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Category Archives: Dialogue in Fiction

Creating suspense in fiction

The latest Beyond book in the series

The latest Beyond book in the series

How many books have you read where the plot seems to flatline? Maybe the characters get too chatty. Maybe the description of characters or setting reads more like an expository. Maybe the scenes themselves are mundane. Do you then yawn?

Those spell boredom for the readers. And I see it happening in novels that are supposed to be mysteries. A village scene, instead of creating some touch of menace or at least some suspense, reads more like a slice of village life. Not all authors can do the village scene as well as the late Agatha Christie did.

There are ways your novel can get a life readers will want to read about. And just to clarify. Suspense doesn’t only equal mysteries and thrillers. All fiction needs some suspense – and that includes romance novels with their relationships. In fact, the twists and turns of relationships in any novel are fodder for creating suspense. Characters are at the core.

Here a few tips to create suspense in fiction:

  1. Start your story with something to draw in your reader. If you must have your village scene, get inside your main character’s head and show her take on the scene. Perhaps she dreads the town council meeting, the gardening club meeting, the tea, etc. Why? Or something terrible happens at the beginning at that meeting. Here’s a quick example. Marion would never call Fairfax council meetings boring again.
  2. Dialogue is good – reveals and develops characters and their interactions, as well as moves the plot forward. Unless your characters get overly chatty and go on and on for pages about religion, politics and more mundane things. All three might be relevant to your story, but add some spice, some suspense. Maybe one of the characters chatting is not making sense, seems to be high on something. More to the point, have a character reveal something startling to move the plot forward. Or have the dialogue interrupted by something happening. Depending on your story’s genre, could be somebody unexpected bursting into the room and creating chaos.
  3. Character descriptions. Forget the long expository but blend it in with the storyline and reveal something or several somethings about the POV character and other characters in this scene. In Beyond Blood, PI Dana Bowman meets Det. Sgt. Donald Fielding for the first time when her house is broken into. I show it from Dana seeing Fielding from the feet up as he comes down the basement stairs. The two clash. Dialogue and action show this and builds suspense about what could happen later on with two strong personalities trying to solve crimes when they can’t even agree on what crime happened in Dana’s basement. You can also have characters make snide remarks about another character’s hair or clothes. That would tell you something about both characters. Some narrative is necessary, but don’t drone on.
  4. Same can be said for settings. Nothing is more boring than reading paragraph after paragraph describing the main street of a town or the town itself. You aren’t writing a travel piece: you’re writing a novel or short story. In my Beyond mystery novels, I don’t just describe the town of Thurston, Ontario (fictional town), but have Dana  or her twin PI Bast  actually drive down a street, Suspense could be someone following Dana or better still she thinks someone is following her and dodges all over town to ditch the person. Or there is a collision – accident or intentional? Or if one of the twins goes into a shop or restaurant, I work in the location and relevant characters inside. “Relevant” is the key word. .

Visualize what you want and then write it for the reader to get the picture Remember: show, not tell the reader.

These are just a few suggestion. I also suggest you read published books by authors in the genre you are writing – authors who know what they are doing to create suspense within the mundane. Sometimes the latter is the most frightening.

If you click on the Beyond Blood novel above it will take you to more information about my Beyond books.

Cheers.

Sharon

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Developing fiction characters from observation

The latest Beyond book in the series

The latest Beyond book in the series

Here are a couple of excerpts from the Developing Characters and Dialogue in Fiction workshop I taught this past Tuesday.

If you want to get your dialogue bang on with your characters, here are some tips:

Listen, watch and read who and what are out there. That could be a TV series, a movie, a book, and in-person. A couple of TV series with excellent and diversified characters (each quirky in their own way) are NCIS:LA. Even if you are not an NCIS fan, the two sets of investigator partners are priceless – not only to watch for entertainment but to study as a fiction writer. Briefly.  the one set consists of Deeks who is actually an LA detective transferred to NCIS. He tends to run off at the mouth and fixates on weird things in life. His partner (professional and personal in the series) Kensey is so different – she is the slob in this duo and likes to pick on Deeks. The other duo, in a nutshell, Sam and Callen – Sam black and Callen is white but they are different in personalities and lifestyles. Sam has been married for many years to another agent, Michelle and they have two children including an adult son in the military. Callen is a minimalist in his life and has problems with committment.

