On Conducting Interviews…

interviewingBeing a Smart Reporter

Whether you’re writing non-fiction or fiction, at some point in your research you may need to conduct an interview. It might be a local police officer who handled a case similar to something you are writing about; it might be a scientist in the university who has critical information on something covered in your story; it might be a friend who has experienced something you wish to get first-hand knowledge of for one of your characters. Either way, you need to conduct your interview professionally, efficiently and with sufficient thoroughness and accuracy to get what you need.

In other words, you need to be a good journalist.

Pillars of Good Journalism

The pillars of good journalism include: 1) thoroughness; 2) accuracy; 3) fairness; and 4) transparency.

These days, thoroughness means more than exhausting your resources, real or virtual. It also includes getting input from your readers, says Robin Good, online publisher and new media communication expert.

Likewise, says Good, being accurate may include saying what you don’t know and being open to input from your readership; this invites dialogue between you and your respected reader. The key, of course, is respect.

Which brings us to fairness: this includes listening to different viewpoints and incorporating them into your journalism. Fairness, says Good, is about letting people respond and listening to them, particularly if they disagree with you. Both learn from the experience.

And, lastly, part of being transparent is revealing and making accessible to your readers your source material.

Things to Consider When Doing That Interview

As a writer it’s guaranteed that you will at some time require information from a real person. Depending on the nature of your research and its intended destination and audience, you may wish to conduct anything from a casual phone or email enquiry to a full-blown formal face-to-face interview. This will also depend on who you are interviewing, from a neighbor to a government official.

In an article in Writer’s Digest, Joy Lanzendorfer suggests that you adopt the following tactics to get your interview further than the basics and to fully take advantage of your source (oh, I didn’t mean it that way!):

  • Do your research ahead of time: read up on your subject and include both sides of an issue (if that’s relevant). This helps you to respond intelligently with better follow-up questions.
  • Ask open-ended questions: avoid yes and no questions and get them to elaborate. Asking “why” solicits explanation, which will give your article depth.
  • Ask for examples: this provides a personal aspect to the article that gives it warmth and makes it more interesting.
  • Ask personal questions: what’s the worst thing that can happen? They can simply say “no”; the up side is you may get a gem. The personal angle from the interviewee’s perspective gives your article some potential emotional aspect that gives it human-interest.
  • Ask the interviewee for any further thoughts to share: it’s an innocuous question, but can offer-up more gems. What it provides you with is the possibility of getting something you might not have thought of, sparked by your conversation.

Don’t be afraid to confirm names, places or any facts your interviewee brings up. This will inspire confidence in them about the thoroughness and accuracy in your reporting.

What NOT to Say…

In an article in Writer’s Digest, Nancie Hudson gives the following excellent advice about what you should never say to a source:

  • “There’s no rush.”—never reveal your deadline. Think about it; what do you normally do when there’s a deadline? Right … If you’re going to share a deadline, say it’s sooner than it really is.
  • “I’ve never covered this topic before.”—this kind of information is inappropriate and may make your interviewee uncomfortable (and worried about your unproven abilities to properly interview her instead of focusing on herself and what you’re interviewing her about). Besides, it’s not what you know but what you learn that counts.
  • “I’ll be using what you say extensively.”—don’t assume and make promises you may not be able to keep, until after the interview.
  • “I don’t get it.”—if you don’t understand something, get clarification rather than making a negative remark that tends to stop them dead in their tracks.
  • “you can review the piece before it’s published.”—this is something that can be dealt with over the phone to confirm facts; the source doesn’t need to see the whole piece before it’s published.
  • “This is going to be a fantastic article!”—keep your tone professional; there’s nothing wrong with being positive, but you should maintain a professional attitude that inspires confidence in the interviewee rather than giddy wild energy. 

 

References

Good, Robin. “The Pillars of Good Journalism”. In: Master New Media:  http://www.masternewmedia.org/news/2005/01/29/the_pillars_of_good_journalism.htm

petals in the forestHudson, Nancie. 2007. “6 Things You Should Never Say to a Source”. In: Writer’s Digest. April, 2007.

