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Posts tagged ‘Writing Tools’

D is for Dialogue

talking

Dialogue is essential to most fiction. Unless you’re writing a monologue, your characters are going to speak to one another, because – let’s face it – without dialogue to break it up, you’ll end up with pages and pages of narrative, which can be a daunting prospect.

Dialogue needs to carry the story forward just as narrative does, however. Readers won’t stay interestested in people who are just passing the time of day, unless there’s a reason for them doing that. Showing conflict through dialogue is a good way to show the reader who your characters are without spelling it all out in the narrative.

First and foremost, dialogue needs to be easy to follow. So, how do we do that?

Without attributes, your reader isn’t going to know who’s speaking.

“You’re just like your mother.”

“What?”

“You heard me.”

“Of all the rotten things to say.”

“What are you talking about? Your mother’s lovely.”

“Oh, well that’s all right then.”

We have no idea who’s speaking, or how many speakers there are. To attribute the dialogue to a particular speaker, we use tags.

“You’re just like your mother.” Jenny said.

“What?” Bill said.

“You heard me,” Jenny said.

“Of all the rotten things to say,” Bill said.

“What are you talking about? Your mother’s lovely.” Jenny said.

“Oh, well that’s all right then.” Bill said.

What do you think? It seems a bit repetitive, doesn’t it? That’s because we’re using the same tag for every line of speech. As with every other tool in the writing box, repeated use of ‘he said, she said.’ is noticeable and becomes monotonous.

One mistake that beginner writers often make (I know I did it, a lot, when I first started writing), is to use descriptive tags like ‘screeched’ or ‘bellowed’, or adverbs to qualify how something was said. Again, like all writing tools, they are fine when used sparingly but shouldn’t be peppered in to vary speech.

“You’re just like your mother.” Jenny said, cheerfully.

“What?” Bill said, defensively.”

“You heard me,” Jenny quipped.

“Of all the rotten things to say!” Bill snapped.

“What are you talking about? Your mother’s lovely,” Jenny said, facetiously.

“Oh, that’s all right then.” Bill said, amiably.

What do you think? Did that make you cringe? It did for me. While none of it is technically wrong, it’s not great, either. It’s far better to show the reader how the characters are acting or feeling through what they do and say, rather than using adverbs or descriptive tags.

Let’s change it up a bit and add in some actions.

“You’re just like your mother.” Jenny said.

Bill put down his newspaper and folded his arms across his chest. “What?”

“You heard me.” She began rummaging through the desk drawers so that he wouldn’t see the smile on her face.

“Of all the rotten things to say!”

“What are you talking about? Your mother’s lovely.”

Bill grinned and let his arms drop to his sides. “Oh,” he said. “Well that’s all right then.”

As you can see, the mixture of actions and speech tags stop it from becoming a page of ‘he said, she said.’ Also, if you notice, I switched the tags around, using them at the beginning or the end of a line of dialogue, which also helped to break up the repetition.

I also varied the length of the sentences. This is something I try to do in narrative and dialogue. If you consistently use the same length of sentence, it becomes noticeable and uniform, which grows tedious to read.

There were two lines where I didn’t use any tags at all, because I’d established whose mother they were discussing. It was easy to tell who spoke in those instances, so no tags were needed.

We can see Bill getting defensive and then relaxing when he realises Jenny is teasing and means it as a compliment. Using action tags helps to create more of a visual sense of the scene in the reader’s mind than simply saying ‘Bill snapped’ or ‘Bill said, amiably’.

The exchange lets us see the relationship between Jenny and Bill. She is playful and he, while going straight on the defensive, is quick to relax when he realises she’s teasing. They obviously know each other well.

The nuts and bolts

As well as being able to write convincing dialogue, we also need to be able to punctuate it correctly.  Here are a few hard and fast rules.

Always keep the punctuation inside the quotation marks

“Of course, I’m not going to tell you,” he said.

She regarded him from under her lashes. “Well then, I hope you enjoy last night’s cold pizza. Because I’m not making your dinner.”

“Then you’ll eat cold pizza too.” He shrugged.

She laughed, picking up her car keys. “Wrong again. I’m meeting Mary for dinner and drinks in town. Don’t wait up.”

Always start a new line when a different person speaks

Jane and Tania both shopped at the same supermarket. On one occasion, they both arrived at the same time.

Jane held open the door. “After you.”

“Thank you!” Tania said, hurrying through.

“Sucker.” Jane stuck out her foot between Tania’s, sending the other woman tumbling to the floor. “Maybe that’ll teach you not to spread nasty rumours about my mother.”

Tania scrambled to her feet. “You’re Heather’s daughter?” She took a step towards Jane and then appeared to think better of it. “I should have known, you’re just as obnoxious as her.”

