Description Slows Down the Story…or Does It?

The common argument is, “Dialogue is quick while description can slow down a story.” Is this true in regards to description? Yes and no. It depends on the type of description. If the description is body language, this can actually give the story a good, steady pace without interrupting the flow. If the description is narrative, there is potential of slowing the story. Let’s break each of these down, but keep in mind that at this time we are not discussing description that sets the scene or describes a character.

Body language is important to add immediate depth to a character, but some writers hesitate employing it. Yes, too much body language has the ability to slow down a scene, but if you use the proper expressions, it can actually add to the action. Take a look at the following examples:

Dialogue tag without body language:

Are you sure they’re not following us?” Jason asked.

Why do you have to question everything I say?” William said. “Of course I’m sure. Now this way!”

Dialogue tag with body language:

Are you sure they’re not following us?” Jason asked as they ran through the darkened corridors.

Why do you have to question everything I say?” William said glaring at his friend. “Of course I’m sure. Now this way!”

Body language without dialogue tags:

Are you sure they’re not following us?” Jason darted a quick look over his shoulder once more time as he raced through the darkened corridors with William.

Why do you have to question everything I say?” William glared at him but then jutted his chin ahead as he kept running. “Of course I’m sure.” He took a sharp right and gestured for Jason to follow. “Now this way!”

Now, all three of these methods are valid ways to write. The first one is the bare minimum. You see what’s said and who’s saying it, but that’s it. It’s pretty fast-paced. The second one has a bit more. You also see what’s said, who said it, and a bit of what they’re doing. In the third one, you see what’s said, and you know who said it based on whose body language is attached to the dialogue. In addition, you get more action because there’s more shown between “Of course I’m sure,” and “Now this way.” Yes, there’s more to read, but did it slow down the action or add to the scene?

You see, the way body language can slow the pace is if you try to show every tiny expression of a character and draw out emotion. For instance, the sentence with Jason could have read like this:

“Are you sure they’re not following us?” Jason panted as he darted a quick look over his shoulder while he ran with William. His lungs hurt from running, but his heart pounded in his ears telling not to stop, not to give up. He had to keep going even though he had no idea where William was leading him. Did William really know where they were going? Or was he leading him into a trap? Jason shook his head as these doubts came to mind. William was his friend. He wouldn’t betray him like that.

All right, all that description slowed down the pace. Why? Imagine it unfold like a movie, and these two guys are running down the hall full of fright, and then Jason looks over his shoulder. Suddenly everything is in super-slow motion as all these thoughts and doubts creep into his mind. That’s how it feels to me because in my mind I know in this situation it won’t take William that long to reply to Jason. This happens because narrative description was added to the scene. This is when the character’s thoughts are shown to the reader, and this has the potential to slow down the scene because it takes time to process thoughts.

Should the writing in that paragraph I showed above be avoided? No, not always. It entirely depends on the moment in the story. If it’s a slower scene with a lot of time to contemplate without concern of conversation, then have the character get lost in thought by using narrative description. However, if a character does in the middle of a conversation, the reader may forget what was said before all the thoughts bombarded them, so when the conversation continues, the reader have to backtrack again to refresh their memory. Something like this:

So how do you know Silas?” Chandler raised his brows as he lowered himself into the seat across from Demetrius.

The mention of his old friend caused Demetrius to frown a little. Their history was a long one. Both of them had been orphans and ended up in the same foster family home with several other children. Lots of the children enjoyed teasing and taunting Silas because he wasn’t a big kid but rather scrawny. One day Demetrius made it his personal mission to be Silas’ body guard. The two became fast friends and remained friends even after both of them were adopted into separate families. They ended up going to the same college, but their interests were vastly different. Demetrius enjoyed sports and girls while Silas thrived on intellectual talk and politics.

