Wendella Rhoads's picture
Wendella Rhoads from San Diego California is reading Just another lowly reader, sitting here looking for another good book... August 15, 2016 - 4:11pm

Being both new to this forum and renewing my love / hate relationship with writing I ask that you please go easy on me if  this query is inappropriate.

My writing genre is Urban Paranormal, I write a lot of scenes that have intense dialog between the two protagonists. Ever conscious of trying to balance  narration and description so that the POV comes across for the reader to care about the characters /dilemma. I keep reading my favorite authors for direction on pacing and what character interactions should look like on the page but the styles vary so widely that I am not sure which style to use. Is there any inexpensive materials online that could define the different elements of fictional writing concisely?

Reading the Anita Blake first series books I am at a loss how those were published. The style is all over the place, but people really seem to enjoy the books...


Thanks for any help you can offer.

Thuggish's picture
Thuggish from Vegas is reading Day of the Jackal August 15, 2016 - 6:12pm

So... eventually you're going to find your own particular style anyway, I wouldn't sweat it too much. I'd write and see what I liked, didn't like, etc., about it... maybe go back analyze and say "I should to this or that more" and see where you end up.

If you really need a starting point, just pick any one that you like. Or none!

smithreynolds's picture
smithreynolds from Spokane, WA USA is reading The writing on the wall. August 15, 2016 - 8:32pm

Hi. Gail here. Welcome to the forum. Nice to meet you.

Don't look for inexpensive materials online. You have a treasure trove right here in LiReactor., I have been reading the craft essays. Read them like popcorn, pop them like pills and write like you know what the fuck you are doing. 

Most of what we need is at our own fingertips, if they are connected to the rest of us..Good luck. Post some work. Have some fun and teach me what "urban paranormal" is because my motto is  "Fuck Genre".  With regard, gsr.  

I said fuck twice, apologies. It's just so much fun to say fuck.

Thuggish's picture
Thuggish from Vegas is reading Day of the Jackal August 15, 2016 - 9:15pm

^ Fuck it.

V.R.Stone's picture
V.R.Stone from London is reading Savages by Don Winslow August 16, 2016 - 5:12am

For me it's about rhythm. Read the dialogue out loud. You'll get a feeling for when a pause is needed, and perhaps you can insert some narration there. You might also want description, like some body language, when it feels like you need an adverb. And variety is important. Twenty lines of uniterrupted dialogue bores the brain. As does four lines of dialogue, two lines of narration, four lines of dialogue, two lines of narration.

Also, if you want to learn the craft of writing, you should consider reading outside your genre. A literary or noir crime author might not write stories you enjoy, but they might teach you some technical stuff.

Thuggish's picture
Thuggish from Vegas is reading Day of the Jackal August 16, 2016 - 9:31am

I'd say twenty lines of usually bores the reader. (You do need some little action tags or something though).

I used to put "she said" at any point the speaker would naturally pause a second, and it worked pretty well for me. These days I almost always do some kind of action though- he rubbed his eyes, shrugs, whatever. Probably works even better.

helpfulsnowman's picture
Community Manager
helpfulsnowman from Colorado is reading But What If We're Wrong? by Chuck Klosterman August 17, 2016 - 11:44am

I'm biased and totally agree, the craft essays on this site are really, really great. They're quick reads, and they'll give you a lot of ideas.

When it comes to dialog, I also agree with the above, reading aloud is really key.

Other suggestions:

1. If you're trying to get narrator perspective in a book, don't put in something like, "she said dryly." In my experience, people don't talk like that. If my boss came into my office and said something dryly, I would probably tell the story by saying something she did, physically, or talk about the sound of her voice, but I wouldn't use an adverb on a dialog tag.

2. Read comics. Comics are almost ALL dialog. You quickly get a sense of when dialog doesn't work, when it's all Q&A or exposition instead of people talking.

3. As started above, people talk a lot without making a lot of progress. If your character is a normalish person, they'll use a lot of words to make very little progress. If your dialog is all explaining plot or backstory, it's not going to sound natural.

4. Definitely said on this site, give your characters something to do while they talk. Something physical. This comes through in comics too. Bad comics have character heads just talking. Good charaters have some kind of movement or action occurring while dialog is happening.

Thuggish's picture
Thuggish from Vegas is reading Day of the Jackal August 17, 2016 - 3:39pm

Here's another one that works super well for me: have imaginary conversations imaginary people.

bethwenn's picture
bethwenn from Milwaukee is reading The Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann August 17, 2016 - 4:12pm

The advice that will be most helpful to you depends on your individual writing, what style you're cultivating, and what kinds of mistakes you lean towards. You should post something to the workshop, and maybe also post a sample on this thread or on the Post a Paragraph one. If I recall correctly, you're able to make your first post to the workshop right away, but you have to earn points to make additional ones (I could be wrong). I and others would be happy to give you some more concrete advice there. :D

I'm an Aristotelian and believe in the virtue of the mean. Good writing falls somewhere in the middle of two vices. People fall on different ends of the spectrum of mistakes towards opposing extremes--not writing enough description, writing too much; writing too lean of dialogue, writing overwritten dialogue--and the advice that will help one person won't necessarily be the best for another to hear.

