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I tend to get caught up on strange things when I listen to public speakers. I notice their idiosyncrasies and analyze odd things like their voice. Have you ever thought a person’s voice didn’t match their appearance? That’s the kind of stuff I think about. Weird, I know.
It’s the same in fiction, though, isn’t it? We notice the way writers use certain words or phrases more than others. It’s a sort of signature the writer may not even know is there. We call them “crutch” words, the words we lean on when we can’t think of anything else. The problem? They tend to create a voice that doesn’t match the passage, and this can be damaging to immersive reading.
I try to adapt the voice of a passage to the personality of the point of view character and the tone I want to create for a scene. I think this is something expert writers inherently do when they’re creating powerful scenes because they’re natural students of people and environments. They understand certain things:
- The feelings that come up in moments of fear, anticipation, grief, loss, happiness, or confusion
- What escalates or deescalates a situation
- How one person’s words can affect the minds and emotions of others
Knowing those things, writers use word choice, sentence structure, and tone to evoke those emotions in readers. Done poorly this makes for an unpleasant reading experience. Wouldn’t it seem awkward if a climactic moment in a Frank Peretti novel was written in the style of a Karen Kingsbury climax? Peretti is writing about warriors colliding whereas Kingsbury is writing about two people coming together in love. Imagine that the language and tone of the man professing his love for the woman were used for the angel fighting the demon.
The idea is to be as real-to-life as possible. Here is an example of a scene from my upcoming release, Fate of the Redeemed:
“Yara sat bolt upright and screamed. Ibrahim ignored the protests of his frail and cracking bones as he sprang to his feet and rushed to her side. He dropped down to his knees in front of her and grabbed her by the shoulders, calling out her name.”
Although we’re not getting deep into the character’s emotions, we’re getting an understanding of the urgency. This is done through a mixture of complex and compound sentences with varied length to create a sense of urgency. The idea here is to imitate the increased heart rate of someone in an emergency. Imagine if we did this with a different approach:
“Yara sat up and screamed. Ibrahim’s eyes blinked open, and he felt the protest of his frail and cracking bones as he lifted to one shoulder and regarded his screaming granddaughter. Seeing that she was upset, he got up, moved over to her, and tried to comfort her by placing his hands on her shoulders and calling her name.”
The second example employs a three-step list, but people don’t think that way in an emergency. They move from action to action, and they certainly don’t do so with a slow, methodical manner.
Good writing makes us feel the way characters feel. We suspend our sense of reality and get lost in the story, but this takes a great deal of effort on the part of the writer. When you read a book that has done this well, try to appreciate the craft as well as the story. Then, get back into that story!
Chad grew up lost in the world of fantasy fiction but alienated from a knowledge of God. With no real direction in his life, he shipped out for basic training twelve days after high school. He continued down a path of sin and destruction through two combat tours to Iraq, but then God pulled back the blinders, and he met his Lord and Savior.
One passion that never left him was his love for fiction, and in 2013, he went back to school and earned his degree in English. This helped him develop his craft, spending long hours pounding away at the keys until his battles with guilt, fear, and shame came alive on the page.
Now he is on a mission to pull back the curtain on spiritual warfare and show others how to overcome trials through faith and start living their best lives for God.
Before time froze, angels and demons battled for a man’s soul.
Hidden among the rooftops of a dark city, the archangel, Orac watches as a lone vehicle travels into the night. Armed with his fiery sword and orders to protect the driver of the vehicle at all costs, Orac takes flight. He seizes on the element of surprise to defeat the demon, Talnuc, but soon discovers that the demon is not alone.
When the archangel’s defenses are penetrated by the spirit of fear, he must rely on the help of a powerful watcher named Draven.
But, when an even greater and more sinister threat is revealed, drastic measures must be taken by Orac and Draven, and the remnant of the heavenly host must follow unprecedented orders for the sake of mankind’s future. As eternal forces collide, the journey of fate begins.
One of the most common problems I see in manuscripts by unpublished authors (besides slipping out of “storytelling” into “expository telling”) is a tendency to ramble from description to dialogue to action to discovery etc., almost at random.
This is fine when one is pre-writing— just brainstorming, outlining, and pantsing one’s way along, chasing inspiration. One pursues and often captures vivid scenes, character insights, and plot points around which the rest of the story will be written. But if “the rest of the story” fumbles its way toward the next gem, the reader might not stick around long enough to reach it.
What’s missing is a reliable way to hold the reader’s attention as you rhythmically spool through “the rest of the story” in a way that sets up each crushing defeat and glorious triumph. Fortunately, such a rhythm is well understood: it’s called story structure.
Story structure isn’t the same as a story arc, the three-act (or four-box, or eight-point) overall plot structure that makes a story satisfying. Nor is it a formulaic straitjacket to strangle your creativity. It is a basic underlying rhythm that engages the attention, emotion, and curiosity of your readers, and maintains it as long as you maintain that rhythm. Depart from it whenever you like… at your own risk.