When the war came, the two friends found themselves on opposite sides—Demetrius siding with the Free Worlds while Silas took the side of the Galactic Government. For the longest time, Demetrius wanted nothing more than to track down his own friend and hammer some sense into him, but somehow throughout the entire war, the two of them never crossed paths. Now that was about to change. “I grew up with him.” Demetrius nodded to Chandler.

Now, I don’t know about you, but reading all that description of his past friendship with Silas, I get lost in the past and memories that I forget there was a conversation occurring at this point in the story or what was said to prompt this flashback from Demetrius. I have to pause for half a second to remember the question before moving on. Sometimes I can’t remember, so I have to go back a few paragraphs to find the last piece of dialogue then skip all the description and tie it in with the response to see the flow of the conversation.

Is there a better way to do this? There are two ways you could smooth out the transition. First, you can have the first character yank the second character out of his thoughts and repeat the question. It would look something like this:

When the war came, the two friends found themselves on opposite sides—Demetrius siding with the Free Worlds while Silas took the side of the Galactic Government. For the longest time, Demetrius wanted nothing more than to track down his own friend and hammer some sense into him, but somehow throughout the entire war, the two of them never crossed paths. Now that was about to change.

Demetrius?” Chandler snapped his fingers in front of Demetrius’ face, jerking him out of his thoughts. Seeing he had his attention once more, Chandler frowned. “I ask you how you knew Silas, and you go all zoned-out. You all right, man?”

Yeah.” Demetrius nodded. “I’m fine. Sorry, was thinking.”

So how do you know Silas?”

Demetrius shrugged as he reached for his beer. “I grew up with him.”

It’s okay to have your characters get lost in thought and brought back abruptly. That’s realistic and makes them more human, but be careful how often you use this method. It can get tiresome after a few times.

However, another way could be having the character recall the question at the end and then answer it:

When the war came, the two friends found themselves on opposite sides—Demetrius siding with the Free Worlds while Silas took the side of the Galactic Government. For the longest time, Demetrius wanted nothing more than to track down his own friend and hammer some sense into him, but somehow throughout the entire war, the two of them never crossed paths. Now that was about to change.

But why was he thinking about Silas now? Demetrius furrowed his brows then looked up at Chandler and recalled how Chandler had asked him how he knew Silas. Nodding, Demetrius reached for his beer on the table. “I grew up with him.”

The key to remember with any description is: Is the placement logical in the sense of timing? Then you need to make sure the transition is smooth. If you, the author, need a reminder as to where the conversation or scene was going before the description detour, your readers might need a similar reminder, and you’d want to weave one in without being too obvious.

So yes, narrative description can slow down a scene, but you can use this to your advantage. At the same time body language can add to the action, but too much body language that includes every little micro-expression might slow down the story. It’s a fine balance and something to keep in the forefront of your mind as you write. However, don’t obsess over it. Trust the story and your own writing ability. Remember, you can always go back and revise.

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Determine Your Writing Goals

Schedule your writing. Do I mean select a specific time of day to write? Yes and no. Yes, but only in the case that you can write that way, but no, in case you prefer more flexibility regarding your writing. So what do I mean? There are twelve months in a year. January is almost complete, but what would you like to see yourself accomplish regarding your writing goals in the month of February? What about March? How long does it take you to complete writing the first draft of your novel?

Most people just write. Sure, they have a goal in mind—finish this story and publish it…someday. Then Writer’s Block hits, and it really delays the writing process. However, if you lay your goals out for the year, you’ll have more of an incentive to press on and meet your deadlines. You’ll know if you don’t finish this story by this specific month, then you won’t be able to start on revising and editing it, and if you don’t get through that by this other date, you won’t be able to send out query letters or self-publish your work at the appointed time.

