writing

  • When dialogue ruins your scenes

    When dialogue ruins your scenes
    When dialogue ruins your scenes

    When dialogue is great, it can be terrific, keeping readers or audiences on the edge of their seats.

    Whether it’s the verbal sparring of Bogart and Bacall, the wisecracking characters of 1930s films, or dramatic courtroom exchanges in A Few Good Men, dialogue can spark and enthral.

    It’s not just true of films or plays either – there are plenty of novels with powerful dialogue.

    But there are also times when dialogue ruins scenes

    But here’s the problem – dialogue can be a little too seductive.

    Or to be more exact, writers who are rather too fond of their characters can sometimes find it difficult to know how much is too much.

    The problems with dialogue are numerous and linked to different issues.

    For example, writers who find their characters springing spontaneously to life, like Athena from her father’s head, might feel they spend a good part of their time just reporting what their characters are saying.

    It’s like taking dictation. Sometimes it’s like being possessed as you struggle to keep up with what your characters are saying and doing.

    Your fingers fly over the keyboard and you’re hoping they’ll slow down.

     

    When characters won’t stop talking

    Characters like this can have a real spark because they haven’t been consciously constructed or built from the ground up.

    They’ve not been sketched out on paper but appear to emerge from the writer’s subconscious.

    They can be unpredictable, obstructive, overly chatty (or the opposite).

    Such characters can pull the plot way off track. They have their own opinions that can supersede the author’s.

    If they are chatty, their dialogue can go on longer than necessary, and if they’re the amusing type, the author may find them entertaining.

    However, this can have a detrimental effect on the pacing and plot.

    Amusing dialogue scenes can only go on so long. Dialogue scenes should usually serve a purpose.

    If the author has two characters like this in the same scene, the situation can become more unmanageable.

    Cutting back these scenes is pretty much an example of murdering your darlings.

    The scenes might seem to be full of life, but a novel is not episodic. There should be a plot, and it should keep on moving.

    It shouldn’t be paused frequently for a chat break.

     

    When dialogue destroys your atmosphere

    Where this can become an even bigger issue is when there’s a conflict between the tone of the dialogue and the genre of the novel or its overall atmosphere.

    For example, if you want a dark, foreboding atmosphere to hang over the narrative, too much witty repartee is going to blow it out of the water.

    Think horror novels or dark thrillers.

    The dialogue becomes tone-deaf.

    It would work in a witty chic-lit novel, but there are other narratives where you really need to reign it in.

    You particularly don’t want it at wrong moments in the plot, where it interrupts the story or delays important events.

    Too much of this and your reader may bail out completely.

     

    When dialogue makes scenes too ‘loud’

    Another issue I’ve seen in manuscripts is that dialogue can actually amplify the volume in scenes where you want a quieter and possibly more introspective atmosphere.

    Sometimes, instead of dialogue, indirect speech is really better.

    There are other reasons why you might choose to use indirect speech, but volume is one.

    Another is that too much speech which has a low-information-to-wordcount ratio buries important details. You don’t want the most important details of the speech to be hidden among the less important chat.

    While people can drone on in real life, you have to be a bit more ruthless with characters.

    Novels, like films and plays, are artificial constructs. They are not a realistic representation of life. The scenes are edited, with toilet breaks and other mundanities usually left out.

    The same should be true of speech.

    You don’t have to be puritanical about it and only include the absolutely most relevant dialogue.

    But you do have to weigh the length and tone of your dialogue against the surrounding narrative.

     

    When dialogue slows the pace

    Dialogue often produces shorter lines and paragraphs down a page. This leads to the reader turning the page faster.

    While that is good for pace, it can also be draining to read if it goes on too long.

    This is particularly true if the dialogue doesn’t have an important purpose.

    The reader isn’t reading to eavesdrop on people, they want to see what happens to the characters and follow the plot to the end.

    When dialogue works really well it can boost the pace, but when it doesn’t it can slow the pace to a crawl.

    A novel that is heavy on dialogue is going to have a different tone from one that has much less.

    This doesn’t mean that the first is wrong – it could be a feature of the novel.

    But it does have an impact on tone and volume, though there are other factors like the personalities of the character and the genre that also have to be factored in.