Story structure (perhaps “story rhythm” would be a better term) is made up of two kinds of scenes, which Dwight Swain called “Scenes” and “Sequels,” each of which has three “story beats.”
The three parts of a Scene sound just like any scene you might write: a character strives toward a specific Goal, encounters Conflict or resistance, and either fails to attain the Goal, or succeeds and is disappointed for some reason, or discovers what the next Goal must be. It might not end in “disaster,” but there must be some kind of “uh oh” or “what next?” involved, which hopefully sets up another scene.
But this is Swain’s insight: begin with a Goal and Conflict, but always end in Disaster of some kind, at least something that feels like a Disaster to your main character and to your reader.
Then make the next scene something different: make it a Sequelto the scene before it. Describe the POV character feeling, absorbing, Reacting to the Disaster that just happened. Then give them a Dilemma: force them to make an impossible choice (or one that seems so to that character at that part of their character arc). Let them agonize in a way that resonates convincingly with your reader. But not for too long. They must Decide on some course of action—which becomes the Goal for your next Scene.
Goal, Conflict, Disaster — Reaction, Dilemma, Decision
Goal, Conflict, Disaster — Reaction, Dilemma, Decision
As you string these together, you start a virtuous cycle of fascination and tension, an engine that drives the reader inexorably through the story. This smoothly-running engine can roar like a rocket or coast along at cruising speed, as the pace of the story varies, but if you can keep it running without interruption, you’ve got what’s called a “page-turner” on your hands. You have learned how to structure a book that your reader can’t put down.
Again, this is a scene-by-scene story rhythm that just works. It isn’t a formula, because every author will implement it differently. Your reader won’t “see” this Scene/Sequel structure because you’ll clothe it in characters, setting, thoughts, emotions, dialogue and action. Your reader will see and hear what you describe to them; they won’t notice the story structure you’re using.
Unless, of course, you don’t have one, or you deviate from the Scene/Sequel cycle in a distracting way. Then they will indeed miss the smoothly-running engine, even though they won’t know what exactly has gone wrong. Every passionate reader of fiction, regardless of genre, is familiar with the thrilling purr of well-structured storytelling even though almost none of them would recognize the machinery if they peeked under the hood. But readers don’t need to understand the mechanics of story structure to know immediately when it has stalled on them. Very few readers are willing to push your story along to the next service station. Now that you know the secret, you won’t do that to them anymore!
Nic Nelson started following Jesus early in college and has found it difficult to keep up with the fellow. It’s more like hurtling headlong from one impossible challenge to another, involving widely varied failure and just enough triumph to keep him sane. Which is probably just how Jesus intended it. Oh, and for the past fifteen years he has been helping authors to “write well and publish wisely.” Since clients keep coming despite Nic’s complete lack of advertising acumen, and they keep saying nice things about him when he isn’t around, he seems to do this pretty well.
Let’s be honest—unless it’s vital to a plot, most people don’t want to read about a character’s bowel movements, mouthy kids, or hangnails. Often authors include mundane details to make their characters seem more realistic, but that realism doesn’t always come across well in books. Today we’re going to quickly look at five things you can reduce/eliminate from your manuscript to help strengthen your story.
- Small talk. If you were raised before cell phones, your calls probably started like this:
“Hello, this is the Van Burens.”
“Hi, is your mom there?”
“May I ask who’s calling?”
“Mr. Smith from the insurance agency.”
“One moment, please.”
It’s polite and informative, but in a book, it takes up too much space and slows down the story. You don’t necessarily want your characters to be rude, but you don’t need a hello/goodbye in every conversation either. And unless the weather is important to the plot, you don’t need to show people discussing it.
- Introspection. Most people overthink things, be it every decision they make or only those related to a specific subject. That’s normal. But it doesn’t work well in books. It’s okay—even expected—to have characters reflect on situations, but after they do it once, move on. You don’t need to remind your readers over and over again of a character’s ideas, nor do you need to show the characters thinking about every situation they experience. When you repeat thoughts/scenes/reactions, you give readers a reason to skip pages. Once they start to skip, they’ll keep skipping (so don’t give them a reason).
- Well, so, okay, etc. Just because people say it in real life doesn’t mean it needs to appear in your dialogue. It’s amazing how many times well and so appear in manuscripts when authors start their sentences with them—they can show up hundreds of times! That’s a lot of words that could be used to show something more important to the plot. The same is true for filler words such as like, okay, um, uh-huh. Leaving them out won’t make the dialogue feel unnatural but including too many of them will slow the pace and stand out as unnecessary.
