From Writing Tips

How to Use Dialogue Correctly: Part 2

One of my most popular posts has been a guide to how to use dialogue correctly. I’m glad this preliminary guide has been useful for students and writers alike as they quest after realistic dialogue in their fiction. I want to add to those original tips with some more discussion about what makes dialogue realistic, vivid, and story-based.

1. Punctuate your dialogue correctly.

I see my own students really struggling with the ins and outs of punctuation with dialogue, so let me try to clarify some of the conventions we use. First, dialogue is always punctuated. If someone is speaking, we never just leave the words hanging out there without any punctuation at all; it looks as unfinished and kind of purposeless as a text message without correct punctuation.

The wrong way:

“That’s a good idea” said John.
“I know” said Jane.

The right way:

“That’s a good idea,” said John.
“I know!” said Jane.

There are many ways to punctuate dialogue, depending on the mood and rhythm of speech you’re trying to capture, but no punctuation is never an option.

2. Avoid pointless back and forth.

Here’s a stylistic suggestion: even if you are rendering your dialogue correctly, it doesn’t mean it’s necessary or is moving the story forward. Beginning writers often use dialogue to repeat what has already been established in the exposition, or as a “reaction time” that doesn’t further the story. You might establish that one person is cheating on the other. Then we have a scene of real-time dialogue, in which everyone is reacting to the cheating. But that doesn’t actually move the story forward; it’s just a re-hashing of what we already know. A story that uses truly masterful dialogue lets story happen in the course of a conversation. We learn new betrayals or reveal more about character while the talk is going on.

The wrong way:

Jane discovers that John is cheating on her. She is surprised, hurt, upset, and devastated. She weeps.
When John comes home, she howls, “You cheated on me! I’m so surprised! I’m so hurt! I’m so devastated!”

The right way:

Jane discovers that John is cheating on her. She is surprised, hurt, upset, and devastated. She weeps.
When John comes home and she confronts him, John is silent at first. “But I only cheated because I thought you had cheated on me years ago,” he says finally.

3. Avoid exposition in dialogue.

This is one of the most common dialogue mistakes I see beginning writers making — and it’s also one of the clumsiest, instantly revealing your work as unpolished. Readers can spot this a mile away and it makes your entire authorial voice seem fake and contrived. In dialogue, characters can only say what they realistically would say to each other — that is, they can only share information that one of them doesn’t know yet. It’s tremendously artificial to try to give background information in dialogue that both characters would have known already.

The wrong way:

“Lisa, you’re eighteen now, and I’m your older brother,” said John. “So when Mom and Dad died last year, I felt responsible for you.”

The right way:

“When Mom and Dad died, I felt like I was responsible for you,” said John. He was her older brother.

So what do you think are the most egregious errors being made in dialogue these days? Is dialogue knowledge getting better or worse among writers? And do you have any tips to share for realistic dialogue in the comments?

How to Cut Your Story In Half

The Blairzone - 14
All too often, I’m reading stories as editor of Two Cities Review, or I’m reading stories as a teacher of creative writing, or I’m reading the stories of my dear writer friends, and I’m thinking one singular thought. I’m thinking, “This story would be fantastic — if it were cut in half.

I think this so often when I’m reading stories; and surprise surprise, when I actually get around to noticing it in my work, I think the same thing. This story of mine would be so much better, I realize, if it were half as long.

We often hear this from literary magazines and from teachers. But when we actually face the small mountain of hard won words that are our stories, we don’t have the first clue about how to make it half as big. And sadly, there’s no short cut available; even with my newfound knowledge, I can’t write a shorter story in the first draft. I think I still have to write a story that’s too long, and then cut it down. But now that I have a better understanding of the shapes of stories, I’m a lot better at learning how to cut a story in half. Here’s how. Read more

3 Great Exercises to Beat Writer’s Block

SOME WRITERS SAY WRITER’S BLOCK IS A MYTH. That may be true for some, but for the rest of us, there are definitely times when words just won’t appear on the page. To me it feels like a deadening of the senses, a sensation where every word or idea I conceive of tastes flat and stale in my mouth. That distaste makes me afraid to write anything down. But don’t worry, o blocked ones; there are remedies for this situation. Here are a few exercises to get you going again when you feel paralyzed.

