freely from the speakers. Personal stories from beginning and accomplished authors on their path to publication uplifted me.
Being a novice, I’m still learning the basic elements of writing a novel. So, I’m plunging headfirst into romance novel plot points, using the #writetouchconference as my guide. With the plot structure adapted from Priscilla Oliveras‘s Gale Online Course, I’ve developed a story outline that incorporates some of the conference highlights.
Conrad Hastings. He graduated from college a few decades ago, never took a creative writing course, and fell asleep numerous times reading Wuthering Heights. An unlikely romance novel writer.
Ms. Write Touch Conference. Teacher extraordinaire, romance professor, and connoisseur of fine wines. Heroine of all heroines. Motto: Dare to be Decadent.
Tara Fischer. Nicer than the girl next door, she wouldn’t hurt anyone’s feelings. The logical love interest for Conrad, she won’t get in the way between a writer and his muse.
Reaching his mid-life crisis at full throttle, Conrad must write an entertaining novel to impress Tara or risk losing her to the sexy Scottish Highlander literary heroes (once she’s gone kilt, she’ll never come back).
Romance Plot Outline
“It’s not you, it’s me.”
Conrad has heard that phrase before, but it especially stung when it came from his friend Tara. A voracious reader, she could not look into his eyes. He’s asked her for an honest review of his novel, but he sensed her hesitation to tell the plain truth. He knew. He’s known all along. His writing sucked and he needed help.
Tara slid her smart phone across the restaurant table, opened to the WisRWA conference web page. No words were needed. He realized he has to attend.
Conrad cautiously stepped through the Hyatt vestibule, his senses overwhelmed with the busy lobby. But there she was – she could not be missed. Plastered on placards and a large wall, Ms. Write Touch Conference welcomed all writers.
Conrad nearly jumped out of his shoes from the slight tap on his shoulder. He turned around to gawk at the most beautiful woman he has ever seen.
“Welcome,” Ms. Write declared with a large grin, “I’m so happy you could attend.”
More enduring than advertised, she promised to guide him throughout the day. She suggested attending both writing and publishing/marketing events. Conrad was already smitten before the conference sessions even began.
Development (Intimacy Grows)
Day One lived up to the hype. Literary agents Courtney Miller-Callihan, Kimberly Brower, and Laura Zats talked about the current state of publishing and offered insights into new trends and possibilities. Editors Jennie Conway and Madeleine Colavita and Author Becca Puglisi offered constructive criticism to authors wanting a fresh and resplendent start to their novels. Authors Angela Ackerman, Mel Jolly, and Angie Stanton provided ideas to find his audience and connect with them. The indelible and genuine Lisa Cron taught an all-day, intensive writing course on crafting the irresistible novel. Conrad felt his confidence grow, knowing even published writers had obstacles to conquer on their journey to success.
Yet, he did not have Ms. Write’s full attention. She guided other aspiring and veteran writers through the smorgasbord of conference offerings. Night One’s special: An Evening with Daring and Decadent Girls. He wished he could be there to share in the fun, but family commitments came first. Will missing the evening adventure derail his novel?
Day Two was just as dazzling as the first day. Authors Angela Ackerman, Becca Puglisi, Valerie Biel, Mel Jolly, Amy Reichert, Lisa Cron, Angie Stanton, and Bobbi Dumas discussed novel writing, editing, publishing, and marketing. Keynote Speaker Maya Rodale spoke about writing the right story. He was given the tools to be successful. It was up to him to apply them, but fortunately inspiration was as close as the titillating glass elevator. He now had the perfect setting for writing a sex scene.
Guilt washed over Conrad’s face, stuck on the outside, looking in. There Ms. Write was again, center stage in the best restaurant with the best view, basking in glory as the sun set upon downtown Milwaukee. He had to go home early, while she regaled the writers with Daring Dialogue and Decadent Prose. Does she even miss him?
Misery or Big Black Moment
Why did he even want to write a novel? A great friend, Tara will always like him, even if his head-hopping scenes and verb conjugation made her dizzy. Ms. Write was there to provide the tools for a successful career and to provide guidance, support, and encouragement for his writing journey. He’s got the support, but he searched for motivation.
It’s simple – he wanted to share his stories and donate any proceeds to his favorite charities.
At breakfast, in-between sharing bites of bacon with his dog, he realized he does not have to be jealous of Ms. Write. She favored no one, but supported everyone. She wanted all authors to succeed.
He made a promise. In two years’ time, he will reconnect with Ms. Write Touch Conference. She will be impressed. So will Tara.
By T. Ganfield
Tom Ganfield is working on his first novel, Chasing Chestnut, with younger versions of Conrad and Tara. As a dog lover, he is trying to position Chestnut (the dog) to steal scenes and the hearts of his characters (and maybe the readers?).