Posts Tagged ‘Dialogue’

Two crucial skills for the writing life.

Wednesday, November 13th, 2013

Each day, we are bombarded by the tasks we must do, by the things we want to accomplish, and by the demands of tasks and people upon our time. There is only so much time, and so often too many things to do. We necessarily must master the skill of multitasking, of doing more than one thing at a time: answering the phone and emails, scheduling meetings and signings, managing children and pets, managing a household, making time for love, tracking our books and our word count.

Writing & publishing have become a multi-skill career, especially for writers, where we must write, have a business plan, set goals, design covers, write a blog, maintain a website, and market our books. Some of us do all of these things, some of us out-source some of it. And most of us do have other demands placed on our time, like family, friends, favorite past-times, other jobs.

And all of this demands that we multitask, and that is necessary. It’s almost a survival skill.

Lost in all of this multitasking, all of this busyness, is the equally crucial skill of … focus. Being able to focus fully, for long periods, is very important. Lost too is perhaps our best work, our richest and most engaging writing, and our real potential as writers. Without focus, our work suffers, our creativity isn’t as great or as deep. The constant interruptions and distractions mean we not only do not get as much done of what is really important for our dreams (writing, for example), but what we do during those crucial hours isn’t of the quality that we could want.

What can we do to more fully apply that skill of mental focus to our work, our writing. On my blog post about writer’s block (filed under Writer’s Life), I recommend using a timer and freeing up the mind from other things that might intrude. It’s kind of like beginning to practice meditation, where other thoughts and distractions must be kept to a minimum, and where mental discipline must be continually exercised. Once you’ve decided that it is more important that you become more deeply focused when you write, then you will probably think of other ways to accomplish this.

Here are some tips on focusing from that previous blogpost:

1) Before ending the day’s writing time, write a few lines of the next scene or a few ideas for that scene, so that it’s easier to pick up at the next session.

2) As you sit there, take the first 10 to 15 minutes to read a section of a book on craft or articles on craft, to switch your mind from the daily grind to writing and craft.

3) Set up your writing time so that all you have to think about is writing. Since you have other pressing things to do in your day, perhaps schedule your day on the evening before, so that when you begin to write, all of those other things are settled, done, and you’re not thinking about all the other things you have to do that day. Instead you’re thinking about and focused on writing. (see No. 5 & 6)

4) Write in a Journal before you begin your writing time, to dump all the things that are bothering you or distracting you. Assign a maximum time for this (5 minutes), otherwise it could take over much of your writing time.

5) Set a timer for the length of time you want to write and then think of nothing else during that time–that is the time you have for writing–until the timer goes off. This allows you to fully focus on your writing, and to set everything else aside for that hour or for whatever time you’ve allocated.

6) When you sit down to write, if other things occur to you that must be done or that are competing with focusing on writing, then quickly create a list of those things you need to do or think about. And then put it aside, so that they’re all written down and will be less likely to distract you.

7) Plan–an outline or variation of one, but at least a general idea of where you’re going with the novel, whether it’s a general statement, a synopsis with the main plot points, or an outline.

And a quote on the subject:  “…when you are completely open, when on all levels you are in complete communication, completely integrated, then there is joy and you begin to create … creativeness is a sense of total self-forgetfulness, when there is no turmoil, when one is wholly unaware of the movement of thought.” — Krishnamurti.

How do you see yourself applying & balancing these skills in your life?



Conversation. Breaking rules in fiction

Saturday, May 19th, 2012

For dialogue, at least in fiction, breaking the rules of conversation can be a good thing.

First, the three rules of rule breaking, as best-selling author Bob Mayer will tell you (applied to writing), are (1) know the rules; (2) have a good reason for breaking the rules; and (3) take responsibility for breaking them. (These rules and other great info can be found in his book, Write It Forward: From Writer to Successful Author. ) This is excellent advice. And that can certainly be applied to dialogue.

What are some of the rules of Conversation?  From an old Linguistics course textbook*, which fell into my lap this week, I found a page covering H. Paul Grice’s Maxims of Conversation**. I thought I’d apply these to writing dialogue. These are some of the rules you’ll want to break in your fictional dialogue.  (Be aware, though, that conversations should probably still make sense, for those who write experimental fiction.) This is just one way of looking at dialogue, a different perspective, to help writers “think outside of the box,” though we usually don’t think in terms of rules of conversation,  except in specific cases, like the rule to not interrupt, and so on. These maxims have been criticized, but are useful as general guides to politeness–they don’t represent the full range of human communication.

What are Grice’s Conversational Maxims?  ***  And how can they be applied to writing dialogue.

There are 4 kind of  Maxims/ Rules.

