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.
Ever have a deadline and have no clue how you’re going to meet it? That painful moment that seems to last ten years where your brain refuses to engage in thought and you’re left idea-less. I was there just minutes ago when I realized it was my turn to post and I had no topic and no clue what I’d write, so…
I decided to look for help. I googled ways to inspire creativity. Here are 13 ideas to jump start creative thoughts.
by: Mia Jo Celeste
Mia Jo Celeste comes from a family of writers and English teachers, so it was no surprise when she chose to pursue both careers. You can find out more about her on her website or on Twitter.
I don’t know about you, but I read fiction for the characters and the adventure those characters go through. Like most readers, I want vivid heroes who draw me into their situations and, often when I don’t get into the main character, I put the book aside. But how do writers create those attention-grabbing heroes?
Here’s what some of my favorite writing experts have to say.
I love reading stories that feature intriguing characters and I hope these tips will help you when you write your next tale. Also, if you’ve found the suggestions useful, I hope you’ll consider checking out the resources quoted in this article for further study.
Mia Jo Celeste comes from a family of writers and English teachers, so it was no surprise when she chose to pursue both careers. Recently, her novel Other Than became a double finalist in the 2018 Prism Contest in the Historical/ Steampunk and Best First Book Categories.
During the run of its 30th season premiere SEX WITH STRANGERS, Renaissance Theaterworks will shine a spotlight on Wisconsin authors. On Saturday, October 28th the company will host a Mini Book Fair in the Studio Theater lobby of the Broadway Theater Center from 3pm to 10pm featuring members of WisRWA. As an advance introduction to the authors, Renaissance asked them questions related to the various issues and conflicts presented in the play SEX WITH STRANGERS by Laura Eason. Here is the fifth interview of the series.
Mia Jo Celeste
Dark Worlds Ripe for Redemption
Mia Jo Celeste is from a family of English teachers and authors. After fifteen years as an English for Language Learners teacher, she is trying her hand at writing. She has completed four fantasy novels, the first of which is published by Wild Rose Press. She lives in Milwaukee with her husband and sons.
RTW: In the play, the character Olivia partially blames the failure of her first book on her editor’s choice in covers. How important do you think covers are to a book’s success or failure?
Mia: I believe readers really do judge books by their covers and that a compelling cover can pique a potential buyer’s interest. When my publisher hooked me up with an artist, I sent her all kinds of pictures of period gowns. I wanted to have my heroine facing off evil in a to-die-for dress and that’s exactly what I got.
RTW: Have you ever received a bad review? If so, how did you handle it? Did it ever discourage you or make you question your worth as a writer?
Mia: When I first started writing, I entered a lot of contests. I would stew over critical comments from judges. One fall I entered the same 25 pages in five contests. In one contest, the pages earned an incredibly low score. In two others, they received an average score and in two others they reached first or second place with almost perfect marks. I wondered how the exact same words could inspire such diverse results? I finally figured out that writing is art and readers’ reaction to art is subjective. Opinions vary. When I get any review, I remind myself—opinions will vary.
RTW: What would it mean to you to see your book for sale in an airport terminal shop?
Mia: I’m really looking forward to this experience. I hope it happens soon and for me it’ll be a measure of success. When it happens, my friends and followers should be prepared to see pictures and selfies of me with the book. No doubt, I’ll tweet and blog about it.
RTW: Do you let other people read your writing before you submit it to a publisher or an agent?
Mia: Yes. I believe that writing is communication and I regularly ask critique partners and readers for feedback to make sure my writing conveys the message I want to get across.
WisRWA is teaming up with Renaissance Theaterworks in Milwaukee to host a mini book fair on October 28th in and around the performances of Renaissance Theaterworks’ production of Sex with Strangers.
From Renaissance Theaterworks website: “When frustrated forty-ish novelist, Olivia, meets fast-talking, twenty-something, blogger and memoirist, Ethan – known more for his sexual prowess than his prose – she worries that she will become just another chapter in his little black book. Their funny and passionate union blurs the lines between rewrites, romance and royalties – proving you can’t judge a book by its author. Sex with Strangers was one of America’s top ten most produced plays from 2014-2016. In addition to playwrighting, Laura Eason is also a producer/writer for the Emmy Award-winning Netflix series House of Cards.”
Eight WisRWA authors will take part in the signing, and we’ll have other WisRWA members on hand to answer any questions about WisRWA that we can. The authors participating are:
Starting tomorrow, each week, we will feature a Q&A with one of the authors.
Sex with Strangers runs October 20-November 12, 2017 but WisRWA will only be there on October 28th. Come support local theater and local authors! For more information, visit Renaissance Theaterworks.