Lanzendorfer, Joy. 2008. “Interview Tactics”. In: Writer’s Digest. February, 2008.

Munteanu, Nina. 2009. “The Fiction Writer: Get Published, Write Now!” Starfire World Syndicate. Chapter “I”.

 

 

 

 

Nina Munteanu

Nina Munteanu is an ecologist, limnologist and internationally published author of award-nominated speculative novels, short stories and non-fiction. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books.

 

Fiction Writer on Recommended Reads

FictionWriter-front cover-2nd edWriter Timea Noemi selected The Fiction Writer by Nina Munteanu along with the works of Angela Ackerman and Katie Weiland as her Top books on How to Write.

“[The Fiction Writer]is the most practical book on publishing that I’ve ever read, and I’ve read them all! Not only is each chapter packed with advice for writers at every level of the publishing process, but the text is highly readable and even entertaining. The clear format, the direct style and the playful layout keep the large volume of information from ever becoming dry or boring.”–Lucia Gorea, English Instructor, University of Vancouver

FictionWriter-No1-tweet

scriitorul_de_fictiune_Munteanu_coperta1Timea Noemi also recommended the Romanian translated version of “The Fiction Writer: Get Published, Write Now!” (“Manual de Scriere Creativa. Scriitorul de fictiune”) by Nina Munteanu along with “The Emotion Thesaurus” by Angela Ackerman and the Hungarian “How to Write a Book” by Krisz Nadasi.

Of “the Fiction Writer” Timea said:

“Eu mutumesc enorm! Cartea aceasta ma invatat atat de multe lucruri este bibia mea de scriitor. Din pacate nu prea se gasesc carti despre scriere creative in tara si m-am bucurat tare mult sa gasesc aceasta carte.” (Thank you so much! This book taught me so many things; it is my writer’s Bible. Unfortunately, there are no books on creative writing in the country, and I enjoyed finding this book.)

FictionWriter Tesimonial-Romanian

editura-paralela-45-scriere creativa.Cu plecere, Timi!

In fact, I knew this (that writing guides were lacking in Romania, a country full of writers!) and so did my Romanian publisher Calin Vlasie of Editura Paralela 45. This is why Editura Paralela 45 translated and published a Romanian version of The Fiction Writer. It so gladdens me to hear that this book on writing is making its way around the country.

Gaudeamus-LaunchMy father is originally from Romania and grew up in Bucharest.  So, I was delighted to attend the launch of Manual de Scriere Creativa. Scriitorul de fictiune (The Fiction Writer) in Bucharest in 2011, hosted by Editura Paralela in the Gaudeamus Book Fair. It was a wonderful experience, which included drinking copious amounts of Romania’s national drink Tuica (plum liquor that packs a punch!) with my publisher. You can find out more about my adventure in Bucharest on my good friend’s site, Toulouse On the Loose.

Canadians can purchase “The Fiction Writer” at a very decent price right now from Chapters / Indigo.

 

Nina MunteanuNina Munteanu is an ecologist, limnologist and internationally published author of award-nominated speculative novels, short stories and non-fiction. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books.

 

 

 

 

 

 

RecipeArium Delivers a Full Course Thrill

recipearium-costi gurguIn the Green Kingdom, stimulation through the sense of taste has become a powerful and complex art form that rules the lives of the males—the phrils. Not only does it bring pleasure, it can change a phril’s destiny, even guide him into death and beyond. But only if he can afford the services of the artists called Recipears. Without a Recipear, a phril will live and die a pagan, with no chance of an afterlife. The female of the species, called phriliras, cannot experience RecipeArium; they replace it with their faith in one God with changing names. In the world within the huge body of a monstrous beast, the Recipears rule society.

RecipeArium is a tale of sensation and flesh, in which the very hope of an afterlife is determined by one’s sex. The novel takes us on a journey to discover the meaning of love in a boldly imagined world where art is transformative and immortality the destiny of the few.

Carrying the soul of his RecipeArium master within him, Morminiu comes to the royal Court with two objectives: to exact revenge on his master’s enemies and to win for himself the most desired and treacherous position in the realm: Master Recipear of the Kingdom.