But how do you know when you’ll be finished writing the book? Well, everyone is different. Some people write daily while others don’t. You will have to determine the best way for you to write. The important thing is to set realistic goals and keep them. One way you can do this is by knowing how much you write in certain increments such as the following:

  • How much can you write in 15 minutes?
  • How much can you write in an hour?
  • How long does it take you to complete the first draft of a novel?
  • How long does it take you to revise a draft?
  • How long does it take you to edit a draft?
  • How long does it take you to proofread a draft?
  • How many revisions must you complete before being satisfied with your novel? (This question will likely not have a fixed number because each novel will be different. However, it is still something you should keep in mind.)
  • If you’re seeking traditional publishing or an agent, what is the common waiting time to get a response?
  • If you’re self-publishing and formatting your own work, how long does it take you to format a book?
  • If you’re having other people beta read, proof, or edit your novel, how long does it take them to get back to you?

Now, the answer to every question listed above is subject to change due to numerous circumstances (what you’re working on, who you’re working with, and just plain Real Life getting in the way). Nevertheless, if you can list a tentative answer, it will give you a general idea of how long it’ll take you to reach your goal. With that in mind, you can set your goals.

For example, here are my answers to some of the questions:

How much can you write in 15 minutes? 500 words.

How much can you write in an hour? 2,000 words.

How long does it take you to complete the first draft of a novel? 3-6 months.

How long does it take you to revise a draft? 1 week/1 month.

How long does it take you to edit a draft? 1 week/1 month.

How long does it take you to proofread a draft? 1 week/1 month.

How many revisions must you complete before being satisfied with your novel? (This question will likely not have a fixed number because each novel will be different. However, it is still something you should keep in mind.) At least 5 revisions.

If you’re having other people beta read, proof, or edit your novel, how long does it take them to get back to you? At least two weeks but maybe month.

Knowing this information, I can plot my approach to the writing year. I’m the kind of person who must write daily, and in my mind revision, editing, proofreading, and researching the market doesn’t qualify as ‘writing’. Revision might be the only exception especially if there are major revisions necessary where I have to add an entirely new chapter or section to a chapter. In that case, I am writing. However, with that aside, I like to write in addition to all my other work. Why? So I can constantly have something to publish. In my mind, it looks something like this:

Write Book 1

Write Book 2, revise/edit/proof Book 1

Write Book 3, revise/edit/proof Book 2, publish Book 1

And so forth.

Is this a perfect system? No, because you can’t predict the exact timing of everything, and Real Life just happens, but this is how I work.

In other words, if you really want to become a published author, you have to plan for it. Not only do you have to set the goals, but you also have to determine the necessary steps to reach that goal. Anyone can say, “I want to publish a book one day!” Yet it takes a disciplined writer to say, “I’m going to publish my book at this date, and this is how I’m going to do it…and here’s Plan B, Plan C, and Plan D if Plan A doesn’t work.” So try to plan your writing year.

Also, if you feel as if you’re nowhere near being ready to be published because you’re not confident in your skills handling different elements of writing, it might be a good idea to schedule your year by month and what elements you want to master. For instance, you could say, “In February, I really want to focus on writing good descriptions.” And in March you could say, “I want to focus on dialogue.” Or it could be plot, strong characterization, pacing of a story—whatever you want. Now, not every element requires a month to master it. It may take less than a month or more than a month. You would have to measure the time according to your own pace.

Sometimes a writing mentor can help keep you lay out your goals and keep you on track. If you’re interested in such a mentor, feel free to join my Facebook group and let me know: https://www.facebook.com/groups/AuthorKellyBlanchard/ I mentor writers beyond blog posts and would love to interact with more of my readers and help you reach your writing goals.

Summary of Former Blog Posts

Today’s blog post is going to be a recap of all my previous posts with links to each one. People ask me about specific elements of writing, and I realize I’ve already discussed those elements, so I direct them to that post. Here’s a chance for everyone (including myself) to get caught up on the different topics I’ve covered. I may do these kinds of posts periodically to keep everything in perspective.

Post 1: Let’s Talk About Telling – This post discusses what exactly ‘telling’, so it’s easier to identify in your own writing in order to help you ‘show’ better.