- Step-by-step instructions. Every morning I wake up, let the dogs out, feed them, pack my husband’s lunch, then start breakfast. Not many people care, and they shouldn’t. It’s boring. So is explaining how to put the key in the ignition, start the car, throw it into reverse, pull out of the driveway, and slide it into drive before heading into town. Whether we want to or not, we live orderly lives—you often can’t do one thing (drive into town) without doing another thing first (starting the car). Readers don’t need to see each of those steps though. If it’s important to show a character’s nighttime routine, show it once. Then trust your reader to remember it and move on to other important details of the story.
- Repetition. Similar to #4 but slightly different, readers don’t need to see character repeating themselves. Yes, we’ve all had experiences where we had to tell the same story over and over again, but you don’t want to do that on the page. Remember #2? When you start repeating things, readers are tempted to skip pages. Don’t give them a reason! Find creative ways to convey what’s happening in a scene without actually repeating every detail. Your readers will thank you.
Yes, you want your characters to be realistic, but too much realism can slow down a story and kill the intensity. When you look for and cut back on these five things, you’ll naturally tighten your story without sacrificing characterization.
My sophomore novel—Practically Married—releases October 2019! Sign up for my monthly newsletter and you’ll receive sneak peeks, behind-the-scenes stories, and pictures of my cats and dogs. Follow me on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter for writing tips, updates on Guiding Light, and more!
Whether we’ve seen the Declaration of Independence or not, we recognize this bold and stylish signature that identifies the president of the Second Continental Congress.
Signatures are important because they identify people. The bank honors our checks because they recognize our signature. Contracts depend on signatures because those distinguish the parties involved in the contract.
A written signature is a unique visual that identifies a specific person. I call the unique manner of speech that identifies a specific person that person’s Dialog Signature.
I suggest that you make up a dialog signature for each of your major characters before you even start writing the novel. Why? So that each character will have a distinct manner of speaking which the reader can recognize.
What makes up a dialog signature? Many things. Let’s look at a few.
Vocabulary or word choice. Often our vocabulary reflects who we grew up. Did this character come from a rural area or a big city? Were his parents both college professors? Did he live over a bar as a teen? Was he from New York, Boston, New Orleans or Las Vegas and it shows in his speech.
Does your character have favorite words that show up more frequently than normal? Or perhaps marker words, common words overused by this person. How are favorite words and marker words different. A character might have a favorite word like “paradigm” and use it in most conversations. But a marker word would be a more common word (generally one which adds nothing), such as “like” or “just” and that word might show up in almost every sentence.
What is her sentence structure? Does she always speak in complete sentences, or perhaps compound sentences. Or maybe she doesn’t use complete sentences.
Volume? Terse or verbose? Here, we’re not talking about how loud, but how many words. Two people can deliver the same information, but one uses the minimal number of words possible while the other may use five times as many words.
Does she have a particular cadence in her dialog?
Is her speech playful, always serious, cautious, businesslike, offhand, snarky?
Does he have a regional dialect, or perhaps a foreign accent?
What is her eye contact mode? Does she look you in the eye, or avoid eye contact? Or does this depend on whether she is telling the truth or not?
Any particular body language? Yes, we are talking about dialog, but some studies show the words account for less than half of the information a person receives during dialog. Facial expression is an obvious and important element, but so is the position of the arms, posture, focus of the eyes, etc.. In this short discussion, we can’t cover body language adequately – books are written on it. But, keep it in mind when developing a character’s dialog signature.
Here’s an example of a dialog signature for a character.
Ron’s Dialog Signature
Flow: very deliberate person – thinks before responding
Mannerism: frequently begins with “Mmmmm.”
Cadence: slow – never rushes
Style: usually businesslike or polite, never snarky
Sentence structure: usually speaks in complete sentences
Vocabulary: normal, with occasional words outside normal, but not
esoteric. Examples: paradigm, caveat
Regional dialect or accent: none
Body Language: always maintains eye contact. If responding to a
question, will likely nod several times before answering
Voice: soft spoken, almost never raises his voice
Favorite word: precisely
Favorite phrase: In my opinion
Volume: doesn’t waste many words
Keep in mind, that to be part of the character’s Dialog Signature, these must happen often, not just in a single instance.
If you keep this in front of you when writing dialog, Ron will be consistent and easily distinguished. Readers will come to know his speech patterns. If you follow this procedure for all major characters, readers will begin to recognize the speakers and actually hear their voices.
And you will be a master at writing dialog.
After a successful career in mathematics and computer science, receiving grants from the National Science Foundation and NASA, and being listed in Who’s Who in Computer Science and Two Thousand Notable Americans, James R. Callan turned to his first love—writing. He has had four non-fiction books published. He now concentrates on his favorite genre, mystery/suspense/thriller. His twelfth book released in May, 2018. In addition, he speaks at conferences and gives workshops on various writing topics such as character development, dialog, audiobooks, plotting, and the mystery/suspense/thriller genre.