Show, not Tell, with Dialogue

Many of my writing students avoid dialogue because they struggle with it, and rightly so. Creating convincing, concise dialogue is a challenge that compounds writing stories. What they do not realize is that dialogue helps writers show rather than tell.

Consider the effect, for instance, of writing:

She wore an attractive, brightly-colored dress.

This is you, the author via your narrator, telling your reader what she wore.

Compare that to the effect achieved by the following:

“Do you like my dress?” Darlene said as she twirled in a full circle, flouncing the skirt as she did. “I think yellow looks good on me,” she smiled.

In the first example, your writing presents the reader with adjectives for a dress, but does not provide any action. The reader will either gloss over the sentence or, if imaginative, create an image of “she” in the dress, which could be yellow, orange, red, yellow-green, or some other bright color or a mixture of colors. Neither does the reader have the vaguest idea what the dress looks like. Is it long or short? Loose or fitting? Straight or flouncy? Unless you elaborate on that sentence by adding more descriptions, there will always be a lot of room for interpretation—sometimes more than you want.

In the second example, we know who “she” is—Darlene. We know she’s wearing a dress and it has a skirt that flounces as she twirls. We know the dress is yellow. More than that, we know Darlene likes the yellow dress and is light-hearted, expressive, and in a good mood. How can we tell? Because someone in a bad mood wouldn’t care much about wearing a bright, cheerful yellow; a more serious person would not be caught twirling to show off a dress; nor would an introverted or shy girl twirl, show-off a dress, and more than that, think aloud that they looked good in anything.

While the color or style of a character’s outfit might not always be relevant, sometimes we need to include more vivid descriptions because they provide readers with a clearer picture of your story. The trick is not to weigh down your story with bulky descriptions that can be made more memorable and effective with dialogue.

We Bloody Murderous Writers

Many times, we worry about how to make characters as realistic as possible. There is a great deal of advice out there, including some tips I’ve shared with students and readers. Because we are writers, however, we will forever be plagued with doubts about convincing our characters are, among other details. How can you tell your characters are real enough? What are some sure signs they’re alive and kicking–on the page, that is?

You know your character is as real as they come when:

1. You hear their voices in your head. They never stop talking. Sometimes they talk to you, sometimes they talk among themselves. Sometimes they even talk to themselves, but make sure you hear them! It’s so bad you begin to think you are schizophrenic.

2. You carry on conversations with them. You’ll start answering them in your head, but soon enough, you’ll find yourself talking aloud to them. If anyone asks you, you can always claim it’s your imaginary friend or enemy or frenemy. Or you can pretend to be talking into your bluetooth device. Your choice.

3. They argue back. At this point, your characters are becoming more aggressive. They enjoy debating with you. The worst part is that they’re almost as good as you at arguing!

4. They have a mind of their own. They think they’re really smart and can solve their own problems. The problem is, they also create their own problems.

5. They do what they want. Just when you think you’ve got everything wrapped tightly, they’ll go ahead and do something totally unexpected. Sometimes you think they just want to spite you. Of course, they could just be teasing. But you have to remember they do have a mind of their own, so you can’t always control them.

6. They control your story. That’s right. Because you can’t always control them, they often end up controlling your story. They’ll literally pick up that figurative ball and run with it. No kidding. Of course they’ll get into trouble, then you’ll have to fix it for them.

7. They wake you up in the middle of the night. That’s right. It’s not enough that they keep you up late, they’ll wake you up in the middle of the night for the most trivial matter. Naturally, they’ll make sure you have to get up and hunt for that notebook or pad that should have been on your nightstand, but because they always wake you up, you’ve probably taken that pad somewhere else where you could argue with them in private, assuming you still share your bed with someone else.

8. They demand to be written. It’s not enough for them to just exist in your head. They’ll nag you until you write them into a story. Mind you, remember #6.

9. They want to live forever. It’s not enough that you write a story about them. They want you to write more and more stories also about them. This is called the serial temptation, when they haunt you and keep on coming up with all sorts of outrageous situations for you to write them into. Then they force you to solve their problems.

10. You value their opinions. If your characters are truly trustworthy and full of integrity, they might just be able to solve their problems on their own, in which case you are off the hook and all you need to do is let them control your fingers and do the typing or writing.

11. You talk about them as if they were real people. When you find yourself talking with other people about your characters as if they were realy people, then your characters are certifiably real! At this point, other people might even ask you how your characters are, what they’re doing next, what they think of certain things, and so on and so forth.

At a certain point, your characters will permeate your life so much it won’t feel right being without them. On the other hand, they could be taking over your life, in which case you might be drawn to murderous intent. There will always come a time to kill your darlings and we are all guilty, we bloody, murderous tribe of writers!

How Real Are Your Characters?

