Let’s Talk!

“I want to talk to you.”
“Hi, Maggy. How are you?”
“Don’t ‘how are you’ me! I can’t believe that you came back to take away Cole’s land.”

Okay, I admit it. Dialogue is my favorite part in the book. I just love to hear people get into arguments, dodge questions, tell it like it is, and most of all, give each other the what for. Sometimes (and this is the schizophrenic writer side of me) I will even talk out loud as I’m writing dialogue, just to get the inflection. (Besides, I can say anything to myself and not get into trouble!)

But what is the secret to sizzling dialogue? What’s the difference between writing conversations that zing or mind-numbing dialogue that causes a book to end face down on the bureau collecting dust?

I think it’s all about adding a little GUSTO. That element that contains attitude and energy and courage and everything your character has inside of him. What do I mean? Let’s take a closer look:

Goals – every character has goals for the scene, as well as for the book. And good dialogue reveals those goals – not only in what is being said, but what is NOT being said. Don’t let your character lay it all on the line – make him hide his motives to everyone but the reader. In fact – don’t even let them answer the questions they’re asked. Dodge, be evasive, and most of all, never give the expected answer. Not if you don’t want readers to skip lines.

Useful information – Dialogue should add new information to the reader – but DON’T use it in place of backstory – eg: “Joe, I know that you’re the great uncle of my step-sister sally, and that you were having an affair secretly with my dad’s ex-wife who left her and became an alcoholic and eventfully died after going to rehab of liver disease, and that you now got your life together and became a Christian after attending a Billy Graham event in Minneapolis four years ago, after which you dedicated your life to helping orphans in Russia, but could you tell me why my step-sister won’t speak to my little brother, especially since they used to be so close, until he left for the navy two years ago and is in now in Navy Seal training because this was the dream of my father due to my grandfather who was one of the first SEALS in WW2?”

Make dialogue meaningful – don’t ask how they are, or how the family is, how the weather is (unless it’s a weather book). Cut right to the meat of the story with new information.

Stop Shouting! Don’t use Tom Swifts – ie: “Stop Shouting!” he yelled. “I’ll tell you all about it,” she explained. Use tags sparingly, and keep them to he said, she said, with the occasional, he murmured, or she whispered. In fact, body Language and Active Narrative in place of dialogue tags speaks as loudly as words, if not louder.

Here are two scenes, one with dialogue tags, one without, with just body language and narrative. Which one reveals more?

“I don’t care where you’re going,” Janice murmured. “Stay out all night if you want to. In fact, I hope you have a great time.”

“I don’t care where you’re going.” Janice barely looked up from her book as her sister stood by the door, question on her face. “Stay out all night if you want to.” She put a thumb over the paragraph to keep her place. Looked up and smiled, a real smile that filled her chest and made her sister smile back. “In fact, I hope you have a great time.”

Tell it like it is: Cut to the chase and say what your character REALLY wants to say, even if it is only to take away attention from his real agenda. The best dialogue is when you think, oh my, I can’t believe she (or he) had the guts to say that!

don’t Overuse Names! We as writers use them to help us remember who is who when we’re writing. But the reader doesn’t need them, so cut them out as you are editing. Ie – “Hey Sam, how are you? Hey Joe, I’m good, but my car is in the shop. Sam, your car is always in the shop. I know, Joe, but it’s got a bad starter. Have you ever thought of getting it fixed, Sam?”

Have fun with your dialogue. Let your characters say what they really want to say. And then, let the fireworks begin!

“It’s Noble land. But, Maggy, this isn’t about you.”
“This is completely about me, Nick. I know that! I’m not an idiot.”
“Of course you’re not. It’s just that . . . this is between me and Cole.”
“You think I don’t know why you left? Why you haven’t come back for ten years? You’re really a piece of work, Noble. Well, for your information, Cole is twice the man you are. He’s kind and honorable and patient, and he keeps his promises. He deserves that land your father gave him. And you, of all people, should know that.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about, Maggy, but you got this all wrong.”
“You turned out exactly as my mother predicted. I’m so sorry I didn’t listen to her sooner.”

