Writing great dialogue

So, if you saw my last post, Editing your Novel, you’ll know I’m working on draft two of my current work in progress, The Fair Queen.

One of the main things I’m trying to do is perfect my dialogue, as a newbie writer it’s definitely not my strongest suit. However, it is one of the most important things to get right when writing a novel, readers (including me) absolutely love snappy and well-written dialogue. Whether it’s witty banter, or emotive declarations, dialogue is key to keeping your readers’ interest.

I can’t give you the secret to perfecting your novel’s dialogue, sadly (because I don’t have it -maybe there isn’t one!), but I can share the potential pitfalls and advice that I have come across in my research.

Let’s talk dialogue.

 

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Dialogue Tags

Before we get down to the bare bones of conversation itself, let’s take a little look at dialogue tags. I mentioned this in my post Editing your Novel, so feel free to keep scrolling if you’ve just read that. Still here? Let’s proceed.

Dialogue tags are the bits that tell you who is speaking, e.g. ‘said Steven’, or ‘shouted Denise’. There are three schools of thought that I have come across on this subject, and they are the following:

Said is best – many authors believe that ‘said’ is the most innocuous and least likely to disrupt the reader as they don’t even notice the tag when reading.

Said is boring – some authors think that using said for the majority of interactions is repetitive and dull.

Dialogue tags are bad – these authors prefer to use action to demonstrate who is speaking, avoiding dialogue tags altogether.

I’ll be honest with you, when I was writing my first draft I fell into category one. I used ‘said’ 90% of the time, and a handful of alternatives like ‘asked’ (the second least obtrusive dialogue tag, apparently) the rest of the time. If you’re writing your first draft and have read many writing blogs you’ll know that most of the advice says to just get your story down on paper, don’t worry about making it pretty or coherent, just write it. So, that’s what I did. It wasn’t until I finished the first draft and was about to start the second that I read more articles on editing and found that, actually, I prefer category three.

So, now a major part of my rewriting is removing dialogue tags and making sure that the surrounding action tells the reader who is speaking. It’s making for a much cleaner, more stream-lined story, and I’m all for that.

Character Voice

This is one of the things I know I really need to work on – giving my characters distinct voices so that readers can tell them apart and they don’t all just sound like me. How do you do this? I have no idea. OK, I have a couple of ideas, but they may or may not wor for you.

Accents & Dialects

First of all, from what I’ve read it’s almost always a bad idea to suggest an accent by misspelling words or otherwise making their dialogue stand out from the other characters’. You’re much better off just telling the reader at the beginning ‘she spoke with a strong Cockney accent’, or ‘he was French, if his accent was anything to go by’.

I think there are certain places where writing in dialects can work, but you are running the risk of offending readers if it’s not done sensitively.

If you read Wuthering Heights at school like I did, you’ll recognise this from Joseph the servant’s dialogue. He’s a broad Yorkshire gent and most of his dialogue is completely unintelligible (even I couldn’t understand half of what he said and I’m from Yorkshire!). Now, I don’t think any Yorkshiremen were upset by Emily Bronte’s representation, and I wonder if that’s because the Brontes were from Yorkshire themselves, although I don’t believe they spoke in a dialect like Joseph’s. My point is, use this technique sparingly and do your research!

A good way to emphasise someone’s background in their dialogue might be to use slang terms and phrases that are common in that region. I’ve tried to incorporate the odd local turn of phrase into Aria’s speech, as she’s supposed to be from near to where I live in the Midlands, but too many cliches and well-known sayings can annoy readers. Plus, she’s a teenager, which has its own lingo, separate from any regional dialect.

Personality

Personality-wise, my characters all vary pretty strongly, and that can be tricky to convey through dialogue. Aria is quite hot-headed, reckless and stubborn, so she can be a bit sarcastic and snappy at times, but she’s ultimately loyal and big-hearted. The things she says and the way she says them tends to have a lot of emotion behind it – teenagers tend to feel things very keenly, so I’ve tried to demonstrate that.

As for the Fair, they’re a remnant from a previous time so they speak in a more formal tone and register than Aria. I’m trying to show this by using more traditional words and removing contractions, so instead of “don’t”, I’m using “do not”, etc. It’s not quite as simple as that, but that’s the crux of it.

