Category Archives: dialog in writing

11 rules to keep you, the author, invisible to your readers

Most fiction writers want readers to get so captivated while reading a story that they forget someone wrote it.  If invisibility is the effect you want, you might want to read these eleven rules of Elmore Leonard–author of 45 novels–from 20 years ago.*

Rule 1:  Don’t open a passage with a weather report.  People read novels to learn about people, not the weather.

Rule 2:  No prologues. Prologues usually contain backstory which can be added later as the story unfolds.

Rule 3:  Use “said”—nothing else—when a character speaks.  “Said” is almost invisible, but any other word—asserted, warned—distracts the reader from the action to the author.

Rule 4:  Don’t use adverbs to describe “said.”  Adverbs distract from the story action and remind the reader that an author wrote this story.

Rule 5:  Limit exclamations marks to almost zero.

Rule 6:  Don’t use “suddenly.”  If you say, for example, “Suddenly, he fell,” the reader knows something is about to happen before the story’s character does.

Rule 7:  Rarely use regional dialect.  That requires apostrophes and weird spellings.  Once you start, it’s hard to stop.  And hard to read.

Rule 8:  Keep descriptions of characters brief.  Let their dialog conjure images in the reader’s mind.

Rule 9:  Keep descriptions of places and things brief.  Descriptions of anything slow down or even stop the forward action of a story.

Rule 10:  Skip long paragraphs without dialog.  Readers do.

Rule 11:  Don’t use proper diction if it sounds unnatural, or if it slows down the action.

*These rules are paraphrased from the July 16, 2001, edition of The New York Times, Section E, page 1.  I recommend you read Leonard’s original words.  They’re a hoot.

Show political leanings through dialog

From many studies* of how politicians speak, writers like you and me can glean insights into how to write dialog for fictional conservative or liberal characters we create.adult couple in discussion

Studies show that conservative and liberal politicians speak differently.  In general, conservative politicians

  • use simpler language than liberal politicians, and
  • prefer short statements—simple sentences—expressing one thought.

Liberal politicians, in general,

  • use more complex language than conservative politicians, and
  • prefer longer, more complex thought structures—compound and complex sentences—expressing qualified thoughts.

How can we use this information?

Suppose you have created a character—let’s call him Mr. Conti—whom you want to portray as a conservative.  Maybe he hails from Texas, votes Republican, accepts the teachings of a church which he regularly attends, wonders about global warming, and supports a pro-life organization—all qualities associated with conservative thinking in the US.

Suppose you have also created a character—let’s call her Miss Libby—whom you want to portray as liberal.  A native of Boston, perhaps she votes Democrat, has stopped attending church, teaches physics in a high school, and wears a mask everywhere during the covid 10 pandemic—all qualities  associated with liberal thinking in the US.

To further differentiate Mr. Conti and Miss Libby, you can use dialog.  For example,

Miss Libby:  Oh, this heat!  I heard on NPR that it might rain later today, but the showers will likely be scattered.

Mr. Conti:  Rubbish!  My arthritis is aching.  It’s gonna rain.

Miss Libby:  According to the meteorologists on the Weather Channel, satellite imagery shows a clear though humid atmosphere this morning.  Any rain later will be haphazard.

Mr. Conti:  Satellite battelite.  When my grandma’s bones ached, it rained.  When my momma’s bones ached, it rained.  My bones ache.  It’s gonna rain.

Miss Libby:  You demonstrate such confidence, such surety, about the weather, Mr. Conti.   Is it innate?

Mr. Conti:  Nothin’ innate about it. It’s in bones.

As a writing exercise, try writing dialog between a conservative thinker and a liberal one.  Choose a nonpolitical topic and see how you can show political thinking thought vocabulary and sentence structure.

*For more information on the studies, go to a recent article in The New York Times using this hyperlink: https://www.nytimes.com/2020/07/22/opinion/liberals-conservatives-trump-america.html

 

 

 

Never start a direct quote with “He said”

When you are interviewing someone, and you want to quote that person directly, how should you identify who is talking?  Compare these examples:

  • Mrs. Smith said that I might want to avoid the back yard because  the dog poops there.
  • Mrs. Smith said, “You might want to avoid the backyard.  That’s where the dog poops.”
  • “You might want to avoid the back yard. That’s where the dog poops,” said Mrs. Smith.
  • “You might want to avoid the backyard,” Mrs. Smith said. “That’s where the dog poops.”

Each of the examples offers the same information, yet one excels.  Let’s examine them individually to find out why.

  • Because what is said is more important than who says it, the first and second examples are not as good as the third and fourth examples. But the first example has another problem:  it uses an indirect quotation when a direct quotation is livelier.  The reader would prefer to hear the exact words of the person being interviewed, providing that person is not hemming and hawing.
  • The second example improves on the first example because it replaces the indirect quotation with a direct quotation.  But it still starts with the least interesting information, who is speaking.
  • The third example is better than the first two because it uses direct quotes to start.  However, the reader needs to wait until the completion of the quote before knowing who is speaking.  Since there are two sentences, it makes sense to identify the speaker at the end of the first sentence.
  • The fourth example identifies the speaker after the first part of the direct quote, the correct location to do so. And it directly quotes the speaker.  This example wins.