Post 2: How ‘Said’ is Redundant – The common dialogue tag is ‘said’, but due to punctuation, it is also redundant and lends itself to telling rather than showing.

Post 3: More on Dialogue Tags – Dialogue tags have their place in writing, but these days they are often used as a cheap way for the writer to write a conversation between characters without putting much effort into it. However, the writing can be stronger and much more vivid by using body language in place of the tags.

Post 4: The Adverse Adverb – Stephen King says, “The road to hell is paved with adverbs.” While I wouldn’t go that far, most of the time adverbs only weaken the structure of a sentence and the writing. They can be replaced by more concrete words therefore creating a stronger experience for the readers.

Post 5: The Playground Experience – In order to know anything, you have to learn about it. Sometimes you learn the hard way, but sometimes your learning experience can be fun. The ‘Playground Experience’ is writing stuff that you never intend to publish only because you’re writing it for the practice.

Post 6: Practice Makes Perfect and then Publication – With writing, we’re not immediate masters of the craft, and we need to recognize that. Instead, we need to take the time to stretch ourselves in writing different things in order to learn this or that element of writing rather than the sole purpose of writing for publication.

Post 7: The Personality of Writing – If you ignore your writing obligations or skills, writing will give you the cold shoulder when you turn back to it. The longer you go on ignoring it, the harder it will be to write when you finally decide to pick up the pen. Is it worth it? Absolutely. The persona of writing simply wants to make sure you have the commitment to sit down and write before it floods you with ideas and inspiration.

Post 8: Paint Pictures With Words – ‘Show, don’t tell’ is the common rule among writers, but are you supposed to show every single detail?? No, and this post shows you how to determine what to include in description and what you could leave out.

Post 9: Movement in Description – There should be motion in the words that describe the scene. To me, the scenes play out like a movie scene, and the camera is always moving—in a logical manner that doesn’t sicken the viewers. The description of writing should reflect that, but how? This post shows.

Post 10: Shifting Points of View (POV) – Writers are commonly encouraged not to switch POV in the middle of a scene. While I see their point, I disagree. Multiple POV’s in the same scene takes practice to master, but it must be practiced (and therefore allowed) in order to master. Once this tool has been well-refined, it can show the scene in ways that limited POV cannot, and this broadens the horizon of the story.

Post 11: The Key to Dialogue: Listening – A lot of people struggle to write dialogue. One way to overcome this is to listen to others talk. As writers we tend to get caught up in our own thoughts and not pay attention to what is being said around us, but we write about people, so we should take the time to stop and watch them and listen to them. Pay attention to their speech pattern, choice of words, etc.

Post 12: Speaking of Dialogue – There are some elements of speaking which do not transfer well in writing, and this limits your audience. We discuss it in this post.

Post 13: Necessary Narration – ‘Narration’ can be another word for ‘telling’, and because of this, a lot of people won’t talk about it since you’re not supposed to ‘tell’. However, narration is important. Through this tool, we can get inside our characters’ minds, feel their emotions, and relate to them. The key is to balance the ‘telling’ with the ‘showing’.

Post 14: The Origin of the Narrative – Most writers begin their writing career as a child writing in their diary. This means they start writing in ‘first person’, and when they finally begin writing actual stories, those stories tend to be in ‘first person’ as well. Eventually they may dabble in ‘third person’ writing or may opt to stay with ‘first person’. All of this determines the narrative of the story.

Post 15: Punctuation of Cinemagraphic Writing – How should punctuation be used today? The semicolon is losing ground. The ellipsis should definitely be limited as should the colon. The one that’s gaining more ground surprisingly is the dash, and this post goes into more detail in it.

Post 16: Determining the Person – Should your story be written in first person, second person, or third person? Here we discuss the pros and cons of each one.

Post 17: Overview of the Different Tenses – Usually most writing is done in ‘past tense’, but it is becoming more and more common for stories to be written in ‘present tense’. However, there are more tenses than merely ‘past’ and ‘present’, and this post discusses them.