As individuals, Xander is a more reserved, cool person so he speaks relatively little and his interactions show (in theory) that he is standoffish. Rainer is the mentor and he’s taken on an almost fatherly role to the rest of the group, so he’s quite warm but in a way that reveals his position as a respected elder. He is encouraging rather than critical and openly cares, even if sometimes it’s tough love. Kiefer and Coulter are both cheeky, funny guys who love a bit of banter, but they’re two sides of the same coin. Kiefer is rebellious and willing to take a stand when he believes something isn’t right, whereas Coulter is much more obedient and respectful, to the point where he ends up doing things he disagrees with because he’s been commanded to by his superiors. Then we have the twins, Aro and Quade. Aro is a lover not a fighter, he gets dragged along by his older brothers, but is not really interested in going on missions or battling enemies. Quade on the other hand wants to be taken seriously by his brothers, but he is highly-strung and immature so he always ends up the butt of the joke.

The key to portraying your characters’ personalities through their dialogue is to know them inside out, so fingers crossed I’ve managed to convey all of that in the book!

Purpose

Finally, dialogue needs to have purpose. It needs to advance your plot, add to your story’s conflict or expose something about your characters. Preferably all three!

When you speak to your friends or listen to a stranger’s conversation in a coffee shop, you’ll notice that there are a lot of pauses, filler words like ‘um’ and ‘er’, and random interjections. You need to cut that out when writing. You only want to include the important stuff and none of the padding, fictional conversations should present a reduced, polished version of the real thing. Have you ever noticed that when people speak on the phone on TV, they never say goodbye? They just hang up. Because goodbyes are unnecessary to the story, they’re just padding. Be sparing with your hellos and goodbyes, and any other social niceties that don’t add to your story.

Create conflict within your conversations. They don’t all have to relate directly to your main conflict, even a small one will ramp up the tension and keep your readers’ interest. Use your dialogue to show the difference between two characters’ motivations and goals. It doesn’t have to be an argument, or a direct disagreement, but opposing opinions and desires will give readers an idea of the characters’ personalities and the upcoming action – if done right.

This is something I need to work on, I struggle to make a conversation sound natural without including fluff and filler. It’s definitely one of the things I’ll be focusing on during my editing process.

 

And, that’s where I’m at so far! It’s not an exhaustive list of dialogue tips so hop over to Google and check out a few more articles if you’re looking to perfect your characters’ conversational skills. I can recommend 9 Rules for Writing Dialogue from Novel Writing Help.

See you next time!

 

Lyndsey

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Editing your novel

I’m currently working on the second draft of my WIP The Fair Queen, and I wanted to share a few things I’ve learned along the way about this phase of the writing process.

There’s a lot of advice about rewriting, revising and editing your manuscript online, and some of it is brilliant, but some of it is pretty vague and unhelpful for newbies like myself. So, I’m going to share my method (bear with me, it’s my first novel and my first ever second draft!) and if it works for you, then great, but if your method is a bit different please let me know in the comments, I’d love to hear about other ways of tackling it.

First things first, I finished my first draft at the end of January, with just over 69k words. I was aiming for 80k, but with a bit more research into standard genre word counts I found that most initial YA fantasy novels (i.e. first of the series, or standalones) fall under 80k, usually between 50 and 70k. I also have a good few notes about story lines I want to add and remove, scenes I need to write or delete, and ideas that popped into my head towards the end of the book that I would need to go back and weave through from the beginning in draft two. So, who knows how long the second draft will end up? At this rate it could be shorter or longer.

Anywho, on with the show!

 

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Get some perspective

The first thing I did after finishing draft one was take a few weeks off, get some distance from my manuscript and really just recharge my batteries. After five months of writing my story I was pretty drained, and probably not in the most objective position when it comes to rewrites.

By the time I picked my laptop up again and dusted off Word Online, I actually really enjoyed rereading those first few chapters I had written back in September/October, and felt ready to completely rework them. I wasn’t upset about the story lines, characters or sections that had to go in order to streamline the story and bring it back into line with where I wanted it to end up.

Rereading

I’ve seen a lot of advice that recommends putting your first draft on your Kindle or tablet (cheaper than printing it out!) and sitting down, maybe with a notepad and pen, and reading the whole thing from cover to cover to get a sense of the story, character development, etc. The big picture things that you will want to tackle before getting into the nitty-gritty of phrasing, grammar and fine detail.

I decided not to do this with my second draft. I’m going to do it after, and if a third draft is required before I send it out to beta readers, so be it. I just had too many big changes I wanted to make that I couldn’t face reading it knowing how different I wanted it to be. I just wanted to get stuck into making those changes so that when I finally read it through from start to finish it would be as close to the final story as possible.

