Monday, 27 September 2010

Revealing Characters through Dialogue

When we speak we reveal a little something of ourselves. Your characters should do the same. Dialogue is an effective way of demonstrating who your character is by revealing their personality through what they say and how they say it, but fictional dialogue is different from everyday real life.

Think of real life dialogue. It’s full of interruptions, breaks, repetition and superfluous and irrelevant information. Lots of ums and ahs and a bucket full of different slang words. Most everyday conversations are, in reality, pretty dull and mundane, but the difference with real life dialogue and fictional dialogue is that with fictional dialogue you have to cut out the mundane, the waffle and the boring bits and get to the very essence of your characters and story. Readers are not interested in what your character had for dinner last Thursday, or that the garden needs doing, or the car needs washing…

Readers want information, immediacy and action.

Dialogue changes the flow of the narrative; it increases pace and gives the narrative a sense of immediacy. It provides texture and depth and provides a deeper insight into the character. The reader is able to interpret the kind of people your characters are through their dialogue and therefore determine what sort of personalities they have. This in turn helps them empathise with your characters.

There are three important functions of dialogue:

• Move the story forward.
• Reveal the character.
• Impart important information.

Readers want to know about the traits and behaviour of characters. They want to know how your characters tick. Revealing character through dialogue and action are two important literary techniques that you can use to enhance the narrative. This means letting the reader know your characters’ personalities and how they act and interact with other characters and their environment. This means active and reactive conversations.

Dialogue is also a good way of showing mood and emotion, tone and accent. A character who is calm and collected will naturally speak in the same manner, perhaps even when faced with a dramatic, pressurized situation. Angry or agitated characters will shout or stumble over words, speak in staccato, sometimes high-pitched sentences. Impatient characters have a tendency to interrupt, or change the conversation mid-flow. There is no hard or fast rule on this, but it is based more on observation of real people’s behaviour.

Dialogue is also engineered to impart information about the plot and to provide necessary information to your reader. It’s an important way to show, not tell your reader what’s happening, or might happen – perhaps a big event in the story, a turning point in the plot or a significant event that you want to hint towards to tease the reader.

Hinting of what might happen further in the story is known as subtext. Good use of dialogue should never blatantly spell out what a scene is about, it should be through use of suggestion. This is how subtext works. It’s something that becomes understood by the reader in a subconscious way.

Subtext can refer to the thoughts and motives of characters, as well as their actions and dialogue. There are always subtle meanings brewing behind what your characters do, say and think.

Here’s an example, an excerpt taken from my novel. It’s a dialogue between the protagonist Alex, and one of the other characters, DCI Roscoe, the man determined to pin the murder of her husband and son on her:

Roscoe eased back in his chair; watched her staring back at him. ‘Other than your arguments about the money your husband made, did you ever resent his success?’

‘No I didn’t. What do you take me for?’

‘Did you resent him being away from the home so much?’

A terrible noise began to fill her head, tumbling and turning like a drum full of metal, but it was a while before she realised it was her own silence. She eyed him, shrank back.

‘Well, did you?’ Roscoe asked, coming forward, his shadow threatening.

Alex expelled a short breath. ‘No, now you’re just wasting my time. Why don’t we both get to the point?’ The resonance in her voice was surly now; she was allowing the agitation to creep in. ‘You want to know whether I killed my husband, right?’

They were playing seesaw; it was Roscoe’s turn to sit back again. ‘Sure, I’d like to know. Who did you pay to do it?’

Something florid bristled in her eyes; a dark rancour shrouded her skin like a malignant shadow. Her eyes became wide. ‘I had no reason to kill my husband, or my child. Not for money, not for gain, not for anything this world could ever offer me...’

The above extract does three things:

It reveals character – from the implied tone of voice it’s easy for the reader to see that Alex is becoming agitated with the questioning, added to that some elements of description to underscore these feelings. It reveals Alex to be a no nonsense kind of person. Roscoe, on the other hand, is impatient and gruff.

The scene also imparts information about who may have killed Alex’s husband and son. Was she responsible, or someone else?

