Fiction Writing Tips 41–50

Welcome to the fifth page of Fiction Writing Tips. Here you will find tips 41 through 50.

To return to the tips index, click here.

If you'd like to ask me about a tip or ask a fiction craft-related question, I'd love to hear from you. Either drop me a note through the Contact page or come to The Anomaly and ask your question.


Tip #41: Stick with Said

I've said this here and there in support of other points, such as in Tips #13 and #14, but I think I need to devote a full tip to it.

I'm not exactly sure why novelists deviate from having characters simply say things: "Interesting," he said. Instead, they must growl them or proclaim them or laugh them, as if such a thing were possible. Try moaning out words. Go on, try it. You're either moaning or you're speaking. Not both.

Maybe it's because authors feel they've used said too many times already and they want to spruce up their prose. Writing teachers recommend that authors avoid repetition, so maybe that's why writers jettison said (and asked) and crack open their thesauri.

But please don't.

Anything but said is painfully visible, and usually redundant. "Watch out!" she warned.

Now, if you're going to have someone shout or whisper or mutter, then I suppose you're okay. Because you really can shout, whisper, and mutter out your words.

But you can't chortle them out or guffaw them out or sigh them out. Nor can you (or should you) opine, comment, venture, offer, counter, or bluster out words.

Here's the rule: if you can't actually make intelligible utterances with the verb you're using instead of said, then, well, stick to said.

Can you really snarl out, "I love you, my dear"? Try it.

Asked is okay, too. You don't need to say, "What is it?" she questioned. Or "Is that the best you can do?" she queried. I mean, come on.

Another reason authors may use words besides said is that they want to avoid using modifiers. Rather than write, "Never!" she said fiercely, they'd rather write, "Never!" she barked. But I'm telling you that this looks silly most of the time.

It's really okay to use said and then tell how something was said. It's much better than using some other word that is so odd (or physically impossible) that it kicks the reader right out of your story.

As I pointed out in Tip #13, said and asked are invisible, and invisibility is what you're striving for. Other words stick out like flares at midnight, kind of eliminating the ol' stealth quotient you're going for. So avoid them.

Everybody say it with me: "Stick with said!"

Tip #42: Intercut Between Multiple Storylines

The villain has your hero backed against the wall. The hero's gun has been lost over the cliff. The villain pulls out his chrono-strombulator and levels it at the hero's nose. But what's that? The sound of a thundering herd? STAMPEDE!

Now you insert the most wonderful, infuriating three "letters" in the history of fiction: ***

Ack! The triple asterisks of doom! The three sisters of fury!

And you pick up another storyline already in progress: Ginger in the race car trying to find her hankie.

"What's going on with my hero?" the reader wonders. "Will the stampede save him? Can we please get back there?"

Meanwhile, as Ginger searches for her handkerchief, she hears voices coming into the garage. It's Perry and...and Juliana? What's he doing talking to Juliana? Ginger pokes her head around the corner and sees Juliana standing very close to Perry. Suddenly she stands on her tiptoes and leans in as if for a kiss.


Bwahaha. Asterisks of Smiting!

The herd of water buffalo bursts through the stockade. The villain swerves his head toward the noise. It's enough for our hero to leap upon him and snatch the chrono-strombulator from his grip. Aha! Now the foot's on the other hand.

And so you go, switching back and forth between two (or more) storylines, keeping your reader tearing across the pages like a crazy woman.

Intercut to the Chase

Intercutting between storylines is one of the simplest and most effective ways of increasing tension in your fiction. Well-chosen start and stop points keep the story zinging along at light speed.

It's best if the events you're cutting between are more or less simultaneous. The hero/villain standoff above could conceivably have taken place at the same time as Ginger's romantic intrigue. That's better than cutting between the villain/hero standoff and, say, the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation. Simultanaety is vital for this to work.

It's also best if you don't keep the reader hanging an impossibly long time. For instance, if you were to leave the hero/villain standoff at the point of the stampede and then cut away to a three-year romance between Ginger and Perry, and then cut back to the hero and villain just discovering what the stampede is, it wouldn't work.

Use the cutaway to leave the reader hanging and increase suspense, but don't ask her to believe that the moment has been frozen for too long. Try to match the time it takes to play out the scene you cut away to more or less with the length of pause in the original storyline. You can play with this some (like I did above), but don't push it.

Intercutting between storylines is a great way to skip over long boring sections of your story. Let's say your hero is getting on a trans-Atlantic flight. Nothing happens during the flight that affects the story. If you want to make it feel as though time is passing for the hero while he's in flight, try cutting away to a lengthy scene in another storyline.

By the time the scenes in the second storyline have come to a nice pause point, the hero's plane will have landed and you can cut back to that storyline. 

For more on regulating the perceived passage of time in your story see Tip #27.

Intercutting is a great technique, and not only for suspense writers. Anyone can use it (unless, of course, you're limiting your story to only one storyline).