Post 18: Flashbacks and Tenses – Flashbacks are tricky, but with the proper use of tenses, the transition between past and present events can be smoother.

Post 19: Author-Based Characters – Due to the fact that most writers begin by writing in their journals then transfer over to story writing, they usually write the main character as themselves. This is dangerous because readers can sense it, and it will turn the readers away from the story.

Post 20: Author/Character Relationship – There are two kinds of authors: Interactive and Static. Interactive authors are constantly communicating with their characters throughout the process of writing, but Static authors are set in their way of how they’re going to write, and the characters must do their will.

Post 21: Describing Your Character Upon Introduction – When your character is first seen in the story, natural instinct is to pause the flow of narration to give a full description of your character. This disrupts the story and can be jarring to your readers. There is a smoother way to bring your character to life.

Post 22: Notice What You Notice – In order to write description of a scene better, it’s important to recognize for yourself what you notice when you walk into a room. This helps you write more realistically.

Post 23: Immortal Words – Our words have a lasting effect, especially those printed on paper. Yes, there are ways such words could be destroyed, but if preserved, they could essentially last forever. It’s important remember the far-reaching effect your story may have on future generations.

Post 24: Plot: The Spine of the Story – What is the story about? Sure, we can have fantastic characters, but if we don’t have an actual plot to follow, the story won’t be memorable.

Post 25: Different Kinds of Outlines – Outlining a story is one way to stayed organized and motivated to write, but there are different approaches to outlines.

Post 26: Timeline Outline – This specific outline draws everything on a horizontal line rather than vertical. It helps keep dates straight as well as what’s happening where when there are multiple plots to a story.

Post 27: When TO Use an Outline – Outlining isn’t for every writer, so there is a time to outline and a time not to use an outline. This post discusses the proper time when to use this tool.

Post 28: When NOT To Use An Outline – A continuation from the previous post, this one focuses on the other side. It discusses when it’s proper not to use an outline.

Post 29: When To Step OFF An Outline – You might have completely outlined your story, but then the story decides to change direction on you. This is all right, and you should heed the direction of the story even through it takes you off the outline you had planned.

Post 30: Production Writer’s Block – Unofficially there are two kinds of Writer’s Block, and here we discuss the first kind which is ‘Production Writer’s Block’. It can also be described as ‘In-Progress’ writer’s block. It’s when you’re working on a story and hit a brick wall.

Post 31: New Project Writer’s Block – The second unofficial Writer’s Block is when you’ve finished your story and now aren’t sure what to write next.

Post 32: Always Try To Write Your Best – There are a lot of influences out there in the world, and there’s a lot of pressure of how you should conform your writing to what’s acceptable and marketable. However, you should only write the best you can at that time in your life. Always try to sharpen your skill. As time goes on, you’ll look back with fresh eyes, and you won’t be happy with what you wrote, but at that time you wrote the best you could write.

Post 33: A Method of Revision – When you go back to your old work and decide to finally do something with it, the work will need some polishing up, and the first thing you need to do is revise it. This post discusses an approach to revision to help familiarize you with the process.

Post 34: Steps To Editing – The next step of polishing your work is to edit it. This post goes into detail of how to approach editing.

Post 35: An Approach to Proofreading – The final step of polishing your work is proofreading, and this post shows how proofreading differs from editing and gives a warning that most writers don’t consider when they’re polishing their work.

Post 36: The Etiquette of Readers Part 1: Casual Reader – Sometimes we all need encouragement and motivation. What we really need is a cheerleader. We don’t need them to criticize us when we make a mistake but to cheer us to get back up and keep going. This is where the Casual Reader comes into play.

Post 37: The Etiquette of the Reader Part 2: Beta Reader – Unlike the Casual Reader, it is the Beta Reader’s job to critique our work. It’s not fun, but it’s an important step.