Costi-launch

Costi Gurgu, launching at Pierre Leon Gallery

My own testimonial of the book follows:

Gurgu delivers a full course meal of epic transcendence in an alien landscape that is at once grotesque and wondrously compelling.

From the vast and forgotten lands of the Edge of the World to the corrupt decadence and intrigue of the nobility who dwell inside the monstrous Carami, Gurgu’s Recipearium unveils a fascinating world in transformation. Recipearium is a sensual metaphoric tale that explores the dialectic quest of duality to realize itself as whole.

Imaginative. Outrageous. Original.

Gurgu subverts traditional fantasy and SF with the promise of new heights in storytelling.

Costi-signing

Costi Gurgy signing his book at launch in Pierre Leon Gallery

The publisher, White Cat Publishers interviewed Costi recently; a few choice questions and answers appear below:

Regarding his aspirations for the book, Costi responded:

First of all, this new release will bring Recipearium to the English speaking market, which is quite a big aspiration in itself. And through Recipearium I hope to open the hearts of North American readers to the rest of my fiction as well as to Romanian Speculative Fiction in general.

To their mention that RecipeArium is considered the “new weird” (even in science RecipeArium launchADASTRAfiction, which is itself considered strange), Costi responded:

Several publishers told me that they hadn’t read anything like it, and therefore they couldn’t compare it to any other book. Yes, at first I wanted to thank them because they practically told me it really was an original novel, but only later I realized that they meant they wouldn’t know how to market it and sell it. They didn’t even know if it would sell, because nobody has sold something similar before.

When I signed the contract in Romania, my Romanian publisher also didn’t know how to market it. So, my editor decided to write and talk about it like any other book and completely ignored that one thing that made it different. He hoped that when the readers discovered it, they would already be hooked and therefore it would be too late for them to freeze in awe. J

It paid off. The story proved a success. Not only because of the awards and the numerous reviews but mostly because of the satisfied readers … So, as a conclusion, I won’t tell you what makes it different from the rest. I want my readers to discover it for themselves. And I promise you it’s not the kind of surprise that goes BANG! It creeps on you slowly.

White Cat then asked Costi to elaborate on his earlier comment about the difference between European and American genre writing. Here’s what Costi said:

Sure. In my opinion there are two major differences. The first one is of perception. In Europe we read fiction works by writers from over seventy countries from all around the world. That is over seventy different cultures in which their authors write stories without worrying that maybe a foreign reader would not understand a certain social, political or cultural event, or a certain attitude, habit or tradition.

Yes, maybe the South American characters act according to a different code of social conduct than Romanians, or maybe French characters’ attitude is strange for a Bulgarian reader, or Chinese motivations are weird to Greeks. But if the story or the characters are gripping enough, all those things don’t stop us from getting the underlying concept from the context and we just keep reading.

The stories we read can take place in real cities or villages from different and unfamiliar parts of the world. Usually the European writer doesn’t care that his readers may have never been in his city and he keeps telling the story as if all his readers are his co-nationals, or even his neighbours.

poster-launchWe embrace the exotic, the foreign, the strange, the unknown… the alien.

American editors have rejected translating huge names from European speculative fiction because they’re considered too strange and not easily understood by North American readers. Because the North American readership has read only North American genre writers for the past fifty years and they wouldn’t accept something different than an American way of perceiving reality and interpreting information. Something that may be too far from the North American system of values.

“But they’re readers of Science Fiction! I mean, they read Science Fiction or Fantasy because they want to be transported to different worlds. You mean that the American readers better understand a story happening on a strange planet or in the underworld, but they will find it difficult to follow a story happening in Bruges, or Warsaw?” I replied.

North American editors don’t appear to have that confidence in their readers. I, on the other hand, have that confidence. It has been proven to me over and over again, that the true SF&F reader, European or North American, is thirsty for new and exotic, and strange, and alien.

