Tag Archives: conversation

Elements of the story: Conversation, gestures, and actions

My Writing LifeCreating memorable characters is the goal of all authors–after all, who would read a book if the characters are bland or uninteresting? But what is it that makes a character interesting? Is it just witty conversation?

That is surely a part of it, but think about the people you know. Picture the ones you like to spend time with. What is it about them that captured your interest in the first place? I’m not talking lovers here, so set the intangible, irresistible chemistry aside, for the moment.

Was it their gestures, their mannerisms that intrigued you before you got to know them? Something about them caught your interest, and you found a kindred spirit.

That is what we want to do for our characters.

And no, I don’t mean for you to inject an excess of flushing, smirking, eye-rolling, or shrugging into your story.

I want you to think natural: People don’t only use their faces to communicate. People’s bodies and faces are in constant motion, and that is how you want your characters to seem. You can do this in small, unobtrusive ways by visualizing your conversations and the character’s who are having them.

Consider this excerpt from one of my works in progress, Billy Ninefingers. These excerpts are from my rough draft and will be tightened up, but I am using them as the examples today.  This tale takes place in the world of Waldeyn, and Huw the Bard figures prominently in it, although not in the opening chapters. This conversation happens just before the first plot point. It is the calm before the storm and reveals some of Billy’s personality and his sidekick, Alan Le Clerk. It shows them as mercenaries and as people, and also shows their environment.

Conversation 1 Billy and Alan


Billy and Alan are clearly friends. It’s a sunny day and they are obviously wearing armor. Their conversation tells us they’re concerned about the trail they are on. Through that, we learn that world they live in is dangerous and people must hire guards to protect them from more than just highwaymen if they choose to travel. The three paragraphs of that conversation are all the reader needs to know about the work they do and the trail they are riding. That scene ends and the next scene  takes them and the merchant they are guarding to their destination, the dark, dirty town of Somber Flats.

That is where we come to the lead-up to the inciting action. This is where we meet Bastard John, and it is one of the few times he will be in such a place that we can see who he is. The second plot point makes no sense unless the reader knows that the Bastard is an obnoxious bastard, and proud to be so-named.

Conversation 2 Billy and Bastard John


We know the Bastard is a bastard when he is drunk. We know he is capable of acting on any thought that passes through his alcohol-soaked mind. We also see that Billy has a sense of fair-play.

Picture your conversations as if your were there with them. People miss a few beats when they are speaking. They gather their thoughts and  speak in short bursts. They shift in their chair, or stand up, or wave a hand to emphasize a point. They turn, and they sometimes mumble.

And it is important to remember that every character’s mannerisms are individual, uniquely theirs. You, as the author visualize them this way, but it is your task to commit their personalities to paper, and that is where many authors fail.

Through physical actions and conversational interactions we make our characters knowable and likable (or not, as the case may be). Their actions also help to show the environment they exist in. Within the scene of the conversation, you have the opportunity to convey the setting and the mood of your characters.

Claude Monet Painting in his Garden, by Pierre-Auguste Renoir [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Claude Monet Painting in his Garden, by Pierre-Auguste Renoir [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

We use our words sparingly and with intention, painting the setting as if we were artists in the style of the  impressionists. With color and small hints a good author gives the impression of detail, offering the reader a framework for  to hang his imagination on.

When characters act and speak naturally within a clearly visualized impression of a setting, we as readers,  suspend our disbelief and become immersed in the story.

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Plug in to The Matrix


the Matrix PosterNovels have layers. Theme is what the story is about on a deeper level than the plot details. It’s the big meaning, and often it’s a moral meaning. Love, honor, family, and revenge are all some common, underlying themes.

I think of the scenes in my books as if they were scenes in a movie. Each conversation is a scene.

Sometimes, we find ourselves in Outer Mongolia as we wrangle our words. Our mind is off chasing squirrels, and our fingers are madly keying dialogue. It happens, and then we find ourselves writing paragraphs of discussion regarding the vase on the kitchen table. Why are we discussing this vase?  If there is a reason that will emerge later, keep it. If it is just idle fluff, lose it.

