One Writer’s Journey

March 12, 2019

Characterization and Dialogue: Keeping Things Real

Filed under: Uncategorized — suebe @ 2:57 am
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One of the most fascinating parts of writing fiction is creating characters that sound real in every way.  This means that their dialogue has to sound real and they have to be three-dimensional.

Dialogue can seem false when it is straight forward and oh so linear.  Character A asks a question.  Character B answers it.  Another question. Another straight forward response.  Back and forth again and again.


No one answers every question that they are asked.  Sometimes it is simply because each person has their own agenda.  One person is trying to have one conversation. Perhaps they are trying to find something out.  The other person also has an agenda.  Perhaps they are tying to get a point across.

Keep that in mind and the conversation might look more like Character A asks a question.  Character B gives a tiny bit of information but segues into something else.  Character A asks more or less the same question.  Character B may give a bit more information but again goes off on their own conversational tangent.

This is, of course, assuming that Character B isn’t intentionally hiding something.  We all have things we don’t want to talk about.  It could be something embarrassing (weight, debt, a bad grade), something we are simply tired of discussing (politics, a health problem, a failure), icky emotions (envy, lust, anger), things we are afraid of (heights, flying, storms), or past failures (losing a job or friend).

If Character A asks about something or comments on something that Character B would rather keep hidden, Character B might . . . dare I say it? . . . actually lie.  All of these things, the things the character wouldn’t want to discuss as well as the failure to always be straight forward, are going to make the character more realistic and more believable.  The dialogue will be less robotic and more realistic as well.

Just a few things that I’m thinking about as I draft my mystery.


January 9, 2019

Characters: Making Them Three-Dimensional and Realistic

Filed under: Uncategorized — suebe @ 1:58 am
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Earlier in the week, I was reading a Writer’s Digest guest post by teen author Lorena Koppel. In her post, “From YA to YEAH: 4 Ways to Keep Teen & Young Adult Readers Hooked,” she discusses a variety of things, including unrealistic dialogue, that turn off young readers. Among the topics in dialogue she discussed is “codeswitching.”

Code-switching, if you don’t know the term, is when someone switches between languages or dialects depending on who they are talking to. When I worked at the university, I saw this with the international students.  When they were talking to me, they spoke English.  When a group of Russian students spoke to each other, they spoke Russian.

When Koppel uses this linguistic term, she is referring to the different ways that we each speak to different people.  It may not be a matter of a whole different language or even a dialect but simply how formally we speak to one person vs another.  If you’re a fan of Downton Abbey, you’ve seen this in the difference between how the Crowley sisters speak to their mother or father vs how they speak to each other.  Then there’s the switch that occurs when they speak to one of the servants.  The same thing occurs when the servants speak to each other vs a member of the family.

If you employ code-switching in your manuscript, your dialogue will not only be more realistic, your characters will also be multi-dimensional.  A pair of twelve-year-old cousins will use one vocabulary and set of behaviors with each other and another with their peers.  The way they speak with and behavior toward their teacher will be more formal and different from how they behave toward an adult they don’t know.  Add in a lack of trust and you can change things up yet again.

The reality is that no one acts one set way with absolutely everyone.  But too often our characters behave and speak in one way and only one way.  Use code-switching to make your characters more engaging and also more realistic.


January 8, 2019

Daring to Dialogue: Writing Dialogue that Works

Filed under: Uncategorized — suebe @ 3:17 am
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Spice up that dialogue.

Somewhere, someone is delivering this piece of advice to a new or new-ish writer.  And, more often than not, the new writer sets out to do just that.

“Get out of my house!” she shouted.

“Why don’t I believe you?  How can you ask that after you got us both expelled?” he retorted.

In manuscript after manuscript, characters are sobbing out their dialogue, whispering, shouting, screaming, and st-stut-stuttering.  You want to create some spicy dialogue?  Quit trying to jazz up the dialogue tags.  Honestly, those are just place holders so that your reader knows who is talking.  Stick with she said and he said as much as possible. The spice should pepper the words that are spoken, not the tags that help readers keep the speakers straight.

Take a fairly simple line of dialogue.

“I hear them coming,” she hissed.

First things first, pet peeve alert.  There is not a single S in that sentence.  No one, but no one is hissing it.

Step One.  Get rid of the hissing.  And let’s add a bit more information.

“I hear them coming. They’re going to find us any second,” she said.

Our speaker and listener(s) are hiding.

Step Two. Let’s add something that has to do with setting.