I suggest checking out reruns of NCIS:LA as Kensey is in a coma from a severe injury for the next few episodes as the actress playing her is on maternity leave. But there are other interesting unique characters in the series including the unit’s second in command played by Linda Hunt.

Another series with quirky characters is the British Heartbeat. It ran from around 1992 to 2010 but repeats are shown on various TV stations or you can probably see it there or on alternative viewing. Heartbeat is set in the late 1960s in a fictitious small town in North Yorkshire, England. It focuses on small town policing operating from Ainsfield station at that time and is intertwined with some of the social issues then.  Not all the characters are cops, but all characters are so well developed and except for a core few, the characters do come and go over the years. My favourites are Mr, Greengrass who is an elderly con artist with the most disgusting dog you may have ever seen, and Oscar Blaketon who is the Sergeant in charge of the police station until he takes early retirement due to health issues. Then he becomes a postal clerk and then co-owner of  the pub which is also central to the series. Blaketon is an interferring know-it all and keeps that up even after he retires.

Another way to absorb characters is to listen. A writer I know wanted to find out how teenagers speak so she would go to where they hung out and listen without butting in. Getting the slang and other language peculiar to your characters often requires this up-front listening. I also like to listen in on loud cell phone conversations when travelling on public transit – although there is not as much of that now with people texting.

The idea is to observe and absorb but not steal characters from TV, film, books or real life. And if your character has disabilities, you might want to actually interview someone with the same disability and also try to live in their shoes, so to speak, for a bit of firsthand feelings. For example, life in a wheelchair is so much different and not just operating the wheelchair and getting through doors. The view is a bit different. Just a caution: if you are going to get the feel of being blind, it might be a good idea to have another person with you for safety’s sake.

As for me I had a six-day experience of being 85 percent deaf. It was terrifying going into a grocery store and trying to read people’s lips. The only thing I heard was two people yelling and it must have been quite loud for me to hear it.

It was only temporary – ear wax. Who what have thought that?

How do you create distinctive characters in your fiction?

Cheers.

Sharon A. Crawford

And as usual, the Beyond Blood book icon at the top takes you to one of the places with my profile and books.

 

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Using fictional characters’ inner thoughts for character development

The latest Beyond book in the series

The latest Beyond book in the series

We’ve all read fiction where the characters come across as superficial. I’m not referring to their traits (and superficiality may well be one of them). Instead, I’m referring to characters that don’t evoke a strong reaction from the reader, characters that  don’t connect in some way to the reader, characters that leave the reader thinking “Who cares?”. Chances are fiction with characters that the reader can’t seem to get into means that the writer doesn’t really know their characters. The writer didn’t get inside each haracter s’ head.

Getting inside your protagonist’s or antagonist’s head is key to understanding them and bringing them to life to your readers. Here’s a short excerpt from my novel Beyond Blood to illustrate this.

Chapter Twelve:

David:

He had woken up to cold and darkness. Beechnut. Where was Beechnut? He was lying on his back and tried to sit up but his arms were stuck in front of him and his feet were stuck together. Shadows seemed to come at him.

“Mom … mee,” David said. “Mom … mee. Where are you? Mom … mee, I’m scared.”

No answer. Where was he? Where were Mommy and Uncle Bast? Where was Debbie? They’d been reading Alice in Wonderland. Then he had gotten hungry and run downstairs to the kitchen with Debbie after him. It was a game they always played. When he’d heard a noise in the basement he’d run down there and seen one of Mommy’s friends playing the game, so he’d chased after … and then … he couldn’t remember. His head hurt and he felt a little sick. He tried to move his hands again, but couldn’t. They were still stuck together.