In Tip #43 I'll talk about one major caveat regarding intercutting. But until then...wait, who's there? Aagh! It's- It's...YOU.



Tip #43: Stay with One Storyline for Awhile Before Cutting Away 

In Tip #42 I introduced the idea of intercutting between two or more storylines as a means of increasing suspense and speeding up the rate at which readers tear through your pages.

This time I'm going to talk about the one caveat to using multiple storylines: you must stay with your main storyline for a goodly number of pages (like 40-60) before cutting away to other storylines.

Here's why: When your reader comes to your book she needs awhile to get grounded in the world of your story and in the mind of your viewpoint character. Cut away to another storyline too early and it will have a disorienting effect on your reader.

She was just beginning to catch your rhythm and figure out who the main character was and what that character is like. She was just beginning to care about your protagonist and become willing to invest in him or her.

When suddenly that's yanked away from her and she's asked to take on a whole new set of characters and concerns, a new viewpoint character, and a new major character and all that goes with that. She hadn't had time to really connect with your first one and now she's expected to connect with a new one?

Except now she's gun shy and afraid to engage with this new character because this one's probably going to get yanked away, too. So she stays aloof from your story. Fool her once, shame on you; fool her twice...?

A reader who is wary of engaging with your book is a reader who is already 99% of the way to putting your book down permanently.

A Night at the Movies

Imagine if you were selected to receive a free movie at the local multi-screen cineplex. You're assigned a burly escort who leads you to a front row seat in their shiny new stadium seating auditorium. You sit through the 45 minutes of pre-movie ads and previews, and finally the feature film begins. It looks good. This is the kind of movie you like. You settle in to have a g

Suddenly your escort yanks you out of your chair and pulls you to the theater exit. What's going on? He drags you across the hall and into the movie that's playing there. He drops you into the front row seat just as this other movie is beginning.

Flustered and a little angry, you try to go back to the first theater, but Mr. Man won't let you. With a heavy sigh you turn your attention to the screen and try to get into this new movie.

Well, at least it's a comedy. And it has one of your favorite actors in it. You begin to think you might actually enj

Yank. Dragged out. New theater. New movie.

Would you cut that out!

And so it goes. Just as you're getting into a new story you're asked to start caring about a new one. Sometimes you circle back to ones you've been in before, but by now you've been abused too much to care. You were never allowed to become truly invested in any of the stories, so now they're all just noise. You don't care about any of them.

And yet you could have. That's the tragedy.

I hope you see the parallel. It's jarring to go from storyline to storyline. If you give your reader no anchor, no home base, she will feel jerked around like our poor moviegoer.

The trick is to give her a home base, and you do that by staying in your primary storyline with your primary protagonist for a good number of pages at the beginning of your book. I recommend at least 40 contiguous pages before cutting away to another storyline.

This allows your reader to figure out some things, to get her bearings. It tells her who your protagonist is, what his or her main concerns and characteristics and goals and fears and weaknesses are, and what kind of story this is. It introduces the main world of your story and, most likely, it begins to sketch out what the story is going to be. It plants your reader firmly into the mind of your main character.

Once she has that kind of grounding, you can cut away to other storylines to your heart's content. She can handle the change then. And cut away you should, as Tip #42 suggests.

I suspect novelists who cut away too early are doing so because they want to keep things interesting. They want the book to feel like it's moving along brisklyand besides, they've seen that intercutting thing being done in their favorite books and movies and they want to be sure to use it.

Good idea and good instincts. But wrong timing. Let your reader find her footing in your primary storyline before cutting away to any others.

The one exception to this rule is the prologue. I'm a big fan of prologues. Readers understand that a prologue may be from a storyline other than the primary one, so they can handle it when chapter 1 is in a new storyline.

In a prologue readers often get a tantalizing look at the devious madman who will be the book's antagonist, or they may learn what the OR-ELSE component is as they see the villain start the time-bomb to ticking (see Tip #20), or they may see something that happened to the protagonist years before the primary story begins.

The point is that they're okay with not knowing everything that's going on in a prologue. If they're a little disoriented in a teaser scene like this, they can take it. In fact, they like it, especially if the scene is well done and whets their appetite for what is to come.

So here's the plan: do intercut between multiple storylines but begin with the primary one and don't cut away from it for at least 40 pages (except in the case of a prologue, which is a freebie).

Tip #44: Create Interesting Characters (Who Don't All Sound Like You) 

In Tip #35 I briefly mentioned this but here I'll discuss it in more detail.

When you think of your favorite novels what do you think of? Is it a climactic moment or a thrill of action or an amazing and strange world? Possibly. But I'll bet that right at the top of the list is a favorite character.

What is Lord of the Flies without Piggy and Jack and Simon and Samneric? What is The Once and Future King without Merlin? What is Lord of the Rings without Gollum?

It's the same for movies. What is Star Wars without Han Solo? What is Minority Report without Agatha? What is O Brother, Where Art Thou without...well, without any of those guys?