Excerpted from Reclaiming Nick*

We’re going to do some house calls at MBT this week – send us a small dialogue passage you may be having trouble on, tell us the goals of the scene for the people who are talking, and MBT will see what we can do to help. Also – tomorrow well talk about INTERNAL monologue…to italic or not to italic, that is the question! And Thursday I’m going to give you my biggest secret to adding spice to your dialogue.

Of course those brave Voices who share their work on MBT will receive a preview copy of Wiser than Serpents… So – send us your troublespots! www.booktherapy@susanmaywarren.com

Let’s Talk!

Voice of Reason/Passion winners!

Hey all!

After five days of internet, uh…let’s call it CHAOS…I am finally able to get back online. Something involving a burned out router, and a settings glitch, and I don’t know…but WOW, did it bring out the VOICE OF PASSION as I stared at my “cannot connect to the internet” windows screen.

I wanted to hurl something at the monitor. But a smart, rational girl listening to her Voice of Reason husband, (who calmly reminds her that it’s NOT the new Dell Monitor’s fault) refrains from acting out. Even though the wildly frustrated girl wants to embrace her Voice of Passion and call up her computer guy and threaten bodily harm if he doesn’t show and I mean Right Now to fix it.

There you have it, the Voice of Reason and Voice of Passion dealing with the same emotion: Frustration.

Thanks for your patience! And for your excellent examples!

Here’s one from Jessica on the emotion of Loss or Grief:

The Voice of Passion is starting to lean toward Izumi, my heroine’s, brother-in-law. He has lost his brother and has a means and opportunity to find the murder. He is steadily climbing to the top of his influential mob family in Chicago.

(Susie: It seems to me that Izumi is following his thirst for Revenge (Passion) to satiate his grief)

The Voice of Reason is becoming Izumi’s sister. She is there to help her over the difficult bumps on the way to Izumi understanding widowhood. Actually it’s more like coping with widowhood.

(Susie: Izumi’s sister is a great voice of Reason. She balances out Izumi’s passionate voice and gives another look at how to deal with grief.)

Well done, Jessica!

Susan C had a great point to accompany her example:

“I think it’s important to balance the Voices of Reason and Passion–to, in Jungian terms, own our Shadows–in order to be fully realized people/characters, in real life and/or in our books. A character/person who doesn’t embrace her shadow will be one-dimensional. Not very interesting, in real life or in fiction.”

Hear, hear! Although secondary character can more fully illuminate the theme, the character should her his/her own voices of passion/reason so we can see their inner struggles.

Here’s her example of Vof P/R in secondary characters in her memoir in progress:

The Voice of Reason is sometimes my mother, sometimes my husband, sometimes my spiritual directors, sometimes, a best friend. And the Voice of Passion is also sometimes my best friend, and my friends in art groups and writing groups.

But the Voice of Oppression is an important third element in my book. It’s when the Voice of Reason becomes legalistic and over-bearing.

(Susie: A very good analysis on when the voice of Reason actually morphs into a negative….suggesting, perhaps that there ARE times when we should follow our voice of Passion instead. Which brings me to a good point…

I got a couple interesting emails from folks who had real trouble writing the voice of passion, whether in secondary characters or their POV character because they simply couldn’t respect someone who lives by their passions. Yeah – I’m hearing that, because who wants to live in middle school all the time? Or worse, a soap opera? However…one great plotting point for your character might be – when would his voice of Passion be the right choice? Isn’t that the message of so many romance novels, the reason that Darcy stands in the field, forcing himself to bare his heart to Elizabeth? )

Here’s another great one from Rachel S:

In A Time For War, my Russian set historical, the voice of reason is the hero’s friend Ivan. His quiet wisdom has saved Sergei from making stupid decisions many times.

