Elements of a Great Story – Dialogue

This month on Aussie Owned and Read we’re looking at the elements of a great story, and to help me write about crafting good dialogue, I’m lucky enough to interview fiction dialogue expert Professor S. M. Artmouth, known best for his work at the University of Wordoming.

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Photo by Leonardo Valente via Pixabay

‘Professor Artmouth, welcome to Aussie Owned and Read.’ I give the professor a big AO&R smile. ‘It’s an absolute pleasure to have you here.’

He leans back in his chair and nods. ‘I’m sure it is.’

I blink, then glance down at my notes before the man catches me staring at him open-mouthed. Surely he didn’t just say that?

I clear my throat. ‘You’ve been teaching fiction writing for some time now, and your area of expertise is dialogue. What would you say is the first thing a writer should keep in mind when trying to write good dialogue?’

‘That, Ms … Sorry, what was your name again?’ The man’s bushy brows scrunch above his thin-rimmed glasses.

‘Colmer. Kat Colmer.’

‘Yes, yes.” He waves away my answer like I’d interrupted him. ‘A writer must always ask if their dialogue is essential to the story. It must either advance the plot, reveal character, or reflect theme. If it does none of these, it’s a waste of space and must be done away with.’ Another wave of the hand. Maybe he’s swatting away redundant bits of dialogue?

I shift back a little in my chair so he doesn’t accidentally smack me in the nose. ‘What’s a mistake you see beginner writers make too often?’ I ask.

Professor Artmouth rests his elbows on the arms of his chair and steeples his fingers. The thoughtful contemplation he forces across his face is so comical, it takes everything I have not to laugh.

One of the most repeated mistakes I see in the fiction of unseasoned writers is the misuse of dialogue as a way to dump information on the reader. It may not be something that you, a recently published author with no formal education in creative writing, may easily identify in a manuscript. However, someone like myself, a highly esteemed professor of the literary arts, one who presents with a distinct air of intellect and authority as well as above average good looks, can spot a dialogue information dump from the other side of the country.’ He angles his head and gives me a pitying look. ‘Dialogue should never be used to blatantly give the reader information. Any attempt at exposition in dialogue should be in the context of confrontation. Good dialogue simply must include conflict of some sort.’

I grip my question sheet tighter in an attempt to avoid showing this douche of a man a conflict of a very different kind. ‘No gratuitous information dumps. Got it.’ I shift in my chair. Time for another question. ‘What advice would you give writers when it comes to crafting dialogue that’s distinctive to a particular character?’

‘Careful selection of vocabulary,’ he says, adjusting the cuff of his badly ironed shirt.

‘And by that you mean…’

‘By that I mean the vocabulary should fit the character, Ms Colman.’

My smile is forced. ‘It’s Colmer.’

‘Yes, yes.’ Again with the hand wave. ‘Now, let me illustrate. If, for example, you were to base a character on me, you’d want to use complex and elevated vocabulary to make sure the reader understood my character came from the upper class and was highly educated.’

I look down at my notes. ‘And highly conceited.’

‘Excuse me?’

I cough. ‘I said, could you please repeat that?’

Artmouth frowns, but he loves the sound of his own voice too much to stop talking. ‘The vocabulary must be right for the character, is what I said.’

‘So we should be realistic in how we represent characters and their speech when writing dialogue.’

‘Yes and no.’ No hand wave this time. Just a smug smile as he leans back in his chair and waits for me to ask him to explain.

I take a slow breath. ‘Please elaborate.’

‘I believe it was Hitchcock who said that great story is life with the boring bits taken out. So it is with great dialogue. We want to give the illusion of real life dialogue with all the mundane parts removed. No one wants to read umms and ahhs after every third word. And don’t get me started on overuse of dialect and colloquialism.’ He rolls his eyes, and a wave of pity for his creative writing students rolls through me.

‘Last question,’ —because I’m so over this interview— ‘I’ve heard it said that good dialogue should be working double duty. What exactly does this mean?’

‘Ah, good question, Ms Colman.’

‘It’s Colmer.’

He ignores me. At least there’s no dismissive hand wav— Wait. There it is.