TV series have figured this out, too. Think of the incredible characters in shows like Battlestar Galactica and Lost and Grey's Anatomy and Scrubs and Star Trek: The Next Generation. It's not long before you're not coming back for the story or the humor or anything else, but are coming back to find out what happens next with these favorite people. And just to hang with them.

After we forget the good feelings a work of fiction produces in us, after we forget the great special effects or the magnificent cinematography or the stirring soundtrack, we are left with the resonance of great characters.

Strong, believable, fully realized characters are the things that are going to make your fiction truly memorable. Even if you have the greatest premise and the best craftsmanship and the most wonderful cover design in the world, what will separate your fiction from the pack will be your characters.

The converse is also true. Without characters of that caliber, a great premise, high craftsmanship, and a terrific cover will not save your book from the fate of being just  pretty good.

There are some novels that have been huge hits though they have very shallow characters (I won't name names). This would seem to invalidate what I'm saying here. But it doesn't. Those books are a flash in the pan. They will not remain perennial favorites among readers. They tend to get hot because of some scandal or fad or timeliness. But this will not last.

The only thing that will make your fiction endure will be excellent characters.

Me Not Do Characters Too Good

Okay, I think you're with me. Before you read any of this you were probably already convinced that you needed great characters for your fiction.

But here's where you may be stymied. You know you need to create these immortals to prance about your stage, but you don't know how. You realize, perhaps, that you can come up with story ideas or cool plot elements all day long but you couldn't write a decent character to save your life.

Oh, but I see this all the time in the unpublished fiction manuscripts I work with.

How often I see manuscripts in which the author apparently thinks that a set of interesting characters consists of five people who all seem and sound the same (i.e., just like the author) but just have different moods or agendas.

Like Jenny who sounds like the author but is a widow and Frida who sounds like the author but is a gold digger and Laura who sounds like the author but is an adulteress or is depressed or is a haggard soccer mom.

Blech. That's not creating memorable characters.

To me, that's either laziness or ignorance coming out. Either the author doesn't realize that his or her characters all sound that way (and that that's a bad thing) or he or she doesn't want to do the hard work of making the characters realistic and differentiated.

It's hard to do that work. I know. I'm a plot writer. I get great ideas for story events all the time. But if left to what comes onto the page naturally, I will create the most shallow, awful, two-dimensional cardboard cutouts that have ever borne the name "characters."

Still, I hear the call of the road less difficult. How much easier it would be to skip over that dumb character work and just get to the explosions. But I know I must buckle down and do it.

Before I let you know the solution to this conundrum let me talk a moment about how this is a good thing. If you're a plot-first (or setting-first) novelist, rejoice! Your counterparts over there, the novelists who create the most amazing characters since Adam and Eve but couldn't create a plot if their lives depended on it, would give their right arms for the ability to come up with a decent story.

You have a superpower, O plot writer. Revel in it.

But don't be content with your strengths. Realize that you are incomplete as a craftsman and storyteller. A book with great story elements but lousy characters will end up like, well, like Star Wars Episode II or Jurassic Park: The Lost World. Flashy and well-made, but ultimately forgettable.

Realize that until you develop the ability to create interesting and believable characters to populate your novels your fiction will always be poorer than it could be.

Some plot-first novelists try to solve this by pairing up with a character-first novelist. One person sets about fashioning terrifically interesting story people and the other person decides what to have them do. If you know someone like this, maybe give it a try.

The best approach, in my opinion, is to learn to do the thing you're weak at. Character-first novelists need to learn how to construct interesting plots, and plot-first novelists must learn how to create interesting characters.

Being a plot-first novelist myself I tend to think that it would be easier for a character-first novelist to learn how to create good plots. All they'd have to do (he says, knowing how naive he sounds) is get that book called 20 Master Plots and How To Use Them and get busy. Or follow Tip #3 to come up with a great inner journey for that character, and voila: instant plot.

But I think it's more difficult for the plot-first novelist to learn how to create interesting characters. (Do I hear the groans of character-first novelists out there?)

There are a ton of craft books out there on how to create great characters for fiction. I own a bunch of them. I've linked to several of them here. I recommend you try those and others to see if they do the trick for you.

In my own journey I ultimately found these books to be useless for me. I studied them and tried their approaches, but they never really hit it for me. Part of it may be because such books are usually written by people who come up with great characters effortlessly. It makes sense: ask the guy who creates great characters to write a book on creating great characters. But it's as if I wasn't speaking their language.

So, being the DIYer I am, I created my own system. Character Creation for the Plot-First Novelist is the system I use when creating my own characters.

Now, I've just admitted that I'm a plot-first novelist who has a hard time coming up with interesting characters who aren't stereotypes and don't all sound like me. So why should you use a character-creation system by a guy like that?

Because I speaka you language.

Anyway, don't take my word for it; check out my Operation: Firebrand series of novels. With that series I set myself a challenge: though characters do not come easily to me, can I write a series driven by an ensemble cast?