     

    Other examples of when dialogue ruins scenes

    Fictional dialogue is a huge topic. Certainly, it’s too complex to cover in one blog post.

    But these are some of the other occasions when dialogue can ruin your scenes:

    • Using clunky dialogue to convey information to the reader. There are more subtle ways to convey the information you want your reader to know. 
    • Related to the previous point – some writers are using blocks of dialogue as massive info dumps, with no interruptions or pauses that you might expect in real-life speech.
    • Long speeches that are never interrupted by other characters.
    • Incorrect dialogue formatting – one author client even had an editor incorrectly format all the dialogue in her novel which I then had to undo.
    • Dialogue where everyone in the same scene sounds exactly the same. Readers struggle to tell one character from another.
    • Overly formal dialogue that doesn’t match real-life speech patterns. For example, some writers make upper-class speech oddly stilted.

     

    Dialogue is a skill you can master

    There’s much more that could be listed here.

    But one important thing to remember is that most human communication is non-verbal. And this is often getting missed.

    Those little pauses, gestures, facial expressions, and body language can reveal a lot. Check out The Emotion Thesaurus for how to convey non-verbal cues.

    If you really want to learn from the best, screenwriters and dramatists are a great place to start.

    Some of them are more realistic than others, but there’s plenty of great material to learn from.

    Most of all, don’t worry if your dialogue isn’t quite there yet. It’s something you can refine over multiple drafts.

    And if you think it’s not your strong point right now, remember not to get bogged down in negative thinking.

    Because when you tell yourself you’re not good at something, it can block you from doing better.

    Those other people who are great at dialogue – who knows how long it took them to get there!

    Try these tips !

    Join my free 5-Day Conquer Your Novel Challenge!

    Get 5 days of tips and challenges on plot, character, and structure so you can improve your manuscript. 

  • The #1 thing writers need to succeed

    The #1 thing writers need to succeed

    The #1 thing writers need to succeed

    What’s the #1 thing writers need to succeed? Is it a particular word processing program? Is it a particular writing app? Perhaps it’s attending a particular writing school? Or maybe it’s a question of networking or building up a big social media following?

    There’s no doubt some of those things are at least helpful – a decent social media following or a writing network can be very useful. Not just for marketing but also for feedback on your work.

    But there’s one thing that towers above everything else and it’s not something you can buy. It’s not something anyone can give to you. So, what is it?

    And the answer is…

    In a word: discipline.

    Boring, I know. Maybe even disappointing. But here’s the thing, if you want to be successful, you need discipline.

    Whether it’s allocating distinct time periods for writing, and not compromising or giving into other temptations. Whether it’s meeting deadlines – particularly important if you have a contractual deadline. Whether it’s setting aside the time to learn or refine techniques or skills. You need discipline.

    Procrastination and distractions

    Writers are often plagued by distractions and/or procrastination. Why is it so much easier to open a social media app than to get started on that piece of writing? The truth is, if you want to succeed you have to get tough!

    This is no different to a small business owner building their business. Like an editor, or a graphic designer, a copywriter, or any other kind of business owner or freelancer, writers need to build a sense of discipline.

    What are your weaknesses?

    What does this mean in real terms? Well, you might want to start with examining your own particular weaknesses. What stops you from writing? What are the most common excuses you give for not getting on with your work?

    You could be suffering from a social media addiction, which leads you to constantly check Twitter or Facebook. Or perhaps you’re stuck or experiencing writer’s block, and you’re avoiding the issue by looking for distractions. Maybe you are suffering from imposter syndrome and don’t really believe your writing is worth the time and discipline needed to succeed. Maybe you don’t believe you can succeed.

    Defining success

    There’s also the question of what success really means. This differs for different people. For some, having even a small number of readers amounts to success. Especially if those readers left good reviews. For others, just finishing a book is an achievement in itself – and they’re not wrong. Not everyone is out to be a working writer. Sometimes writing a book is an item on a bucket list – something to tick off. A goal attained.

    Want to be a full-time writer?

    Let’s say you want to be a full-time writer one day. Not an easy goal, nor necessary for a writing career. Many great writers have had day jobs. But to achieve that goal, you need to develop some discipline. (To write around a day job also requires discipline.) You need to become your own boss.