The second aspect is technical. It’s about the writing techniques, the story structure, the point of view approach, and so on. It’s an aspect I will not detail here. Suffice to say that while in North America a writer is supposed to write according to a certain and more strict system of technical rules if she’s to be accepted by professional markets, in Europe the editors don’t care if the writer abides by the rules or breaks them, as long as it’s good writing and the readers want more of that author.

 

 

“Water” a Speculative Fiction Anthology by Reality Skimming Press

WaterAnthology-RealitySkimmingPressIn December 2017, “Water”, the first of Reality Skimming Press’s Optimistic Sci-Fi Series was released in Vancouver, BC. I was invited to be one of the editors for the anthology, given my passion for and experience with water.

This is how Reality Skimming Press introduces the series:

Reality Skimming Press strives to see the light in the dark world we live in, so we bring to you the optimistic science fiction anthology series. Water is the first book in the series, and is edited by author and scientist Nina Munteanu. Six authors thought optimistically about what Earth will be like in terms of water in the near future and provide us with stories on that theme. Step into the light and muse with us about the world of water.

Editing “Water” was a remarkable experience, best described in my Foreword to the anthology:

LyndaWilliams

Lynda Williams

This anthology started for me in Summer of 2015, when Lynda Williams (publisher of RSP) and I were sitting on the patio of Sharky’s Restaurant in Ladner, BC, overlooking the mouth of the Fraser River. As we drank Schofferhoffers over salmon burgers, Lynda lamented that while the speculative / science fiction genre has gained a literary presence, this has been at some expense. Much of the current zeitgeist of this genre in Canada tends toward depressing, “self-interested cynicism and extended analogies to drug addiction as a means of coping with reality,” Lynda remarked.

Nina-Sharkys

lunch at Sharky’s

Where was the optimism and associated hope for a future? I brought up the “hero’s journey” and its role in meaningful story. One of the reasons this ancient plot approach, based on the hero journey myth, is so popular is that its proper use ensures meaning in story. This is not to say that tragedy is not a powerful and useful story trope; so long as hope for someone—even if just the reader—is generated. Lynda and I concluded that the science fiction genre could use more optimism. Reality Skimming Press is the result of that need and I am glad of it.

Megan coverIn the years that followed, Reality Skimming Press published several works, including the “Megan Survival” Anthology for which I wrote a short story, “Fingal’s Cave”. It would be one of several works that I produced on the topic of water.

As a limnologist (freshwater scientist), I am fascinated by water’s anomalous and life-giving properties and how this still little understood substance underlies our lives in so many ways. We—like the planet—are over 70% water. Water dominates the chemical composition of all organisms and is considered by many to be the most important substance in the world. The water cycle drives every process on Earth from the movement of cells to climate change. Water is a curious gestalt of magic and paradox, cutting recursive patterns of creative destruction through the landscape. It changes, yet stays the same, shifting its face with the climate. It wanders the earth like a gypsy, stealing from where it is needed and giving whimsically where it isn’t wanted; aggressive yet yielding. Life-giving yet dangerous. Water is a force of global change, ultimately testing our compassion and wisdom as participants on a grand journey.

When Reality Skimming invited me to be editor of their first anthology in their hard science optimistic series, and that it would be about water, I was delighted and excited.

The six short stories captured here flow through exotic landscapes, at once eerie and beautiful. Each story uniquely explores water and our relationship with its profound and magical properties:  melting glaciers in Canada’s north; water’s computing properties and weather control; water as fury and the metaphoric deluge of flood; mining space ice from a nearby comet; water as shapeshifter and echoes of “polywater”. From climate fiction to literary speculative fiction; from the fantastic to the purest of science fiction and a hint of horror—these stories explore individual choices and the triumph of human imagination in the presence of adversity.

I invite you to wade in and experience the surging spirit of humanity toward hopeful shores.

Nina Munteanu, M. Sc., R.P.Bio.
Author of Water Is…
October, 2017
Toronto, Canada

 

The anthology features the art work of Digbejoy Ghosh (both cover and interior for each story) and stories by:

Holly Schofield
Michelle Goddard
Bruce Meyer
Robert Dawson
A.A. Jankiewicz
Costi Gurgu

You can buy a copy on Amazon.ca or through the publisher.

nina-2014aaaNina Munteanu is an ecologist, limnologist and internationally published author of award-nominated speculative novels, short stories and non-fiction. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books.