I didn't want to write Steel Magnolias, for crying out loud, but I wanted to create something that was more of a balance between plot-driven and character-driven fiction.

If you read one of those novels and you find yourself thinking fondly of the characters, then maybe consider checking out my character creation system. Because if I, a hard-wired plot writer, can create interesting characters, you can, too.

Okay, this whole tip was not meant to be a long promo for my character creation system. I don't care if you use mine or not (well, I do, but I'm trying to sound altruistic [grin]). Just so long as you commit yourself to creating interesting, believable characters, I (and publishers and readers) will be happy.

For the sake of creating a posterity for your fiction, do whatever you must do to create interesting, believable, captivating, and differentiated characters who don't all sound like you.

Tip #45: Avoid Flashbacks 

I know, I know, some of the greatest literature of the English language is filled with flashbacks. I also know that some very popular novels in our era are told in flashbacks, like The Notebook.Further, it is within my knowledge base that many great movies use flashback, such as Sunset Boulevard and Amadeus.


Here's why: because 99 times out of 100 your flashbacks will be nothing but telling(see Tip #29).

If I have seen one hundred unpublished novels that make use of one or more flashbacks, and I've probably seen more than that, out of those only one or two actually worked. Beginning writers, and many published writers, just can't pull it off.

Usually a flashback is simply a dramatized information dump, like a Broadway cast performing the text of a soup label. You stop the story cold so you can go off and explain to the reader why things are the way they are when the book starts. It may be interesting, but it's still taking the reader away from the main story. And that's A Bad Thing.

To me, flashbacks fall into the same category as any other form of telling, and therefore the same questions apply. Does the reader really need to know this information to understand the story? Probably not. But if the reader does need to know it, can you come up with an organic way to show it through scene and dialogue? Most likely, yes.

Flashbacks, like the more mundane kinds of telling, are usually just exposition. They are the ultimate "backstory." But the reader simply doesn't need it.

Imagine if George Lucas had stopped Star Wars to go into flashbacks whenever a new character stepped onstage. Pricness Leia appears—and suddenly we have to sit down and watch Episodes I, II, and III so we'll understand her backstory—and then we can go back and see what happened to her in the "present." Gah!

And what about the backstory of the people you saw in the flashback? Oh, no! What's theirbackstory? Gotta explain that. There's Darth Maul and that grey-haired advisor on Naboo plus Anakin's mother. Where'd they all come from?

Meanwhile we've all but forgotten that there was some princess in some other story way back at the beginning.

So then we get back into that story, but now there's this cowboy kind of guy in a cantina. Egad! What's hisstory? Let's go have a big long flashback.

Very quickly the movie would've bogged down and become ridiculous. But Lucas didn't do that, thankfully. Instead, he just introduced his characters and let the story begin to unfold. As we went along we learned more and more about the characters we cared about, but never in a way that robbed the story of its momentum.

So take a look at your work-in-progress. Do you have any flashbacks in it? Why? Is it truly because there is no other way in this quantum universe that that information could be revealed? Or is it just a way of explaining everything to the reader so she has no questions about why Jimmy is limping or why Harriet won't talk to Laverne?

Judging from the flashbacks I've seen in the manuscripts I've worked with, I'd be willing to wager that it's the latter. You just want to explain it all. You know it and you want the reader to know it, but you've been told that straight information dumps stop the story, so you've written this elaborate scene to bring it all onstage.

Except that while you are indulging your need to explain everything, you havestopped your story cold just as surely as if you'd just launched into pages of straight exposition: "She didn't like him because one day they..."

Remember Browne & King's maxim: resist the urge to explain (seeTip #10). R.U.E.

A straight chronological layout for your story is almost always going to be best.

Think about your own story: is there any reason you couldn't tell this story in order, without resorting to time hopping? If you used the principles of showingcouldn't you organically bring out everything that needs to be brought out?

I urge you to remove all flashbacks from your story.

One possible exception might be a prologue that takes place several years earlier in the protagonist's life or in your story world, if it sets up the main problem of your story.

And there are certain stories that ought to be told in flashback or out of chronological order. Memento is a great example of a story that had to be told out of order, and The Notebook works well, too. But note that both stories  involved brain damage or Alzheimer's, thus mandating the non-chronological order. Yours probably isn't like that.

I had the honor of editing the excellent novel Marduk's Tablet by T. L. Higley. In it a modern-day expert in ancient handwriting encounters an ancient tablet that, whenever she touches it, sends her back in time to see through the eyes of a treacherous Babylonian priestess. Throughout the manuscript we are jumping back and forth between the action in the historical storyline and the action in the present-day storyline. It totally worked.

Ted Dekker's Circle trilogy is like that, too, in that we're jumping back and forth between times and worlds.

Such books can get away with non-chronological storytelling because of their premise. But, like I said, yours most likely isn't like that. And even if it is, I'd advise you to keep the flashbacks to a minimum.

You're almost always better served by sticking to a straight, chronological telling of your story. Please...avoid flashbacks.