Post 38: Emotions: Let Your Characters Feel – Emotions are fundamental to human life, to our experiences, and how we react. Due to its great importance in real life, emotions shouldn’t be skimmed over in significant scenes of our stories. It might make us feel uncomfortable, but we need to let our characters feel.

Now we are entirely up-to-date.  I have a lot more material to cover, but you’ll just have to wait until next week to see what will be discussed next. Thank you for your patience. See you then!

Steps to Editing

Last week we discussed revision, so today’s blog post is covering editing. Revise first then edit because in revision you may add entire scenes or completely delete some, and if you edit first, you’ll be wasting your time and have to do it over again.

By now you should have already revised a few times, and you’ve reread your manuscript multiple times. You’re likely tired of looking at it and can’t find anything wrong with it, but you know it’s not perfect. Now you think fresh eyes should look at it, so you call for a beta reader or ask someone you trust to be honest and has a good grasp on English to read it for you and give you feed back. However, there’s something you need to do before sending it to anyone.

One of the last things I said about revision was making sure every scene and chapter is absolutely necessary for the story and advances the plot. Now, this is where revision and editing almost seem to be one and the same. Once you’ve determined that every chapter you have in your story is necessary, it’s time to break it down even further. Is every paragraph necessary? Is every sentence essential? Is every word crucial? You should know why each word is included in the story. If you can take it out and the story still makes sense, then it’s insignificant to the overall story and likely redundant.

Determining this prior to allowing anyone to see the story means you have a firm grasp as to why this happened and not that. Once I let someone read a story of mine, and she came to a part when Lorrek revealed how he knew Mordora’s secret. My beta reader said the reader should see Mordora’s surprise in that moment, and it would have been an easy fix, but I explained the pace of the story and how that moment was focused on Lorrek—not Mordora. Lorrek already knew she would be surprised, so he didn’t have to see it, and he was giving her a chance to recover before turning around to face her. The reader catches all this by his attitude but can tell by Mordora’s guarded responses that she was unnerved but tried to pretend otherwise. This is how I wanted the scene to unfold, and my beta reader backed down when I explained to her the fundamentals of that moment. I have found most people will back down when they realize you have thoroughly thought through everything. Does this mean you don’t ever need to consider what they say? No. Always consider what anyone says because it might be a better idea, but if you disagree with the idea, then at least you know where you can stand. Some people might insist you change it to their preference, but be wary of those people.

So before you let anyone read it, you need to know why you wrote everything you did—everything. Why is this editing and not revision? Because revision works more on a larger scale whereas editing is more like looking at your story through a microscope. However, as I said, this is where the two stages collide. Some may call it revision, others might say it’s editing, but it’s the transition process to stricter editing.

Now, one more thing you should do prior to letting new eyes see your story. Go back through it and view the sentence structure with critical eyes. Are you using proper grammar and punctuation? If there are grammar and punctuation rules you don’t fully grasp, now is a good time to master those by either looking it up online or contacting those who know the rules and explain them well enough. This could be a family member, a friend, or online writing friend, or writing group. There is no shame in asking for clarification. We live in the era of the Internet, and that is a wonderful tool. Writers should be supportive of one another and helpful, so if you encounter unpleasant responses and are discouraged and intimidated, I’m sorry for experience. Just know no all writers are like that.

So go back through your story and look at grammar and punctuation and any form of redundancy you might find. You want your writing to be tight. For instance, writing ‘young boy’ is redundant because boys are always young. Or even ‘looked up at the sky’ is repetitive because the sky is always ‘up’—unless you’re upside down in which case it’s good to clarify. Or ‘black darkness’—darkness is always black. To write more concisely, consider purchasing the book ‘Write Tight’ by William Brohaugh, which you can purchase on Amazon here. It’s an easy read and a short book, and at the end of the book it contains a list of redundant phrases that will make you laugh because it’s common sense if you really think about it.