Does that make sense? Do you think I should have read it through anyway? I’m not completely sure, but that’s the decision I made and I’m sticking to it!

Rewriting

The one major piece of advice that I did take, and am really glad I did, was the recommendation I came across from elumish on Tumblr to start a new document and completely rewrite your second draft. I cannot recommend this enough, I have reworded almost every line of my first draft and made some important stylistic changes along the way.

This was an essential step for me, mainly because of the aforementioned major plot changes I had decided on, but also because this is my first attempt at writing a novel, I want to make sure it is the best possible piece of writing that I can do, and I don’t want to short change myself by just skim-reading and changing a few words here or there.

If you take anything from this blog, let it be this – open your manuscript, open a blank page and rewrite your first draft!

Tense

My WIP is written in third person past tense, there is only one POV, but I felt like this was the tense that best suited the story. I’ve read a few articles about how first person present is the tense preferred by readers, the one used by authors like Suzanne Collins in The Hunger Games, and it’s the best for letting readers get into your characters heads, but I think either tense is fine as long as it suits your story. I think, like with all things, there are trends and first person present is having a bit of a moment.

The most important thing is to be consistent. Having multiple POVs that switch between tenses will only make readers feel disconnected from the characters and the story. A prologue or epilogue in a different tense might be a fun way to switch it up. Just make sure that your manuscript doesn’t accidentally flip from one to the other mid-way through!

Active voice

The active voice refers to when someone ‘does’ or ‘did’ something, depending on your tense. If somebody ‘was doing’ something, you’ve slipped into passive tense and that can really weaken the action in your book. Need an example?

Passive: “Laura was doing the dishes and the phone was ringing.”

Active: “Laura scrubbed the dishes and stacked them in the drying rack. The phone rang.”

It’s a terrible example, but you get the gist. The first one is boring and plodding, and the second one is much more dynamic.

Go through your manuscript and hunt down any sentences where you’ve used the passive voice, you could search for ‘ing’ and just scroll through these picking out the ones that don’t belong.

Dialogue tags

I’m calling this one a stylistic change, it might not work for every writer or every story, but I think it is one of the key changes that has improved my story – or at least the telling of it. I read several writers’ opinions on dialogue tags, some believe ‘said’ is the most innocuous and least jarring to the reader, others think using ‘said’ every two lines is too repetitive. Then, I read about a third option, one that I’ve come across while reading but never really noticed. Which says a lot.

Using action to show who is speaking. I’ll give you an example, because I know you love those:

Said: “Hi, Sarah,” said Mark.

Other dialogue tag: “Hi, Sarah,” called Mark from the kitchen.

Action: “Hi, Sarah.” Mark came out of the kitchen to greet her with a hug.

So, in this version, it’s clear that Mark is the one saying hi to Sarah, but instead of interrupting the flow of the story to show who is speaking, the action continues.

This is probably the biggest change I’ve made as I’ve been rewriting, not a MAJOR change, but removing ninety percent of the dialogue tags I had used and amending the following action to show who was speaking has probably had the biggest impact on my story so far. Like I said, this one is more of a stylistic choice, so if you don’t like it, don’t do it, but it’s a simple change that can have a huge effect.

Adverbs

Adverbs are the devil, according to most writers. They are seen as a sign of lazy writing and poor vocabulary. Why use an adverb when you can use a more accurate verb? Instead of said loudly, shouted? Instead of ran quickly, sprinted? Instead of jumped high, leaped?

Getting rid of unnecessary adverbs and strengthening your verbs will tighten up your manuscript, cut your word count and improve your writing. You don’t have to get rid of every single one, just the ones where there’s a stronger verb you could use.

Ultimately, it’s a judgement call, and this is your story, no one else’s, so tell it however you need to. But, the aim of editing is to cut the fluff and help you express yourself in as few words as possible, without losing meaning or effect. Conciseness is key – if you can say it in one word instead of five, do.

 

So, those are the lessons I have learned on my editing journey so far. I’m only a fifth of the way into my second draft, so I’m sure I’ll learn many more along the way before my novel is ready for querying – or even beta readers!

Pop your tips for editing success in the comments and let me know how your WIP is coming along.

 

Lyndsey

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Word count (second draft): 15,990

Review: The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins

Phew! That was a bit of a whirlwind read, I haven’t read a paperback that fast in months, especially when I’m not even on holiday.

