Saturday, 26 April 2014

Dialogue Dilemmas - Part 2

In part 1 of Dialogue Dilemmas we looked at the ground rules for creating multifunctional, realistic dialogue. 
But what about the nitty-gritty, the technical side of creating dialogue? Where do you start a new line of dialogue? What about internal thoughts, how should they be presented? How do you correctly set out dialogue? What about quotation marks?
These questions all relate to the technical side of writing dialogue, the things you have to get right. Unlike a lot of fiction writing, there are no bending rules where dialogue is concerned.
The first thing that all writers should learn is how to correctly format dialogue, i.e. set it out correctly.
Dialogue Formatting
It’s important that you clearly denote who is speaking for your reader, so dialogue must always be clear. There are still lots of writers who don’t use this correctly.
Firstly, whenever a character speaks, always start a new paragraph. Don’t make the classic mistake of tagging one character’s dialogue onto the same line as another character’s dialogue. For instance:
‘It’s getting dark. We should make camp soon,’ David said. ‘But we’re not far from the settlement, are we?’ Jane asked.
This is confusing for the reader and grammatically incorrect because Jane’s dialogue should not appear tagged onto the end of David’s. Remember, a new paragraph denotes a new line of dialogue:
‘It’s getting dark. We should make camp soon,’ David said.
‘But we’re not far from the settlement, are we?’ Jane asked.
The same concept applies for multiple characters talking within a scene. Each one still needs a new line. For instance:
‘I knew he was shifty the moment I saw him,’ John said.
‘But you don’t even know him,’ Paul said.
‘He’s just making assumptions, as usual,’ Gran muttered. ‘Like he always does.’
John recoiled. ‘That’s not true!’
You can see that each time a character speaks; there is a new line that shows the reader. There is no confusion which character is speaking and when.
But what if you need the character to perform an action while in conversation? Or perhaps they may have a long section of dialogue. How do you tackle this?
Writers use an action interjection. That means you can insert the action within the same paragraph as the dialogue, because this denotes the character is still speaking while performing the action.
It doesn’t mean you have to start a new paragraph for the character’s action, unless the character has finished speaking completely, nor do you need to make a new line to carry on the character’s dialogue after the action.
This can be a confusing concept, so I will demonstrate with an example of incorrect dialogue structure:
‘I’m ready when you are,’ Jake said.
‘We should sneak into the town at nightfall,’ David said. ‘It will be easier for us, less chance of us being spotted.’
He rubbed frost from his eyes, blinked a few times.
‘First priority is to find somewhere warm to shelter.’
It’s clear from this example that splitting David’s dialogue and the action has made it confusing for the reader, because it’s not entirely clear who is saying ‘First priority is to find somewhere warm to shelter.’ Did David say it or did Jake? And it’s not clear who is performing the action, either.
The idea here is to give the reader clarity and avoid ambiguity, so if you keep the character’s action within the same sentence as the dialogue, you avoid confusion:
‘I’m ready when you are,’ Jake said.
‘We should sneak into the town at nightfall,’ David said. ‘It will be easier for us, less chance of us being spotted.’ He rubbed frost from his eyes, blinked a few times. ‘First priority is to find somewhere warm to shelter.’
This version is grammatically correct and it’s structured properly. It’s clear who is speaking – David – and the narrative shows him performing an action before he continues speaking again. The dialogue has been enhanced by an action interjection.
Dialogue Punctuation
Punctuation is one of those things that not all writers fully understand. There are some self-published writers who have made some terrible errors when it comes to dialogue punctuation, writers who haven’t taken the time to learn the craft of writing.
It means they often they miss the basics of dialogue punctuation, things like making sure that the first word of a line of dialogue is capitalised. Even if it isn’t the first word of the sentence, the first letter must always be capitalised:
Jon said, ‘Make me a strong black coffee…’  
Even fiction non-experts will spot these basic errors. One is one too many and spoils the reading experience.
Place commas correctly
If you are using a tag such as “he said/she said” in order to identify the speaker, then you must insert a comma directly after the last word of dialogue, as this denotes a protraction of the speaker, for example:
‘I need to get a new cell phone,’ she said.
‘I should have known,’ he said.
The commas after ‘phone’ and ‘known’ show the extension of the speaking character. If there are no tags, however, then it’s simply a matter of ending the dialogue with a full stop.
‘I need a new cell phone.’
Sometimes you might see an interjection of a speech tag, or a combination of tag and action, within the dialogue. This pauses the sentence, before the dialogue continues after the speech tag or action. For instance:
‘This time tomorrow, we’ll be in Paris,’ she said, ‘and we’ll be strolling down Montmartre.’
You’ll notice that the continuation of the dialogue, ‘and we’ll be strolling…’, also begins in lower case rather than beginning with a capital letter. This is because the second part of the dialogue is a protraction of the sentence. The ‘she said’ is an interjection between clauses.
You can do the same with an additional action, for instance:
‘This time tomorrow, we’ll be in Paris,’ she said, adjusting her glasses, ‘and we’ll be strolling down Montmartre.’
The same sentence can be structured using a full stop instead. But rather than giving a pause in the dialogue, it gives a clear indication of the end of the dialogue. And this time, the second part of the dialogue starts with a capital letter to show a new sentence.
‘This time tomorrow, we’ll be in Paris,’ she said. ‘We’ll be strolling down Montmartre.’
Again, the same convention applies if you want to add action after the speech tag.
‘This time tomorrow, we’ll be in Paris,’ she said. She adjusted her glasses. ‘We’ll be strolling down Montmartre.’
Be careful to place commas and full stops correctly. Again, it’s worth reiterating that these will be spotted by agents/publishers, editors and readers.
In Part 3 we’ll continue our look at the technicalities of correctly formatting and punctuating dialogue, so that you avoid any dialogue dilemmas.

