Does Your Dialogue Pass The Cringe Test?

true_friendshipIf not, at least the rest of us will get a good laugh out of it!

I don’t have to tell you the importance of good dialogue.  People quote memorable lines from all sorts of works, all the time.  They’re assimilated into our culture, and live on well after the writer him- or herself.

You know what else we quote, though?  Memorably bad lines.  So let’s make sure your dialogue stays in the “good” category, shall we?

Lots of things go into solid dialogue, but here’s an easy smoke-test to ensure what you’re writing is realistic: pretend you’re portraying your characters in a movie- don those little persona hats in your mind- and speak the dialogue aloud.  Right now.  If your nose scrunches up with confusion, or you cringe in embarrassment, trip over the wording, or double up with unintentional laughter, change it to whatever more naturally flows from your mouth.

Sure, sometimes you want crazy, over-the-top bombast.  Maybe you’re writing a new cartoon series for The Tick (in which case, I love you).  Most of the time, though, you’ll be dealing with scenes where real people interrogate, conduct business, shoot the bull, or probe their feelings for one another.  Trust me, what looks OK on paper doesn’t necessarily sound good out loud.  If it doesn’t sound good out loud, it won’t sound good in your reader’s head.  While he’s busy snorting, or going “Huh?”, he’s no longer in your story.

Here are some other quick tips for dialogue:


Unless you’re writing lines for Commander Data, use goddamn contractions.  You are never going to hear someone enunciate every word in a real conversation.  It is extremely stilted and unrealistic.  Speak those last two sentences aloud- seriously, right now.  See how awkward they are to say?  Shortening and simplification happen in every language.  Don’t fight it.

Give everyone a unique voice.

We all have tics, expressions we use all the time, and other verbal habits.  Decide on one or two “fingerprints” for each character.  When you’re doing it right, the dialogue itself can clue the reader in to who said it, without the aid of dialogue tags.  If you use accents, use one word here or there to represent the accent (“I reckon I done left that sumbitch upstairs.”).  Do not go full Strangelove.  (“MEIN FÜHRER, I KEN VOK!”)

Not everyone has to be precious.

So much of modern TV is clogged with series wherein every single character has a gargantuan vocabulary and bon mots for every situation.  I can’t stand that.  Have witty characters, sure.  Have buddies joke around with each other, great- but everyone doing it is annoying and unrealistic.

Combine talking with advancing the plot.

Characters sitting/standing around jawing at each other becomes boring fast.  This is why I personally shy away from eating scenes, because people just sit there blabbing, and the plot stalls.  There’s plenty of opportunity within dialogue to interact with the setting, establish body language/behavioral habits, or have the characters working on something while they talk.

All that said, your dialogue had better be in service of the plot, too- revealing important info, setting up future scenes, establishing character.  Don’t waste the reader’s time with meaningless talk that doesn’t lead anywhere.

Dialogue tags aren’t evil.

Said, replied, etc.  A lot of people say to avoid them.  I don’t agree.  They’re not necessary for every single line, I’ll give you that.  However, I really don’t like it when dialogue tags disappear from a talk-heavy scene.  Remind me occasionally who is saying what, because otherwise I lose track- then I have to go back and count paragraphs to figure out whose line belongs to whom, and that vexes me greatly.  If you combine action with your talking, as described above, you don’t have to worry as much about this.

The best time to eliminate dialogue tags is during rapid-fire exchanges, where you want to keep the pace up.  Establish who’s talking at the top, then let them take off.

What are your favorite tips for good dialogue?  Please share in the comments!

Your Story’s Soundtrack: Fight Music

KirkSpockKalifiThe ultimate battle in all of Battledom has already been written, filmed, and scored.

Music is another huge component of my writing process.  It helps me buckle down and focus in a way nothing else can (aside from wondrous, blessed coffee).  Everything I listen to in this manner is instrumental- I find lyrics distracting- but there’s a wide variety of styles I like for different moods, pacing, etc.

Today, I’ll share some songs from my “fight” playlist- stuff that gets the blood flowing and raises the stakes!  I hope you enjoy these.  If you have your own favorites, please share links in the comments!

Epic Last Stand Asskicking

Armed With Death (from The Walking Dead video game)

This plays during Lee’s last fight, on his way to rescue Clementine.  Great game, but invest in a tissue factory before you play it.


Techno-y Asskicking

Combat Music 5 (From the XCOM: Enemy Unknown soundtrack)

A great game and soundtrack.  If you like this one, go grab the remaining tracks (and the game, if you enjoy turn-based strategy).  You won’t be disappointed!

Shoot Straight (from the Shadowrun Returns soundtrack)

As above, great music from a great game; well worth tracking down more.  It’s around 2:08 that my favorite part starts up.