1. The random line game. Sometimes you just need a little momentum to gather. Famous writers sometimes begin by copying favorite sentences from books they love; after writing a few beautiful sentences, they’re ready to start writing their own. Go to your bookshelf, pull out a random book, turn to page 84, and look at the 7th sentence on the page. Type it into your document (or write it in your notebook). That is the first line of a new story. Now go, go, go! (Just remember to cut that sentence later — you’re only borrowing it to get started). Read more

Stuck Inside a Cliché


First, don’t panic. We’ve all been there. You’re writing your latest poem or story, really feeling great. This is going to be your best work ever. Then suddenly, you feel yourself sliding down some sort of funnel, down, down, into a cliche. There’s a phrase that you’ve used before sticking out like a sore thumb. There’s a situation which you’ve seen a million times before in other, better stories. There’s a character type who’s practically a walking stereotype, whether it’s the Goth loner or the dumb cheerleader. Suddenly, your special, wonderful story is trapped in the realm of cliche.

It can feel pretty desperate, and also pretty disheartening, to find your work here. It’s kind of like being stuck in the doldrums; what you wanted to be special is just a litany of weary sameness. But there ARE ways to get yourself out of that cliche, to escape back into the world of originality.

The key to escaping the cliche is to understand what cliches are and where they come from. Cliches are a kind of shorthand in conversation. When having a chat with someone, we want to meet on common ground, and we also want to convey information quickly. So we use shortcuts, established, commonly known ways of shortcutting through stories or description. We’ll see we cried buckets, or that the guy was the most boring guy on the face of the earth. We’ll say the little girl was as cute as a button or that we jumped for joy. And in casual conversation, we make ourselves understood. It saves time.

But in creative writing, it’s just lazy to use a cliche; it demonstrates a lack of imagination. It shows that we aren’t working hard to make our language beautiful, special, or memorable. We’re just leaning on the same old crutches to limp our way through an over-familiar story.

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You Just Wrote Something Terrible. Welcome to the Club.


I think the most jealously guarded secret in the world of writing may be that just everyone’s first drafts are really, really bad. Did you just write something that disappoints you, that just isn’t as good as you hoped it would be? Welcome to the club! Everyone struggles with their first drafts, and yet we all want to pretend like it was easy and effortless, as though a winged muse descended from the heavens and dropped a brilliantly packaged idea right in our laps. The more you write, though, and the more you get to know other writers, the more you realize that it just doesn’t happen that way. Not for anybody.

Even if you continue to work on writing at the college and graduate level, though, few people are going to admit this, and fewer people are going to teach you what to do about it. The only writers who succeed are the ones who are willing and able to revise their work, to commit to not letting it be done until it really is as good as it can be. Here are a few tips to get you started on the long, exciting, frustrating path of revision.

First: put it aside, and look at it with fresh eyes.

The moment you finish something, you might feel pretty great about it. It could be your best work yet. The temptation is to throw it into an email and send it off to your friends, to Teen Ink, to The New Yorker magazine, without any further thought. But you’re just too close to it right now to tell whether it’s really ready. You’re emotionally invested in it; you’ve just been fighting battles alongside with your characters. You’ve shed their tears. There’s no possible way you can be objective about the language, the plotting, the actual quality of the thing.

So put it in a drawer for a little while — or in today’s digital age, put it in a “needs revision” folder on your computer. Let it sit in there WITHOUT LOOKING AT IT for a MINIMUM of a week, but more if you can possibly stand it. Only then may you look back. You might be shocked to see how many errors in judgment, how many clichés or plot holes still remain in that first draft. And now that you can see them, you can fix them.

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You’re Writing the Same Story Over and Over. Here’s How to Stop.

For Memorial Day this year, I found myself in a small Vermont town, working on my novel. Sometime around noon I heard the fanfare of trumpets and drums beating outside my window; I stepped outside just in time to see the town’s charming little parade come by, waving banners and flags, high-stepping and proud. It’s always fun to see a parade go by, but I was also glad that I was in a small town with just one Boy Scout troop and one high school band, because after a while, parades start to get repetitive. They also look the same no matter where you are. There’s always the firetruck and the band and the camping troupe, the same people you don’t know marching by.