Next week: Dialogue Dilemmas Part 3

Sunday, 20 April 2014

Dialogue Dilemmas – Part 1

Ground Rules
Dialogue is straightforward if you know how to do it properly, and shouldn’t present any problems, but lately I’ve seen many self-published books that use incorrect or badly structured dialogue. Writers are still getting it wrong.
If you want to go down the route of traditional publishing, i.e. finding an agent or publisher, then it’s paramount that the silly mistakes found all over self-published work isn’t apparent when you submit to an editor for scrutiny.
Dialogue should be correct and properly structured, which means writers should be aware of ground rules. Once you know those ground rules, you can concentrate on the technicality of constructing dialogue.
Move the story forward
Firstly, dialogue is necessary to move the story forward. That means it should be concise, it should get to the point and relay pertinent information to the reader as part of the continuing story arc.
Dialogue should never turn into an info-dump - in other words, don’t fill your scenes with huge chunks of dialogue relaying backstory or unimportant details. This can put your reader off, plus it means the story arc has lost focus.
Here’s a simple example common to many writers – the dialogue backstory/info dump:
Amy stared at the grey slime. ‘We’ll need to get samples of this stuff.’
‘I know all about molecular biology because I studied it at university and I spent several years training in the field,’ Dan said. ‘That means I’m well qualified to assess this situation with my experience, I’ve worked with most of the top biologists…’
This is enough to send the reader to sleep. The information about Dan and his qualifications and experience isn’t necessary in dialogue because it sounds too stilted and feigned. Background information should be sprinkled through the narrative as part of his characterisation.
The dialogue could be written like this instead:
Amy stared at the grey slime. ‘We’ll need to get samples of this stuff.’
‘I agree,’ Dan said.  ‘I can run several tests back at the lab, see if we can extract some DNA and find out what creature this came from.’
The second example is more concise; it gets to the point and moves the story forward.
The other thing to remember is that dialogue should be realistic, to a point. In everyday life, conversations can drag on about peripheral, unimportant stuff and often filled with strange pauses and lots of ‘ums’ etc. They may say ‘Er…’ or ‘eh?’ a lot. They especially say, ‘you know’ and ‘like’ as well. For example:
‘He was like, you know, really friendly and everything, and, well, I really liked him and I wished I’d given him my number, you know?’
The dialogue can still retain a sense of realism, but without the colloquialisms. These are the things you leave out. For example:
‘He was friendly and I really liked him. I just wish I’d given him my number.’
Another important ground rule is to use correct dialogue tags. ‘He said’ and ‘she said’ become almost invisible to the reader after a while; however, writers shouldn’t rely on them too heavily. Instead, structure sentences so you don’t always have to use them.
The same rule applies for the use of more descriptive tags such as ‘she whined’ or ‘he cried’ etc.  Many writers still use these, when in reality they’re rarely required if you’ve got sentence structures right. For example:
‘Why did you do it?’ she wailed.
The use of ‘she wailed’ is unnecessary and weakens the dialogue. The way to cut out the need for them is to insert narrative in order to show character the emotions, for example:
Tears fell across her cheeks. Her voice pitched. ‘Why did you do it?’
This version removes the need for silly dialogue tags and shows the reader that the character is emotional simply by mentioning the tears and pitched voice. It’s that easy to step away from the habit of unnecessary dialogue tags.
Dialogue Length
Another similar method to the example above is to add character actions in between dialogue to add a touch of realism. If you find that you’ve written a particularly long section of dialogue, then character actions helps break up the dialogue into manageable sections, for example:
‘It was only when I got to the bedroom that I noticed she’d gone,’ Dan said. ‘I never heard a thing, not the door opening or the stairs creaking, absolutely nothing, but I guess you don’t when in a deep sleep.’ He rubbed his temples. ‘Now I feel so terrible that I didn’t wake, I couldn’t help her…’
You can see that the insertion of action breaks the length of dialogue and helps pace the sentences. It’s not a must, but they’re a good way to slip in little snippets of tone, tension and emotion, and they also allow the reader to pause briefly before continuing.
Vary the dialogue lengths, give them pace. Contrary to bad advice out there, not every sentence needs to be short and to the point in the belief that reader’s attention spans demand it. That’s pretty demeaning to your reader. Longer sections of dialogue are just acceptable as short ones. Just make sure you pace them and add character actions to break them up and make them interesting.
This seems to bother a lot of writers because they assume that they have to give their characters a variety of accents to make the character more real – meaning they have to write dialogue using that accent.
This is not a bad thing, if used correctly and sparingly, but the down side is that you could confuse the reader if it’s used too much. Reading it will become a chore; it will put the reader off, and your character will sound like a caricature.
The rule is always about balance. Use dialect, but don’t let it overshadow the dialogue. Less is sometimes more.
Unlike your narrative, which must always be grammatically correct, dialogue is the exception. It doesn’t have to be grammatically correct, especially with characters using dialect or slang, because this forms part of the character’s voice and it retains a hint of realism of actual speech.
That said, as with dialects, don’t overdo it, otherwise it becomes annoying to the reader. Keep a balance and don’t let it overshadow the rest of the dialogue.
So, those are the ground rules. The thing to remember with dialogue is that it is multifunctional; it does many things all at once. Dialogue sets the scene, it imparts pertinent information, it foreshadows, it enables characterisation and realism and it moves the story forward as part of the story arc.
Next week we’ll look at the technical aspects of dialogue structure, and more importantly, how to format dialogue correctly.