Never Return Alive (from the Streets of Rage 2 soundtrack)

This one takes me back!  I must’ve beaten this game about 3,000 times during my teenage years.


Fantasy-Themed Asskicking

Dragonborn (from the Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim soundtrack)

More amazing music from Jeremy Soule, the John Williams of video game soundtracks.  (I have an autographed copy of this soundtrack!)  If the refrain around 2:08 doesn’t make you want to jump out of your chair and rip a dragon’s head off, I’m afraid you’re not a living human.

Ride Forth Victoriously (from the Europa Universalis IV soundtrack)

This game is Civilization on crack, in real-time.  I haven’t the fortitude to play, but I enjoy watching others, and listening to the soundtrack.


Western-Themed Asskicking

Sixty Seconds to What?  (from the For A Few Dollars More soundtrack)

Music that both Clint Eastwood and Lee Van Cleef will kick your ass with.

Man With a Harmonica (from the Once Upon A Time In The West soundtrack)

Haunting and dramatic- Ennio Morricone at his best.  (Fun fact: the German title of this film is Spiel mir das Lied vom Tod, or Play Me The Song of Death.)


Share your own links below.  Let’s get an awesome music exchange going!

Word Abuse: Accentuate Your Bad Habits


I’m in the throes of heavy editing at present, still trying to hammer out a process that works best for me.  If there’s one thing I’ve learned thus far, it’s that even after you think you’ve gotten your prose as pretty as it can possibly be, there’s something wicked lurking in there to which you’re completely oblivious.

One example is unintentional repetition of certain words and sentence structures. I didn’t know it until recently, but I abuse the hell out of […], and […] and […], but […].  See?  I even did it just now, two sentences ago.  It’s not something to completely eliminate from the manuscript, but (ugh!) multiple times in the same paragraph is a no-go.  The sentences all start to sound the same, and (crap, not again!) the prose turns boring.

Let me be clear: in a first draft, it doesn’t matter.  Get your thoughts down, however they come to you.  It’s while you’re editing that you have to worry about this stuff.

If you don’t know you’re doing it, how can you avoid it?  You need more eyes on your manuscript, human or mechanical.  My spouse alerted me to the and/but problem.  At first I was skeptical, but (!!) when I went back and looked again, I was shocked at how bad it was.

Even the best beta reader can miss things, though.  That’s when I turn to AutoCrit.  You need a paid membership to use it, but (shoot) I deem it money well spent.  Among many other things, AutoCrit can highlight commonly overused words, and (sigh) recommend how many of those repetitions to remove.  This is Autocrit’s default word list:

  •  “ly” adverbs
  • that’s
  • look
  • maybe
  • had
  • have
  • was/were
  • gerunds (“ing” verbs) at the start of a sentence
  • conjunctions (ex. and, but) at the start of a sentence
  • could
  • feel/feeling/felt
  • hear/heard
  • it/there
  • knew/know
  • see/saw
  • smell/taste
  • watch/notice/observe
  • just/then
  • that

If you have a Professional account, you can set up custom searches.  I don’t, so I can’t add “, and” and “, but”.  However, now that I know I have this problem, I can go into Scrivener and perform a find on a scene, chapter, or manuscript (CTRL+F, for those who love keyboard shortcuts as much as I do):

scrivfindI use the “whole word” option just to be safe.

I click Next through every instance found.  For each one, I manually highlight it in orange, my color for flagging repetition.  If I see too much orange in any one location, I know I need to rework what’s there.

Sadly, this is pretty tedious.  I’ve not found a way in Scrivener to say, “Find all occurrences of ‘XXXX’ and highlight them.”  If anyone knows how to do this, please let me know!

If you happen to use MS Word, a one-stop mass formatting is easy:

  1. Hit CTRL+H to bring up the Find and Replace window.
  2. Type the word/phrase you’re looking for in both the Find What and Replace With boxes.
  3. Click the More button.
  4. Click inside the Replace With box so your cursor is blinking there, then click the Format button.
  5. Choose whatever formatting options you want.
  6. Make sure your choices appear under the Replace With box (ex. “Format: Highlight”).
  7. Click the Replace All button.

wordfindThe only time I will ever admit Word is superior at something.

I utilize a rainbow of highlight colors in my manuscript.  This is my own personal system- I’m not saying it’s what everyone should do, just that it has served me well so far:

  • Yellow: “Needs work.”  Stuff that’s not yet in sentence form, or a word I don’t like that I want to replace with a better word later.
  • Orange: Repetition, excessive use of pronouns, words/phrases I overuse.
  • Green: Subordinate clause words.  Rewriting these can be rewarding in terms of crafting more interesting sentences.  I don’t look to eliminate every single one, rather ensure they don’t get out of hand.
  • Pink: Stuff I’m considering deleting.  I like to give myself time to decide whether it truly deserves the axe.