Tip #46: The Secrets of Good Dialogue, Part 1 

What makes good dialogue in fiction? Is it snappy one-liners or trendy phrases? Is it inuendo or inflection or devastating irony? Perhaps it's the unforgettable line: "The problems of three little people don't amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world."

Maybe it's Truth. Digging down to the essense of the human condition. "I am not an animal! I am a human being! man!"

Certainly some of our favorite moments from movies and novels are lines of dialogue: "Frankly, my dear..." or "I've got a bad feeling about this" or "The horror...the horror."

Every novelist wants his or her lines of dialogue to be as powerful and memorable as these. But how? What's the secret.

And you need to find out, because there are acquisitions editors out there (the ones who love fiction, primarily) who will skip over everything in your proposal and flip straight to a section of dialogue in your sample chapters. If you've done your dialogue poorly they won't look at anything else.

I submit to you that we weren't far off when we suggested it might be Truth that creates good dialogue. I believe dialogue is great when it is authentic.

What I mean by authentic is that dialogue must be realistic, layered, and right for the character and the moment. Let's look at them each in turn.

Dialogue Must Be Realistic

This is probably the hardest thing to capture in fiction dialogue. How can you create dialogue that sounds like it might actually be spoken?

You can't just type up transcripts of actual conversations. Have you ever really paid attention to how we talk? Imagine Brock and Cammie having this conversation.

"Did you get the...?"

"Nah. I thought we'd, uh, take the...thing."

"Okay. Move the shoes, please. So I guess you, you know, are okay with...?"

"Those aren't my shoes. Oh, I saw Francie at the club. She said we wouldn't... It's like, she doesn't even..."

"You're kidding. But she's, you know. And besides, why don't you... I mean, is it too much to ask to..."

That's all pretty realistic. But it's not exactly easy to read. It's scattered and multi-threaded and incomplete. This is because in real conversations at least as much is conveyed via tone and body language as through the actual words used.

What you're after in fiction dialogue is something that simulates reality but is more intelligible than actual speech.

Now that we've got that covered, let's look at the components of realistic-seeming dialogue.

First, realistic dialogue is not formal or polite.

"I believe we will be late if we take that route."

"No, we will not be late. We'll be able to cross over at the Winston Changeover and miss the construction at Seventh."

"Yes, that will be fine."

Blech. Come on, people don't talk like that. See how nice they are? And see how they take turns and let each other finish complete sentences? Dialogue in real life is much messier (while keeping it intelligible for fiction):

"Don't take Main! You'll make us late. There's--"

"Just let me drive. We'll take Winston and miss the construction at--"

"Whatever. Just go."

So, lesson 1: don't let dialogue be formal or polite. Don't let your characters take turns and allow one another to express their complete thoughts before speaking.

Second, realistic dialogue is not "on the nose."

Here's an example of on the nose dialogue:

"Bubba, you have bad breath."

"No, Cletus, I do not have bad breath. I brushed my teeth this morning."

"If you had brushed your teeth this morning you wouldn't have bad breath. That's what Louanne said, anyway."

"Louanne did not say that. She said..."

Ick. By "on the nose" I mean that the characters are saying exactly what they mean and responding to exactly what each other actually says. But real-world conversations are not like that.

Words, the deconstructionists tell us, are pitiful vehicles for conveying meaning. And all of us know that conversations aren't so much about what is said as what is meant.

"Bubba, you have bad breath."

"Dude, I'm sorry I dumped your sister. Deal with it."

"She deserves better than that. Better than you"

"Whatever, Cletus. Besides, I brushed just this morning."

In real life, and in simulations of real dialogue, we're never really talking sentences to sentences. We're actually talking meaning to meaning. Subtext to subtext.

Which is why misunderstandings happen so often in e-mails. When you're left with only the words themselves and don't have the benefit of the tone of voice and body language and inflection that carry 50% of the meaning, we don't communicate accurately.

Lesson 2: let your characters communicate and respond via the subtext beneath their words, not their words themselves. Don't let dialogue be on the nose.

These tips will help your dialogue feel realistic, which will set your book above many unpublished manuscripts out there. With realistic dialogue, those editors who flip straight to sections of dialogue will begin to believe that you might be able to pull this thing off.

Next time, more about creating good dialogue in fiction.

Tip #47: The Secrets of Good Dialogue, Part 2 

Last time I said that dialogue, to be good, must be authentic. And authentic dialogue is realistic, layered, and right for the character and the moment. In Tip #46 I covered how to make dialogue realistic. This time I’ll talk about how to make dialogue layered.

What do I mean when I say that dialogue must be layered? This mainly goes back to the idea in the previous tip that conversations don't really take place in a spoken sentence to spoken sentence manner, but unspoken meaning to unspoken meaning.

For instance, if you’re late for work one day and the boss says, “Nice of you to join us,” she’s not really meaning what she says. If a non-English speaker heard or read those words, he might think the boss is being polite. But you and I know the boss really meant, “You’re late again and it’s disrespectful. Knock it off or suffer the consequences.”

