Writing Tip: Two Simple Steps to Better Dialog

Getting dialog right is tough. The way real people speak is remarkably difficult to read. We ramble and imply. We don’t use punctuation or good sentence structure. If you mimic it too accurately, no one will understand what your characters are saying. Instead, we’re always struggling to create clearer, cleaner communication without sacrificing that authentic feel…. It’s not a low bar.

Step one: Record yourself reading your dialog aloud. This isn’t difficult to do. Your phone can probably do it for shorter works. Or for longer stretches using a free program like Audacity can be a great way to go.

Speaking your words aloud will reveal a lot of convoluted and difficult to say phrases. When you find yourself stammering or struggling with a sentence, change it. If it’s hard to read aloud, it’s probably hard to read.

Step Two: listen to your recording. Does it sound like you expected? Does it seem forced? Do you hear yourself struggling with words or phrases you missed when you were reading it? Most of the time, your unnatural words and phrases will stick out. The hardest part of any problem is finding it. Once you know where the trouble spots are you can get to fixing them!

Do you have any tips or techniques for writing good dialog? Share them in the comments!

Writing Tip: Kill your Sycophants

Photo by Viki Burton – CC BY-SA 2.0 with some significant cropping by me.

You read that right. I am advocating the murder of those you love. Well… not real people. Beloved characters.

As a writer (and often as a reader) I find that stories fall into a bit of a feedback loop. Say your character, Thangar the Warrior, meets up with Agethos the Uncouth. Initially, he’s struck by Agethos’s disagreeable scent, but eventually, they realize that they share a common purpose: to end the tyrannical rule of Edgar the Hopelessly Lame. Great. We’ve had some conflict, a bit of resolution and now a new goal for our united heroes to tackle. The story is humming along.

Here’s the danger. Now that Agethos is working with your hero, he’s never going to disagree, right? Because your hero is super awesome and everyone that truly gets him is going to see that he’s only doing what’s right…

There’s so much wrong with that! Your hero does have flaws, right? He’s making regular mistakes, and selfish choices, etc, right? So Agethos shouldn’t just be going along. Plus Agethos should also be selfish and broken. Their flaws should rub each other the wrong way. They should have differing ideas about how to take on Edgar…

The second trap, is to let those disagreements be trivial. This is not a real disagreement:

“Ah, Thangar, my excellent companion,” Agethos said, pouring the remains of the previous night’s stew over their campfire. “If we take this road to the left, we’ll get out of the forest and feel the sun on our faces.”

“But, Agethos, my pungent companion,” Thangar answered as he lounged on his bedroll, watching his friend work. “If we take the right road, we can be at Edgar’s palace fifteen minutes sooner, and free the people of Novellia from his odious repulsivity that much sooner.”

“Good point, my wise confederate. To the right we go.”

This isn’t conflict. It doesn’t matter. Now, Agethos doing all the chores while Thangar lays around on his butt… that could be the seed for a deeper conflict.

Remember, the more challenge and adversity you throw at your hero, the more interesting your story will be, and the more those challenges and adversities are caused by your character’s own flaws, the more poignant your story will become.

So if you find your sidekicks becoming sycophantic suckups, bump them off and replace them with prickly characters that keep your hero on their toes!

How do you set your characters at one another’s throats? I’d love to hear your tips in the comments section.

Sparks flying

23:07 – Just got finished with a great meeting planning for our trailer.

I need to sleep now, but I’m super psyched to get up tomorrow and work on a new script draft.

I love it when things shake loose and the ideas start to come.

This isn’t much of a blog post, but it’s what I have from today. More tomorrow.

Writing Tips: Study the Masters

“A successful book is not made of what is in it, but what is left out of it.” – Mark Twain

I tossed out some great resources on screenwriting and story structure a few weeks ago, but the web is a wealth of great writing information, and beyond the web, many great authors have undertaken to share their collective wisdom in various forms.

If you haven’t already done this, it’s worth taking a bit of time to look at the authors you love to read, the ones you most admire, and go see what they’ve written about their process.

For example, I’m a great admirer of Brandon Sanderson. Not only is he vastly prolific — I only dream of getting projects done at his speed — but he consistently turns out fascinating and inventive stories that I really enjoy.

I’ve spent an alarming amount of time pouring over those old Brandon Sanderson videos at Write About Dragons, but now he’s released a new, much higher quality set of recordings. Check them out!

Here are a few tips as you go hunting for wisdom:

Writing is an art. Quality is subjective. You won’t do it exactly the same way that someone else does. As you read about another writers process, come at it with an open mind. Experiment with their suggestions. Discard the ones that don’t work for you and add those that do to your process.

Even an author whose work does nothing for you may have some valuable tips. You’re reading this, right? Evaluate their ideas on the merits, rather than purely on the basis of their work.

Revolutionary change happens one small step at a time. Don’t try to suddenly incorporate everything another author does into your process. Choose one thing. Apply it. See how it works. Then go back for more.