“And just as protective of the ones I love. Leave her alone, or next time I won’t go so easy on you.”

Dashes and ellipses

When we’re speaking, we don’t always finish a sentence. Perhaps it’s because we’ve been interrupted, or maybe we’ve trailed off because we can’t remember what we were going to say, or because we realise something as we’re speaking.

To show this in dialogue, we use dashes or ellipses.  Dashes are for when something stops us from speaking, like someone interrupting, or something happening.

Lucy picked up a pillow and hugged it against her.

Danny said, “why do you always have to be so bloody argumentative? I only asked—”

The pillow hit him on the side of the head.

“You asked a question when you already knew the answer, because you knew it would provoke me into an argument,” Lucy said.

Ellipses show speech trailing off.

“Are you going to apologise for throwing that pillow at me?” Danny asked.

Lucy raised an eyebrow. “You really expect me to apologise after you provoked me?”

“Well, yes,” he said. “I could have been hurt. You could have …” He stepped back as Lucy picked up another pillow.

That’s it for this week. Remember these tips for writing effective dialogue and you’ll do just fine:

  • Mix up your tags but keep them simple
  • Vary the length of dialogue lines
  • Start a new line for each speaker
  • Use proper punctuation
  • Make the dialogue carry the story forward

Let me know in the comments if I’ve missed anything

 

 

Commanding the comma

comma

The humble comma has to be one of the most used and abused pieces of punctuation besides the apostrophe, which I dealt with in a previous blog post, here.  If you’re having trouble figuring out where to put your commas, you’re not alone. I don’t always get it right, either.

Some people suggest placing a comma where you might naturally pause when reading a piece of writing out loud. And yes, that works a great deal of the time.  Unless you’re William Shatner

shattner

 

 

Punctuation rules, are for, people, who aren’t, William, Shatner.

 

So how do the rest of us know when to use a comma? Here are some useful rules.

In a list

Whenever you’re writing a list, you need a comma to separate each item.

At the supermarket, he picked up cat food, pizza, tonic water, and a large bottle of gin.

Or

She packed a nightshirt, toothbrush, deodorant, and a hairbrush into her overnight bag.

The last comma in the list is known as a serial, or ‘Oxford’, comma and there are strong opinions about whether the serial comma is necessary. I like to use them to avoid confusion. With the Oxford comma:

I am inspired by my parents, Terry Pratchett, and Mary Wollestonecraft.

Without the Oxford comma, this becomes:

I am inspired by my parents, Terry Pratchett and Mary Wollestonecraft.

As impressive as having Terry Pratchett and Mary Wollestonecraft for parents might be, I’m very attached to the mother I already have. It’s best to avoid that kind of ambiguity.

Independent clauses

When there are two clauses that could each stand as a complete sentence in their own right, we call these independent clauses. We only use a comma between two independent clauses if there is also a conjunction (and, if, or, but).

Fifteen minutes of reading in bed at night helps my mother fall asleep, but if I read in bed, I get too engrossed and end up staying up half the night.

If we don’t use a conjunction and if the clauses are related to one another, we use a semi-colon.

Fifteen minutes of reading in bed at night helps my mother fall asleep; if I read in bed, I get too engrossed and end up staying up half the night.

If the clauses are unrelated, we make them into two separate sentences with a full stop.

Fifteen minutes of reading in bed at night helps my mother fall asleep. The first thing she does in the morning is make a cup of tea.

We don’t use a comma on its own to separate two independent clauses.

Fifteen minutes of reading in bed at night helps my mother fall asleep, if I read in bed, I get too engrossed and end up staying up half the night.

This is known as a comma splice and should be avoided.

Separating dependent clauses

We use commas to separate dependent clauses from the main clause in compound sentences. The main clause is one that could stand alone as a sentence.

I love cats.

A dependent clause is one that can’t stand alone and needs the main clause to give it meaning.

I love cats, they are so amusing to watch.

As you can see, the comma in this case comes after the main clause. Sometimes we put the dependent clause first, but we still use a comma between them.

After the concert, we drove home.

Relative clauses

A dependent clause beginning with ‘who’, ‘which’, ‘that’, ‘whom’, or ‘where’, is known as a relative clause. There are two kinds of relative clauses: non-restrictive and restrictive.

Non-restrictive relative clauses

When a clause can be removed from a sentence and the sentence still makes sense (usually a bit of extra information), we call it a non-restrictive relative clause. We place a comma either side of this clause.

The tall gentleman with the umbrella, who was at the front of the train, waved his newspaper to catch her attention.

We can take out the clause that sits between the commas and the sentence will still make sense. We just lose that bit of extra information.

The tall gentleman with the umbrella waved his newspaper to catch her attention.

Restrictive relative clauses

When a piece of extra information is essential to the meaning of the sentence, we call it a restrictive relative clause. In this case, we don’t use a comma either side.