Meaning to meaning, not sentence to sentence.

Good Dialogue Is Layered

When we talk to people we’re communicating via subtext. The meaning is layered beneath the actual words.

And one of those layers often contains old topics or disagreements the characters haven’t resolved. Jibes and digs and stabs. Private jokes. Covert warnings. Ongoing debates.

For instance: John and Mary are out for dinner with Mark and Martha (hey, we’re going New Testament; stay with me). All the way to the restaurant, John and Mary have been arguing about whether or not they should send their rebellious teenage son (Judas) to boarding school. Now they’re in a booth at Chili’s talking with their friends.

“So, Mark,” Mary says, “how’s your daughter doing? Still an A student?”

“Well, she does all right. She did get a B on—”

“I was just wondering because I know she did a year at…what was the name of that boarding school?”

John rolls his eyes. Here we go.

“No, that wasn’t actually a boarding school,” Martha says. “Bentley is a—”

“And hadn’t she been kind of getting trouble before you sent her there?” Mary asks. “I seem to recall an incident with a boyfriend.”

“Mary,” John says, “leave it alone.”

Martha sits up straighter. “Just what are you implying, Mary?”

“She’s not…” John says. “Mary, just let it rest.”

“What? I’m just saying that their daughter was rebellious before they sent her to boarding school and afterwards she became an A student. Sometimes a boarding school is just what a teenager needs to shape up. That’s all I’m saying.”


"Fine, you win. We'll send him. Are you happy now?"

The four of them sat in silence. Mary reached for her strawberry lemonade and the glass shook as she lifted it to her lips.


Now, not every dialogue will have these undercurrents of subtext. But you should be on the alert for chances to show it, because many conversations in your book will contain these layers.

Because we're always carrying an agenda. We're always trying to sneak in a few points or secretly advance our point. Conversations are just one more arena in the battle between personalities. It's that way for your characters, too.

Tip #48: The Secrets of Good Dialogue, Part 3 

By now we're getting there with your dialogue. It's realistic (people don't politely take turns answering one another in perfect grammar) and it's layered (characters speak on the level of subtext, and the spoken words are just the poor conveyors of meaning). Now it's time to make your dialogue fit the person and the situation.

Good Dialogue Is Right for the Character

In movies, how do you know when one character stops talking and another character starts talking? Well, duh. You start hearing a new voice and you probably see the new character on the screen.

Exactly. But how do you do it fiction? How do you distinguish between one character and another? How can the reader tell when one person has stopped speaking and another speaker has started?

I'm not talking about the formatting mechanics in a manuscript that signal when speakers change—though you must master this (see Tip #19). Nor am I talking about speech attributions (see Tips #26 and #41).

If you had, say, three characters speaking together and you removed all beats (Tip #31) and speech attributions—which you shouldn't do, by the way, but bear with me—the reader ought to be able to know which character is speaking at any time.

How? By the way each character talks, of course. By how he speaks, what he thinks about that comes out in his words, by the vocabulary he chooses, by his syntax and grammar and length of sentences.

By their spoken words alone your characters should distinguish themselves and identify themselves to the reader every time they open their mouths. In a sense, the speech they use is their speech attributions.

In some cases, of course, you need speech attributions, especially when the character is saying something that could be from any character in the scene: "Watch out!" for instance. But for the rest it ought to be clear simply by the way the person speaks.

Here are some classic lines from movies. Can you name who said them?

  1. "We thought you was a toad!"
  2. "Mmm, help you, I can."
  3. "It's not the years, honey; it's the mileage."
  4. "The pity of Bilbo may rule the fate of many."
  5. "For it is the doom of men that they forget."
  6. "Lawsy, we got to have a doctor. I don't nothin' 'bout birthin' babies!"
  7. "Of all the gin joints in all the world, she walks into mine."

Answers: 1) Delmar in O Brother, Where Art Thou? 2) Yoda, 3) Indiana Jones, 4) Gandalf, 5) Merlin in Excalibur, 6) Prissy in Gone with the Wind, 7) Rick in Casablanca.

Ah, good memories, eh? Each one of these can take you not only right into the world of the movie it's from but into the gestalt of the character who said it. (Hey, I used gestalt in an actual sentence!)

If you use my Character Creation for the Plot-First Novelist system, you will see that a major component of developing a character is finding his or her voice, the unique way of speaking that distinguishes that character from everyone else in the novel.

How often I see unpublished manuscripts (and some published ones) in which all the characters sound the same. And in fiction, if they all sound the same they all seem the same. Which means you've got a novel of nothing but the same character talking to himself throughout the book.

It feels more like the author doing a puppet show and playing all the parts himself than an eyewitness account of what actually happened when these real individuals got together for the story.

It also usually results in uneducated people talking exactly like university professors and non-English speakers from Guam sounding exactly like Professor Higgins in London. Grrr.

Please, for the sake of your story, do the work to be sure each character's dialogue is right for that character.