 

 

 

 

 

The Careful Writer: Common Pitfalls of the Beginning Novelist: Part 2–Language

painted leavesHere are five things that I guarantee will improve your story:

  1. Voice: This is the feel and tone that applies to the overall book (narrative voice) and to each character. The overall voice is dictated by your audience, who you’re writing for: youth, adults, etc. It’s important to give each character a distinctive “voice” (including use of distinct vernacular, use of specific expressions or phrases, etc.). This is one way a reader can identify a character and find them likeable—or not. In a manuscript I recently reviewed, I noticed that the characters spoke in a mixture of formal and casual speech. This confuses the reader and bumps them out of the “fictive dream”. Consistency is very important for readers. They will abandon a story whose writing is not consistent. So, my advice to this writer was to pick one style for each character and stick to it. Voice includes what a character says. It incorporates language (both speech and body movements), philosophy, humor. How a character looks, walks, talks, laughs, is all part of this. Let’s take laughter for instance: does your character tend to giggle, titter, chortle, gafaw, belly-laugh? Do any of your characters have conflicts with one another? Either through differences in opinions, agendas, fears, ambitions… etc. One learns so much from the kind of interaction a character has with his/her surroundings (whether it’s another character or a scene).
  2. Point of View (POV): Many beginner’s novels are often told through no particular POV. Many first manuscripts often start in the omniscient POV (that of the narrator) and ever so often may lapse into one of the character’s POV briefly. This makes for very “telling vs showing” type of writing (not to mention being inconsistent again). 90% of writers do not write this way because it tends to be off-putting, it distances the reader from the characters, and is very difficult to achieve and be consistent with. Most writers prefer to use limited third person POV (told from one or a few key characters; that is, you get into the head and thoughts of only a few people: all the observations are told through their observations, what they see, feel and think). This bonds the reader to your characters and makes for much more compelling reading. I would highly suggest you adopt this style. That’s not to say that you can’t use several POVs… just not at the same time; it is the norm to use chapter or section breaks to change a POV.
  3. Passive vs. Active Verbs: beginners often use a lot of passive verbs (e.g., were, was, being, etc.). Some use too may modifiers. Try to find more active verbs. Many writers fall into the pattern of using verbs that are weak and passive (and then adding a modifier to strengthen it…it doesn’t). Actively look for strong, vivid verbs. This is a key to good writing. I can’t emphasize this enough. For instance, which version is more compelling: ‘she walked quickly into the room’ or ‘she stormed into the room’?
  4. Show, don’t tell: this is partly a function of POV and use of active verbs. Once you change to 3rd person, much of this will naturally resolve itself. An example of telling vs. showing is this: [He was in a rage and felt betrayed. “You lied, Clara,” he said angrily, grabbing her hand.] instead, you could show it: [His face smoldered. “You lied, Clara,” he roared, lunging for her.] Telling also includes large sections of exposition, either in dialogue or in narrative. This happens a lot in beginning writer’s stories. It takes courage and confidence to say less and let the reader figure it out. Exposition needs to be broken up and appear in the right place as part of the story. Story is paramount. “Telling” is one of the things beginning writers do most and editors will know you for one right away. Think of the story as a journey for both writer and reader. The writer makes a promise to the reader that s/he will provide a rip-roaring story and the reader comes on side, all excited. This is done through a confident tease in the beginning and slow revelation throughout the story to keep it compelling. Exposition needs to be very sparingly used, dealt out in small portions.
  5. Unclutter your writing: There is a Mennonite adage that applies to writing: “less is more”. Sentences in early works tend to be full of extra words (e.g., using “ing” verbs, add-ons like “he started to think” instead of simply “he thought”). Cut down the words in your paragraphs (often in the intro chapters) by at least 20%. Be merciless; you won’t miss them, believe me, and you will add others later in your second round of edits.