Hope to see you there!
WisRWA members, Mia Jo Celeste, author of Other Than, and Barbara M. Britton, author of Providence and Building Benjamin, will be talking about book launch parties (both actual and virtual) at the June WisRWA meeting in Milwaukee. Jennifer Rupp asked them a few questions about their first year as published authors.
Jen: Brenda and Barbara, you’ve both released your debut novels within the last twelve months. Did it come as a shock how involved you would have to be in the marketing of your own book?
Brenda: Yes. Although I’d heard a lot about marketing, taken some classes and been a blogger for years, I was surprised about the time and financial commitment. That said, I like marketing—something I never imagined I would.
Barbara: Yes, definitely. Publishing has changed so much since I started my journey ten years ago. I knew I would have a hand in marketing my books, but I didn’t know I would be the driving force behind getting the word out about my novels.
Brenda: It varies. Usually I check Twitter and Facebook every couple of days and I’ve been trying to appear in cyberspace a couple of times a week, either on my blog or someone else’s. For me, it’s a lot like student teaching. Because so many tasks are new, they take longer to figure out and complete, but I’m sure that I’ll get faster and I’ll figure out which tasks are the most important to complete.
Barbara: I feel I do some sort of marketing every day because of social media. Certainly I am more involved right before, during, and after a release. With Pelican Book Group, I have an e-book release date that is different than my print release date. Twice the fun—and work. I would say my average is 5-10 hours a week.
Jen: Now that you’re a published author, do you write with more confidence?
Brenda: I hope the adage “practice makes perfect” works. Because I write more, I’m more comfortable writing and, God willing, my writing is getting better.
Barbara: Yes and no. I feel I have the basic craft of writing down pat, but doubts plague me as a published writer. I’m thinking my work isn’t good enough, or my success was a fluke. I have to silence those nasty voices and tell myself that I am writing solely for myself. If no one sees my book, that’s okay. I’ve enjoyed writing it and learning through my research.
To hear more from Brenda and Barbara, please join us at the Mayfair Mall (Garden Suites Community Room, Lower Level) on June 17 from 9-11:30 AM. It’s sure to be a great time.
Barbara M. Britton will be a panelist at the WEMTA Author Fair on March 19, 2017 from 11:30 a.m. until 3:00 p.m.at the Kalahari Resort in the Wisconsin Dells. She will also be at the New Berlin Public Library on April 1st, 2017 from 10:00 AM –1:00 PM their Local Author Fair. She will be celebrating her print release of “Building Building: Naomi’s Journey.”
Lois Greiman will be signing books and giving a workshop called ‘Writing From the Heart’ at the Rosemount Writers’ Festival in Rosemount, MN on March 18th.
James Michener once said, “I’m not a very good writer, but I’m an excellent rewriter.”
I think that’s where most of us are, which might be why many writing gurus like Anne Lamott encourage bad first drafts, but we won’t talk about those today. Instead, I’ll focus on revision. I’d like to share my top three tips.
First, put some time between your drafts. At least a few days. A week or a month or two might be better. Most of us fall in love with our stories and we need that infatuation to ebb, so we can read our work without the rosy-everything’s awesome glasses. A little time gives us the emotional distance to view work anew and figure out what’s missing and what might need to change.
Second, have someone else read your work before you upload or send it off to be discovered. Critique partners or first readers can catch story inconsistencies and areas that aren’t understandable in your work. They can tell you which characters they connect to or which one they really don’t understand. Also, they can spot spelling or grammar errors.
At a writer’s conference I attended a copy editor admitted that even she makes mistakes occasionally and when she does, she doesn’t let it bother her because she figures it takes an average of sixteen pairs of eyes to get a manuscript to published flawlessness. Your critique buddies can be one of those first sets of editing eyes. Also, one of the best things about having critique partner or group is that you can become great friends.
My third tip is to try for good or very good instead of perfect. Because being human, and not possessing sixteen sets of eyes yourself, a totally perfect scene or manuscript is unattainable. Too much revision may add hours to your tasks and if you’re like me—it’s a buzz kill. It ruins the fun. So, my advice—do the best you can, look your work over a few times and then stop. Good is good enough.
When I’m not writing, I’m teaching, and I fit the one of the instructor stereotypes. I ask my students to re-think their drafts and to revise more than once. Revision and re-evaluating life decisions are themes that frequently appear in my fiction.
by: Mia Jo Celeste
Mia Jo Celeste comes from a family of writers and English teachers, so it was no surprise that she decided to pursue both careers. She’s an adjunct instructor, who just published her first release, Other Than, your grandma’s Gothic romance gone uber.