Next week: Dialogue Dilemmas Part 2

Saturday, 12 April 2014

How to Avoid Bad Writing – Part 3

In the final instalment of how to avoid bad writing, we’ll take a look at a few more common errors that writers haven’t yet understood, or have chosen to ignore at their own peril.
There are quite a few, but I’ve highlighted the ones that crop up all the time in narrative, common errors that can be and should be avoided.
One of many things that drive me crazy is the use of too many ‘ly’ adverbs (although they’re not to be confused with adjectives that end in ‘ly’). 
Adverbs are used to modify a verb, an adjective, or another adverb. They’re words that don’t really belong in the narrative – that’s not to say you have to eliminate all traces of them, because you don’t have to go that far. Some are needed at certain points and can be useful, but on the whole, many are unwelcome. For example:
She looked up at him lovingly, his face so fetchingly constructed…
This is the kind of stuff found in a lot of romance-style novels, and it’s awful. The use of adverbs weakens the sentence. It seems as though many writers have left their creativity behind; they don’t consider the power and strength of the words in their sentence structures.
The use of adverbs also includes them being used as dialogue tags, too. Once again, they weaken the dialogue in the same way adverbs weaken narrative.
‘Oh, I didn’t see you there,’ she said, falteringly.
This sentence is better: She faltered. ‘Oh, I didn’t see you there.’
‘Your place or mine?’ he whispered lustily.
This sentence is better. His voice brimmed with lust. ‘Your place or mine?’
Adverbs are universally hated, simply because too many will make your narrative look as though a ten year old wrote it. And not only that, but editors hate them. So if you are out to impress editors with your writing skills, first make sure that you haven’t littered your novel with adverbs.
Hanging Participles
My absolute favourite thing to hate about fiction writing.
I detest seeing these whenever I critique, so much so it makes me breath fire. And if I hate them so much, imagine what agents and editors think about them…
Never start a sentence with a hanging participle.  If you want to create ambiguity, or you want to confuse the reader; if you want to weaken the sentence structure and make it look like your 7 year old niece wrote it, or you want to make your potential agent choke on his coffee with your lazy writing, then go ahead and hang your participles.
If, on the other hand, you want to achieve a correct, tight and unambiguous sentence structure, then avoid starting your sentences with them. If you’re not convinced, take a look at these beauties:-
Carrying her coffee, she stormed into Derek’s office.
Turning from the door, he saw the shadow in the corner.
Reaching for her phone, she knew she had to call her mother.
There is nothing remotely good about these examples. And still writers start their sentences like this.
Instead, take the time to read what you have written, learn to spot adverbs and hanging participles. Learn to be creative with sentences; learn to care about what you write.
Flat narrative
Another cause of bad writing is flat narrative (telling, not showing). This is down to either the writer isn’t that confident about writing descriptive scenes, they’re afraid and not sure about them, or they’ve been advised that too much description spoils the story.
There seems to be a lot of contradictory advice about how descriptive narrative should be. On one hand there are those that love description, because when properly used it builds a picture for the reader. Then on the other hand, there is a sturdy contingent of anti-narrative folks who are advising writers to keep it simple.
I personally think balance is important. Think of description as the cement between your building blocks. Without it, there isn’t much support. It’s that simple.
Those who advise against being descriptive are not helping writers; they’re hindering the creative process. Descriptive narrative is a must; all you have to do as a writer is keep the balance between sounding flat and boring, or being colourful and evocative.
Not every scene will require lots of description, but your key scenes, those that are relevant and need atmosphere and tone, senses and surroundings etc., are there  to help the reader build a mental picture, and do require it.
Here’s an example:
He looked ahead through the forest. There was no one around. The coast was clear and he made his way back to the farmhouse.
While there is nothing essentially wrong here, there isn’t much for the reader to work with. The narrative is flat. It’s telling rather than showing. And, surprisingly, some people advocate this simplistic approach to description. That’s fine, but let’s compare it with some descriptive elements added:
He looked ahead through the forest, senses pricked. There was no one around and no sound, except for muffled heartbeat in his ears. Silence coiled between barren branches and swept low across the snow. Cautious, he made his way back to the farmhouse.
This second example doesn’t overpower with description, however this time there are enough snippets of information to help the reader visualise the scene. It’s balanced, and that’s what writers should be looking for.
Bad writing disappears with experience. The more you write, the better you become. The better you become, the more experienced you become with editing and spotting your own errors, so there is no excuse for bad writing once you have gained some experience.

Next week: Dialogue Dilemmas