Showing posts with label dialogue. Show all posts
Showing posts with label dialogue. Show all posts

Using Setting to Spice Up Dialogue

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I recently read Where the Mountain Meets the Moon by Grace Lin. I like how she uses details from the setting to add tension and mood to dialogue.



Here's an example. The main character, Minli, is looking for a mysterious thing called a “borrowed line” in order to change her family's fortune. She asks a King for advice. The King realizes that the borrowed line is a royal treasure -- a sheet of paper with words that change magically whenever you ask a question. Minli is excited find the borrowed line, but it belongs to the King, and she realizes that he is unlikely to give it to her.

The dialogue starts as the King takes out the paper and reads from it. I annotated the passage to classify the ways that Lin breaks up the dialogue.


"What does it say?" Minli asked.


"It says," the King said slowly, "You only lose what you cling to."
The King's words seemed to hang in the air. All was silent except for the soft rustling of the page in the gentle breeze. Minli, unable to speak, watched it flutter as if it were waving at her. [Setting detail]


"So, it seems your request," the king said, "Deserves consideration. The line tells me as much. Let me think."


Minli looked at the King, quiet but puzzled. [Action and emotion]

"For generations, my family has prized this paper …." The king said slowly. "But what is it really?"


Minli shook her head, unsure if she should respond. [Action, emotion]


"It is, actually," the king said, "simply proof of my ancestors rudeness, his unprincipled anger and ruthless greed.…"


The moon seemed to tremble as ripples spread over its reflection caught in the water. The King continued, again, speaking more to himself than to Minli. [Setting detail]

"We have clung to it, always afraid of losing it," the king said. "But if I choose to release it, there is no loss."


Minli felt her breath freeze in her chest. She knew that King's mind was in a delicate balance. If he refused to give her the line now, she knew she would never get it. [More elaborate internal observation]


"And perhaps it was never meant for us to cling to…," The king said. "So, perhaps, it is time for the paper to return to the book."


A wind skimmed the water, and Minli could see her anxious face as pale and as white as the moon reflected in it. [Setting detail]


The author uses three primary ways to break up the dialogue: action, emotion/internal observation, and setting details. I've been using action and emotion, but setting is something I'll have to add to my writer's toolbox. I like how the short descriptions of moon, water, and wind enhance the atmosphere while increasing the tension as Minli waits for the king's decision.

What's your favorite way to spice up dialogue?

Helpful Tips from a Harvard Writer's Conference

I recently attended Publishing Books, Memoirs, and Other Creative Nonfiction, a three day course sponsored by Harvard Medical School.

The conference was chock full of helpful tips.  If I had a smartphone, I would have tweeted the conference.  But I don't, so I just wrote these tips down for posting later.



These tips are roughly divided into categories, but beyond that, there's no particular rhyme or reason to them.  I just wrote down tips that I found useful.  Note that these are paraphrases and not quotes, so any awkward wording is my fault.  Many thanks to all the speakers and course director Julie Silver for putting together such a great conference.


On Writing Nonfiction Book Proposals

The sales records of the books you list in the Competition section are used, in conjunction with other factors, to calculate your advance.
- Regina Brooks, literary agent and author of Writing Great Books for Young Adults

If you don’t have bookscan to look up sales records, check the Amazon sales rank to get an idea for how a book is selling.
-Julie Silver, M.D., author of Super Healing

An audition video of yourself talking about your book can show your publisher that you’re able to sell your book and may help increase the advance. Publishers are looking for authenticity and passion.
Alan Rinzler, editor, Jossey-Bass.  (Check out Alan's very informative blog, The Book Deal)

On Publishing Contracts

Deadlines are sometimes negotiable, but be aware that if a publisher
is seeking a reason not to publish your book, a missed deadline is their easiest out.
-Jacqueline Wehmueller, editor at Johns Hopkins University Press

On Platform

helpareporter.com is a website where you can sign up and be contacted if reporters need an expert to interview
- Julie Silver

Expertise is no longer enough for a platform. You need to be interacting with your potential audience via speaking engagements and/or other venues.
- Regina Brooks

Content is King: No longer should you think about the content of your book being used in just one form. The content of your book can be used on many platforms and you can be paid over and over again for the same material: video games, radio/tv shows, software apps, etc...
-Regina Brooks