I actually have a scene in one of my forthcoming books where the characters do just that. They are discussing a vase that was made by a child, but the conversation is not important for the sake of the vase, nor is it really about that object. It is there to expose how important an absent person is to one of the speakers, and the brief interaction between the two speakers endears to the reader one of the characters who will later meet a sad end. The underlying themes of this book are brotherhood, family, romantic love, honor, duty. The obvious theme is the successful resolution of a quest. The core plot device around which the story evolves is an ongoing War of the Gods, and the world in which the tale is set in is their battleground, offering all sorts of opportunities for mayhem.

Consider the first scene of one of my favorite movies of all time, The Matrix. This movie has a lot of action, but it has a lot of dialogue also, and that dialogue advances the plot and never loses the theme of the story.

Quotes from the matrix

The conversation concerns a drug deal, but the underlying theme is never lost. The key words are in the first line, written on the computer, The Matrix has you, the third line, follow the white rabbit, and in that very last line, telling Neo to unplug. The Matrix is all about waking up, about what reality is, and about Neo as the potential savior of the world, which has been enslaved by a virtual reality program. It is about escaping that program. The conversations that happen in the course of the film all advance that theme, even the minor interactions, from the first conversation to the last.

The Arc of the StoryWe must approach conversations in our novels as if they were scenes in a movie. In a good movie, we don’t notice it, but there is an arc. In a story arc, a character undergoes substantial growth or change. It ends with the denouement in the last third or quarter of a story. The end of a narrative arc is the denouement, the final resolution. It shows what happens as a result of all the conflict that the characters have gone through.

If we don’t keep the arc of the story moving with each scene, we will lose our reader, and to that end, each conversation must reflect the underlying themes of the story without beating the reader over the head with it. As in real life, some of the people know more than others, and to advance the plot and the theme, small clues must come out over the course of each scene, each scene building to the finale.

I876MilanoDuomo‘ve said this before, but we must build the overall arc of the story from scenes, each of which is a small arc, in the same way a gothic cathedral is constructed of many arches that all build toward the top.  The underlying arches strengthen the overall construction. Without arches, the cathedral wouldn’t remain standing for very long. The novel is a cathedral and your scenes are the arches that hold it up. The conversations that form those scenes are miniature arches, each with a beginning, a high point, and a resolution.



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The Great Dialogue Debate

My Coffee Cup © cjjasp 2013We meet our friends on the street, or in a bar or a coffee shop and we talk talk talk.  And so do our characters.  Sometimes those wild and wacky imaginary friends of ours just won’t be quiet, and it drives us nuts. Other times they behave like a thirteen-year-old forced to go on the old family vacation,  sitting in stony silence staring at her signal-less phone, refusing to participate with those people who claim to be her parents and who dragged her off to the wilderness for something called ‘family time.’


But when they DO choose to participate in the conversation, how do we make them sound natural? There is a lot of argument in writers forums on this subject, but I go from the point of view of the reader. What is easiest for the reader to follow?

Take a good long look at the works of established writers whose dialogue is crafted in such a way that you, as the the reader, didn’t feel like you were reading it: you felt like you were living it. Did they get too fancy, and uber creative?

No, they kept it simple, and showed you the conversation.

First off–my pet peeve: people do not smile, snort, chuckle, or smirk dialogue. They don’t giggle it either, but they DO say it, they reply it, and many times they ask it. As long as you mainly stick to said, replied, answered, and asked, your reader won’t even notice the attributions are there. If you are writing genre-fiction, there is no need to get creative with your attributions, or ‘dialogue tags’ as we call them: stick to ‘John said’ (not said John, which sounds too old-fashioned these days.) Unless you absolutely need a John screamed or a Sarah uttered or a Paula retorted (which you pretty much never do) just say it and let the reader do the rest. Fancy synonyms for ‘said’ are usually unnecessary and distracting.

You can skip using dialog tags altogether for a back-and-forth or two, but not if there are more than two speakers in the scene, and not for more than a few exchanges. Readers want to be able to track who is saying what.

Sometimes it’s okay to miss a few beats. Beats are what screen-writers call the little bits of physical action that is inserted into dialogue:

People do not snort dialogueBack in the office with the door shut tight, Junior and Pap plotted the special hunting trip for the nice tabloid man. Junior unbraided his hair and pulled it back into his customary long ponytail. Off came the blanket, which he told Pap smelled musty, and the headband. “Tell Johnny thanks for the loan of his buckskins,” he said as he stripped them off, stuffed them into a gym bag, and then pulled on a pair of slacks. “I’ll need them tomorrow for this picnic. That idiot wanted to leave at dawn! I told him after breakfast, so what do you think—about ten o’clock? I usually don’t go to bed until dawn.”