    You need to learn to set goals and commit to them. Time to get tough – with yourself, and also with other people who make demands, and who don’t take your writing seriously. Also, never forget that if other people see you don’t take your writing seriously, they won’t think twice about interrupting you.

    Block distractions, set goals

    While you can’t buy discipline, you can start to research ways to help yourself get there. Learn how to focus better, how to block distractions. Find out the times of the day or week when you seem to be most productive. Maybe there are particular environments you work best in.

    Try social media blockers, set timers, allocate times for writing. Block Twitter for three hours and commit to write in that period. Don’t allow writers’ block to defeat you. Set yourself goals and keep at it.

    Discipline is like a muscle – you have to keep exercising it. Your stamina will increase over time.

    Start with achievable goals

    You can start by setting yourself lower targets and gradually increasing them over time. Don’t judge yourself according to what others are doing. Compete only with yourself. How much writing did you get done three months ago? Now, how much writing are you getting done today?

    Never stop learning and developing

    And it’s not all about writing – there’s research, editing, developing your writing skills (CPD), marketing (when you get to that point). If you were an editor, you’d be expected to continue your professional development, periodically taking refresher classes or courses to upgrade your skills.

    As a writer, you can also continue to expand your skills.

    Of course, by itself, discipline won’t guarantee success. You also need a certain amount of talent. But talent is often the result of study, and study requires discipline. You need to research your market, and that requires discipline. You need to weather rejection, pick yourself up and carry on. And that too is a type of discipline.

    And finally…

    Think about what you’ve achieved so far, and plan out some writing goals for the next year. Achievable goals. You could aim to submit to certain writing publications. Perhaps there’s a novel you need to finish. Maybe you’re struggling with developmental issues like show versus tell, point of view, structure, characterisation, worldbuilding, and so on.

    Time to draw up a curriculum!

    Or perhaps you’d like some feedback on the opening chapters of a novel or memoir you’re working on. You might be interested in my opening chapters edit – the word count can be adjusted to your particular needs.

    Most of all, keep writing and keep learning. You never know where it will take out!

  • Does your desk look like a bombsite?

    Does your desk look like a bombsite? Or is it pristine, like this one?
    This desk is absolutely nothing like my desk. It’s inhuman.

    Hey, editors and/or writers! Does your desk look like a bombsite? Welcome to my life. The situation is so bad, I’m not even going to cough up photographic evidence. You’re just going to have to take my word for it. And my word on this is gospel.

    There are papers all over the place, a style guide, a dictionary, some DVDs that have somehow migrated over here, a graphics tablet, notebooks, pens, a lamp.

    I was pondering this situation today when looking at my desk from a distance (from the warmth of the radiator across the room) and remembering a piece of advice from other editors. Get a second monitor.

    A-ha! Edit the manuscript on one monitor and use the other to look stuff up.

    A second monitor on my desk would:

    • Make the mess even worse
    • Block most of the lower window (though it’s a tall window)
    • Push a decorative lamp to the floor (appropriately a woman reading a book)

    But… but… the second monitor wouldn’t be a TV screen I roped in years ago when I first got my PC. A temporary measure that’s been going on for three years now. The second monitor would have a built-in camera, and I could finally attend the zoom conferences I always have an excuse to get out of. (Well, I could probably use my phone, but I prefer to ignore that option.)

    If I bought the second monitor, I could attend interactive webinars and stuff. But then I’d have to show my face and I hate cameras. I suppose I could wear one of the three cloth masks currently sitting among the clutter. One is floral, one tartan, and the other has a paisley pattern.

    So, for the time being I am not buying a second monitor, but I am thinking about it. Because sooner or later, I’ll have to replace the TV. (I don’t actually watch TV, which is why it was better off as a monitor.) I will also have to tidy up this desk. And I will no doubt choose the very right moment to do it – a moment when I should be doing something else. And then I will decide that since I’m tidying the desk, I might as well tidy the whole bloody room. (I realise this is what a normal person would do anyway.)