I aim for versimilitude in my writing, which is not The Right Way to write, and is even inappropriate for some genres (satire, for one). But it's probably the best style to learn first, even if it's only so that you can break its rules afterward (just like lots of artists learn to draw realism first and then become stellar cartoonists).

Sometimes talking heads are necessary for a little bit, but I try to make sure I can always see in my mind's eye what's happening while my characters are talking. If I can't, I stop and think on it more. I step away from the page, imagine the scene, go through the five senses, and really try to see and feel it all. More than that, I ask myself why I'm writing the conversation and what it's supposed to mean. Well-written dialogue is lean and it leaves a lot out--motives, true feelings, background information, etc. Well-written dialogue has subtext, and subtext needs to be conveyed silently, not through awkward over-telling or through a character narrating directly to us. The things that are left out of dialogue are what should you should be aiming to convey, ideally through images/visual description and not through simple narration AKA "telling".

Not every line of dialogue should have an accompanying paragraph or even sentence of description. But. If you're consistently just throwing in dialogue tags to break up the white space whenever you write dialogue, to me, that means you probably don't know what you're trying to do with that conversation, you don't have any subtext or don't know what the subtext is, and you are either not giving the reader enough information to really see and hear it happening in their head, or you're forcing way too much information into the dialogue itself and not letting your characters just speak to each other in a genuine way.

It would be good to familiarize yourself with the 4 dialogic moves. Offer, request, inform, and question. It would also be helpful to keep in mind that, often times, there is a dialogic move that fits ostensibly, but hiding behind it is a different move entirely. A request can be hidden in an offer, a question inside and inform, and so on and so forth.

If you want to write great dialogue, look at writing resources that come from the world of film and TV. Screenwriting will really teach you how to write a conversation. The things that helped me learn to write dialogue the most are, oddly enough, Shakespeare's plays and The Sopranos.

Tony: [over the phone] It's a bad connection so I'm gonna talk fast! The guy you're looking for is an ex-commando! He killed sixteen Chechen rebels single-handed!

Paulie: Get the fuck outta here.

Tony: Yeah. Nice, huh? He was with the Interior Ministry. Guy's like a Russian green beret. He can not come back and tell this story. You understand?

Paulie: I hear you.

[hangs up]

Paulie: You're not gonna believe this. He killed sixteen Czechoslovakians. Guy was an interior decorator.

Christopher: His house looked like shit.

First Gentleman

        Why, 'twas a commandment to command the captain and
        all the rest from their functions: they put forth
        to steal. There's not a soldier of us all, that, in
        the thanksgiving before meat, do relish the petition
        well that prays for peace.

    Second Gentleman

        I never heard any soldier dislike it.


        I believe thee; for I think thou never wast where
        grace was said.

    Second Gentleman

        No? a dozen times at least.

    First Gentleman

        What, in metre?


        In any proportion or in any language.

    First Gentleman

        I think, or in any religion. [x]

But if you want to write a great literary scene of a conversation, that comes from also honing your prose and learning how to show and not tell so that you can create subtext. Subtext, subtext, subtext!

Best advice: Read the classics! Anything that makes you feel puzzled, that you could spend forever dissecting in an academic paper. Therein lies the way to write subtext, and therein, I think, lies the way to write great stories.

Joseph Conrad was a master of showing instead of telling. The subtext is endless, and the speculations you can make about the subtext are endless. Notice where he uses different forms of past tense ("I thought him a harmless fool"), and where he uses direct discourse and indirect discourse. Ask yourself: Why? Why give us the direct quotes for most lines, and why have Marlow summarize the ones that he does? Notice the actions of the characters. When his characters talk, it's like a game of poker. His characters bluff, hide their hands, and they all have tells that give them away. Look at what they do and again ask yourself: Why?

“One day he remarked, without lifting his head, 'In the interior you will no doubt meet Mr. Kurtz.' On my asking who Mr. Kurtz was, he said he was a first-class agent; and seeing my disappointment at this information, he added slowly, laying down his pen, 'He is a very remarkable person.' Further questions elicited from him that Mr. Kurtz was at present in charge of a trading-post, a very important one, in the true ivory-country, at 'the very bottom of there. Sends in as much ivory as all the others put together...' He began to write again. The sick man was too ill to groan. The flies buzzed in a great peace.”

