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The Keys to Effective Dialogue in Novels

In dialogue, How-to's, The Craft of Writing on March 22, 2010 at 6:48 am

by C. Patrick Schulze

To listen to a podcast of this article click HERE.

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Dialogue is one of the premier aspects of your novel and every word of it should have a reason as to why it exists within your manuscript.

The reasons for dialogue in a fiction are varied, with the major goals listed below.

  1. Provide backstory
  2. Reveal a character’s personality, internal conflicts or mental state
  3. Establish the tone or mood of a particular point in your story
  4. Provide for character motivation
  5. Build reader empathy
  6. Build or expand on conflict
  7. Move the plot forward
  8. Increase or decrease the pace of your novel
  9. Tweak the reader’s memory of past events within the novel
  10. Foreshadow events yet to happen

If your dialogue does not perform one or more of the above functions, you can most likely delete it from your manuscript. A good test is to read the scene without the questionable dialogue and see if your story, or any critical plot points, are affected. If they are not, cut the dialogue.

Here are some tips for creating better dialogue.

Punctuation Counts

I hate to say this, but punctuation is key to effective dialogue. If you do not follow grammatical rules, your dialogue may not read as intended.

A quick example:

“Maggie said No I will not go with you.”

In this case, it’s difficult to understand if Maggie said the words or if someone else said Maggie said them. This distinction may have quite the effect on your story. As written, it holds little or no tension, whereas in the corrected sentence below, it implies danger and a more exciting plot.

Maggie said, “No! I will not go with you.”

For more on dialogue punctuation, read THIS blog post.

Dialogue is Different

Dialogue happens when a character speaks, of course, but the secret is to not write so your characters speak the way people do. The secret is to write so it sounds like people speaking. It’s a tricky thing to do, but an essential aspect of writing effective dialogue.
You’ll find people speak in clipped sentences peppered with, “um’s” and “ah’s” and the like. You’ll also find they speak in incomplete sentences, incomprehensible grunts and all sorts of other communication you cannot use in your manuscript. Further, and this is fact, ninety-five percent of the time people don’t answer the question asked. If you were to write as people speak, your reader would get bored at once and put down your book. Worse, they’d not recommend it to others.

So, how do you interpret speech to read as effective dialogue? The secret to translate natural linguistics into dialogue is, cut all the dull parts. (I think it was Alfred Hitchcock who first penned that phrase.) If you study the way people speak, you’ll learn the dull parts are most of what they say. Once you’ve identified and eliminated all the inconsequential words, which is most of any actual discussion, you’ll be left with the meat. And the meat is all that goes into your novel.

Here’s an example of how a real conversation might sound and how it could be altered to read as effective novel dialogue:

John said, “What did you do today?”

Mary answered, “Uh, nothing really. I went to the store, bought a pair of black slacks. What did you do?”
“Not much.”

“Oh, by the way, did you know I ran into Sara while I was shopping?”

“Sara!” John was surprised to hear her name.

When you read this exchange, you’ll notice the tension rose when Mary mentioned Sara’s name. In that case, Sara is the turning point to this exchange and the only part of this conversation necessary for novel dialogue.

If you compare their conversation with the purposes of dialogue listed above, you’ll see much of this exchange need not be included in your novel. If you eliminate the “dull parts” the result would cut fifty-one words to twenty-one and might read as follows:

John said, “What did you do today?”

Mary answered, “I ran into Sara.”

“Sara!” John was surprised to hear her name.

Compare this second exchange to our ten reasons to include dialogue in your novel and you’ll find it adheres to seven of the ten rationale on the list. Can you identify the seven it does match? If so, you’re well on your way to understand the use of dialogue in novels.

Once you’ve learned how to write effective dialogue, you’ll see there is a secret in how it relates to your plot. As with the mention of Sara, turning points are often found within your dialogue. That is, things don’t often just happen to characters, characters tell each other what transpires or is about to transpire.

A “rule” found within the craft of writing says dialogue should comprise as much as fifty percent of your book, specifically your word count. Now we all know there are no rules in writing, but the idea does offer an indication of how powerful and meaningful dialogue is to your novel. Therefore, it is one of aspects to the craft of writing you should spend a great deal of your time to study and learn.

I hope you know by now I wish you only best-sellers.

C. Patrick Schulze
Author of the emerging novel, “Born to be Brothers.”


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Similes and Metaphors in Fiction

In How-to's, The Craft of Writing on March 18, 2010 at 3:54 pm

by C. Patrick Schulze

To listen to a podcast of this article, click HERE.