    I do tidy my desk periodically. It’s just that it seems to be a breeding ground for papers and books and notepads. Before I know it, stuff is piling up again. It seems to happen all by itself.

    Truthfully, I don’t need a second monitor for developmental editing. I am an Olympic Gold Medalist when it comes to keeping multiple windows open and flipping back and forth. I suppose it would save time for copyediting or proofreading, but while I look stuff up, I don’t have to do it quite as often.

    Anyway, I think there’s something to be said for creative chaos. When I’m in heavy writing periods, my writing space also looks a mess. I’m slightly suspicious of tidy writers and tidy editors. It’s almost as if they have a character defect. A screw loose.

    It’s not natural or healthy for writers to be tidy. I remember one of my editing courses in the past saying something about the importance of a tidy workspace. Clearly, it never made any impact on me.

    I am unrepentant. But you’re still not getting the photos. I shall now return to pondering my artfully arranged mess and wondering whether sorting it out means a few hours off what I should be doing. There’s always a bright side to everything.

  • Don’t take too long to start your novel

    Don't take too long to start your novel

    So, you have a story you want to tell. You’ve been thinking about it for years. It would make a perfect novel. When you finally get round to putting it down on paper, you’ll know exactly what the characters are like, you’ll know how they interact, and you’ll already know how it ends.

    All that’s required is the time needed to sit down and write it. Plus motivation and lack of distractions.

    But is your novel really as well planned as you think? Are you sure you understand your characters, let alone how they interact with one another? Is that ending really credible? Have you ever thought about the structure of your story? Do you understand how story structure works? If you’ve never written a story, let alone a novel, you’re already in trouble.

    When you finally write your story, you might force your characters to do exactly what you’ve imagined all those years, forgetting that characters on the page must be organic. They must be natural and credible and as close to real people as it’s possible to get. If you turn them into puppets, performing at your will, readers will know, and they will lose interest.

    And those plot twists might not work out the way you thought. Perhaps they happen too early, or too late. And when you finally show your story to others, the ending doesn’t work at all. But if you’ve spent years imagining all the details in your head, the danger is you’re so attached to your unwritten ideal of a novel that you won’t make any compromises.

    The characters, the locations, and the plot must be just so. It’s what you’ve planned. You thought it out. You thought about it on your way to work, soaking in the bath, or lying in bed at night.

    And when you finally write your story, then show it to others, you might resist the best of advice.

    Because you have an ideal story in your head, which is ideal to you, which plays out like a film, except that you don’t really understand how films are structured either.

    Don’t take too long to start your novel

    It’s best not to spend too much time thinking about your story. The longer you leave it, the harder it can be to make the sacrifices necessary to bring it into the world in a decent shape.

    If you insist that the ending must be so because that’s what you planned all those years ago, you’ve already lost. Endings should be a natural consequence of the plot and characterisation, the final domino falling into place.

    With novels, things rarely go to plan. Those characters you thought would get on, only do so because you force them to. It’s perfectly clear to any reader that they’re incompatible and their relationship makes no sense.

    The ending comes out of the blue because you didn’t want your readers to guess the twist, and you never learned about foreshadowing. Meanwhile, your poor beta readers think the twist makes no sense.

    There’s no point creating the perfect novel in your head, that book you’ll write one day… you know, that day when you finally have the time. The longer you put it off, the harder it’s going to be. And that little ego voice that says you don’t need to learn about characterisation, structure, foreshadowing and so on… that little voice is not your friend.

    It’s time to bite the bullet. By all means start plotting it out on paper. Write up character studies. But don’t run the risk of spending too much time plotting on paper or your enthusiasm will be spent before you write a first draft.

    Don’t spend years dreaming about your novel. Don’t become so attached to all those characters and plans that you sabotage a good idea because you let it set in stone. And don’t spend too long plotting it out on paper. Learn your craft, be prepared for your characters to surprise you, and don’t count on that ending working. Always be open to new ideas, new characters, and new twists. Your novel should be an adventure for you as much as the reader.

    Don’t take too long to start your novel. Stop dreaming and start writing.

    Are you a fiction writer or memoirist? Do you need a professional manuscript critique or developmental edit? I’m a fully trained member of the Editorial Freelancers Association. Check out my services page.