On The Industry
The publishing industry isn’t dying anymore. In fact, they rebounded to record highs in 2009. Stock for Barnes and Noble went up 27.1% and Amazon 163.5%. For the last 12 months, ending in March, Barnes and Noble has opened more stores than they’ve closed.
–Alan Rinzler

Sometimes timing will affect whether a book gets accepted for publication. Editors have quotas and slots to fill. If they get a book at the right time, they may take a chance on it.
–Alan Rinzler

At least 5% of self published books eventually convert to commercial publishing.
–Alan Rinzler

On Writing

If pitching for a periodical, try to tie your pitch to a certain date to create a sense of urgency and relevance. For example, if you’re writing about hot air balloons, you may want to tie it into the 50th anniversary of ballooning.
- Katherine Russell Rich, author of Dreaming in Hindi


If you have a word that appears all the time in your book (for example, the word "healing" if you're writing a book about healing), try taping the thesaurus entry for that word on your computer monitor.
- Julie Silver


Every word counts, so detail is vital. Specificity in detail serves many purposes. It gives work its voice, particularizes character, shows rather than tells, adds energy, humor, and poetry to dialogue. Specific, microscopic detail gives work with its originality.
 - Kelly Easton, author of The Outlandish Adventures of Liberty Aimes

For help with dialogue, try reading plays. For help with prose, try reading poetry.
–Kelly Easton

To make your writing move, use more verbs and use good verbs. Replace nouns with verbs (look for words that end in –tion, -ment, or –ence). Also, replace adjectives. For example, “It was a hot, sultry afternoon” turns into “The afternoon blazed and sweated.”
 - Susan Aiello, WordsWorld consulting

People think they’re reading because they want to find out what happens, but actually, they’re reading because the author made them care about the characters.
- Michael Palmer, MD, author of The Last Surgeon


On Writing Memoir

Novels have migrated recently into memoir. The people who in the past might have written their stories as fiction are now being told to write their story as memoir.
-Katherine Russell Rich

When writing memoirs, you need to decide how to tell the story. Can you combine two minor characters into one character for storytelling purposes? It’s a tricky question, but in some cases, it's okay.
-Katherine Russell Rich

Establish the narrator immediately. Is he funny? Intellectual?
-Katherine Russell Rich

Try starting with an essay that serves as the launching place for larger work. -Katherine Russell Rich

Dialogue and Point of View Tricks from Garth Nix's Sabriel

I recently read Sabriel by Garth Nix. It was a fun epic fantasy, and I picked up a few tricks that might come in useful for the old writer’s toolbox.

Spoiler warning: The first tip is not a spoiler, the second tip is a slight spoiler, and the third tip reveals a lot.

1. Interruptions are a great way to add life to dialogue.



Here’s a scene where Sabriel goes to her father’s house and encounters an enchanted servant (a “sending”) intent on giving her a bath.

Sabriel shrieked, but, again before she could do anything else, the sending had put back the basin, turned the wheel for more hot water, and was soaping her down, paying particular attention to her head, as if it wanted to get soap in Sabriel’s eyes, or suspected an infestation of nits . . . .

“How do I stop it?” she spluttered to Moggot, as still more water cascaded over her head …

“You can’t,” replied Mogget, who seemed quite amused by the spectacle. “This one’s particularly recalcitrant.”

“What do you… ow! .. . stop that! What do you mean, this one?”

I love the way that last line of dialogue conjures up an image of the scenario.

2. Transition between points of view by giving two versions of the same event.

At one point, Sabriel rescues a man who had been transformed into a statue. We're in her point of view when she breaks the spell. The next chapter retells the transformation from the man’s point of view as he comes out of his enchanted state. It’s a smooth transition into this new character’s head that doesn’t lose the reader. If you want more ideas on transitioning between points of view, check out this post.

3. Use of sayings/proverbs for emotional impact. 

Sabriel introduces a proverb at the beginning: “Does the walker choose the path, or the path the walker?” Near the end of the book, a character makes a decision to sacrifice his life. When the others object, the character justifies the choice by saying “Does the walker choose the path, or the path the walker?” The saying lends strength to the dialogue at that crucial moment.

Have you used any of these tricks in your writing before?