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As fiction writers, we have access to any number of tools, tips and techniques with which to pen the Great American Novel. Today we’ll discuss two of the most fun and powerful items available to us, similes and metaphors.
Simile is a comparison of different actions, concepts or objects using the words “like” or “as.” In contrast, a metaphor compares dissimilar things without using either of those words. In effect, a simile indicates one thing is MUCH LIKE another whereas a metaphor says it IS like the other. Here are a couple simple examples.

Her eyes were as blue as the ocean. (Simile)

Her eyes are blue pools of laughter.(Metaphor)

What are the advantages of similes and metaphors?

The secret within these literary devices is their innate ability to create powerful mental pictures with a limited number of words.

They enhance your novel by adding effective portrayal and originality.

Similes and metaphors offer your readers a more personal experience and you a better emotional hook.

They also add great depth and imagery to your writing.

Let’s see if I can’t come up with an image, then improve it by way of one of our new friends, simile or metaphor.

“Her eyes flashed with anger.”
“Her eyes flashed with the power of a lightning strike.”

Well, that second example is more hyperbole, (explained below), but you can see the strength between the two images. This first tells the story well enough, but the second shows us the emotion in her face, doesn’t it? The second example conveys a much more powerful image.

The problem with these tools? Metaphors bombs.

Misuse of these wonderful tools will bore and confuse a reader and draw attention to the author’s lack of writing skill.

The most common traps when using metaphors are the cliché, the mixed metaphor, (two or more incompatible metaphors in one expression), and the dead metaphor, (one that has lost its effectiveness over time).

Overuse of similes and metaphors tends to overpower your reader.

Poor word choice can break a reader’s interest at once. Here’s an example of what I mean. “Her skin shinned in the darkness like a fog light.” (Oh, so close!) A single improper word choice rips your image apart. Chose your words with care.

The exaggerated use of similes and metaphors may tend a writer toward hyperbole, (high-PUR-buh-lee), or an obvious exaggeration. Uh, kind of like eyes flashing with the power of lightning.

If you’d like to try your hand at creating metaphors and similes, I found a “Create Your Own Metaphor” exercise at THIS web site.

Be careful with your use of these fun and interesting literary tools and your novel will be all the better for it.

Until we meet again, know I wish you only best-sellers.

C. Patrick Schulze
Author of the emerging novel, “Born to be Brothers.”


More Tips on Imagery in Your Novel

In General Information, How-to's, The Craft of Writing on March 16, 2010 at 3:43 pm

by C. Patrick Schulze

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To listen to a podcast of this article, click HERE.

Imagery, those pictures you paint with your fiction, serves as a powerful tool to transport your readers to another place and time. It makes your novel more believable to your readers and places them inside the world you’ve created with your words. Without imagery, you lose much of the strength to your words and even more of the potential power within your novel. Effective imagery is as important to the novel writer as any character.

Imagine the story of Snow White with seven tall men in place of the dwarfs. It loses so much of its appeal, doesn’t it? Snow White and the Seven Giants? Ah, it’s just not the same. This simple example should give you an impression of how important effective imagery is to your novel.

Now that we understand why we use imagery, let’s look at some more tips on how to use it. (You can find more information about imagery in THIS article.)

Successful authors often use setting to convey imagery. Has a rainy day ever affected your mood? I’m sure it has and it probably made you tired or melancholy. My question to you is why didn’t it make you feel like dancing. After all, there’s ever a song about dancing in the rain. My point, of course, is setting is a great tool to utilize to enhance your story. Your sentence might go something like this: “The over-bright sun blinded him in the same manner the many choices he faced hid the best decision from him.”

Choose an order by which you describe something. For example, describe something or someplace from top to bottom and left to right. Use any order you wish, but this systematic portrayal gives your readers a more logical, thus more grounded, way to see the picture you paint with your words.

When you reach a point in your novel where your story requires imagery, close your eyes and imagine what it is you wish to tell your readers. Pay attention to the details. Then, scribble quick notes as to the five senses you’d use to create the mood, the feeling, the place or object about which you wish to write.

Use similes and metaphors to draw your imagery in the minds of your novel’s readers. (Simile is a comparison of things using “like” or “as” whereas a metaphor makes a comparison without either of these words.) An example? “Her skin felt as smooth as polished marble.”

Personification is a useful tool when you create imagery in your novel. That is, give human-like qualities to something nonhuman. Here’s an example. “The breeze whispered through the woods.”