 

This is an excerpt from The Fiction Writer: Get Published, Write Now! (Starfire)

 

nina-2014aaNina Munteanu is an ecologist and internationally published author of award-nominated speculative novels, short stories and non-fiction. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books.

The Careful Writer: Common Pitfalls of the Beginning Novelist: Part 1–Characters

painted leavesHave you ever wondered how an editor decides not to read your cherished tome past the second paragraph of the first page and has pegged you as a beginning writer? This used to really bug me… Now, as a published author, mentor, and writing coach I read a lot of unpublished manuscripts. I now recognize what these editors do.

So, I’d like to share what I’ve learned over the years (some of the very same comments that have been made of my work, I am now sharing with you). I’ll be providing you my advice in three parts: 1) characters; 2) language; and 3) structure.

Let’s start with characters, since they are in my opinion, the most important part of a novel:

Characters carry the theme of the book. Each character needs to have a role in advancing the plot and/or theme; each character needs a reason to be there. A character therefore needs to be distinctive and usually shows some character development (as story arc) from beginning to end of story. Your characters are the most important part of your book (more so than the plot or premise). Through them your book lives and breathes. Through them your premise, your plot (which is essentially just a way to create problems for your characters to live out their development) and story come alive. Through them you achieve empathy and commitment from the reader and his/her willingness to keep reading to find out what’s going to happen next: if the reader doesn’t invest in the characters, they won’t really care what happens next.

Characters need to be real. They come to life by giving them individual traits and real weaknesses and heroic qualities that are consistent and have qualities readers can recognize and empathize with. You play these against each other to achieve drama. For instance, a man who is afraid of heights but who must climb a mountain to save his love is far more compelling than one who is not; a military man who fears responsibility but must lead his team into battle; a scientist who is afraid of failure; etc.

Characters of beginning writers often suffer from lack of distinction, or purpose, and often simply clutter up a story. For a character to “come alive” their “voice” must be distinct. Give them distinctive body movements, dress, facial features and expressions that reveal character, inner feelings, emotions, fears, motivations, etc. Then keep them consistent. There are several techniques writers use to increase empathy for a character. This includes use of third person POV, keeping the story with focus on fewer rather than many characters, creating character dossiers and keeping them consistent, providing each character a distinctive “voice” (figuratively), as in how they behave, say, react, etc. Another way to make your characters distinct (and works to also tie into plot and theme) is to make your characters not get along. Make them argue, disagree (at least!), have suspicions, betray one another, laugh and ridicule, etc. By doing this you increase tension, conflict (two things every book requires) and you enlighten the reader into each of the characters involved. Make them fight or argue over what they believe in – or not. You need to describe your characters in effective brief but vivid language as the reader encounters them.

Here are some questions you need to ask about your characters:

  1. if I can remove the character, will the book fall apart? (if not, you don’t need that character; they aren’t fulfilling a role in the book);
  2. how does the character portray the major or minor theme of the book? (that’s what characters are there for)
  3. what is the role of the character? (e.g., protagonist, antagonist, mentor, catalyst, etc.)
  4. what is the story arc of the character? Does he or she develop, change, do they learn something by the end? If not, they will be two-dimensional and less interesting
  5. what major obstacle(s) must the character overcome?
  6. who are your major protagonist(s) (the main character who changes the most)?
  7. who are your major antagonist(s) (those who provide trouble for your protagonists, the source of conflict, tension, the obstacle: one of their own?
  8. what’s at stake: for the world (plot); for each individual (Theme) and how do these tie together? Every character has a role to fulfill in the plot and to other characters. Don’t be afraid to totally remove characters if they do not fulfill a role.

To summarize, each character is there for a purpose and this needs to be made apparent to the reader (intuitively through characterization, their failings, weaknesses, etc.). Make them bleed, hurt, cry, feel. This needs to be clear to the reader, who wants to empathize with some of them and hate others. How characters interact with their surroundings and each other creates tension, a key element to good storytelling. Tension, of course builds further with the additional conflict of protagonist with antagonists. But, in truth, it’s more fun to read about the tension from WITHIN a group that’s supposed to be together. Think of Harry Potter and what was juicy there… It wasn’t really Voldemort … it was what went on at Hogwarts between Harry and his friends and not-so-friends. That is what makes a story memorable; that is what makes a story something you can’t put down until you’ve finished it.