Where was he? His toes hurt. His teeth hurt and he was so cold.

“Mom … mee. Mom … mee.” Now he was yelling.

A door burst open and something thudded in.

Oh no, a monster. Coming after him.

“Mom … mee. Mom … mee. I’m scared.”

He heard a click and a bright light blinded his eyes.

“Pipe down,” a voice shouted at him from above, or was it beside him?

“Who are you? I want my mommy. I want Beechnut.”

Instead he felt something heavy and sticky cover his mouth. The bright light clicked off and footsteps receded to the doorway, and then he heard a door slam.

In darkness and alone, David began to cry, his sobs muffled by the tape over his mouth.(From Beyond Blood, copyright Sharon A. Crawford, Blue Denim Press,2014).

It is probably obvious that David has been kidnapped and that he is a small child (he is six). Here the reader finds out how David feels about this from first discovering he is not at home and his Mommy is not around. The reader can feel for David, can feel his fear and despair.

Of course not all characters get kidnapped. Some fall in love; some are con artists, etc. The writer needs to convey all this to the reader and getting inside the character’s head is one way to do this.

There are other ways to develop characters. I will be teaching a workshop on Developing Characters and Dialogue in Fiction next Tuesday, Oct. 11 at the S. Walter Stewart library branch in Toronto, Canada. If you are in the area and want to attend, it is free. The library prefers you to register first (call 416-396-3975) , but you can just show up at 6.30 p.m. Workshop runs to 8 p.m. Here are the details about it.

Developing Characters and Dialogue in Fiction

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Learn how to show, not tell, to develop credible characters and make their dialogue sing. Uses excerpts from Beyond the Tripping Point and Beyond Blood by Sharon A. Crawford to illustrate. Writing exercises and some writing critique.

Facebook Event

Location:
S. Walter Stewart Library Branch (auditorium)
170 Memorial Park Ave.
(Coxwell Ave. and Mortimer Ave. area)
Toronto, Ontario

Time:
6.30 p.m. to 8 p.m.

And if you are interested in reading more about developing characters but can’t make the workshop (for obvious reasons such as you live in another part of the world), you can click on the Beyond Blood icon at the top and that will take you to my publisher’s website where you can see my profile and where my books are available online and elsewhere. I didn’t do the usual link to Amazon because they have the incorrect price for my mystery short story collection Beyond the Tripping Point. It is not $94.36. I have contacted Amazon about this error so hopefully it will be corrected shortly.

It would be nice to get that much from a book, but who will buy it at that price? Somebody with big fingers on little keys maybe entered the amount?

Cheers.

Sharon

 

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Preparing for author reading amidst aftermath of severe storm etc.

Sharon A. Crawford's latest in the Beyond series

Sharon A. Crawford’s latest in the Beyond series

You would think as an author I could focus on just the preparation for my reading this evening as part of the Urban Folk Art Salon at the Mount Pleasant Library. But I’m dealing with too many snafus and bad happenings – yesterday’s, ongoing ones, and possibly a somewhat repeat this evening of the one last evening.

Last evening my East End Writers’ Group had its usual almost monthly writing critique at the S. Walter Stewart Library. But we had a severe thunderstorm – actually the heavy rain was the severe part with flash flooding including in the library basement where we meet – we had to go to higher ground and I let everyone out early because I was worried about some water getting in my basement. Yes, some did although with all the towels etc. I had down it was more damp in places in the laundry room. I’ll be going into all this flooding business in my post on my other more personal blog Only Child Writes next Tuesday. For now suffice to say, I got soaked going to the library (despite wearing rain gear) and my running shoes got soaked inside despite spraying them earlier in the day with water repellant.The shoes are outside in the sun now in the hopes that they dry in a few hours. Because…

We may get another round of these thunderstorms with heavy rainfall later this afternoon going into the evening. The Weather Network calls it a risk of a thunderstorm. Just what I need when I have to head out to yet another library for this Urban Folk Art Salon. This time I gave house keys to a neighbour who also has had (now fixed in his case) basement flooding so he should know what to do. Now I just have to get out and there staying dry and get back home again. And enjoy myself the whole evening.