My manuscript looks like a paintball massacre, and (GAH) I often have to comb through and re-highlight after a round of editing, but (I give up) the eventual result is prose that’s more deliberate and varied.

I used to be a technical trainer for all of the MS Office products.  If you’re interested in more fancy Word tricks, let me know!  I’m not as deadly with Scrivener, but I’m also glad to post what I know about it, if so desired.

Are there any words/phrases you abuse?  What tricks do you have for dealing with them in your editing phase?

Bad At Imagery? Your Characters Can Help!

Ah, the unearthly blue lakes of the Swiss Alps.  What a great setting to include in your story!  Problem is, how do you describe it in words and achieve the same breathtaking effect?

Trick question.  You shouldn’t be describing anything.  Your point-of-view character, or your narrator, communicates with the reader.  The first step toward good imagery is describing the scene the way s/he would describe it.  This is invaluable early in the story for establishing the world and revealing insight about the character, even before anything has happened.

“It was cold.”  Yawn.  This could come out of anyone’s mouth. Hell, a robot could output that with one line of code.  Here are better ways of saying the same thing:

  • The crisp wind cutting across Tara’s face made her feel alive.
  • It feels like the morgue freezer in here, Dr. Tanaway thought.
  • As usual, even with fifteen layers on, I was freezing.

Observations like these differentiate characters, and make them easier to relate to- or not, if you’re setting up characters the reader should root against.

OK, so you have a better idea of how.  Now, what to describe?  Think about each of the senses: sight, sound, smell, touch, taste, and more if so inclined.  What’s your POV character gathering from each?  How does each one make him/her feel?  What does s/he do in response?  Focus on the two or three senses that provide the best understanding of the setting and how the POV character responds to it.

For example, let’s return to the Alps.  Suppose two characters come upon that lake.  Sight is the most obvious thing to start with: sweeping mountains, clear sky, pristine water.  Set up some feeling too: warm sun, stirring breeze.  One of the characters takes in the fresh air (smell), stretches, and basks in the sun.  The other character grumbles, takes off his backpack, and rummages around for sunblock.

You can have a lot of fun with this.  In a first draft, throw down as many senses and reactions as you want.  The more imaginative you are, the better you “know” the setting and describe it for readers.  However, be prepared to trim weaker, less relevant bits of imagery when you return for revisions.  You don’t want to get so deep into descriptions that you leave the plot behind.

When editing, keep pacing in mind too.  Imagery breathes life into your story, but it also slows things down.  In a super-important or tense scene, you want this.  Pull the literary equivalent of a Sergio Leone shootout: make the reader agonize over every square inch of the moment.  In a fast-paced scene, where the POV character is in trouble or agitated, s/he won’t notice as much background detail.  Think about how you process your environment when you’re stressed, rushed, or addressing a problem.  Usually, you fixate on the immediate issue(s) and barely register anything else.

Though you don’t necessarily want your voice leaking into the imagery POV characters provide, your own experiences can absolutely inform theirs.  If your character’s doing something you’ve done before, remember what it felt like, what sort of thoughts you had, what you focused on and what you didn’t.  Lucky me, I’ve been to a few of those Swiss lakes.  Fifteen years later, I still can’t get over how magical they looked.

Do you have any suggestions for good imagery?  Feel free to comment and let me know!

9 Universal Tips for Describing Your Characters

silhouettes(Image credit: Leadershipcriteria Clipart)

Character descriptions are one area where there’s no agreement on a single best approach.  Everyone has different desires and expectations.  Some writers paint vivid, exacting pictures of each character, down to eye and hair color.  Some readers love this, and have trouble “seeing” the characters in their minds without those details.  My approach, as a writer and reader, is the opposite.  I prefer to describe only what’s vital to understanding the characters and plot.  When I read, I form my own picture of the characters based on what they say and do, no matter what the narrator says.  I’ll even think, That’s not what he looks like! when I hit a detail contradictory to my self-crafted image.

However you handle character description, accept now that someone won’t like it.  They’ll ask why you didn’t provide the main character’s exact age or blood type, or say they glossed over your descriptions because they ran on too long.

Are there any approaches to character description we can all agree on?  I’ll take a stab at offering some below:

1. Don’t ever use the mirror/reflection cliché.  No bad wrong.

Having a point-of-view character study her/himself in a mirror or reflection screams, STOP HERE AND TOSS ME ATOP MOUNT REJECT.  It’s tough, but you’ll be rewarded for being more creative than that.