‘Good dialogue should strive to include …’ Fart— I mean, Artmouth leans forward conspiratorially, like what he’s about to divulge is the holy grail of dialogue writing, ‘…subtext,’ he finally says, and waits for me to be duly impressed. My lack of awe sends him slumping back against his chair. ‘What I mean is, what isn’t said is just as important, if not more so, than what is being said.’

I nod.

So does he.

The air between us bulges with subtext that isn’t fit for polite conversation.

‘Professor Artmouth, it’s been an experience.’ I offer him my hand, but — surprise, surprise — he waves it away.

‘Yes, yes. I’m certain it has been.’ And with that, Professor S. M. Artmouth proceeds out of the room, followed closely by his overinflated self importance.

 

For more information on dialogue in fiction without the need to interview pompous fictitious writing professors, I recommend James Scott Bell’s Revision and Self-Editing for Publication. He’s got a fantastic chapter on writing and editing dialogue.


Kat Colmer AuthorKat Colmer is a Young Adult author and high-school teacher librarian who writes coming-of-age stories with humour and heart. She lives with her husband and two children in Sydney, Australia. Her debut YA The Third Kiss is out now with ENTANGLED TEEN. Learn more on her website, or come say hi on FacebookTwitter and Instagram!

 

Things I wish I knew …

This month at Aussie Owned and Read, we’re talking about things we wish we knew when we began our writing journey, aka Knowledge for Newbies. 

I like to look to the future. For me, that’s so much more beneficial than focusing on the past, on the could-haves and should-haves that can weigh on your mind and bring you down. No regrets! Live for the now! And all that other good stuff!

But I also believe we can learn from our past mistakes, and if others can learn from mine, I would be thrilled. Why should we all get caught in the same problems when some advice might help us along?

So here are three things I wish I knew back then.

  1. Great things will happen if you just keep pushing. Keep writing. Keep learning. Keep taking risks and exposing yourself to new situations, new challenges, and you’re going to reap the rewards.
    So many times when I started writing, I would worry and think I should give up, that I should quit. I always managed to pull myself out of those slumps, but I did go on a hiatus for a year at one point because I felt I wasn’t good enough, and I wish now I had persevered and kept on keeping on. “The harder I work, the luckier I get” – the quote is attributed to a bunch of different people, including Samuel Goldwyn, and I definitely think it applies to writing. That and words by another wise American scholar: “Just keep swimming”.keep-calm-and-just-keep-swimming-119
  2. Don’t be afraid to ask. When I first started, I thought “Oh, I couldn’t possibly ask Author X to read my book”. Or “No way would Blog Y want to feature me”. Now, however, I know that unless you ask, unless you take a chance, you won’t stand a chance. You have to push yourself to be brave. The worst that can happen is someone says no–but no one is going to laugh at you for having a go. And if they do, they’re not worth your time.
  3. Make a plan. And then change it. I used to be a complete pantser when it came to writing. To a certain degree, I still am, but I like to go into my books now with a plot in mind. Sometimes, I’ll plan it out, down to each individual scene. Most times, I’ll then change it.
    Regardless, going into my writing with a plan has helped me be more productive when I work because I have greater focus.

So they’re my three top tips! What about you? What’s one thing you know now that you wish you knew back then?

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Lauren K. McKellar is the author of romance reads that make you feel. You can find her on Facebook or at her website.

5 tips for a memorable villain

This month at Aussie Owned and Read, we’re talking about the bad guys of the story–the villains.

When it comes to writing villains, it can be easy to fall into some bad habits. Here are my top tips for creating a worthy opponent to your fabulous lead character:

  1. Give the villain strong motivation: Why is your bad character a bad character? Sure, you could fall into the all-too-easy “because he/she is just evil”, but how realistic is that? There are true psychopaths in life, but truly memorable villains tend to have reasons for their bad behaviour. Did they suffer during their childhood? Perhaps they don’t have a support network and have battled mental health? Or perhaps again, they’re not really a bad person, simply someone who wants something that puts them at direct odds with your protagonist? Whatever the reason, make it clear to help enhance your villain as a character and make him or her a real person/creature.
  2. Give him or her at least one redeeming quality: Just like your villain should have a reason for his or her bad-assery, he or she should also have at least one redeeming quality. How many people do you know without at least one positive personality trait? Whether you only give us a glimpse of this or you show the quality in its full glory, this can make your villain not just lifelike, but possibly the tiniest bit likeable, creating a very memorable villain indeed.