I know I’m not supposed to knock parades, their being patriotic and all, but on a purely aesthetic level, I think they can teach us a lot about our own bad habits in writing. Once my dad attended a very long parade. He used two rolls of film taking pictures of the event. When we got the photos back, there wasn’t a single interesting photo in the whole bunch; it was just a wall of unknown people walking past. Sometimes this is the exact effect we create in our own writing.

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That Thing is Like That Other Thing: How to Use Analogies for Better Writing

I’ve written about how absolutely crucial the skill of observation is in writers. You need to be a giant walking eyeball as Emerson said, a vacuum that absorbs the world. You’ve got to use all of your senses to notice the eccentricities, the beauty and the ugliness of the world.

By itself, though, sensory perception, or noticing, is not necessarily a creative process. It’s something that animals do a lot better than us, for example. If you’ve ever seen how a cat will instantly pick up on any kind of motion in a room that you’ve barely detected, you know what I’m talking about. The creative process comes from linking things with other things. Read more

How to Recognize Your Flaws and Change Your Writing Habits


I’ve written before how important it is to step out of your lifestyle habits once in a while to stay creative. I’ve found it’s tremendously important for me to change my physical location, for example. I might have all the time and freedom in the world, but if I’m sitting at my desk at home, the world of distractions opens itself to me like a beautiful, attention-hogging flower. Whenever I go to a cafe with just my notebook, even though I might not have the perfect snack or the perfect quiet or the perfect tools, I’m much better at getting work done.

But there are mental habits we fall into as well, and we similarly need to step out of them and find a different place in our minds to operate from. Have you ever found yourself writing down a word or phrase that feels familiar to you — because you’ve already used it ten times before? Have you written about someone walking with “easy grace” or “knitting their eyebrows” and you realize that the previous character in your previous story did the exact same thing? We all have these verbal tics or favorite lines, these “contemporary clichés” as one teacher of mine called them. They’re over-familiar phrases, writing that has become inert because of its lack of originality. We want to read for delight and surprise, for pleasure bursts of language, but these phrases don’t give us that. So let’s discuss how to get out of those verbal ruts.

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Without This One Crucial Skill, You’ll Never Write Well.

It’s just that important: without this ability sunk deep into your daily habits and perceptions, without this skill coming as second nature in every aspect of your life, you’ll never be a writer. You’ll never write truthfully or specifically or well. You’re dying to know what it is, aren’t you?

It’s the power of observation.

Sounds simple, right? But without this power, you’re sunk. Every writer I’ve ever known began as an observer. It starts with looking at the world around you, and simply noticing things. The way the light shines through the leaves. The taste of mashed potatoes with too much garlic. The way your mother’s eyebrows knit together when she’s worried and relax apart when she’s happy. The way that this happens and that happens. The detail, the detail, the detail, of being alive.

It sounds easy. But most people who think they are doing a pretty good job of observing are really just noticing the surface of things, the clichés. It’s not our fault; it’s a natural feature of our human brains to try to absorb as much as we can by making assumptions, and filling in data from our past experiences. So if we’ve seen a clown in the circus before, then we assume every clown looks the same. Red lips, red nose, flower in hat? That’s how they all look. The cliché is a function of our brains; it’s a kind of cognitive shorthand. But if we want our writing to feel vivid and unique, to feel fresh and new, we can’t take any shortcuts. We need to go deeper with our observations.

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How to Unzip Your Character and Walk Around in His Skin

To write the best characters in our fiction, we need to get inside those characters’ heads. We need to understand their thoughts, dreams, fears, and desires. We need to hear their voice in our minds. We need to know what drugs are in the medicine cabinet and what cereals are on the kitchen shelf. We need to know whether his socks match or the color of her underwear. But more than that, we need to unzip our characters’ skins and step inside and walk around for a while.

Such intensive knowledge of another person is difficult to acquire. It takes romantic couples a lifetime to learn about just one other person, but writers need to do it over and over again. So how do we do it, and fast? How do we unzip that skin and walk around for a while? The best way might be to do exactly that — to try on that person and send him or her out into the wild. It might involve actually becoming your character for a short while.

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