With editing, remember, regard each paragraph, sentence, and word, and make sure they are absolutely necessary to the story. Then dig deeper to consider your use of grammar, punctuation, as well as locating any redundancy in your story. And yes, you may go back and forth between editing and revising because you might have realized during the editing process that you have a massive plot hole you need to fix, so you shift gears and revise. That is all right.

Also, every time you are changing the draft drastically, create a new document, and copy and paste your manuscript, and move everything to that new document. This way you don’t lose anything you might like in the original as you’re redoing things.

NOTE: As you’re going through all of this so very carefully, keep in mind the dialogue is an entirely separate creature. Punctuation might be different there, and word usage might be repetitive or grammatically wrong because that is how the character might speak. Am I justifying people speaking wrong? No—I hate it when I hear it, but unless you have a character who can correct the verbally erring character, if that’s how the character speaks, then you might have to let it go. Simply make sure it’s because the speech pattern of that character rather than an error on your part.

Also, you might absolutely love what you’ve written and think it’s perfect, and therefore you can justify everything you’ve written, but keep an open mind. In another post I will go into more detail of the etiquette of beta reading and receiving feedback and how to apply it to your work, but for now I wanted to make clear that I am not promoting hardheadedness and absolute stubbornness when multiple people tell the same writer there is something wrong with their story. If that many people say the same thing (howbeit vaguely at times), you should seriously consider what they’re saying—not because everyone’s ganging up on you, but because there is something wrong that even they might not be able to put their finger on but can sense. It is your job to knuckle down and be objective as you try to determine the source of the problem.

Next week we’ll discuss an approach to proofreading.

Always Try To Write Your Best

I’ve discovered one unchanging fact about writing: it gets more fun the more you do it. Every time you write, it should be your best piece. You should only ever have one worry as you write it, “How am I ever going to top this?” But as quickly as you think that, dismiss it and keep on writing—laugh like a manic as you word the perfect lines and twist the events flawless to your plan.

If you give it your all, it won’t let you down. It will keep you engaged, and it will amaze you—if only given the chance.

I’ve heard writers say how it’s their goal in life to write ‘this specific story’ and that’s it. Once they write it, they would have reached their lifelong goal and their calling as a writer is over. Some reason it reminds me a lot of marriage—some people think all will be perfect and complete once they’re married, and they live their entire single life trying to find The One, and once they’re married they’re left holding the pieces and having no clue what to do from there.

To those writers to tell me that, I look at them and think, “They won’t influence the world of writing much. Their single book probably won’t stand the test of time. It’ll be lost and forgotten in the volumes and volumes of books.” This is not a concern of mine. If that is all they wish to do, that’s their business.

However, if you long to be a real writer—one who turns out lots of books every year—you need to think differently. View every book as an opportunity to get better at some aspect of writing.

For me, for the longest time I wanted to perfect a readable and enjoyable form of description and dialogue. Once I did that, I wanted to capture the essence of a unique character and portray them accurately on paper. More recently I’ve been trying to perfect the antagonist and make them realistic so that the reader can sympathize with them and maybe even view them as the protagonist. Another time I decided to see what happens with a huge cast of characters without any getting cast aside.

Sure, I haven’t perfected all of it, but because I write with that in mind rather than trying to write the most epic story of all times, the story always outdoes itself, and I’m always left to wonder, “How am I ever going to top this?” But I don’t worry about it. I just keep writing, and it keeps surprising me.

Always try to write the best you can, but keep in mind that the best will not be perfect (revision and editing are mandatory). Once you finish it then go back to it, you might groan and say, “I can’t believe I wrote that!” However, at that specific time in your life, with everything you were encountering outside of writing, it was truly the best you could have written. So keep that in mind, and do the best you can. Always try to keep writing fun for yourself because if it’s fun for you, it’ll be fun for your readers to read. 