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    Is your villain a real person or just a shadow in the dark? Photo: Stock.Adobe.com

  3. Avoid the villain reveal: We’ve all seen it. It’s the climax of the story. The bad guy has the good guy trapped, tied up in rope, and he’s about to slit our hero’s throat! Calamity! The end is in sight!
    And what better thing to do when you have the hero completely in your clutches, ready to die a slow and painful death, than launch into a monologue, explaining your motivation to date and exactly why you did what you did? This is a cliched action performed by many villains, and outside of scenes in Inspector Gadget (where they also use the infamous “I’ll get you next time, Gadget” line) I don’t think it flies. It’s not realistic. And not only that, but there’s no motivation for the villain to tell the hero all that information, making the villain less life-like and therefore less scary in a time when you want him to appear all powerful and ferocious.
  4. Offer up a worthy opponent: Is the villain in your story all powerful, the strongest man in the universe–but a bit low in brainpower? Often, we can get carried away creating a heap of braun to combat our good guys and leaving our villains lacking in one major department–mental strength. This doesn’t just apply to villains involved in a physical showdown with our hero–whether your bad guy is a land developer with cold, hard cash to your hero’s tree hugger, or an opponent vying for a job at the same company, fighting your hero by dismantling his or her computer and leaving her stranded at the copy machine, you want to make sure your villain has the smarts to help create believable and truly deep drama.
    Yes, some villains are perhaps unintelligent, bumbling idiots. Yes, these sort of people do exist in real life. Do they make a worthy opponent for your fabulous lead character, however? And are they helping to create the maximum amount of tension between your hero and themselves by giving readers the notion that perhaps they could win? I don’t think so.
  5. Bring the villain into your home: Bringing your villain into the “safe” place of the hero can up the tension and raise the stakes. This can work in multiple ways: you can physically bring the villain into your hero’s home ground, or you can take someone close to your hero and turn them into the antagonist. This is particularly useful in contemporary reads. Think of things like the child putting the mother in the nursing home; the parents telling the child they can’t run riot in the rain late at night; a loved one not believing the hero when he or she tells about the fantastical thing he or she has seen. Having someone close to your hero display villainous traits or become a villain by offering an opposing viewpoint he or she feels passionately about can sometimes result in the most tension-filled novel of all.

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Lauren K. McKellar is the author of romance reads that make you feel, as well as an editor of fiction. You can get in touch with her via her website or Facebook.

What makes a book great?

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I’ve been pondering … you see, I’m an avid reader and have been since I was a child. Like many other people who love reading, I also love creating and hope to create books as fabulous as the best ones I’ve read. But alas, it’s definitely easier to be a great reader than to be a great writer. Anyone who’s one-clicked their way through Amazon has seen the proof that it takes more than a catchy blurb and a professional cover to create a fabulous book. And through the hoards of books, both good and bad, that I’ve read over the years I’ve learned by observing …

Some of the things that make a book great:

  • a unique concept: something that’s intriguing and hasn’t been written about a million times before.
  • loveable characters: those that feel so real they could be your best friend, and whose choices make you feel invested and connected rather than annoyed and disappointed.
  • beautiful prose: words and sentences that flow so seamlessly you forget you’re even reading. It’s as if you’re living them.
  •  a great plot: twists and turns that aren’t so out there they’re unbelievable, yet still surprise the reader in a ‘wow I should have seen that coming’ way.
  • stakes: something that keeps the reader invested. Very few successful books are about happy people doing happy things in happy land. As readers we need to be taken on a journey that has us wondering what is going to happen next and if everything will eventually fall into place for the main characters.

Making all of these aspects come together isn’t easy, and even if you do manage to pull it off, there’s the element of luck. Just writing a great book isn’t enough, it needs to be seen to make a splash. Good luck, fellow writers and have fun!


Stacey Nash (3)Stacey Nash is the author of several books, which she hopes readers enjoy. If you feel like connecting with the young adult author on social media, where she tries to be engaging check out these places: www.stacey-nash.com, instagram, twitter, facebook.