There is more to this why my basement still floods story, but that will also be in the Only Child Writes post next Tuesday.

The other situation I’m still dealing with is trying to get the rest of the payment for a writing course I taught last month. The cheque for two sessions arrived on Tuesday – late. It seems to be too many layers of departments involved and it doesn’t help that my signed contract got lost by the middle-department – that’s the cheque I’m still waiting for.

Such are the woes of the writer. Now I better do one more round of practicing for tonight.

Meantime you can check out the details of this evening’s Urban Folk Art Salon on my author blog post last Thursday or for a shorter version on my Gigs and Blog Tours page here.

And as usual if you click on the Beyond Book cover at the top, it will take you to my Amazon author page.

Wish me luck later today and this evening. And if you are in the area in Toronto this evening, drop in. At least the program room is upstairs on the second floor, so hopefully all will go well.

Cheers.

Sharon

 

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Get your writing critiqued

Cover of Sharon A. Crawford's mystery short story collection

Cover of Sharon A. Crawford’s mystery short story collection

Every time I’d get a critique or some redirection, I’d always just take it very personally. Now I have no problem with it.

-Jessica Alba

Besides proofreading which I talked about in last week’s post, another tool for the writer is to get your writing critiqued by other writers. I have posted about this before but it is important enough to do an updated version.

Let me take you to yesterday evening when my East End Writers’ Group met at S. Walter Stewart Library in Toronto. We are basically a writing critique group and that is what writers come here for. Some new members joined us and we had some interesting writing excerpts from some very talented and intelligent writers.

Some of the issues that other writers picked up on and commented about:

For the beginning of a literary novel. Use more dialogue – the author knew this but needed some guidance on how to go about it.

For a non-fiction self-help book which was written in plain language. Some structural changes were suggested by other writers, such as use sub-headings, use more anecdotes and less instruction.
For a synopsis for an opera – yes we have a music composer who also writes short stories. We were all getting lost in all the characters. Suggestions were to make the synopsis shorter (as it would be going on the program) and list the characters and a bit about each separately.
So you can see how more pairs of eyes and ears can pick up what the writer misses. When we write we do so in solitude (we would hope no outside interruptions). We also have tunnel vision (subjective) with our work and sometimes “can’t see the forest for the trees.” Even when we know something isn’t working, we may try and try again, several times, and run out of options to fix it. Others can see what our mind may miss.

This is where a writing critique group comes in. I urge you to join one – online or in person – whichever you prefer. Just a few caveats. You shouldn’t have to pay for this – it is mutual writers helping writers. Maybe everybody can bring food or beverage for a snack. With East End Writers’ Group I ask everyone to bring a gluten-free snack or juice. I usually bring cheese, rice crackers, fruit and peppermint tea bags. Now if I just could get the kettle working at the library – despite being shown it just doesn’t work for me. It is not the straightforward plug in the electric kettle version.

Kettles no matter – what does matter is you pick a group that suits your needs. Find out if the group is open to all writing genres or just fiction or poetry, etc. Which do you prefer? Do you pre-submit your writing excerpt for critique or just bring it to the gathering? If online, how do you submit it – in a form online or as a Word attachment? What about copyright online? It should remain with you the author. If online, are you expected to critique other writers’ work? How many? Check the timeline for these and see if you can work within the group’s timeline. For groups meeting in person, look at when they meet and how often. Do you want to go every week (some do meet once a week and that can prove hectic and too much), once a month or? And do you prefer weekday daytime, weekday evenings or Saturday mornings or afternoons. Will you fit in with the group, i.e., are they giving constructive criticism? Are they negative? Are they nasty?