Speaking of Dialogue…

In my previous post I hinted at a time in your writing when all your characters start to sound the same, but I also said there was a solution for it. Let’s discuss that in this post.

What do you do when your characters lack their own voice? First, recognize the truth: they sound like one another because they sound like you, and you are only one person. However, as I said before, they aren’t you, so they should have their own voice.

Give them distinct personalities and habits. How do they emotionally react to a situation? That will weigh on what they say. Too often we make the characters say something because it’s a common response, but if they just remained silent for that moment, it would speak volumes of their personality.

For instance, recently in my medieval fantasy story, I had a moment where two characters (Conrad and Irene) were talking until they’re interrupted by commotion outside the room. Conrad could have gone out there and demanded, “What is the meaning of this?” but I realized that’s almost a cliché response. I wanted to be different. Instead, I opted for his mere, intimidating presence to silence commotion as he marched up to them. He didn’t need to demand an explanation. It was obvious by his disapproving stare. Yes, that’s not exactly dialogue, but it’s an approach to consider. Maybe in a specific moment, your character doesn’t need to say anything, and that’s what makes him or her unique.

One way to give characters distinct personalities is by borrowing ideas from TV shows or films. Like a character? Study their personality and find out why you like him. Then use those specific elements and apply them to your own character, and sometimes you can blend elements from different characters into one for yourself. For instance, Richard Castle in the TV show ‘Castle’. His ability to come up with wild theories on the fly is kinda cool. Then you have Cal Lightman from ‘Lie To Me’, and his flamboyant way of entering any room—also his ability to read people so thoroughly is remarkable. Put all those traits into one character, and you have something unique. Like Nikita’s determination and fighting streak, but like Carrie’s (from the show ‘Unforgettable’) superb memory and habit of speaking with a southern accent when she’s irritated? Blend it together.

Once characters are given traits unique to themselves, they start speaking, and you have listen. If you listen, you’ll be able to hear their voice.

Now, I will briefly touch upon using dialect and cursing in writing because it applies to dialogue. “Write what you hear,” is the most popular piece of advice regarding dialogue, and this is true. You have the right to write dialogue however you’d like and how your character wants to speak, but beware; if your dialogue is full of slang and cursing, you are automatically limiting your audience. Is that wrong? No. It’s entirely up to you.

When you use dialect in conversations, you take the risk of confusing the readers. If I were to write, “Ah ain’t ‘now no’hin’ that y’all’s talkin’ ‘bout!” It might take a second or two before you translate the sentence as “I don’t know anything that you’re talking about.” The first version might be completely in character and fits right in with a wild west story, but readers aren’t naturally drawn to characters they can’t understand. You can counter this by using body language because that is the universal language:

I don’t know anything that you’re talking about!” Susan shoved Joseph away from holding her back and marched up Sheriff Marcus. Though he towered over her, she jabbed a finger at his chest…

The same idea goes with using cuss words in dialogue. Yes, that’s common language and it’s heard every day everywhere you go and whenever you turn on the radio or the TV. However, keep in mind that writing is a means of communication, and cuss words are simply an empty expression. Yes, they are used for emphasis, but when you look at the skeleton of the sentence, they take up space and are unnecessary. “But my characters curse all the time!” There are ways around it such as simply writing ‘he cursed’—don’t need to go into detail because that only wastes time and space; it is something readers might skip over because they don’t have time for such filthy language. Once a reader begins to skip passages in a book, they will continue to skip until it’s the end of the book, and they’ll walk away with one impression, “Well, that book had a lot of cursing in it.” They won’t remember the story or the character or the plot because the dialogue got in the way.

Am I completely forbidding cursing? By now you should know I don’t make things that easy. Whether or not you include cursing in your writing is entirely up to you, but as always, you must know what you’re writing and why you’re writing it. Be aware of each word. If the word is unnecessary, eliminate it.

This much on dialogue then. Next, we will discuss narration—the part of the story where you actually tell rather than show.