Besides the physical challenges of being a writer and the obvious release it gives any megalomaniac tendencies you might have, writing also challenges the psyche. As a prolific writer, you have written several stories—fiction, of course—with characters you have either modeled on real-life personalities or whom you have created completely out of nothing. Every writer does that. However, you want your characters to be as real as you can make them so you treat them like real people. You give them personalities and let them exercise free will. You develop them, give them words, then give them triumph or defeat. You make them rise to the heights of success of fall to the depths of despair. You are their god, their creator, and you can do whatever you want with them, including kill them, as many a famous writer has adviced. On another level, you might treat them as your contemporaries and hold

On another level, you might treat them as your contemporaries and hold conversation with them—what better way to develop dialogue, after all, than hold a real dialogue with characters? You argue, fight, wheedle, convince, threaten, compromise, order, intimidate, contradict, and defy them. Quite naturally, they will argue, fight, wheedle, convince, threaten, compromise, order, intimidate, contradict, and defy you in return.

You can share secrets with them, confide in them, become their best friend and confidante, even become their lover and share sweet, intimate, sensual discourse with them. You encourage them, motivate them, sometimes even chastise them. In some cases, you will have had enough of your characters after a single book and shut the voices between the covers. In other cases, you will be haunted by the voices. Your characters will not leave you alone. They will keep you awake with endless debates, wake you up in the middle of the night, interrupt your most intimate moments, join you in the shower, argue over every meal, make you miss appointments or your stop so you end up riding the bus farther than you want to or need to. They will distract you and preoccupy your mind so your tv shows go by without your knowing what happened, you completely forget what you went to the grocery for, and people look at you strangely because, yes, the worst has happened, you now talk to your characters aloud in public. In that case, congratulations! Your characters are as real as they can get. Time to break out the champagne. Oh, and don’t forget an extra glass for your favorite character.

A character by any other name is not as sweet

Are you one of those writers who actively model characters on real people? Come on, admit it! You’ve probably endowed one or more of your protagonists with the traits of some real live hero you’ve met or read about. It could be a personal hero, like your grandpa, grandma, dad, mom, or a favorite uncle or aunt, or even an admired teacher or the school’s hottest athlete or cheerleader. You’ve also probably imbued some of your antagonists with the traits of your annoying kid sibling or cousin, a school bully, or your parents at their worst moments. As a fiction writer, you need to protect the identities of your models, whether positive or negative. Here are some ways you can do that.

1. Use a baby name book. There are all kinds of baby name books, from traditional baby names like Robert, William, Mary, and Anne, to unorthodox baby names like Rainbow, Amber, Opal, and Strawberry.
2. Use first names of famous people and mix up their surnames, like Hillary Regan or Scrooge McTrump.
3. Use foreign names like Liam, Cohen, Vladimir, or Rajesh.
4. Use a phone book and pick random surnames to match your invented first names.
5. Use names of real people you know, but don’t use their names on the characters they’re like. That way, people can’t say, “Hey, that’s what’s-his/her-name!” Throw them off by using their names on characters totally unlike them.
6. Change their gender. If there’s a guy you really hate, turn him into a despicable female character.
7. Change their age. You can safely make a character younger or older than the model by up to 10 years. The older your model, the easier to change the age. On the other hand, you could also turn them all into kids, which shouldn’t be too hard if they’re really very childish in real life.
8. Change their professions. Put them in a profession or job that’s very different from what they do in real life.
9. Invent new names with new spellings, depending on their age in your story. Take your cues from real life. For instance, Chyna, Asya, Justynne, Cayden.
10. Look up the most popular names for a particular year to match the year your character was born.
11. Use symbolic or meaningful names, for instance, Frank, Chastity, Hope, Gallant, Rush. Is the name “Scout Finch” symbolic? Or Robinson Crusoe?
12. Unless you are writing about life in earlier centuries or an alternative futuristic society where names are assigned as a way to identify social or economic status or an allegorical story, you might want to avoid using surnames that identify profession–unless it’s a fictional historical name attached to a family that carries on the same profession. Unfortunately, that could run really close to being tacky, campy, forced, or tongue-in-cheek, so be very careful or be very convincing.
13. Of course, if you’re writing science fiction or fantasy, there’s no limit to the kinds of names you can invent. And if you need to use numbers to name your characters–if that’s what your story really is about–go for it.

How you name your characters is as important as how children are names. You need to consider: will your characters live up to their names? Will the names become as memorable as Jay Gatsby or Sherlock Holmes or Scarlet O’Hara? Do the names suggest anything about the characters? If the characters were real, how would they feel about their names? Remember, your characters are your babies. Name them well!

Authors Rule! (Mwah-ha-ha!)

There is so much more to writing than the physical challenges. The immense strain we subject our bodies to when we choose to be writers, however, comes with a huge benefit that will satisfy even the most extreme megalomaniac among us. That benefit is becoming the supreme rulers of whatever worlds we create.

Exercise your imagination and indulge yourself. Have you always wanted to rule an island paradise? You can create one—or as many as you want! Do you want to be the ruler of the most powerful country in the world? Or perhaps, you want to elevate your humble nation or town into the most powerful government you can think of. It’s not only nations you can control. You can control worlds, galaxies, and multiverses.

And you’ll never be lonely. You can people your worlds with anyone you want. Bring all the kith and kin you want. There will be as much room for them as you declare. You can set up your leaders, heroes, and citizens and give them everything they desire—jobs, wealth, power, knowledge—whatever suits your fancy.

