Stories come alive through the voices of their characters. To capture the natural rhythms and flow of human conversation is not an easy task, but in this blog post, I am going to give some tips on how you can create dynamic dialogue to enhance your storytelling.
There are three key aims your dialogue must achieve:
Keep it real (sort of)
Although you want your dialogue to sound natural and to flow, you don’t want to replicate the structure of real speech, which is often full of unfinished sentences, repetition, pauses and stumbles over words – of course, you might want to add these in occasionally when it fits the moment, but do so very sparingly to avoid your dialogue becoming too ragged for the reader to follow.
Keep it brief and avoid small talk
Pages and pages of dialogue can be trying for the reader, so try to keep it focused – avoid any conversation that fails to achieve any of the three key aims mentioned above.
Never info dump
You should only dispense exposition through dialogue very sparingly – in particular, don’t state things both characters would clearly already know. Dumping exposition risks making your dialogue stodgy and stilted.
Give each character a recognisable voice
All humans express their thoughts in a unique way. A character’s background should influence the way they speak – their tone, use of language, any slang and dialect phrases. Once you’ve established a character’s voice, make sure you are consistent throughout the story.
Show not tell
Don’t signpost your characters’ emotions. As people, we’re not always precisely aware of how we feel, let alone be willing or able to express that emotion. Rather than having a character explicitly say ‘I’m angry’ or ‘I’m worried’, try to describe body language as indicators, clues even, for your readers to use.
Of course, when reading dialogue, your reader needs to know which character is speaking. The standard way of doing this is to apply dialogue tags such as ‘She said’ or ‘Jo cried’. Sometimes, additional verbs and adverbs are used such ‘she said sadly’ or ‘Jo cried angrily’ – I find these intrusive, especially if over-used; again, these run the risk of telling not showing the reader how a character is feeling or reacting. I tend the use the bare minimum of dialogue tags, basically just enough ‘he / she said’ so the reader can follow and know who is speaking - I feel this helps the dialogue flow and keeps the reader’s focus on what is being said.
My final tip is to read your dialogue scenes out loud – this helps to identify any words or phrases that fail to ring true for the characters.
If you’re interested in my writing, you can get the ebook version of my first novel - The Map of the Known World – for FREE. Please see the following Kindle preview:
Writing a novel is a demanding exercise: it requires imagination, focus, and the stamina and enthusiasm to keep working over a long period. Moments of frustration, drudgery and disappointment are, unfortunately, all part of the process, but there is an even more difficult challenge to overcome – self-doubt.
Self-doubt is the voice that whispers: ‘your writing is not good enough – you’re not good enough.’
It can slow your progress, even sinking you towards writer’s block (which I’ve posted about previously).
To date, I’ve written four novels (and am drawing close to completion of a fifth) and numerous short stories; I’ve attended writing courses and have read many books on the subject; I’ve also advised and supported other writers on their writing and publication journeys. Despite this, I regularly feel a weighty amount of self-doubt when it comes to writing. The following is a selection of the doubts I often feel…
These characters are flat.
The story makes no sense.
Nobody is ever going to want to read this.
I’ve run out of ideas.
And there are many, many more…
At its worst, self-doubt stifles my creativity, making me hesitate rather than taking positive steps forward.
So, how can you overcome self-doubt? I’m not sure you can completely overcome it, but you can deal with it, and make sure it doesn’t stop you writing. Here are three tips:
Manage your expectations:
One advantage of self-doubt is that it challenges complacency: as a writer, it is healthy to have the ambition to keep improving your skills. However, there is a difference between ambition and expectation; the former is a positive, vital approach, the latter is a burden. An expectation can say ‘my writing must always be great’ - this sounds fair enough at face value, but dig a little deeper: is it reasonable to expect your writing to always be great? Of course it isn’t, but if you somehow believe this, then what is the inevitable outcome if your writing falls below par? You’ll feel like you are wasting your time, and that your work is worthless. This will only add further fuel to your inner self-critic, and this critic will do everything to convince you to stop writing.