The third element is the scene as a whole - it moves the story forward. How? There is ample opportunity within the scene to let both characters waffle on and become boring, however, with a tight scene it has to be pruned right back to pertinent information, just enough to keep the momentum. There is a hint of revelation, just enough to stir curiosity.

Lastly there is subtext. During the scene both characters’ movements are shown to be like a seesaw, back and forth, each moving forward as though to dominate, then sitting back as though momentarily defeated. This shows how the conversation is evolving. It’s very subtle and the reader should be able pick up on these nuances.

Writing dialogue isn’t always easy, especially if you have to be prudent to keep everything tight. Always pay attention to dialogue to ensure it follows the three basic elements above. Be strict – cut out unnecessary waffle.

Introducing action into key scenes is another way writers use to move the narrative forward and provides underlying meaning to a story in a slightly different way to dialogue. Every story needs action and conflict, because without it you have no story, and by writing about the behaviour of your characters you give the reader the chance to form opinions about them, and find out about their personalities. How your characters conduct themselves is another way of revealing character through action. Again, it’s all about active and reactive.

Problems to overcome with dialogue

Everything in fiction is about balance. When you read back what you’ve written, sometimes you might find the dialogue sounds unnatural or stilted. The best thing to do is to read your dialogue out loud. This will show you where the problems lie, by listening to how it actually sounds and you can re-write where needed to improve the dialogue and make it sound more realistic.

Another problem is dialogue which reflects the mundane. This means the conversations are boring and slowing down the story. This usually happens when your characters are talking about unimportant, irrelevant stuff. It’s like listening to two people on the bus talking about what to have for dinner. Cut out the waffle and the mundane and get to the heart of what your character’s need to say - their conversations should move the plot forward, or reveal something important about the characters and the situation yet to come.

Remember not to have huge chunks of speech for the reader to wade through. Vary speech lengths; keep it interesting for the reader. It’s easy to get carried away with dialogue, but it you need to keep it in check.

Make sure your dialogue is consistent – keep in character when constructing dialogue between different people. The protagonist’s personality and speech will be vastly different from the antagonist and other characters. You must keep in character throughout the story, because the moment you slip out of character or do something uncharacteristic the reader notice immediately.

The best rule of thumb when reading through what you’ve written? If it doesn’t sound right, it invariably isn’t.

Next week: How to edit effectively

Sunday, 19 September 2010

Metaphor and Symbolism in Fiction

Metaphor v Simile

Why use metaphor, similes or symbolism in fiction? Because they are just some of the useful tools available to a writer to add extra dimension to their work, to make it interesting, more palpable and more entertaining.

A metaphor is an analogy, a figure of speech, to convey an idea or object. It compares dissimilar things without using ‘as’ or ‘like’

This shouldn’t be confused with similes, which are used to convey something that is very much like, whereas metaphors state that something is.

With metaphors, you don’t have to write ‘like’ or ‘as’.

For example:

‘His eyes were fireflies’. (Metaphor)

‘His eyes were like fireflies’. (Simile)

Both examples tell us the character’s eyes glittered or glowed like fireflies in the dusk, because the fireflies are used as an analogy.

‘John was a tank’. (Metaphor)

‘John was like a tank’. (Simile)

Both of these tell us that John is very strong and stocky. Used correctly they can add a bit of flair to the narrative, but if used poorly, and too often, they can spoil the piece entirely.

How do metaphors help?

Metaphors and similes have the ability to create mental pictures and imagery with a limited number of words. They can enhance your novel or story by adding depth, colour and powerful imagery to your narrative, and it’s a useful way of drawing in your reader and keeping them hooked.

As with most fiction writing, however, you need to find a balance when using metaphors and similes. Misuse or too may will bore or confuse your reader and may ultimately weaken your writing. Use them sparingly.

While there are advantages to sprinkling your narrative with them, there are some disadvantages of using metaphors, too. Be careful you don’t make them into clichés. For instance:

He was a brick wall.

Her face was thunder.