People who have big heads need large hats.

If we remove the clause, the meaning is altered.

People need large hats.

Asides

An aside works in a similar way to a non-restrictive relative clause. It’s a part of the sentence that can be taken away without altering the meaning. We always use commas at each end of an aside.

My mother is, of course, a very independent woman.

Without the aside, the sentence means the same.

My mother is a very independent woman.

With direct speech

We need a comma before direct speech begins, if it’s at the end of a sentence.  The comma always comes before the quotation marks.

Sophie looked sideways at Dave and said, “My favourite part was where you interrupted, every time I spoke.”

When the speech comes at the beginning of a sentence, the end comma comes before the quotation marks.

“I think we need to take this out of the meeting, otherwise we’re going to run out of time,” Jenny said.

Of course, if the speech is a question or an exclamation, we’d use the proper punctuation mark in place of the comma.

“Do you seriously have to try to explain everything for me, Dave?” Sophie asked.

I hope this helps you to decide whether or not to use a comma. If there are any situations you think I’ve missed, let me know in the comments and I’ll add them.

B is for Blogging …

facepalm

I almost came unstuck this week. Whose bright idea was it to begin a ‘writing A to Z’ when there aren’t many interesting topics beginning with B?

Oh, yes. Mine.

Right then. Rather than give up or miss a letter, I’m going to take a more holistic approach and look at the end product. In this case, the blog. Whether you’re in business, a creator, or simply want to write about a favourite hobby, blogging is a great way to make contact with like-minded people.

But where do you begin?

There are several questions you’ll need to answer before you start writing:

  • Why – What’s the purpose of your blog? What are you hoping to achieve?
  • Where – What blogging site/platform are you going to use?
  • Who – Your audience.
  • What – Subject matter. (not quite the same as the purpose).

Why?

A simple question but one that you need to answer before you start. Why are you blogging? Are you so enthusiastic about your favourite hobby that you want to share it with the world? Or are you a business guru with a lifetime of knowledge to share with colleagues in your field? Or maybe you make something amazing and need a platform to tell the world how great it is so that you can sell more?  Whatever the reason, you’re going to need a place to call ‘home.’

Where?

There are several good blogging sites out there, with prices that range from ‘free’ to ‘premium’.

810px-WordPress_logo.svg

With a variety of ready-made themes to choose from and customise, WordPress is the most popular blogging site on the Internet. An impressive 60% of the world’s blogs are hosted on WordPress and you can even, for a price of course, link a WordPress site to your own domain. WordPress does have a high learning curve but is rewarding in the amount of customisation possible. If you want the most professional-looking blog and you’re willing to put in the time to get it just right, WordPress is your platform.

medium

Medium is a great site if you simply want to concentrate on sharing your writing with others without the bother of customisation. You can choose to monetise your page for members only, where you are paid for your contribution based on the amount of engagement your stories generate and ‘claps’ you receive.

blogspot-logo

Blogger has been around since 1999 and is now owned by Google. The customisation tools are far more basic than WordPress but they’re easy enough for a beginner to use and with a Google ID you can log in and be blogging in a relatively short time. A good place for hobbyists and people who want to reach out to others with similar interests.

wix-logo          weebly-logo-300x121

Wix and Weebly are quite similar and both have easy customisation that allows anyone to make a professional-looking blog in a short time. Both are great platforms for beginners because the tools are so easy to use. Wix has an AI that will help you to build your site based on the questions you answer and Weebly allows you to drag and drop elements right on to your page and build as you go.

Who?

Okay, so you know why you want to blog and you’ve settled on a site and made it your own. Before you sit down and start writing, you need to decide whose attention you want to capture. There’s no use in putting all those lovely words and images out into the void without having somewhere to aim them.

You need an audience.

What’s the point in putting all your time and energy into telling people how to make the world’s best cottage pie, complete with pictures and a ‘how to’ video, if you’re going to then go and target a vegan community? Unless you’re aiming to have the most short-lived food blog in the history of the Internet, you need to find the right audience.

As a writer, I share links to my blog in online writers’ communities, Twitter and  Linkedin.

Use a little ‘Google-Fu’ before you start work, and look for online communities you can join to find people who share your interests. And once you get their attention, make sure you hold it by adding a ‘subscribe’ button to your home page. Of course, to keep their attention you’re going to have to decide what you’re going to write about.

What?

Choose a topic that you love to talk about. Passion for your subject matter will come through in your writing, so blog about what you love. Make sure you know your subject well. There’s nothing worse than looking for advice on something, only to find a blog that gives vague or incorrect information.

And that’s it. You’re ready to go off and create. If you write it, they will come. If you write it well, they will stay.

Leave me a comment with your blog address and I’ll come and say hello.