Does your narration jump between multiple POV characters?  If so, you can wait to describe this character until someone else is in control and interacting with her/him.

What if you only have one POV character, like in 1st person?  Personally, I don’t worry about describing 1st person characters right away.  At the beginning, I’m more concerned about getting you into her/his head and understanding how s/he thinks and operates.  I’ll slip details in gradually, where it makes sense to do so.  If s/he’s getting ready for a task, I’ll describe the equipment and gear s/he’s grabbing and putting on.  If they have unkempt hair, maybe s/he smooths it back to read something.  If s/he’s especially self-conscious or vain about some aspect of her/his appearance, that can also be leveraged to provide descriptive detail.  If s/he doesn’t give a crap what s/he looks like, and never mentions it, that’s telling too!

2. Length constraints translate into description constraints.

In a short story, or any place where you face a word count constraint, you have to decide whether lengthy descriptions really serve your plot.  I’ve yet to write a short story where anything hinged on a character’s appearance, so I tend to limit physical descriptions to a short, carefully chosen list of adjectives/verbs.

3. Genre also matters.

In romance or erotica, you’re probably free to go on and on, if it’s sexy enough; I have no idea.  Sci-fi and fantasy need a lot of room to describe non-humans and non-Earth environments.  Stories that take place on present-day Earth with regular humans have relatively less to establish, but there’s still plenty of opportunity to be creative.

4. Reserve your best and longest descriptions for the most important characters.

However much detail you prefer, be more generous with main characters and less generous with side-types (aka NPCs, for the nerds reading this).  This doesn’t mean you can’t have colorful side characters, but color is easy to establish with a few adjectives/verbs.

5. Take the POV character into account, and provide the description s/he would provide. 

Step into her/his head and try to see the other character through those eyes.  Don’t just write up a dossier- tell us how the other character makes the POV character feel, how s/he reacts to what s/he observes.  Remember that we all see the same people in different ways.  A warrior at a tavern might think the resident serving wench is cute and wonderful to talk to, while his cleric companion finds the same wench grating and manipulative.

zombies_nightofthelivingdeadNo love for clerics until these show up.  *sigh*

Descriptive metaphors are also lovely for implying things about the character- for example, “He darted in with the speed of a viper” is not a phrase I’d use for a sweet, compassionate character- but don’t put fancy expressions in a POV character’s head/mouth if they don’t belong there.

6. There’s no need to dump out description all at once.

A big paragraph of descriptive detail will be slow-paced.  Fine if that’s what you’re going for, but most of the time, you’re better served spacing out details so as not to hold up the story.  For instance, your POV character might notice a short man behind a store counter.  Then, as they strike up a conversation, s/he notices the store owner’s rancid breath.

In a fast-paced scene, tons of detail slams the brakes on your narrative.  To keep things fast, describe only what’s necessary to understanding the action, then elaborate more when the excitement’s over.

7. Provide more than physical appearance.

There are so many other things you can tell us about: voice, quirks, mannerisms, body language, etc.  Compare “She had blond hair” to “She twirled a lock of blond hair around her index finger, winding it tight as a spring.”  Now the reader potentially sees someone who’s thoughtful, flirtatious, a ditz- or perhaps pretending to be one of the three.  The words and actions you give her, and how the POV character interprets them, will help the reader decide for her/himself.

You can even do character description entirely with verbs, and no physical details whatsoever.  Readers will form different mental pictures of someone who flinches, wilts, and murmurs versus someone who barges in, towers, and yells.

Draw special attention to things that are outside the norm in your setting, or that are especially important to understanding that character.

8. Don’t TELL what you can easily SHOW.

My own preference maybe, but I get annoyed at scenes where Character A and Character B talk about as-yet-unmet Character C, only to info-dump about C.  “He’s the most badass renegade ever!  He’s so elusive!  Yes, but we need his help!”

Is that really necessary?  I’d rather see C (hah) being an elusive renegade through his deeds.

…you know, if we see him.  ‘Cause he’s elusive, and stuff.

elusiverobertdenbyKindly watch this amazing MST3K episode after you’re done here so I’m not wallowing alone in the comprehension of a torturous reference.

9. Place more emphasis on details that have plot implications.

If the plot never hinges on the fact that the main character has blue eyes, it’s fair to leave out eye color.  If, however, blue-eyed people are considered demigods in this world, it becomes staggeringly important.

Again, this is open to debate.  Go with what works for you, and what your readers expect, but hopefully the tips above lead you to more inventive, memorable character descriptions.

Do you agree or disagree with anything above?  Have your own can’t-miss tips for describing characters?  Feel free to comment and let me know!