I’ve been watching a series of lectures by fantasy author Brandon Sanderson on the craft of writing with the focus on the fantasy genre. These lectures took place at BYU. Whether you write fantasy or not, much of the writing advice applies to all stories.
I’m working my way through them, but what I’ve learned so far is:
I’m a chef, not a cook.
Conflict connects characters, setting and plot.
Everyone must be good at something.
Yes, but; no, and.
Captain Jack Sparrow is the perfect character who is incompetent, yet highly proactive, and that’s what makes him (and SpongeBob) interesting and entertaining.
When creating fiction, writers will inevitable have to learn how to write dialogue. I have never read a novel without it though I suppose one exists somewhere out there. One vital key to good dialogue is attributing the spoken words to the proper character, so readers instantly know who is saying them.
We do this by using dialogue tags: “The last time I heard this song by Charlie Rich,” Liam said, “you were young, adventurous and in love with me.”
The words Liam said is a direct dialogue tag. It tells the reader without fuss or doubt that Liam said those words inside those quotation marks.
Another method of informing readers of who said what is through an action by the character. This is technically not called a dialogue tag, but it does the same job.
For example: “This was my favourite show when I was a kid.” Judy grabbed the clicker and turned up the volume. “My brothers and I watched it every Saturday morning.”
Both these methods of indicating who said what are clean and non-distracting. Readers often won’t notice them, which means they won’t be nudged or jerked from the story, but will continue to read without interruption.
Dialogue. It’s one way our characters use to communicate to one another. Sometimes it’s short and sweet, while other times it’s a lengthy rant. When written correctly, it reads smoothly, drawing readers into the moment, encouraging them to imagine the expression on the characters’ faces as they proclaim such things as, “I’m going to save the castle!” or “Pass me the dragon wand.”
When characters speak, we can—or should in most instances be able to—imagine how the dialogue was spoken. For example, “Run! The house is on fire.” I can see a character shouting this and encouraging others to get out of the burning building. In the context of the story, more would be revealed.
Sally took the milk from the fridge and set it on the counter. “What’s that smell?”
Peter shrugged. “Maybe it’s the new furnace.”
“Can you check?” She watched him leave the kitchen as she poured a glass of milk for Little Stevie. When she heard quick footsteps approach, she looked to where Peter had gone and watched him race into the room.
“Run! The house is on fire!”
In this instance, there is no need to add a dialogue tag but if one was added, it could be something like…
Some days I feel cursed. Other days, I can’t believe I’m this lucky. As the tenth of eleven children raised by parents both born in the 1920s, I was exposed to many different genres of music. As a result, on my MP3 player, you’ll find John Denver snuggled beside Bonnie Tyler, Loverboy and Rod Stewart squished between Donna Fargo and Buddy Wasisname, and Anne Murray rubbing shoulders with Helix and Andy Stewart.
Music has always influenced me in one way or another. It can enhance or change my mood depending on the day and the attention I give it. The melody of a song can set a mood, but it’s the words that can make me laugh, dance or shed a tear. The degrees of these emotions depend on whether I’m listening to the song or singing along.
But let’s get this out of the way first: I don’t sing well. However, I sing often.
Hearing someone sing their heart out may not tug on your aorta, but that may change if you put their words in your mouth. Personally, I can sit and listen to Son Run to the Spring by Cal Smith and ignore the story within the melody, but I can’t sing it with a dry eye. I become that boy who must run to the spring for water while my mother spares me from witnessing her silent death due to a long term illness.
Feeling the music can only be accomplished by putting yourself in the shoes of the song’s character. That’s not to say you’re Dean Brody, standing on stage in front of thousands of fans. You are the boy who must watch your older brother go off to war and wait for him to return (Brothers) and the young man who wonders about the lives of his high school girlfriend, his college friends and the girl who gave him up for adoption (Trail of Life).
Of course, you get the good parts, too. You’re basking in the sun on the Santa Maria (Trooper) and bragging about Who Wouldn’t Wanna be Me (Keith Urban).
Sure, you can just sit and listen, but you won’t feel the full effects of getting into character unless you sing those words.
Breathing life into the words you’ve written is done exactly the same way.
Before I submit anything, I always read it aloud. It doesn’t matter if it’s a 400-word blog or a 100,000-word novel, reading every word is the last step in editing. Actually, if I get stuck on a section of writing, I read it aloud. Often, it is all that’s needed to find that perfect word or the next sentence.
When I read, I take on the characteristics of the character. If I’m angry, I speak with anger. If I’m stumbling over my dialogue, then I stutter. Sometimes, I’ll use a Scottish or English accent, just to hear the story with fresh ears. It doesn’t matter if I get the accent right; the point is to make it different than how I usually speak.
Reading it aloud will point out problems in rhythm, uncover those words that sound too much alike and find words that have been accidentally left out.
In my novel, Mystery Light in Cranberry Cove, two of the main characters were Ellis and Alice. On paper, these names are easily distinguished. However, when you read them out loud in a sentence, they sound very similar – too similar for characters who will spend a lot of time together in a novel. In the end, I changed Alice’s name to Shona.
If reading your words doesn’t create the emotions you want to convey, then consider making changes. You don’t want to giggle in the middle of a tragedy and you don’t want readers to think a character is angry when he’s really trying to sweet talk his lover.
If you’ve never read your work aloud, give it a shot. Feel those words, make them yours. Guaranteed you’ll hear things from a new prospective – your character’s.