Give the group a test drive. Attend for a few sessions or sign up online for a few sessions and if you don’t like, bow out.
Where do you find these groups? For in-person, check your area library branches – their websites should have them all listed. Or check the library branch itself – often they have a flyer posted. Or ask a librarian. A librarian can often tell you what other branches are offering. Universities that offer writing courses often have writing groups as well. Check their bulletin boards. Also some writing organizations also offer writing critique groups, often online – these would be open to members. There is also Meet-up if you have that in your area, which has writing groups.

Or go to Mr. Google and just try “Writing Groups” (that one also gets you some links for info how groups operate and what to look for) or “Writing Groups (your location here)”. When I add “Toronto” to “Writing Groups” my East End Writers’ Group is listed as the top two and three. Guess that is good SEO.

You can read about my characters and their stories in my short story collection Beyond the Tripping Point (Blue Denim Press, 2012). Click on the book at the top and it takes you to Sharon A. Crawford’s profile – including book reviews – at http://www.amazon.com.

More info on Sharon A.’s upcoming gigs, workshops, guest blog posts, etc. at http://www.samcraw.com/Articles/BeyondtheTrippingPoint.html

Cheers.

Sharon A. Crawford

 

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Dialogue or narrative – that is the dilemma

Cover of Sharon A. Crawford's mystery short story collection

Cover of Sharon A. Crawford’s mystery short story collection

We care what happens to people only in proportion as we know what people are.

–           Henry James

My publisher wants me to make my prequel mystery novel a bit shorter. Part of the problem is my two main characters, fraternal twins Dana and Bast, get too chatty in some places, especially when they are bringing each other up to speed on their separate investigations.

When do you use dialogue and when do you use short narrative to summarize what characters tell each other so that your novel or short story flows and doesn’t bore your reader? You want to make your reader care about your characters, not have your characters put your reader to sleep. Here are a few (but not only or all) guidelines to consider:

  1. Do you need to show anything with their actual dialogue and any accompanying actions? For example, if one character is giving the other some bad news and their reaction includes what they say and how they say it, you might want to go the dialogue route.
  2. Don’t drag out the dialogue exchange between characters. It can turn into the equivalent of repeatedly driving your point home to your reader. For example, I have Bast and Dana often repeating the same setup ad nauseum when they are comparing notes – each are reacting the same way and sometimes their dialogue covers what is told elsewhere in the novel. Summarizing that Dana brought Bast up to speed on whatever situation would suffice.
  3. A caveat to the above two points: there is a fine line from using dialogue to bring out the character’s reactions to something when necessary and when the dialogue shows as repetition. Ask yourself: is the dialogue best to show foreshadowing and move the plot along? You might be better to use dialogue then. Also dialogue and/or action might work better if the character is changing – perhaps trying to be stronger than wimpy or holding in his or her anger.
  4. With mystery fiction where the police detective or private investigator is interviewing a number of “persons of interest,” summarize in narrative the ones who have little or no information to contribute and use dialogue where something of importance to your plot shows up in the interrogation.
  5. Be careful you don’t overdo the narrative just to contain your dialogue. You don’t want to overdo the telling and bore your reader this way. However, with narrative you can include the character’s inner thoughts and actions.
  6. Sometimes you can combine narrative with summary. Here’s how I did it in the short story Digging Up the Dirt, with the fraternal twins. Instead of Dana repeating to Bast her “interrogation” by the constable and what led up to it, I wrote:

And you actually let that constable order you around,” my fraternal twin, Bast, said later.

“Well, I had to listen to Fielding’s interrogation, especially of Aunt Doris.” I smiled.

(copyright 2012 Sharon A. Crawford. Excerpted from Beyond the Tripping Point, published by Blue Denim Press, 2012)

If you want to show how characters relate to each other under various circumstances and bring out their distinctive traits, dialogue with action might work best. If it gets too long, you can intersperse it with narrative. I do this in another story in Beyond the Tripping Point. Below is the link of my reading the opening scene in “Body in the Trunk,” clipped from my interview with Hugh Reilly on Liquid Lunch from thatchannel. The reading and the short preview before is three minutes long.