The Voice of Passion is Sergei’s headstrong younger sister who refuses to live her life the way she’s expected to. That reckless passion leads her into marrying a man who will manipulate anyone to get what he wants, which is access to the family fortune.

Good job, Rachel!


Now…how to write Passion and Reason into your story. I got an excerpt from a Voices reader, and I took just a snippet to show how a person might cross over from reason to passion….


Early Tuesday morning, Ian hooked the wood trailer to the tractor and drove it up into the woods. As he loaded up the pine logs that he’d felled and trimmed the day before, it occurred to him that he could have taken the trailer with him in the first place and had the whole pile loaded, especially with his nephews there to help, but he wasn’t thinking that far ahead. At the time, he wasn’t thinking about anything but knocking something down. Repeatedly.
(Susie: see how his voice of passion is taking over? One idea for a great continuation of this scene would be for him to make a costly mistake while in the grips of passion…and have a voice of reason save him….just a therapist’s thought there…)

Thanks, Camille!

All four courageous voices will receive an advanced copy of Wiser than Serpents (hopefully in the next couple weeks!) Thank you for playing!

And now….if my internet cooperates, tomorrow we’ll start a discussion on…writing DIALOGUE.

“That’s right, good, nice, ATTRACTIVE, little computer, work with me here, I really didn’t mean all the nasty things I may have said to you…”

The Power of Point of View Part 2

Yesterday, we talked about Point of View, and started a discussion over on Voices. Be sure to let us know if you have any POV questions.

To recap, point of view refers to the character “telling” the story. We can only know what he/she sees, hears and feels.

If the story is being told in first person, then the protagonist does most of the talking. 🙂 A story can have more than one POV in first person, but the character voices must be unique.

In third person, the author has more opportunity to open up the story and allow the reader to see the action from different “angles.”

Talking to my Thomas Nelson editors once, I learned they like third person because of the versatility where sometimes first person can become claustrophobic.

I didn’t understand the claustrophobic part until I read a first person book where the story was so close to the protagonist, I felt locked in. I wanted to see beyond her, outside of her world. They way to accomplish this in first person is to 1. Add another pov, or 2. add dialog and scenes with other characters and broaden the landscape.

With multiple POV characters such as in a romance or suspense, how do you know which character should be on stage? Who do we need to hear from? Who will be telling the story?

One explanation I like is “write the scene from the pov of the character who has the most to lose.”

In Love Starts With Elle, I had a scene where a character returns to Elle’s life. Originally, I told the story in her point of view, but on rewrites, I changed to the heroes. Ultimately, he had the most to lose.

In the opening of a story, we need to see a scene or chapter from the point of view of the main players in order to get to know them, see how they might fit into the milieu of the story.

With Elle, I open with her point of view for a chapter, then change over to Heath’s. He enters the story to introduce himself and to set his story journey.

If the story is suspense, the author will introduce the villain’s point of view in limited scene to build drama.

Perhaps the antagonist will have a few scenes. What are they plotting? How does it advance the story?

Chose the point of view character that best moves the action forward. In romance, you want an equal amount of time “on stage” for the hero and heroine, though don’t feel overly bound. Again, who is best to tell the story.

If a scene is dragging or feels flat, change the point of view. Even introduce a new character. I’ve done for my first person books because the protagonist was too introspective. So, I added a town’s person or a friend she could talk to. It opened up the scene.

Writing is about craft, to be sure, but it should also be fun. Learn the rules, then go out and write your Breakout Novel!

The Power of Point of View Part 1

Continuing on our “Hero’s Journey” today we’re going to talk about Point of View. Why is point of view important, and how does it effectively help or harm our work?

Today I’m going to talk about “why” and tomorrow I’ll go into “how” of POV.

First, for any newbies, WELCOME to MyBookTherapy! Glad to have you. Join Voices and hang out on the forums for interactive writing help.