So, to recap, use direct quotes rather than indirect quotes when the quotation is lively and dramatic, or when it shows off the speaker’s personality or diction.  Start with the direct quote, but pause either at the end of the first sentence or at a natural spot in the first sentence to identify the speaker.

 

4 reasons to use direct quotes

Should you use direct quotes in writing both fiction and nonfiction in which there are people?  Definitely!

Below are examples from Akin by Emma Donoghue.  Akin is a novel about a 79-year-old former professor spending time with an 11-year-old street kid.  Part of the delight of the book is its dialog, especially the contrast between the two people’s world views reflected in their way of speaking.

So, why to use direct quotes? 

First, direct quotes show inflections, that is, how a speaker changes a word’s emphasis depending on verb tense, number, prefixes and suffixes and a use of modifiers.  Here, for example, the old man says,

“You must know singers with ludicrous stage names?  Like, ah 50 Cents.”

“50 Cent,” Michael said, pained.  “And it’s Ludacris.”

Here’s another example, with the old man asking the boy,

“Do you skateboard?”

“Skate.”

“Oh, you prefer skating.  Ice or roller?”

“It’s called skating, dude.”

Second, direct quotes show regionalisms, ages, education, socioeconomic and other differences.  For example, the boy explains that his skateboard was stolen.

“They skated right past, dissing me.  Grandma said”—Michael quoted—“’This is a test from the Lord, are you going to hold on to your wrath?  Are you going to pass the test?’”

Here is another.  The boy asks,

“Are you a atheist?”

Noah corrected him:  “An atheist.”

“That’s what I said.”

“It’s an, rather than a, when it’s followed by a vowel:  an atheist.”

“Like you’re an asshole.”

Third, direct quotes show how a person puts a sentence together—using standard English or some other way.  The older man, Noah, often uses long and complex sentences, yet adjusts his way of speaking so the boy will better understand him.  The boy, on the other hand, uses really short sentences or phrases without concern for grammar.  For example, the boy tells of his Uncle Cody:

“Cody used to smoke till I got him Juuling.”

“What-ing?”

“Vapes, you know?  E-cigs?”

In another example, Michael sees a bunch of balloons tied to the front railing of a house.  He asks,”

“Did somebody get offed here?”

Fourth, direct quotes reveal personality.  From the few quotes I’ve just used, you can see that Noah, is an academic from an educated middle class background and out-of-touch with children, yet willing, even eager, to know the boy. Michael is more tentative about knowing Noah, preferring the safety of his phone.  He uses the language of the street as an intentional emotional barrier between himself and Noah.

I recommend you read Akin.  I suspect you too will delight in the dialog, just part of the treat of this well written novel.

 

Add these two mysteries to your reading bucket list

As a tutor, one way I help students is to read the books they are required to read in school.  Then we discuss and write about those books.  The student learns more about the books this way, I can develop writing topics for my students, and I can analyze gems to help me be a better writer.  Win–win–win.

Detective with a magnifying glass inspecting a newspaper.During the past week to help an eighth grader, I reread The Murder of Roger Ackroyd by Agatha Christie.  In 2013 the Crime Writers’ Association in Britain named it the best crime novel ever, in part because it “contains one of the most celebrated plot twists in crime writing history.”  A similar group in the US named it number 13.

At the same time, for my own reading pleasure, I reread The Big Sleep  by Raymond Chandler.  In 1999, it was voted 96th of Le Monde‘s “100 Books of the Century.” It was included in Time magazine’s List of the 100 Best Novels” in 2005.

I like both books, but for different reasons.

I reread the Christie book to find out how she was able to hide the identity of the murderer until the last pages while having that character front and center throughout the telling of the story.  She gives subtle clues but on the whole stuns readers with the book’s ending.  Christie said she wrote this book to see if she could succeed at this twist in a plot line.  She did, brilliantly, though her characters, except for her debuting detective, Hercule Poirot, are easily forgotten.

I reread the Chandler book not remembering who the murderer is or even caring.  I read to enjoy the author’s style.  Detective Philip Marlow’s character, especially his sense of humor, is developed deliciously.  The author’s descriptions of settings are meticulous, each seeming to be a metaphor of the characters who inhabit them.  Tiny details like the doctor writing on a pad with attached carbon paper date the story, while other details like “a smile as wide as Wilshire Boulevard” anchor the story in Los Angeles.

Writers can learn from both authors.

From Christie we can learn how to plot a novel, especially a crime mystery.  We can learn to include light-heartedness—in the form of the narrator’s chatty sister, Caroline—in what otherwise is a humorless story.  We can learn that pivotal details must seem organic to the story, not pulled out of a magician’s hat, unlike the explanation for who made a crucial phone call to the doctor on the night of the murder.

From Chandler we can learn how to develop memorable, quirky characters.  We can learn how to write metaphors and similes which reveal character but which are also in keeping with the personality of the person thinking them.  We can learn to use witty, flirting dialog.  We can learn how to make a setting—in this case 1930s LA—almost a character.

Since Chandler’s novels rely on sex in their plots and in their chauvinistic development of women characters, his books might not be suitable for eighth graders.  Christie’s, on the other hand, are suitable for almost all ages.  If you have a bucket list of books to read—for pleasure or to hone your craft—add The Murder of Roger Ackroyd and The Big Sleep to the top.  You will thank me.