Good Dialogue Is Right for the Moment

No matter what your particular character sounds like, he or she won't sound the same in every situation. If he's having to scream above the noise of a battle he's not going to speak in full sentences. If she's out of breath from running, she's going to use more of a shorthand.

And yet I see the opposite in some of the manuscripts I work with. No matter what's going on, the characters talk as if it's a calm moment in the drawing room.

Don't do that.

Note that characters also change their vocabulary and other elements of their speech when in different company. His vocabulary may go up when he's speaking with a college professor, or down when he's speaking with a child or non-English speaker. Her volume may go up when speaking with someone hard of hearing, and down when she's in a theater.

Characters also change their dialogue based on how they want to be perceived by the person they're speaking with. If she wants to get in good with the boys a character may suddenly talk about football and refrain from using long words, peppering her remarks with "stuff" and "thing" instead If he wants to get in good with a girl a character may drop all the foul language and instead quote Scripture or Shakespeare.

If it's the last minute before the bomb goes off, he's not going to be speaking in complete sentences. If she's in an interview she's not going to use slang. And if she's a young teen texting with her BFF, she's not going 2 use full wrds at all, imo. or even caps. gtg. ttfn. cya l8r.

Read over your dialogue and be sure to make it appropriate not only for the moment but for the character saying it.

Tip #49: The Secrets of Good Dialogue, Part 4 

This is only the second 4-part series of tips I've done since the inauguration of the Fiction Writing Tip of the Week column (the other was Tips 5-8, on description). That should indicate to you the importance of achieving great dialogue for your fiction.

In the previous tips in this series we've looked at the key components in making good dialogue. In this tip I'll survey a number of reminders and quick ideas for making that dialogue as sharp as it can be.

First, in your dialogue don't let characters say things to one another that they both already know.

Novelists often do this as a means of telling (see Tip #29) whereby they can inform the reader about key backstory or conveniently arrange for someone to overhear something important.

"Wow, Frank, that dam built in 1972 by the president of Kazakhstan is sure pretty."

"Why, yes, Jim, it is. I'll bet the president had no idea that it would one day be used in a global politico-social operation in which covert operatives from the United States would penetrate our defenses and topple our government using highly placed traitors loyal to America."

"No, Jim, I'll bet he didn't. Come, you must sit down and rest the knee you injured in 1985 as you were fighting with the mujahideen in Afghanistan."

"Why, thank you, Jim. You are kind."


If you need characters to say things so the reader can learn them but you don't want to resort to outright telling, then the "dumb puppet trick" is for you. Read Tip #21.

Second, don't use telling in quotation marks.

This is closely related to the previous item but it bears individualized treatment because it's not always in a discussion in which both characters know the details.

In this, authors simply have a character let rip with a concise narration of the events of the story.

"You see, Winifred, John was not always a bad boy. Once he sang in the church choir and swept up after service. But then the dark times came and John was forced to beg in the streets, which turned his innocence to cynicism and..." blah, blah, blah.

The only difference between this and simply including a paragraph of backstory (a.k.a. telling) is the use of quotation marks. My friend, don't do that. Avoid telling in all its forms.

Once again, the dumb puppet saves the day.

Third, read your dialogue aloud.

So much of the stilted, inappropriate, overly polite and formal dialogue I see would be eliminated if the novelist had simply read her dialogue out loud once.

Better yet, get a couple of friends together and hand out scripts. Coach your friends on the personality and attitude of each character, and do a little skit. (Later you can have a dance in your dad's barn!)

You will be amazed at how awful and clunky some bits of your dialogue sound. You will instantly see it when the dialogue is wrong for the moment or the character. You'll probably even find yourself editing it to sound better as you read it aloud.

Those are the edits you need to sit down and change right then. However you thought it should be said out loud is how you should change it to read in your manuscript.

The problem is that you've been sitting alone at your computer writing this stuff, and there, devoid of all signs of reality, the dialogue probably seemed okay. But heard out loud, the defects are immediately evident. Use this a few times and you'll begin learning how to write it more naturally the first time.

This is a simple, fun, but seldom used device for finding the right form for your lines of dialogue.

Fourth, use speech attributions correctly.

By this I mean you should use exactly the number, frequency, and kind of speech attributions as you should. Helpful, huh?

As I cover in more detail in Tip #14, you should try to cut down on the number of he-saids/she-saids in your dialogue. If it's obvious who is saying it, leave out the attribution.

Conversely, if you have more than two characters in the conversation or if it's simply not obvious who is speaking, you need to use more attributions.

And for the love of all that is beautiful and true, stick to said (see Tip #41).

Fifth, use beats in your dialogue.

You should be using beats (see Tip #31) for two main purposes in dialogue: tying your reader down to your setting and managing the perceived flow of time in your scene (see Tip #27).

You can also use beats in place of speech attributions to help you cut down on the he-saids.