Cut yourself free from expectations – instead, just focus on trying to get better, trying to improve.
Yes, it is tempting to compare yourself to other authors and when you read their books, their work will seem so polished, so impressive. But remember: their books have been fully developed, edited, proof-read – don’t compare them to your work in progress. So, keep reading as many books as possible – keep reading for inspiration and to learn more about different writing styles.
Just keep going:
When you’re hit by self-doubt, when your inner critic is at its most vocal, it is easy – and understandable – just to stop writing. But the best way to fight your self-doubt is to keep writing. Even if you’re writing badly, it is much better than not writing at all – if you stop writing, then your inner critic has won, and that can’t be right! Just write something, anything and see what happens. Don’t overthink your writing and never look for perfection. Just write for the joy of writing and you’ll create something, however small, that is worthwhile and this increase both your confidence and enjoyment.
And if you keep going, I promise you the self-doubt will pass - it will come back, of course, but take advantage of the times when you’re feeling more confident, and use these to help keep going through the tougher moments.
How do you try to overcome self-doubt as a writer? Add a comment and join the conversation.
In this latest post chronicling the writing of This Sacred Isle, I'll be looking at how I used description within the novel.
I have to declare an interest – I love writing descriptive passages. Tiny, quirky details fascinate me, and for a novel such as This Sacred Isle, it was important to create a sense of a vivid, living, breathing world. I always try to use all the senses rather than simply giving a visual description of a scene; this gives a richer impression for the reader. As mentioned in the research post, where possible I like to visit locations pertinent to the story - just listening to the sounds of a location, or taking in the smells (pleasant or otherwise!) gives me a deeper connection, a deeper feeling of place. In This Sacred Isle, I wanted the landscape to almost be a character, for its moods and history to have an effect upon those who live there. For example, the following is a short passage from the book:
"They crunched over frozen dead leaves and bracken, disturbing birds feeding on the woodland floor. A red squirrel scampered up the nearest tree, startled by the unexpected intruders to its realm. Although dimmed by the cold of winter, the wood still assaulted Morcar’s senses with unfamiliar sounds, smells and sights: the rhythmic creaking of ice-stiffened branches; a jay’s screaming call; the moist, cloying smell of decomposing leaf litter. An eerie, echoing wolf-howl carried on the wind. The wood unnerved Morcar, he felt out of place, adrift in a world familiar on the surface, but with strange undercurrents."
I made use of a colour palette within the story, to suggest move and subtle changes in the plot. For example, the story of This Sacred Isle begins in winter. This is very deliberate, as I wanted to suggest a world frozen in stasis – Morcar’s people are bound by their culture and a very specific worldview (as are many other characters we encounter in the book). In this part of the story I used (obviously!) a wintry palette of white, greys and browns. As the novel progresses, and Morcar’s experience broadens, we move through the seasons, which is not just a temporal sequence but is also designed to reflect movement within Morcar’s character and the effect his actions have on those around him.
However, my love of descriptive writing carries an inherent risk! I have to be wary of my tendency to over-describe and drift into passages of longueur – as important as description is to the process of creating a novel, it should never slow the narrative. When editing my novel I cut most brutally any passages of description; they need to work very hard to convince me of their necessity. This sometimes means losing some sentences I favoured, but unless they served a narrative or character function, then it becomes hard to justify keeping them.
It is a question of balance – the world I want to create within This Sacred Isle needs to be layered, with a ‘dirt beneath the fingernails’ realism combined with a sense of mysticism. This requires moments of detailed description but at the same time I need to drive forward the narrative and shape a compelling, page-turning tale for the reader. Did I get the balance right? Mostly I think so, hope so, but I guess it is only the reader who can judge.
How do you approach descriptive writing? What kind of descriptive writing do you love to read? Post a comment and join the conversation...