“That squeak. That’s the loose board on the stairs. They’re going to find us any second,” she said.

Now we know that someone is hiding upstairs.  Phrase by phrase, we’ve made the dialogue more complex, more interesting and more informative.  And, if hissing didn’t make me a wee bit irritated, there are enough S’s that someone could actually try to hiss this.

If you still want to spice things up, do something about the dialogue tag. I’m not saying that you should go beyond said.  And don’t just chop them all off.  You don’t always need a tag but they do help readers know who is speaking.  You can also replace the tag with an action.  Again, make it meaningful.

“That squeak. That’s the loose board on the stairs. They’re going to find us any second.” She stood between the twins and the door. 

Now we know that our speaker is trying to protect two people.

When you spice up your dialogue, don’t just add fancy dialogue tags.  Instead, make your dialogue informative and make it work for your story.


September 10, 2018

Writing Picture Books: How Much Dialogue Is Too Much?

When writing a picture book, limit your dialogue.”

This is a fairly common piece of advice given to picture book writers. The reasoning behind it is that talking heads make for boring illustrations.  Good illustrations contain action and emotion.  There are different characters and settings from spread to spread.

And that’s not bad advice.  But the problem with it is that Dev Petty has written four picture books entirely in dialogue.  You heard me.  Entirely in dialogue.  If you haven’t read her books which were illustrated by Mike Boldt yet, you should pick up:

I Don’t Want to Be a Frog

I Don’t Want to Be Big

There’s Nothing to Do! 

I Don’t Want to Go to Sleep

Part of the reason that these books work is that they have serious kid appeal.  I don’t want to.  You can’t make me.  No!   Every parent has heard these phrases time and time again.  These stories are relatable both for the young listener and the adult reader.  Been there.  Done that.  Ribbet!

But the text also does all of the things that good picture books are supposed to do.  There are plenty of characters in I Don’t Want to Be a Frog. In addition to Frog and his father, there’s a rabbit, a pig, an owl and even a wolf.

There are also a variety of emotions.  Dad is a bit condescending at times – something I’m sure none of us have ever demonstrated when interacting with a child.  Frog is curious, excited, apprehensive and worried.  Wolf?  He’s just plain old grossed-out.  Settings vary as the characters swim, play in the mud and sit through a lecture.

Petty has proven that a picture book can consist of nothing but dialogue but that means that the dialogue has to carry the weight that the rest of the writing usually carries.  After all, there is no narrative to introduce new settings or characters or changes in emotion.

So now I find myself noodling over how to write a dialogue based picture book.  Clearly, I would not want it to be a character and parent.  But I feel it would also be derivative to make it a character and a grandparent.  So I’m thinking two young characters.

This is definitely going to take some thought.


March 28, 2018

Dialogue: Make it sing

Filed under: Uncategorized — suebe @ 1:38 am
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Thanks to Joan Dempsey’s class on Writing Great Dialogue, I am super aware of the dialogue in what I’m reading.  One of the things that she emphasized was how fickle readers are about dialogue.  If it doesn’t ring true they won’t continue to read.  And, to a point, I agree. I am going to finish my current read because I’m studying cozies.  I can’t drop every single cozy with cheese ball dialogue because there are just too many of them.  Sadness.

What is it that makes dialogue cheeseball?  In this particular case it is purple.  It feels overwritten and puffed up like fake Shakespeare.  I suspect the author was trying to make people sound educated.  They sound like they need to have sticks removed if you know what I mean.  I have to point out that I very seldom run into this in children’s lit.  But in adult genre fiction?  Ugh.

So how do you make your dialogue sing?  Here are 4 tips.

Dialogue is not real speech.  First things first, dialogue should not read like real speech.  People say ummm and uhhh. They pause.  A lot.  They back up.  They restart.  It isn’t nearly as smooth as good dialogue.  Too see what I mean, record your family speaking at the dinner table and then try to transcribe it.

Keep your dialogue brief.  I’m not saying that you can never give a character more than a single line of dialogue at a time.  But do limit the soliloquy.  If there’s a lot that a single character has to say, and it really must be said, break it up with beats of action.

Different voices.  Each character in your story needs to sound unique.  Seriously.  Everyone in the book I’m reading sounds exactly alike.  Vary the vocabulary and the way the characters string words together.  But don’t get caught up in trying to write dialect.  Your dialogue has to be understandable.

Read it aloud.  I know I said it isn’t speech but speak it.  Your ear is going to hear what sounds wooden and fake, and you can rework as needed.