One of the best ways to employ imagery is to surprise your reader. Use contrast in a way they’d never expect. Is her skin the lustrous hue of alabaster? Why not the skin of shaved cat, pasty, thin? Not all of your imagery need be of the beautiful. In fact, readers will often appreciate just the opposite. In my second novel, the character all my female readers liked the most by a wide margin was the tall, chiseled hunk who fell for the dumpy farmer’s daughter. Without variation, they said they liked him for his love of the unattractive woman, not his good looks. Contrast, especially if unexpected, can have a dramatic effect on your story and your novel.

This brings us to the ugly images you should consider. When you closed your eyes in our earlier example, did something you see appear unappealing? Then write it that way in some way. As with the life we all know, not all images are beautiful. Much in life is in fact, ugly, disturbing, or even disgusting. As long as your imagery is authentic, it will work with your readers. In fact, it is when your imagery becomes improbable that your reader puts down your novel.

I offer three cautions as to imagery in your novel. As with everywhere in the craft of writing, cliches are unwelcome. Phrases such as “tough as nails” or “dark as night” no longer spur the imagination of your readers. Be creative. Also, use care not to overindulge your imagery. If your readers knows the number of teeth missing from his comb, you’ve probably said too much and the result is often the loss of action and pace within your story. Finally, not every scene requires extensive imagery. Like every other aspect of your novel, imagery must be integral to the story for inclusion.

Now I ask you. What tips might you wish to pass along to the readers of this blog as to how you create imagery in your novels?

As always, I wish you best-sellers.

C. Patrick Schulze
Author of the emerging novel, “Born to be Brothers.”


Tips to Find Your Writer’s Voice

In General Information, How-to's, The Craft of Writing on March 13, 2010 at 11:16 am

by C. Patrick Schulze

To listen to a podcast of this article, click HERE.


The word, “voice” is almost a reverent term within literary circles. Quite often, this highly sought yet nebulous prize is mentioned with a sigh as if one speaks of their life’s lost love. Every agent seeks that single “unique voice” among writers as if it were a talisman upon which they mayhang their future. Some say voice is so essential to a writer’s success, it outweighs the craft of writing itself.

Some say “voice” cannot be taught, while others say it is among the simplest of things for an author to develop. I guess that depends upon whether you’ve found yours or not. Regardless, in my opinion, it’s already within you. All you need do is find it and usher it forth.

What is “voice” and what purpose does it serve? Well, Dictionary.com defines it as, “The distinctive style or manner of expression of an author or of a character in a book.” The phrase I see as most important in this definition is, “distinctive style”. I believe it is the way you, the author within, artistically projects your personality onto the page. It is the combination of tone, syntax or grammar, and the way you combine the words you choos. It is the distinct flavor or personality that reveals itself on the printed page.

So how might one develop their distinctive voice? Here are some tips:

Write with Your Heart.

Insure the words you put on the page are from your personality. When you do this, your voice virtually comes to life of its own accord. Not to say editing won’t be necessary, but to find your voice, seek your words from within your essence. Don’t try to mimic another writer. You should certainly study and learn from them, but your words should come from your soul.

Write in the Manner You Might Speak to Those Close to You.

When you speak with friends, family members or loved ones, your tone is different when compared to your manner of speech in a business environment. Your words come more from the heart and their clarity is enhanced. Allow that personal side of you to shine through when you write and your voice will ring true.

Visualize Your Reader.

As writers, we should have our audience in mind at all times. Imagine those who read your novel or nonfiction work as your friend and write to that friend.

Read Widely in All Genres.

If you’ve read my earlier posts, you’ve heard me recommend to read widely from within your genre. To develop your voice, however, you should read other types of works, too. Find those authors who appeal to you and study the way they employ the language. This will point you toward your voice and how it will come across to those who read your books. It matters not that you do or don’t like what you read. The purpose here is to identify and identify with other writers’ voices.

Play with Your Voice.

Write, write, then write some more. Experiment with finding ways to put your heart onto the page before you. Write short stories, press releases, fiction, non-fiction, magazine articles, a children’s story. Just write. They don’t have to be long, tedious things, and don’t worry about trying to break out of your genre. Don’t over-think it. Just play with the words in different situations and see what cascades from you by rote.

Write. Write a Lot.

I had a saying I often used with my children on their road to adulthood. In fact, I used it so often it’s now THE family joke. That saying was, “Practice, practice, practice.” I know, it sounds inane, but this is still the best way to develop your writer’s voice. Write, and write a lot.

Look for Patterns in Your Writing.