These are well-worn metaphors way past their sell-by date. The idea is to think of new ones, something fresh the reader hasn’t read before. The other thing to avoid is mixed metaphor. A mixed metaphor combines incompatible metaphors, creating an illogical comparison. Here are a couple of examples:

Stick that in your pipe and chew it.’  You can’t chew what’s in your pipe, but you can smoke it...

Or what about this famous one...‘Float like a butterfly and sting like a bee.

The inflated use of similes and metaphors might also lead to hyperbole, which is an obvious form of exaggeration. They are similar to similes and metaphors but are overly exaggerated for effect and sound too much like clichés.

The bag weighed a ton.’ This is not only exaggerated, but also cliché.  Or what about this overused hyperbole, ‘I laughed so hard I nearly split my sides...

Try to avoid hyperbole and mixed metaphors. Think clearly and carefully before choosing a metaphor or simile to help enhance your narrative. Remember to remain new and fresh in the way you want to enhance your writing.


The use of symbolism is an important tool in fiction. It’s a way of creating depth and meaning to your narrative, and it takes the story beyond simple plot or character development. It illuminates the narrative, gives the reader something extra to think about as you sprinkle the story with symbols. Used correctly, they act as clues and hints of what may happen further in the story.

But how do you find the right symbols? That depends on the theme of your story and how you want them to work in relation to the story. A romance story may want to use colours, or flowers. A thriller might use certain people, or repeated objects or words.

Symbols can be anything from words, colours, sounds, objects and similes.

Symbolism is about the relationship between the symbol and the character and/or plot and how this shores up the story as a whole, if properly used. You should introduce a symbol in a way that delicately underscores the story's emotional core and enhances the story.

Shakespeare uses symbolism to good effect in Macbeth. He uses blood as a code to the reader; as a representation of the deep guilt felt by Macbeth. He also uses a raven, which usually represents foreboding and ill fortune, to inform the reader of what is to come.

In my own novel, I use the ocean and the tide as symbols by equating tidal movement to thoughts and dreams and life rushing in and out and crashing over rocks. I planted them sparingly throughout the story, so each time they appear, the reader understands the hidden meaning of the main character’s true emotional state.

Symbols don’t have to be complicated in construction, because even simple ideas work. My favourite symbolism is the gathering of dark clouds to foretell something awful and ominous is about to happen. It’s simple, concise and effective.

The colour red is very evocative. It can symbolise love and romance, sex and death. Black is a dark brooding colour which could be used effectively in the surroundings, or as part of character’s description to represent fear.

There are limitless options. You have to know how the symbols will affect the plot and the character and how it will trigger a response in your reader to know which one to use. Generally, have the symbol appear early in the story, then perhaps at key points in the novel, and maybe towards the end to emphasise the theme.

Always try to be inventive and avoid cliché. Symbols are a way of association and hidden communication with your reader. They say so much in so few words.

Next time: Revealing character through dialogue

Saturday, 11 September 2010

Effective Prose

Writing prose is easy. Writing well-crafted prose isn’t.  It’s not just about having the raw talent to write, because although it helps, there are still skills and technicalities to learn. In essence, writing is about the balance of talent, capability, learned skills and the love of the written word.

There are two literary structures for creative writing: prose and verse. The latter is a vital ingredient in poems, and rhythm plays a part in that for verse to work. The same is true for prose. Sentences need rhythm to work. Poems keep to a metrical structure, and don’t necessarily have to rhyme. Prose can also work with metrical structure to a certain degree because conventional rules don’t bind effective prose writing, since the act of writing is subjective and integral to the author’s own style. As already pointed out, style and voice is as individual as a fingerprint.

There are several ways to bring prose to life:

• Choice of words, phrases and sentences
• Rhythm and Pace of description
• Metrical verse and patterns
• Alliteration
• Repetition
• Parallelism

The choice of words is vital to your sentences. How do you pick one word over another? That depends on the tone and atmosphere of the narrative and what you want to say. The use of vowels creates soft words, whereas consonants are sharper by contrast. Vary sentence length. Mix staccato words with softer words to provide variation and heighten pace.  Which words you choose and in what order can make a difference to the clarity of the overall sentence structure.  It's wise to be choosy.