Use learning to combat writer’s block. Sounds crazy I know. I’m saying when you’re struggling to write go do something else that isn’t writing. But once you have a resource you’re mining for new ideas, moving away from your horrible blinking cursor to get ideas from someone you respect can be a great way to jump-start the creative process and get inspired.

Who are your favorite authors? And what tips have you gleaned from them? Let me know in the comments.

Writing Tip: Handling Your Critics Like a Boss

As an artist, criticism can easily stifle and destroy your creativity. And yet, it’s essential for improving your art.

I can remember my first creative jobs. What people liked and what they didn’t, what was praised and critiqued harshly often seemed random. How was I to process and understand? How could I improve? I wanted more praise and less of the harsh destructive criticism. Don’t we all?

Here are a few tips I’ve picked up along the way that help me process criticism in a useful way.  You can get better without letting it tear you apart:

Ask for meaningful criticism.

Don’t show your work to someone and ask them, “What do you think?” Instead, give them a meaningful question to answer. Do you feel connected to my character? Do you want to read/see more? What did the story say to you? Why?

Look for questions that help you discover a few key things:

  • Are your characters relatable?
  • Does your story make sense and are people moved by it?
  • Does it say what you intend?

Ignore individual responses.

It’s tempting to hand your work to someone significant (a spouse, close friend, or artist you admire) and then take their concerns as gospel. Well, if Sue says that my plot is a mess, I just need to scrap the whole thing and start over

Instead, seek a range of feedback and look for trends. Three or four responses is not enough. Aim to get ten or more people giving feedback on your work. I prefer upwards of fifty. Then look at their feedback. Are there patterns? Most people love my character but get confused during the climactic scene. That’s useful info. But one person’s confusion may just be them. We’re all different, and nothing you make is going to work for everyone.

Embrace anonymous feedback.

Your friends and family love you. They root for your success. At least in America, they’re inclined to sugar coat their responses to you because they care.

They also know a lot about you and have some impressions of who you are. If you’ve done your job correctly and really been honest with your characters and your story, it’s likely that your writing will make them uncomfortable.

Those are roadblocks to good feedback. However, there is a wonderful source of anonymous feedback at your disposal. It’s called the Internet! 🙂 Don’t be afraid to share your work. There are many online writing groups where writers can share and swap feedback with one another. For short films, I’ve even used crowdsourcing — paying workers small amounts of money to watch the film and fill out a survey. Be creative in seeking out readers and viewers for your work. But try to find feedback which is unhindered by relationship. Afterall, your target demographic probably isn’t limited to people who know you.

Don’t waste time on overly harsh criticism.

If someone says your work stinks or something even worse, dump their feedback and move on. It’s entirely possible that your work does stink and they aren’t wrong, but harsh feedback is virtually impossible to hear and internalize in a healthy way.

Say Joe reads my book, then he writes me and says, “Ted, you can’t write your way out of a paper bag. Your characters are all stupid and this was a huge waste of my time.” My natural response is to internalize this as an indictment of me as a person. That won’t help me to write or get better. But even if I could remove the emotional component, the feedback isn’t useful. It doesn’t matter what Joe thinks of my writing ability and I need to know why he doesn’t like my characters. Specifics are critical.

Joe could give me the exact same feedback in a receivable way if he said this: “Ted, I found your story very confusing. Page after page, I kept rereading things just to follow the action. The sentences seemed long and convoluted to me. In addition to that, I didn’t connect with any of your characters. They seemed like stereotypes. I really wanted to see them struggle and fail a bit more. Their life seemed a bit too easy.” That’s feedback I can work with. I can tidy up my prose, work on simplifying sentences where possible and breaking them up where I can’t. I can also take a hard look at my characters and see if Joe is right about their struggles. But most significantly of all, Joe has shown himself to be a reasonable person of whom I can ask some clarifying questions. 🙂 Again — none of this matters if Joe is the only person who sees these problems!

The strength of an opinion does not determine it’s value.

I don’t care how powerfully or persuasively it’s expressed, that doesn’t mean it’s right. You may have a reader who says exactly what you want to hear, or who knows just the right words to cut the legs out from under you. I’m being a bit repetitive but this bears repeating. One person’s opinion isn’t that significant — unless they’re your client or you really are writing just for them. Be polite. Listen to their concerns. Thank them for expressing them and move on.

Embrace the process.

Occasionally someone may come back to you and try to call you out because you didn’t incorporate some piece of feedback they gave into your final product. Don’t sweat it. Just tell them that you solicit feedback from a broad variety of sources, and their suggestions weren’t in line with the majority of the folks who read your work. Most people understand that, and appreciate that you’ve got a system.

TLDR;

Get a broad range of feedback, and only sweat the trends.

Happy writing!

I’d love to hear about your projects and how you’re handling feedback in the comments. Do you have a great place you go to find early readers?