Writing great dialogue is tough but it is worth the effort.  Because fake dialogue will pull your reader out of the story even if only to write a blog post.


March 27, 2018

Dialogue: Using it to strengthen your theme

Filed under: Uncategorized — suebe @ 1:51 am
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On Sunday I finished Joan Dempsey’s class on Writing Great Dialogue.  It is a free introduction to her Writing Great Dialogue Master Class and covers the five things that dialogue can do.

The must surprising one for me, and the one that will be most useful in my own work, involved using dialogue to reflect theme.  Short of having every other line of dialogue include the word “love” or the phrase “crime doesn’t pay,” I wasn’t really sure how to make it work.  Part of the problem, as Dempsey emphasized, is that the dialogue has to ring true.  If it sounds fake, like something I’ve slipped into the story because I needed it to do a certain job, I will lose my reader.

But Dempsey showed how to make it work for theme by having two characters argue about the theme.  Just think about it.  You have a book about trust.  Two characters can argue after one violates the other’s trust.  Or one character can pick an argument because the other character is placing their trust in someone the first person judges as unworthy.  Or one character tries to whine about getting cheated on or whatever yet again and the second character launches into a  lecture “because you always do this to yourself.”

You might have to play around to get this to work for you but that’s like anything else in writing.  Skills take a while to build and almost nothing comes together on the first attempt.  Just make sure that it doesn’t sound like your characters putting info out there just for the reader’s benefit — woo hoo!  Pay attention this is a book about trust.

If you’re interested in studying dialogue and how to make it really work for your story, Dempsey isn’t just interested in fiction but also uses examples from and discusses nonfiction.  I found the free class interesting and educational and not just a ploy to plug the paid class.  Definitely worth your time.



August 24, 2017

Dialogue, Narrative, and Action: Getting the Right Balance, part 2

Yesterday I discussed just how to balance these elements in a chapter book.  In my two page sample, 3 lines were narrative, in this case interior dialogue.  Half of what remained was dialogue and the other half was action. I had been reading about not using too much narrative and wanted to see how much was too much for these younger independent readers.  Apparently, I am going to have to keep it tight.

Middle grade

But what about books for older readers?  Today I have samples from a middle grade novel, Gossamer by Lois Lowry, a young adult novel, The Demon’s Lexicon by Rees Brennan, and an adult novel, The Right Side by Spencer Quinn.  These were chosen without an ounce of science.  Basically all three were within reach of my desk chair.

So how do the various elements balance out?  In the middle grade novel, dialogue (again in green) makes up about 1/2 of the total text.  I counted roughly 26 lines of dialogue.  The rest was split about equally between action (orange) and narrative (pink).  That large block of narrative on the lower left is a flashback.  The rest is interior dialogue.  All in all, roughly 1/4 of the total is narrative.

Young adult

Like the middle grade, the young adult novel is fantasy so I expected it to be narrative/setting heavy.  This time around the blocks are almost equal.  Narrative has a slightly larger portion with 22 lines.  A small amount of this is flashback and even less is interior dialogue.  But I expected very little interior dialogue.  This mean character is not particularly self-aware.  Most of the narrative is setting.  19 lines each are dialogue and action.  So that’s a fairly even balance between the three elements.  And, yes, these two pages were chosen at random.


The adult novel was a completely different situation.  Action takes up half of the total with 31 lines.  Dialogue?  A scant 9 lines.  The remaining 22 lines are narrative.  Before making any decisions on this book, I’d want to do another random sample to see if it would have more dialogue. Why?  Because it felt like it had more dialogue than this.  That said, it is a book about a vet with PTSD.  She is far from chatty so this might be the rule while the parts I’m remember where the exception.

Whether your novel is a chapter book or an adult novel, it is clear that no single element should take up more than 50% of the total.  What works well for your book will vary with the type of book that you are writing as well as the type of scene. A battle scene will likely have more action than other scenes.  A scene where the sleuth solves the mystery might have more dialogue or narrative.

Still, you obviously can’t have any single element take up more than its fair share of space.  Not if you hope to achieve balance.


August 23, 2017

Dialogue, Narrative, and Action: Getting the Right Balance

Filed under: Uncategorized — suebe @ 3:42 am
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Tuesday, I read a Writer’s Digest piece on what characters say and what they think.  The writer discussed needing to get the balance between dialogue and narrative just right.

Balancing dialogue, action and narrative was one of the things we discussed when I did the novel rewriting workshop with Darcy Pattison.  I remembered doing a manuscript mark-up to see what the proportions were in your manuscript before deciding what you needed to change.