Rhythm defines the tempo of your narrative. If the narrative were a car travelling at 40mph from beginning to end, then it would make for a boring, long-winded journey. If it stops, then starts, then rushes madly at breakneck speed, then slows, then speeds away again, then slows...then that kind of car ride will be an exciting ride. This is exactly how your prose should be. The varying pace of the narrative makes for an enjoyable read.

Metrical verse and patterns refers to the pattern of prosody. Prose can have a poetic nuance, with the same metrical form as poetry to stress certain syllables within the words. For instance: The rain subdued his mood and the descending darkness made him brood...

Alliteration, particularly in prose, refers to the repetition of initial sounds in neighbouring words, for instance: ‘A droplet descended the door...’ or ‘the wind whipped the flowers wide across the meadow...’

Notice  how the words begin with the same letter and are close together within the sentence.  This is simple alliteration.   This is another way of livening up the narrative to provide inflection. It’s not something writers think about too often, and when reading back your work you might find you’ve alliterated without realising. Again, it’s a good way of adding dimension to your narrative.

Repetition can be a useful tool in writing. Repeating certain words throughout the story gives purpose, cadence and rhythm to the narrative and is something the reader will notice very quickly, particularly when used in conjunction with symbolism. (More on symbolism next week). Of course, it could be any word or phrase that you could repeat which could strike a chord with your reader.  It's a way of referring the reader back to the main thrust of the story. 

Parallelism is about constructing parallel sentences. Two or three such consecutive sentences can add impact and a sense of rhythm. This is when parallel sentences can be effective by adding a sense of depth to your prose.

Alex knew what they were thinking. She was perceptive. She was smart. She was intuitive. She knew the brooding expressions of their faces meant something.’

She was perceptive, she was smart, she was intuitive. All three sentences are parallel and when you read them, it intones a sense of rhythm.

If I’d written the sentences differently, the outcome would not be as effective: ‘Alex knew what they were thinking. She was perceptive. She was smart and she thought about putting the kettle on...’ The parallel structure is lost in this second example and it doesn’t give the same intonation and tempo as the first one.

The effect of the words on the ear is rather like a tune. It’s fluid, it ebbs and flows, it pauses in the right places and it quickens and slows.  See what I've done there?  That very sentence is rhythmic prose. By using the words fluid...ebbs...flows...pauses...quickens...slows, I've given the sentence a rhythmic quality and when you read it it's easy on the inner ear, it has a distinct metrical pattern and a careful balance of words within the sentence.

Although not a prerequisite, it’s always good to include some of these strategies within your narrative and especially in description. Without them, you’ll end up with an indistinct piece of writing that neither excites nor has any depth.

Writing well-crafted prose entails skilful handling of words, sentences and paragraphs that have rhythm, pace, alliteration, intonation, clauses and poetic nuance. It’s the difference between a reader enjoying what you’ve written, or skipping over it in favour of something else.

Next week: Metaphor & symbolism

Saturday, 4 September 2010

Story Writing Process

The process of story writing isn’t easy. Not only do you have to contend with what to write, but you have to know a little about how to write for it to work. It’s an art form, a way of expression, but it’s also a discipline. You can write for love of writing, the simple enjoyment of words on paper, or you can become a master storyteller.

Writing encompasses many processes, not just actual writing. It’s about imagination, thought, a keen eye for observation, planning, structure and shape, form and genre, writing strategies, research, knowing your audience, knowing the market and, rather importantly, recognising one’s limitations.

People often wrongly assume writing is easy. It’s not.

Writing a great piece of work doesn’t happen at the click of your fingers. Being a good writer takes years of hard work and discipline. It’s a constant learning process, the kind of art form that allows you to grow and flourish the more you write.

Writing needs a concise and clear direction and a well-structured approach. Essentially, this means engaging those elements of imagination, thought, observation, planning etc, to produce a well crafted, finely edited piece of work. Any story you write needs cohesion and wholeness, something that evolves logically. If it doesn’t, it will show in your writing and will result in a story that is forced and convoluted.