Sharon A. Crawford  Reading from Beyond the Tripping Point on Liquid Lunch http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pgOKYgBfAwY&feature=youtu.be

Now I need to get back to my own novel and follow my advice.

Cheers.

Sharon A. Crawford

 

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POV Part 2 – Getting inside other characters

cover of Sharon A.’s short story collection. Click on it to get to amazon.com

Action, reaction, motivation, emotion, all have to come from the characters. Writing a love scene requires the same elements from the writer as any other.

–          Nora Roberts

Back in October we learned the cardinal rule of Point of View in fiction – do not switch character POV mid-scene or mid chapter if the chapter has only one scene. So, how do you get the POV of other characters out there without “jumping heads?”

In the previous post we discussed how, when and why to actually change the POV. But what if you want to let your reader know how Sam feels and thinks without getting inside his head?

You know the old axiom about good writing – show, not tell.

That’s how you do it.

In “The Couch,” the first story in my mystery short story collect Beyond the Tripping Point, the Point of View is that of the main character, the young private investigator, C.U. Fly. Fly has a big thing for the secretary, Annie Everglades, but the story never gets inside Annie’s head. Here’s a brief excerpt from near the story’s beginning:

“Give it up, C.U.,” she said when she found me staring at her long legs. She pushed back her wire-framed glasses and gave me an icy grey glare. “C.U. Fly, you may be a private investigator, but I am not your client.” Then she turned to her laptop and her fingers began to zip over the keys. “Your talent is listening, not looking. Go bug a client.”(Excerpted from Beyond the Tripping Point, copyright 2012 Sharon A. Crawford).

Annie’s reaction to C.U.’s unwanted advances is obvious. This is shown by her dialogue – she gives C.U some boundaries and explains the PI’s functions. There is also a bit about what C.U. is doing at the time. For the latter, notice the use of the word “me.” We also get Annie’s actions – pushing back her glasses and giving C.U. a cold stare. Then she dismisses Fly and gets back to her job.

So dialogue and actions show the reader how Annie feels towards C.U. and we didn’t get inside her head.

Here’s another excerpt from the same story.

“C.U., get your paws off my back,” she said as the three of us occupied space on the couch. At her voice, Brutus leaped over me and settled in Annie’s lap.

“Fine,” I said. “You’re in charge of dog sitting services.”

She gave me one of her frosty stares. I smiled and pretended my heart stayed at normal medical settings. I had no control over my legs and arms, so staggered up, shook myself into my denim jacket and padded down the stairs..”(Excerpted from Beyond the Tripping Point, copyright 2012 Sharon A. Crawford).

Here we have a combination of dialogue between the two characters, action, but also how the POV character, C.U. Fly feels (pretending the heart stays normal) and how Fly reacts (smiles, staggers up off the couch, puts on a denim jacket and leaves). Fly’s reactions show the reader the relationship between the two characters – they are operating from different perspectives but we also learn how Fly sees Annie and feels about her.

In summary, you can reveal what is going on with other characters in your story by:

  1. Dialogue between the POV character and the other character.
  2. Action – between the POV character and the other character or just the other character.
  3. And tying in with the above – reaction of the POV character to the other character.
  4. POV character’s feelings and beliefs about the other character.

We’ll cover using third person POV and multiples in future postings.

For now, here is my current upcoming event with my book Beyond the Tripping Point:

Tonight, November 15, 2012 from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. I am on a panel with other recently published Canadian Authors Association Toronto Branch members, Chris Canniff and Bianca Lakoseljac. The three of us will share the ups and downs of getting from first draft to published book. Location is the Northern District branch of the Toronto Public Library in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. More details at http://www.canauthorstoronto.org/events.html Those in the Toronto area, please stop by.

And to purchase a copy of my book – now in e-book form as well as print,  for Kindle (and also a link to the print copy. just click on the book cover at the top of this post. For Kobo, click on the book cover below.

Cheers.

Sharon A. Crawford

Beyond the Tripping Point link to Kobo

 

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