But what is the correct balance?  I suspect that a chapter book manuscript needs a different balance than a middle grade or young adult novel.  But what would that balance look like?

You know me – I need to see the answer.  So I scanned two pages of a chapter book text.  In this case, I randomly chose two pages in Dinosaurs Before Dark by Mary Pope Osborne.  Then I printed the scan and got out my highlighters.  Okay, in reality I tried highlighting it on-screen only to discover that I can’t mouse a straight line to save myself.  Any-who, I got out my highlighters.

I marked up dialogue in green.  Every time Annie or Jack speak, green highlighter.  As you can see, that’s about half the text.

Then I marked the action in orange.  Again, that’s about half the remaining text.

Only three lines are highlighted in pink – that’s the narration.  In this case, it is inner dialogue.  Three short lines.

Part of it would be the age of the reader.  They want action (orange) or to see people interact (green).  Thinking about what might be or remembering things?  Not nearly as interesting and there just isn’t much room for that if you are writing for the 2nd and 3rd grade reader.  So this is the balance that I’m going to go for when I draft my own manuscript. Equal parts dialogue and action with just a dash of narrative.

How much narrative can you have in a middle grade or young adult novel?  More but I won’t be sure how much until I break out my highlighters.


March 23, 2017

Scenes: Creating a Sense of “Being There” in Nonfiction

Filed under: Uncategorized — suebe @ 1:50 am
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My most recent batch of students is busy writing away. They are deep enough into their work that they are attempting to create scenes.  A nonfiction scene is a lot like a fiction scene in that it is a great way to pull your reader into the story.  It uses dialogue and characters, setting and action.  Unlike the fiction scene, it all has to be true.

That means that if you include dialogue, you have to have dialogue to quote.  It has to be word for word.

That means that if you find “someone mentioned needing to buy new shoes” in a source, that is all you can write.  You cannot write ‘One of the students said, “I need to buy new shoes.”  Nope.  The problem is that the quotation marks imply that it is a direct quote.  To use the quotation marks, you need to have found those exact words.  “And I said to him I need to buy new shoes.”  “Marcus said to me, ‘I need to buy new shoes.'”  Something like that.

There are times that you have a bit of wiggle room.  When I wrote about a family of armadillos, I could describe the four young armadillos digging into the dirt and tearing into a fallen log when they heard insects.  Why?  Because they are typical armadillo behaviors.

But when I wrote about the protests in Ferguson in Black Lives Matter, I couldn’t say that a protestor did X or a protestor did Y unless I had that information from my source material.  Even if X and Y are both fairly innocuous actions, when I’m talking about people, I need to know that someone did it.  Otherwise I have to say, a protestor may have done X or may have done Y and that isn’t the sort of thing my editor is going to let stand.

Creating a scene can be tricky but if you have the facts to pull it together it is one of the best ways to pull a reader into your writing.



March 25, 2016

People Your Books with Plausible Characters

Filed under: Uncategorized — suebe @ 1:28 am
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Summer, Young Woman, Hat, Striped Dress, Blue DressNothing pulls me out of a story faster than a character who acts or speaks in a way that isn’t believable.  The absolute worst are male characters who do something or say something that just doesn’t ring true.  And, when this happens, the author is always female.  Always.

Most recently, I was listening to an audio book with multiple POV characters.  Sometimes we were in the villain’s head without knowing which character the villain was.  Sometimes we were in a suspects head; at times like this, we always knew which character’s head we were in.  Other times we were in the head of one of the two main characters — one male and the other female.

The female main character was a well-educated woman in her mid-twenties.  She was a researcher who often worked with the lawyers of well-healed clients.  She was used to being around money but not snobbish about it.

The male main character was an ex-cop who co-owns his own business.  He and his brother had been orphaned and then raised by a military uncle.  The pair now use computer analysis to help solve cold cases for US law enforcement.

Normally, I had no problem following along as the narration jumped from one POV to another.  But then the time came when I thought I was in the male-lead’s head.  He’s watching the female lead approach thinking about how fetching she looks in a sun dress.  In fact, it is his favorite type of dress.

Whoa.  What?

I’m sorry.  I just couldn’t buy it.  I could have gone along with him liking the blue dress, the short dress, even her new dress, but the sundress?  Uh, no.  Not this particular character.

Slip up on this type of detail and you risk pulling your reader out of the story.  Do that and you just might lose them.


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