I’m a bit late to the party with this one, but if you haven’t read The Girl on the Train yet, here’s my little review. It’s a tense, twisty roller coaster of a book where no one comes out unscathed, and I loved it! I went in knowing relatively little, I wanted to read the book before watching the film, so if you want to avoid knowing too much, don’t read on. I try not to include spoilers, but this is one book where you’re best off starting with absolutely no idea what will happen.

If spoilers don’t scare you, read on!

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4 stars

In a nutshell, Rachel takes the same train into London at 8:04am every morning, and back to Ashbury every evening where she rents a room from an old friend. On the way she passes Witney station, and the house she used to share with her ex-husband before their divorce, two years ago.

The train usually stops at a signal, allowing Rachel to spend a few minutes looking into the back gardens of the houses by the tracks, including her old home. A few doors down, a young, attractive couple are often sitting on their roof terrace or patio drinking coffee, and Rachel likes to imagine who they are and what they might do for work, etc. One day, she sees the wife with another man, and a few days later she sees an article in a newspaper stating that the woman has been reported missing. Feeling like she knows these people after months of watching them from the train window, and knowing that suspicion usually falls on the husband when a woman goes missing, she decides to tell the police and the husband that his wife was having an affair.

The thing is, Rachel is an alcoholic. And she’s been harassing her ex-husband and his new wife for over a year. When Anna, the new Mrs Watson, sees Rachel on the day of the missing woman’s disappearance, she reports it to the police, and as a result Rachel becomes embroiled in the investigation. Suffering from blackouts caused by her heavy drinking, Rachel remembers being outside her old home on that night, she remembers an argument and having blood on her hands, but nothing else.

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I’ll leave it at that for fear of giving too much away, but suffice it to say this was a book filled with twists and turns, an unreliable narrator who can’t remember crucial events, and a supporting cast of very flawed, complex characters, none of which are completely innocent.

I’m giving it four stars because I really enjoyed it, I was gripped and got through it quite quickly, but there were some slightly frustrating parts. It wasn’t a completely satisfying read for this reason. I feel like the climax could have been even more tense and exciting as the whole book built up towards it and I was so ready to find out what really happened by the end.

I really enjoyed the writing style, it’s written almost like diary entries from the points of view of Rachel, Anna (Rachel’s ex’s new wife) and the woman who is missing, herself. We see the day-to-day run up to ‘that night’ and the aftermath from Rachel, with the occasional counter from Anna, and the events that lead up to it over the course of the last year from the missing woman.

I loved seeing the story from all three sides, each woman was completely different – they were all such fully formed and layered characters, each with their own traits and flaws. Hawkins is a brilliant writer, the story is well crafted, and I found the pacing was just slow enough for me to be desperate for more every time I read, but satisfied with what I had discovered so far.

If you like a good thriller, you’ll love The Girl on the Train. Even if you saw the film and weren’t convinced, I’ve heard it’s nowhere as good as the book and that they changed a few things – I’ll have to watch it now to compare!

Go and get the book, and let me know what you think in the comments below.

Lyndsey

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PS. Paula Hawkins has a new book coming out soon, Into the Water, and it sounds just as suspenseful and thrilling as The Girl on the Train!

I am a member of the Book Depository affiliate program, so if you click through and buy any of the books mentioned in this blog I might make a little commission, but I am not paid to review books and all reviews are my own opinions!

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Currently Reading:

Paperback

The Shadow Queen by C.J. Redwine

I just started reading this last night and only managed the prologue so far as I was really tired, but I love a good fairy tale retelling so I’m anticipating enjoying this one. I ran a Twitter poll to see what I should pick up next and this won so there are lots of you out there who loved it!

Audiobook

The Scorpio Races by Maggie Stiefvater

I am so in love with this book! I’ve enjoyed everything by Ms. Stiefvater that I’ve read so far, I’ve got The Raven Boys lined up on Audible next and I know that’s most people’s favourite of her series, so I’m really excited to get stuck in, especially after loving this one. The voice actors who play Puck and Sean are absolutely fantastic, they really bring the characters and the whole world she has created to life. I’ll do a review of this when I’m finished as it’s a standalone and I honestly can’t praise it enough!

Second draft word count: 11,066

(I’m about 1/7th through my second draft and it’s going really well so far, keep your fingers crossed for me! I’m writing a post about second drafts so I’ll be sharing that soon.)