All right, my friend, that's the end of my series on dialogue. Great dialogue, as we said at the outset, is realistic, layered, and right for the character and the moment. Get those things straight—and apply the little helps in this tip—and your dialogue will be memorable and effective.

Because when it's all said and done, great dialogue does, after all, amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world.

Tip #50: Find Your Story 

How do you find your story?

Does that strike you as an odd question? I mean, you've got...things happening and people doing things and lots of scenes and dialogue and description and stuff. How can you not have your story?

But I'm here to tell you that as a book doctor I am often dealing with manuscripts in which the author has not found his or her story. The manuscript may be 250,000 words long, but I promise, the story is not there.

The story meanders and never finds its way. The ending has nothing to do with the beginning, or even with the main character. The protagonist has no quest or arc. There are no stakes, or the stakes don't show up until the last 20% of the manuscript.

These manuscripts are often also plagued with gobs of telling (see Tip #29), nearly zero description (see Tips 5-8), interchangeable characters (see Tip #44), poor dialogue (see Tips 46-49), an almost complete lack of structure, and pretty much everything else this column has set out to rectify.

How do you know if you haven't found your story? Well, a bloated, over-long manuscript is one indicator. Having agents or editors reject your manuscript may be another. Feeling in your own heart that something may be wrong but you can't put your finger on it might be a sign.

Whether you feel like you've not yet captured your story or not, it will help you to go through these steps.

It All Starts with Character

That might surprise you to read, coming from a plot-first novelist like me. But in my golden years of wisdom [ahem] I have come to realize that this really is the starting point.

Oh, for sure you've got a setting and a premise and probably some pretty strong plot ideas. That's normal and good. But in terms of figuring out how to tell that story in the best way, it all starts with character.

So...who is your main character? Do you know? Who do you want it to be?

What is that character like? This is a huge question, though it can be expressed in five simple words. What I'm asking is whether or not you've done your homework to figure out who this person is (Tip #44), what he or she wants (Tip #4), and where he or she is going in this story (Tip #3).

Have you? Until you know these things you are doomed to wander around in a storyless, unpublished wilderness.

But when you do figure this out, you're at least 75% of the way to finding your story. Truly, your main character's inner journey is the largest component of your story.

Or it should be.

Then when you also figure out the inner journeys of your your antagonist, and probably 2-4 other major characters in your book, you're about 80% of the way to knowing your story.

There. Wasn't that easy?

Oh, and then you need to figure out how to bring your protagonist and other main characters onstage (see Tip #15). Figuring that out not only helps you find your story's structure, it also constitutes up to 10% of of the text itself.

Determine the Stakes

When you know your main character's inner journey, you know most of your story. Only a few things are lacking, percentage-wise.

The first of these is the OR-ELSE component of your book. What are the stakes? What will happen if the antagonist gets his or her way and the protagonist is unsuccessful in stopping it? This is what I call the ticking time-bomb (see Tip #20).

The ticking time-bomb is something the reader knows about very early in the story, even if the protagonist doesn't find out about it until later. Every page the reader turns brings her that much closer to doom.

The first season of Heroes has a great example of one of these. The characters are in October but they discover that on November 8 a nuclear bomb will destroy New York City. Viewers (and soon, the characters) learn about this early on, and every episode takes them closer to that detonation, unless our "Heroes" can save the day.

Figure out what this Really Bad Thing will be in your tale, and then establish it very early. Like even in the prologue.

And you'll be about 90% to finding your story.

Find Your Three-Act Structure

When you know your characters' journeys and the OR-ELSE eventuality they're working with, you're almost home. The last big chunk of it is to determine what your book's structure will be.

I've written an entire article on finding your story's three-act structure (on the page about writing synopses) so I won't repeat that here.

Suffice it to say that Act I is the introduction of all your main characters, the stakes, the world, and the main problem of the story.

Act II is the heart of your story, in which the protagonist attempts to overcome the antagonist, avoid his or her own inner transformation, achieve his or her goals, and thwart the Really Bad Thing.

Act III is the final confrontation between the protagonist and the antagonist, with the time-bomb in its final minutes. Often, Act III begins at the very moment the protagonist decides whether or not to embrace his or her transformation.

What is your story's three-act structure? When you know your characters' inner journeys and you know what the ticking time-bomb is, you're ready to determine how to fit these into these three acts.

When you do that, you'll have found 95% of your story.

And the Rest

...are here on Gilligan's Isle! (Oh, sorry.)

The last 5% consists of theme/message, setting, backdrop (like perhaps your story's backdrop is the Civil War or genetic engineering or the first touchdown on an alien planet), and sundry subplots.

So if you believe your story is foundering or if you've been told you haven't found your story, or if you just want to be sure you've got the story you think you have, be sure you have these things in place.

Who is your protagonist and what is his or her inner journey? What does your protagonist want—and what is the Really Bad Thing he or she is trying to prevent? And what is a good three-act structure in which to convey those things?

Determine these items and you will have found your story.

Want More Tips?

Be sure to return to the tips index to get all the tips so far.