Second, the acronym POV stands for Point of View.

Point of View – what is it? It’s the view or perspective of the protagonist or secondary characters. Perhaps the story view of the hero or the heroine.

There are several types of point of view writing. Limited Third Person, Omniscient, Narrative, First Person, even Second Person.

Now, some of this goes to the authors voice. Sometimes authors write in third person or first person because it’s their best voice or the best voice for the story. Either way, there is a point of view character.

Limited third person is the most popular point of view used today. This means the story is being told through the eyes, ears and mouth of one character at a time. The writer may have multiple characters “telling” the story, but only one is on stage, speaking, at a time.

Let’s look at a romance. The hero and heroine usually have a point of view in the story. The author will break up the story into scenes, describing the plot and action from one or the other’s point of view.

Here’s an example:

Tom stood to watch the boats docking in the moor. The wind pressed the hem of his shirt against his abdomen as he raised his hand to shielded his eyes from the sun. How could he be like one of the boats, free and out on the open sea? His mouth watered at the idea. His heart beat as if he’d actually cut and run.

Behind him, Rachel waited, feeling alone and left out.

Now, what’s wrong with this example? I told you what BOTH Tom and Rachel were feeling. That’s called “head hopping.” BTW, I recently read a book review where the reviewer referred to changing POV as head hopping. That’s not head hopping.

Changing POV for a new scene is a legitimate and necessary story tool! BUT, telling the reader how two people in a scene both feel is not a legitimate story tool. It jerks the readers emotions. Who do I feel for in the scene above? Tom, who wants to be free of his burdens, or Rachel who feels left out and alone?

Let’s rewrite the scene from Tom’s POV:

Tom stood to watch the boats docking in the moor. The wind pressed the hem of his shirt against his abdomen as he raised his hand to shielded his eyes from the sun. How could he be like one of the boats, free and out on the open sea? His mouth watered at the idea. His heart beat as if he’d actually cut and run.

“Tom, what you are doing? Let’s go.”

Tom looked back at Rachel. She stood by the car, arms crossed, frown on her face. She was mad, he guessed, but for the moment, he didn’t care.

See the difference. We only see the world, even Rachel, from Tom’s point of view. The reader cannot know anything he does not. To show conflict with Rachel, I added dialog. She sounds impatient, doesn’t she?

When Tom looks around, we “read” her through his eyes. We get the idea all is not well between them. We are sympathetic toward Tom. Our emotions are with him Until, of course, we change to Rachel’s POV and we see her side of the story.

Omniscient POV is called “author intrusion.” This means the author has introduced facts and ideas the point of view character does not know. The classic omniscient infraction is: little did he know…

I like that one. Makes me laugh. Or, the author might pen, “Tomorrow, Rachel would wonder why she ever let Tom talk her into driving to the river.”

You can show your characters feelings and emotions in the story narrative, but also in dialog followed by an action tag. This is an effective way to “show” the scene.

“Tom, what are you doing? Let’s go.” Rachel hammered the hood of the car with her fist.

Oh, now we really see her ‘tude. So does Tom. We understand what he understands about Rachel.

First person POV should be clear. The story is being told through the “I” of the protagonist. Usually there is only one POV character in first person books because the voice and sound is so unique. But, you can tell a story with multiple POV characters if the voice is distinct enough.

Lisa Samson does it well.

I did had two first person POVs in Diva NashVegas. When I wrote the hero, Scott, I tried really hard to make him sound like a dude, very distinct from my heroine, Aubrey.

A clear point of view character in each scene is the key to building a strong story with solid writing. You can head hop if you want and tell us what every one including the kitchen sink is feeling or thinking, but it’s a sure sign of lazy writing. You’ll not get far.

Tomorrow, we’re going to talk about choosing your POV character and building scenes from more than one point of view.

Hope over to Voice for more discussion.