Someone once told me the person who sees the patterns to things is the one who makes the money. Use this same idea to find your voice. Look for the serendipity in your writing. What is it you tend toward without thought? These patterns will exhibit themselves in time and within them, you’ll see your natural voice. Welcome it and it will become even more prevalent in your writing.

Fine Tune Your Voice.

Try this exercise. Write a rough draft of something. This is where you think the least about what it is you’re writing. Set the work aside and come back to it in a week, or better yet, a month. When you review it later, you’ll see more of your voice than you realized when you first put pen to paper, or fingers to keyboard, as it were. When you look it over, highlight those phrases or sentences that appeal to you, those that strike the memorable cord. Remove everything else on the page then put it aside again. In another month, review what’s left. You may be surprised to find your voice within those remaining phrases.

You might also try this. Set a mood wherever it is you write a scene. Place things around you that enhance the mood of the scene on which you plan to work. Try to employ as many senses as possible. For a scene where your characters argue, maybe you surround yourself with photos of the boss and light one of the ex’s cigars. Whatever works. The key here is not to be shy about what you’re doing. Do this with various scenes and their associated moods. Once you find yourself slipping into whichever frame of mind you decide upon, then write with abandon. Write with as little thought as possible, but as much intuition as you might muster. Again, set your writing aside for a time then follow the exercise above and highlight what catches your ear. Your voice may just show up and stay for a while.

When it visits, you’ll notice things like sentence length, word choices, metaphors, similes and the like. You’ll see how you turn that proverbial phrase and your natural cadence. In effect, you’ll notice your writing patterns and your voice lies therein.

How does one know when they’ve found and matured their voice? It’s when each of your characters has a voice of their own. It’s a fun day when you realized this maturity in your writing.

Once you identify and perfect your individual voice, I think you’ll see your writing expand into places previously unknown to you.

Best of luck in finding your voice and know I wish you only best-sellers.

C. Patrick Schulze
Author of the emerging novel, “Born to be Brothers.”


“Show, Don’t Tell.” Bologna or Beef?

In General Information, The Craft of Writing on March 11, 2010 at 10:15 pm

by C. Patrick Schulze

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Of all the maxims found within the craft of writing, “Show, don’ tell,” is foremost in the mind of almost every writing instructor and student of the craft. Wikipedia explains this as follows: “Show, don’t tell is an admonition to fiction writers to write in a manner that allows the reader to experience the story through a character’s action, words, thoughts, senses, and feelings rather than through the narrator’s exposition, summarization, and description.”

Proponents of this technique say the concept is simple, as is its purpose. When you Tell, your audience has no option but to see what you show them. When you Show, their imagination is free to visualize whatever they wish, thus making your story more personal to them. With Tell, they view your picture, whereas with Show they paint their own.

They say the key to this fundamental adage is the author’s objectivity or detachment from his writing. Can he paint with broad strokes and leave his words open to interpretation or must he interpret the details with a tiny brush?

These days, most are followers of this maxim and Show is considered to have the greater effect. Proponents argue this is obvious and shown even by examples in real life. To exhibit what they mean, consider the raising of a child. As with the classic example of placing a hand on a hot stove, does the child believe you when you tell them not to touch it or when they burn their hand? Seems obvious, doesn’t it? Show is more powerful than Tell.

Now, for the other side of the story.

This truism is hogwash.

A writer should come out and tell their reader what’s what. In fact, the opponents opine, it’s the wordy writer who must dramatize.

This adage, they say, hinders the writer’s spontaneity and stifles his artistic choices. The writer is not an actor doing as he’s told. Rather, he’s a painter who uses his canvas of words to exhibit his conceptual interpretation of the subject matter.

Francine Prose says, “There are many occasions in literature in which telling is far more effective than showing.” In fact, she’s right. Some of the finest novels ever written employ the technique of telling. “War and Peace,” is a classic example.  Even “One Hundred Years of Solitude,” which some think is among the greatest of novels of the Twentieth Century, is almost told in its entirety.

The detractors of this adage say it stems from Plato and has lost much of its punch by this time in history. It is an orthodoxy that should no longer be written in stone.

Remember Anton Chekhov’s line about the glint of light on the broken glass? The detractors of “Show, Don’t Tell” say Chekhov did not mean writers should adhere to a aged sage, but rather he meant writers should use sensory images.

They also say dramatization need not be accomplished by Tell, by rather the author’s choice of what and when to isolate or magnify his details.

So, what are your thoughts? Thumbs up or Thumbs down to “Show, Don’t Tell?” Let’s find out.


Either way, I hope you know I wish you only best-sellers.

C. Patrick Schulze

Author of the emerging novel, “Born to be Brothers.”