Part 2 of the Beginning Novelist will focus on language.

This is an excerpt from The Fiction Writer: Get Published, Write Now! (Starfire)

 

nina-2014aaNina Munteanu is an ecologist and internationally published author of award-nominated speculative novels, short stories and non-fiction. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books.

 

 

He said, She said: Using Dialogue

fall trees pathOne of the most important devices to spice up narrative and increase pace is the use of dialogue. There’s a reason for this: we read dialogue more quickly; it’s written in more fluid, conversational English; it tends to create more white space on a page with less dense text, more pleasing to the reader’s eye.  Dialogue is action. It gets readers involved.

Good dialogue neither exactly mimics actual speech (e.g., it’s not usually mundane, repetitive or broken with words like “uh”) nor on the other extreme does it proselytize or educate the reader through long discourse (unless the character is that kind of person). Good dialogue in a story should be somewhere in the middle. While it should read as fluid conversation, dialogue remains a device to propel the plot or enlighten us to the character of the speaker). No conversation follows a perfect linear progression. People interrupt one another, talk over one another, often don’t answer questions posed to them or avoid them by not answering them directly. These can all be used by the writer to establish character, tension, and relationship.

Below, I provide a few tips when using dialogue in your story.

  • Show, don’t tell: a common error of beginning writers is to use dialogue to explain something that both participants should already know but the reader doesn’t. It is both awkward and unrealistic and immediately exposes you as a novice. For instance, avoid the use of “As you know…” It’s better to keep the reader in the dark for a while than to use dialogue to explain something. Which brings us to the next point.
  • Have your characters talk to each other, not to the reader: for instance, “Hello, John, you loser drunk and wayward son of the most feared gangster in town!” could be improved to, “You stink like a distillery, John! Wait ‘til papa’s thugs find you!”
  • Avoid adverbs: e.g., he said dramatically, she said pleadingly; instead look for better ways to express the way they said it with actual dialogue. That’s not to say you can’t use adverbs (I believe J.K. Rowling is notorious for this), just use them sparingly and judiciously.
  • Avoid tag lines that repeat what the dialogue already tells the reader: e.g., “I’m sorry,” he apologized. “Do you have a dog?” she asked.
  • He said, she said: reduce tag lines where possible and keep them simple by using “said”; another sign of a novice is the overuse of words other than said (e.g., snarled, hissed, purred, etc.). While these can add spice, keep them for special places as they are noticed by the reader and will distract otherwise.
  • Pay consistent attention to a character’s “voice”: each character has a way of speaking that identifies them as a certain type of person. This can be used to identify class, education, culture, ethnicity, proclivities, etc. For instance one character might use Oxford English and another might swear every third word.
  • Use speech signatures: pick out particular word phrases for characters that can be their own and can be identified with them. If they have additional metaphoric meaning to the story, even better. For instance, I know a person who always adds “Don’t you think?” to almost everything they say. This says something about how that person… well, thinks… I knew another person who always added “Do you see?” at the end of their phrase. Again rather revealing.
  • Intersperse dialogue with good descriptive narrative: don’t forget to keep the reader plugged into the setting. Many beginning writers forget to “ground” the reader with sufficient cues as to where the characters are and what they’re doing while they are having this great conversation. This phenomenon is so common, it even has a name. It’s called “talking heads.”
  • Contradict dialogue with narrative: when dialogue contradicts body language or other narrative cues about the speaker, this adds an element of compelling tension and heightens reader excitement while telling them something important. Here are a few examples:

“How’d it go?”

“Great,” he lied.

“I feel so much better now,” she said, eyes darting away from him.painted leaves

Well, you get the picture, anyway.

This is an excerpt from The Fiction Writer: Get Published, Write Now! (Starfire)

 

 

nina-2014aaNina Munteanu is an ecologist and internationally published author of award-nominated speculative novels, short stories and non-fiction. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books.