Maxims of Quantity:  (1) make your contribution to the conversation as information as necessary, which means don’t make comments that seem to add nothing and mean nothing; (2)  but at the same time, do not make it more informative than necessary

This first part of the Maxim should be followed for storytelling–don’t make comments that seem to add nothing and mean nothing.  But they can be broken, for example, when the character is responding from a different perspective, or when that kind of comment is the character’s MO–when avoiding a topic or when frustrated, and so on. For this second part, a run-on sentence of dialogue would be the example of more information than necessary. This could be done to add conflict or humor. Though be cautious of anything that doesn’t add to the storytelling.

Maxims of Quality:

The two maxims of quality are (1) do not say what you believe to be false; and (2) do not say that for which you lack adequate evidence.

Both of these rules can obviously be broken to good effect in fiction–for example, to add conflict and obstacles for the protagonist to overcome.

Maxim of Relation:

The Maxim is to be relevant. Being relevant in dialogue isn’t absolutely necessary, if doing so for a character is actually part of the character or character’s behavior. Or it may be a way for a character to deal with a specific person or situation.

Maxims of Manner:

The four Maxims of Manner are (1) avoid obscurity of expression; (2) avoid ambiguity; (3) be brief; and (4) be orderly.

As far as the form of dialogue, I would be careful about breaking the rules. For content,  so much could be done. Some ways to break these rules in fiction are when the expression is fresh; the ambiguity provides conflict; and the long-winded character has a specific reason for tending to be that way–though again, I’d suggest caution, for any writing that doesn’t add to the storytelling. As for orderliness, human relations and conversation in real life aren’t always orderly–except maybe if you’re at a dinner party where conversation is the objective–and conflict  and dynamic dialogue are the goals in fiction, not necessarily orderliness. 😉

I hope this has helped you think from a different perspective about your approach to writing dialogue . Some writers who are noted for great dialogue and their use of dialect are Amy Tan, Susan Straight, and Elmore Leonard.

For writing fiction, what are your thoughts on creating great dialogue and on rule-breaking?


*An Introduction to Language (4th Edit.) by Victoria Fromkin & Robert Rodman, pg 225.

** From “Logic and Conversation.”


Bringing your characters into focus, Part II

Thursday, July 14th, 2011

In the same way that the cameraman brings characters to life  frame by frame in movies, the novelist brings their characters to life–we just use more words. We create scenes to illuminate our characters for the reader, to involve readers in our story. Bringing those characters into focus is the topic of this blog post. Adjusting that lense for maximum effect. 

After we’re developed our character sketches on paper and in our imagination [see the previous post, Characterization Part 1, for some tips on doing this], we know, basically, who our characters are–

Then the writing begins. Keep in mind that often it is only when we begin to write the novel, that we really begin to feel the characters as living, breathing full-life characters. Elizabeth Bowen once said, “The novelist’s perceptions of his characters take place in the course of actual writing of the novel.”

If you’re a writer, then we don’t have to ask or answer, Why is character important? Why is revealing character important? It’s because character drives plot and plot drives character. And because it is often the really great characters that keep us reading [or in movies, watching], and that stay in our memory, long after we’ve read a book.

There are several ways to reveal character:

1) Exposition—the last resort—the author telling the readers about the characters. Exposition works to explain the characters conflicts, once you’re dramatized it and offers a different perspective–on the conflict, on the characters’ reactions to the conflict, and on the characters involved.  Small amounts of back story can help us understand the characters’ choices. And the words we use to describe a character will develop mood, theme, foreshadowing.

2) Actions of characters: That maxim of “Show, Don’t Tell”–although there is a place for telling, but that’s another post. Characters usually become vivid only as seen in action [including dialogue].

Through what they do, how they do it–how passionately, etc., and with whom.

Through how they treat themselves and others.

Through their reactions to obstacles and events, including their physical reactions.

In some ways, revealing character initially should be like first dates—what kind of an impression do we want to create, given our characters and plot. During real life dates, those people/characters who open the door for us and listen to us give a different impression than the ones who are rude or who immediately try to stick their tongue down our throat.  🙂

3) Dialogue:
The specific characters dialogue—not only what they say, but how they say it. It’s better when a reader knows who is speaking by the words used, the way a character talks–their tone and diction.

This includes other characters’ dialogue about them or to them. The opinion, expressed by one character about another character, says something about both the speaker and the person the speaker is talking about.

4) Interior dialogue—Thoughts.
In general, use this technique less than the others. Though this can be used more in some kinds of books and for some kinds of characters, such as YA, but again, it depends on the character and story.  Keep in mind that interior dialogue tends to stop the action.

The details that are included—to reveal character, to build plot–must serve a purpose. The “characters” are just a group of character traits with no life if those traits don’t imply or reveal something about the character or story. These details/scenes are better revealed in motion, by appealing to the senses, and must forward the story, build characters–it is this process of learning about the characters that interests readers/us.

What have you found are the most effective ways to reveal character? What kinds of characters do you find the most compelling, the most enthralling?


More on revealing characters in later posts.
Character Arc: Part 3 of this series on characterization.

I will be posting about twice a week, generally Mondays and Thursdays, on craft, the writing life, publishing, nonfiction… With reviews, guest authors…

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