Beats or actions serve to punctuate the dialogue, to give the scene movement, and to maintain a strong mental picture in the absence of description.

Small actions showing the mood of a character are often best placed where there is a natural break in the dialogue, as they allow the reader to experience the same pause as the characters. They’re an effective tool and are essential to good dialogue, but don’t overdo it. If your characters are fluttering their eyelashes, gazing into the distance or opening their laptops between every second line of conversation, the scene becomes about the action and not the dialogue, and the impact is diluted or lost entirely.

This means that when we add gestures and actions to the conversation we want it to be meaningful,.  Otherwise, just use a simple dialogue tag, like said, or replied. This is why we don’t want to make the mistake of getting rid of attributions entirely—because the verbal exchanges become confusing and the action takes over, making the dialogue fade into the background noise of foot shuffling and paper rattling.

verbal tic memeBut what about exclamations and verbal tics?

We frequently speak this way  in real life, but we don’t want it in our work so I recommend you avoid using them. When a character overuses exclamations, it is exhausting for the reader to wade through paragraphs peppered with instance after instance of “Ahhhh…” “Ugh!” “Yuck!”  “Blech!”

For example, have you ever met a person who drones on with a long “A-a-and a-a-ahhhhhhhhh….” holding conversations hostage with meaningless syllables? These are ‘thinking syllables.’ This is what is known as a ‘verbal tic’ and can be such an ingrained habit the guilty party is unaware they are doing it. They’re often quite hurt if you try to hurry them along.

It’s a habit that we don’t enjoy in a conversation, and don’t want to read in novel, so I recommend you don’t begin more than a few sentences with thinking syllables like  “Ahh…” or “Hmmm….”

These are difficult speech behaviors to convey, because they are supremely annoying in real life and are excruciating to read in a book. As a reader, I’ve come to feel your best bet when dealing with verbal tics is to give a brief instance of their speech pattern and after that, if it is important, mention occasionally the way their habits annoy other characters.

What about accents? Grammar Girl, Mignon Fogarty, says “When writing for a character with an accent, it is tempting to render the character’s speech phonetically using nonstandard spellings. However, this practice is risky and should be avoided, unless you specifically want to emphasize how a character speaks. First, there’s the question of how accurate to be. The more accurate the phonetic spelling, the more frustrating it will be to read.”  

Don’t overdo spelling them out.  You have no idea how hard it is to wade through that:

490px-Henry_Singleton_The_Ale-House_Door_c._1790“Me lempsor’ ‘urt an’ oi’m feelin’ dead knackered. Oi nade ter kip for a while.”

Translation: “My feet hurt and I’m feeling dead tired. I need to sit and rest a while.”  I think you could get away with just using knackered and kip to convey the general idea, and not lose the reader’s interest. If you choose to replace ‘to’ with ‘ter’ for a specific character, be sure to do it consistently and consider leaving it at that.

I have walk-on characters who are minotaurs, and the physical transformation from man to minotaur affects their ability to speak, some more than others. They also come from a different world. This posed a dilemma for me. Because the lower ranked minotaur soldiers make only brief appearances, I can get away with a bit more of a dialect or a speech impediment. The higher ranking ones made it through the remaking with more of their wit and abilities intact, and therefore speak more clearly. I mention they have an accent and leave it at that.

More and more, I am leaning away from writing heavy accents into my dialogue. I recommend going light and limiting the use of misspellings, bad grammar, and vulgar accents especially if you are trying to point out that the character is uneducated or from a rural background.  Use only a few well-chosen words to convey the idea of the accent and use them in a consistent manner for that character in such a way that it isn’t incomprehensible. It’s very easy to go over the top with it, and then the character becomes a parody, a cartoon of a person, instead of someone who feels real.

This winds up my rant on annoying habits we don’t want to inject into our dialogue. Accents, dialects, verbal tics–these are things we need to convey, but we must be mindful of our readers’ supply of patience. Show a little, and let the reader’s imagination do the rest.


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