One other thing the writing process asks of us is the confidence to start and finish a novel/short story. Without it, your stories will never get finished.

Elements of the writing process:

• Ideas & imagination
• Observation
• Working Method
• Planning & Structure
• Writing strategies
• Research
• Editing
• Self discipline
• Confidence
• Know Your Limitations

Let’s take a closer look at these:

Ideas & Imagination

The basic ingredient to any story, the idea (not the plot) forms the general theme of who, what, when and where. It’s about forming that idea into something substantial and worth reading about. The imagination is the essence that turns and idea into something tangible at the end. Don’t be a writer if you don’t possess a lively imagination to turn ideas into fully-fledged stories.


Detailed observation of people can help you develop your characters, and sometimes the best place to do this can be cafés and coffee shops. To write creatively you need to have an insatiable curiosity about what makes people tick. All writers are students of human nature, and are therefore constantly striving to explain the world to their readers.

Working method

The way you approach your writing is just as important as how you write. There is no right or wrong way because every writer is different. You may like to write a couple of hours a day or you prefer to work at night when it’s quiet. You might love the bustle of a coffee shop, or the silence, or you might work better with Guns ‘n’ Roses in blasting the background. Each writer has his or her particular approach, but it’s about making time and sticking to your writing.

Planning & Structure

Knowing what you want to write about is fine, but you may want to organise your thoughts, scribbles and notes into something cohesive. Planning is helpful because you can plot your story or novel with main points. Again, there is no right or wrong in this approach. Some writers hardly plan at all but simply write and see where it leads them. Others plan meticulously. What you want in each chapter, how you want to organise your characters, sub plots, minor characters and so on. Some writers find it useful to draw line maps or bubble maps. Use whatever approach feels best for you.

Writing Strategies

By using a flow chart similar to the one shown below, you should be able to produce crisp, polished work, which demonstrates creativity, perception, and originality. You will need to formulate a way of pushing together all your ideas and research. This means thinking carefully about your characters and your plot, how the story unfolds and develops – from planning and visualising, to creatively writing it down. Decide the intended impact of the story and be sure to include key events that will lead to a satisfactory ending. Always try to visualise your story whilst writing.

Simple writing strategy flowchart:

Use the best strategy for you.


There should be some degree of accuracy within your writing, and research is vitally important to make your story real. You don’t always know what it is you have to research when you start writing. You may find you have to write a scene about Bulgarian Police, or you have a scene set on a which case you can do the research later and add the accurate information when you edit.


The process of stripping away the waffle, the blatant errors and plot flaws etc is one of the most important processes in story writing. This is about fine-tuning your story/novel, and perhaps the most significant part of the writing process because it allows you to see your completed work from start to finish and also shows you where you can improve it.

Ideally you should strip away 15- 20% of the superfluous writing. You might end up throwing away entire chapters, but then you’ll add some better words, sentences, paragraphs or scenes. Your end result will be tighter and better.


How or where isn’t as important as how committed you are to writing, and how much you want to be published. A disciplined writer makes the time to write, even if it’s only a hundred words, or a snatched half hour between feeding the kids, the spouse, the cat and a hundred household chores. By all means balance writing time with leisure and family, but don’t neglect your talent.


You should have the confidence to start a novel or short story, build on it and finish it. Many people start a novel but never finish it simply because they lack the confidence in their own writing. The more you write, the greater your confidence.

Experiment with your writing, and therefore challenge conventions of writing. Aim to be different – do something new. Stand out.

Knowing your Limitations

Another part of the story-writing process is to know your limitations. You may be one of those rare writers who are able to write multi-genre stories, or you might only be able to contend with one or genres at most.

If you know you can’t write romance, don’t try it. The result will be terrible. Conversely, if you’re niche is romance, don’t try to write horror otherwise the same result will occur. Stick to what you write best and become familiar with how you write best. Every writer has limitations, so get to know and respect yours.

Next time:  Creating the right prose.