Of course, you can’t have a world without villains because that would be boring. This is your chance to take anyone and everyone you hate or has done you wrong in some way or another and show the rest of the world just how evil they are. The best part is you can give them the exact punishment they deserve! They can lose an eye, hand, foot, or any other body part you wish. They can be crippled. They can be as ugly and horrible and unfortunate as you wish them to be. Above all, you can subject them to the worst forms of humiliation, suffering, and torture and, in the end, you can kill them or condemn them to eternal damnation. At this point, you are allowed to hunch your shoulders, rub your hands together, and emit the most demonic laugh you can come up with!

If all that doesn’t fulfill your delusions of grandeur, then you’re really a megalomaniac and need to see a psychiatrist!

Physical Exercises for Writers

Writing requires a certain degree of physical strength and prowess which can be achieved over time or through practice. Like any other physical sport, exercise is important to help writers develop strength and stamina to sustain them through countless rigorous hours of exertion. To help writers, I’ve developed a few exercises that are effective to this end.

1. Keyboarding. There are several finger exercises to help improve finger strength for typing. The best is to take an old typewriter with rusted keys and pound away at it for a couple of hours. If you are partial to music as well, use any keyboard instrument, but be sure you exercise in a soundproof room so the neighbors do not benefit from your exercise. If you have no keyboard or old typewriter, the good old finger tapping technique will do. Tap at different rates and intensities on a table top.
2. Twirling. To maintain flexibility in your fingers, practice twirling pens or pencils. Learn how to roll a coin or gumball across your fingers.
3. Squeezing. Keep a tennis ball at hand and squeeze periodically.
4. Baskets. If you don’t want your arm joints–wrists, elbows, shoulders–to stiffen and freeze, keep a small can (a trash bin makes a perfect receptacle) across the room from your work table. After each page you write, crumple up and shoot into the can.
5. Pencil darts. Throw pencils at a corkboard to keep your wrists flexible. Prevents carpal tunnel syndrome.
6. Neck stretch. Locate your TV set to either side of your writing desk and twist your neck around to glimpse the picture. You can also locate your desk so a window is to one side or behind you. Twist your head about to see what the neighbors are doing or which direction the ambulance or fire truck is heading everytime you hear noise.
7. Arm stretch. Set your candy, popcorn, or chip dish about three feet away from your pad or computer keyboard. Stretch your arm out to reach and grasp. Perform 10 times every 10 minutes for maximum effect.
8. Back twist. Challenge yourself and set your snack dish behind you. Do as you did in #7. For a special challenge, set the dish higher or lower than shoulder level.
9. Foot taps. Tap your feet to the rhythm of your background music. Good for keeping your feet from falling asleep, as well.
10. Leg lifts. Lift your sleeping dog or cat with your legs. Great resistance exercise and strength training. Also works with a small child.
11. Eye squint. Get up close to people as you talk so you have to squint to see their eyes clearly. If you don’t talk to a lot of people, you can get the same effects from reading food package labels. If you’re working on a computer, you can change the font size to anything less than 8 points to achieve the squint.

Perform the above exercises regularly and you’ll soon feel like a writer, even if you don’t write!

The Physical Challenge of Writing

Many have dreamed of becoming a writer, being published, becoming famous, seeing their names in print, yet not very many succeed. For some, it is enough to see their name on a single book, which keeps vanity presses alive. For others, it is a lifelong passion, not infrequently an obsession, and while many labor long and hard at their writing, few rise above the sea of literature to be noticed, read, and accorded with accolades. This brings about the timeless question: What does it take to be a writer?

Above all things, you should like to write. Nay, you should want to write. But willingness and desire are not the only things that make a writer. There is a great physical challenge to writing as well.

Every bone in your body is poised and ready to remain in a single, stationary position for several hours each days, most days of the week, several week after week for months, every month of the year, regardless of the time, weather, or season. You exercise your fingers more than any other part of your body and you suspect your bottom has grown calloused, certain the thickening is from constant pressure against your seat, which, no matter how cushioned you make it, feels like a rock after some time. Depending on your writing implement, your wrists might get some exercise, although you are highly susceptible to carpal tunnel syndrome because your wrists are constantly subjected to the same abnormally twisted position hour after hour. Your neck and shoulders often feels stiff because your head is bent at the same angle from staring at sheet after sheet of paper, whether on a pad, in a typewriter (What ancient machine is that you speak of?), or on your computer screen. Your legs lose definition and strength, often numbing from being in the same sitting position day in and day out. Your eyes squint from dryness and strain because you forget to look up from the page to stare at something green 20 feet away every 20 minutes. It isn’t long before you need to squint at everything you look at. If you don’t wear eyeglasses yet, you soon will. Guaranteed. After a few years of practice, you acquire a writerly pallor in your skin from lack of sunlight and fresh air, moreso if you spend more time writing at night or indulge in burning natural aromatic substances to stimulate the imagination. Additionally, you may develop acid reflux from a steady diet of snacks or ulcers from the absence of regular sustenance.

If you are willing and ready to accept these stringent physical demands, you are one step closer to being a writer!

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