“"The old doctor felt my pulse, evidently thinking of something else the while. 'Good, good for there,' he mumbled, and then with a certain eagerness asked me whether I would let him measure my head. Rather surprised, I said Yes, when he produced a thing like calipers and got the dimensions back and front and every way, taking notes carefully. He was an unshaven little man in a threadbare coat like a gaberdine, with his feet in slippers, and I thought him a harmless fool. 'I always ask leave, in the interests of science, to measure the crania of those going out there,' he said. 'And when they come back, too?' I asked. 'Oh, I never see them,' he remarked; 'and, moreover, the changes take place inside, you know.' He smiled, as if at some quiet joke. 'So you are going out there. Famous. Interesting, too.' He gave me a searching glance, and made another note. 'Ever any madness in your family?' he asked, in a matter-of-fact tone. I felt very annoyed. 'Is that question in the interests of science, too?' 'It would be,' he said, without taking notice of my irritation, 'interesting for science to watch the mental changes of individuals, on the spot, but...' 'Are you an alienist?' I interrupted. 'Every doctor should be—a little,' answered that original, imperturbably. 'I have a little theory which you messieurs who go out there must help me to prove. This is my share in the advantages my country shall reap from the possession of such a magnificent dependency. The mere wealth I leave to others. Pardon my questions, but you are the first Englishman coming under my observation...' I hastened to assure him I was not in the least typical. 'If I were,' said I, 'I wouldn't be talking like this with you.' 'What you say is rather profound, and probably erroneous,' he said, with a laugh. 'Avoid irritation more than exposure to the sun. Adieu. How do you English say, eh? Good-bye. Ah! Good-bye. Adieu. In the tropics one must before everything keep calm.'... He lifted a warning forefinger.... 'Du calme, du calme.'” [x]

If you've written something and there's really nothing in it that a reader could look at and ask "Why?" of, then I think that's a sign that you've failed to include subtext and need to sharpen both your dialogue and descriptive writing skills.

Thuggish's picture
Thuggish from Vegas is reading Day of the Jackal August 17, 2016 - 9:19pm

Haaa ha! That was one of my favorite Sopranos moments...

Thinking about the "talking heads" thing... I find sometimes a first run through of something might be a lot of talking heads. But if you finish the back-and-forth and you've managed to move things along at least, that's good enough for a start. Go back and add the speach tags, the actions, change the phrasing, eliminate the maid and butler stuff...

What I'm getting at is don't feel bad when your first try isn't good. 



What in either the Sopranos snippet, or the Shakespeare one, would you point to and ask why?

bethwenn's picture
bethwenn from Milwaukee is reading The Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann August 18, 2016 - 11:25am

@Bethwenn-What in either the Sopranos snippet, or the Shakespeare one, would you point to and ask why?

I included those two as examples of good dialogue more so than examples of subtext. Subtext is the thing that I meant the "ask why" thing about. For either one of those conversations, though, you could still ask what is the point of having that light-hearted, amusing moment. I think that would be a much different thing from the letter for letter scrutiny of the description. When you're looking at a whole segment and asking why, the answers tend to be longer reaching and more general. You can also always ask, what is this character really saying/thinking/feeling, that they're not saying ostensibly? Most of the time, funny moments help the audience with comic relief and they help the writer to reveal character. In the Shakespeare one, Lucio is a super scum bag who dies at the end because he makes fun of the Duke to the Duke's face without knowing it. He is a terrible person and believes everyone else is terrible like him, and most of his jokes and rumors about people are about how terrible they are (I think thou never wast where grace was said). This is super witty, it reveals his character right from the start (he's a ballbuster), and foreshadows this character's fate. You could also certainly ask why the Biblical talk, and why soldiers? Also very relevant to the theme/meaning of Measure for Measure. In the Sopranos one, same thing. It's comic relief and it's revealing character. Paulie is incompetent, and he and Tony continue to drift further and further apart. Tony thinks he can count on Christopher because they're Family; Christopher's also just a total airhead without a moral compass. He doesn't even question for a second whether or not Paulie heard Tony right. Immediately, he goes, "His house looked like shit."

I guess, to be a good writer, it's helpful to also know how to be a good close-reader. It kinda helps me figure out how to imbue things with meaning and to know when I have opportunities to do so.

But as you said, these things are really hard to do in a first draft! Holy shit, that would be paralyzing. Definitely no one should feel bad if they haven't meticulously calculated every single thing and sculpted a finished Shakespearean play out of their dialogue by the end of the first rough draft.

Thuggish's picture
Thuggish from Vegas is reading Day of the Jackal August 18, 2016 - 9:58am

Okay, I see what you're saying.

Here's a fun question: when we're looking to hint at things that are unsaid in the character's mind, what's the hardest kind of character to do that with? My initial thought was that character who wears her heart on her sleeve. Then I thought, no, it's the opposite. But now I'm thinking it doesn't matter. People either have a lot of physical tells, or they have few if any. And not having a physical tell can be just as telling as tapping a foot nervously...