Things Your Characters Should Never Say

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It’s easy to be told that character dialogue in fiction should be short and sharp and punchy and witty but actually executing it without a little more guidance can be hard. I could tell you to watch everything Aaron Sorkin and Joss Whedon have ever written and you’d have some great examples.

But sometimes the easier path is to start with what not to do. So here are a few pieces of dialogue your characters should never say.

“Tell Me About It”
It’s almost twenty years since my first class as part of my Advanced Diploma of Professional Writing and Editing and I can still remember my Novel teacher telling us how “Tell me about it” was the most overused piece of dialogue in Hollywood and that it applied equally to books. And it was funny. I never noticed it on my own, even though I went to the movies every week and spent the rest of my non-writing and non-studying time watching more movies at home and reading as many books as I could. But as soon as he said it, I began to notice it everywhere.

So if you don’t want to end up being a cautionary tale in a first-year writing course, leave it out. Continue reading

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How Long Should a Paragraph Be?

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I’ve previously addressed chapters, novels and blurbs and here’s another instalment in the “How long should it be?” series: paragraphs. As with every “How long should it be?”, the answer is always, “How long is a piece of string?” But here are a few things to consider.

One Word
It’s perfectly acceptable to have a one-word paragraph. But, of course, you can’t have too many of them and especially not all in a row. The one-word paragraph is great for emphasis, drawing attention to something in isolation, or for giving the reader a moment to pause and reflect on something big that has just happened in the story, particularly if it’s unexpected. Continue reading

The A to Z of Writing

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Just because everybody loves a good listicle (so I hope it qualifies), here’s the A to Z of writing.

A is for Authenticity – you don’t have to know what you’re talking about. Write what you know, write what you don’t know but just make sure you sound like you know what you’re talking about. If you write about the police force and someone actually in the police force reads your book lacking in accuracy or verisimilitude (the ring of truth), then that person won’t hesitate to tell the world. And you’ll just come off as someone who couldn’t be bothered doing a little bit of research.

B is for Brainstorming – it’s one thing to have an idea but to bring it to life with all the little details that give it depth, you’ll have to do a lot of brainstorming. If you want to write about a man who kills his father, great (maybe not for your father, who might wonder why). But it becomes two very different stories depending on whether the son had a happy upbringing or an abusive one. And only brainstorming will get you to the point where the story makes meaningful sense. Continue reading

“Right,” Said Fred – But How Did He Say It?

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I was reading the writing tips of a published author recently and amongst rather a lot of them was the advice that almost all dialogue attribution should use “said”. If the dialogue is a question, then “asked” is acceptable and if someone is responding, then “answered” is also okay. But nothing else. And even better, don’t use dialogue attribution at all.

Leaving aside questions of verb tense, I can’t tell you how much I disagree with this advice. Because while it tells me that a character was speaking, it gives no indication of how the character said the words. And often the words themselves just aren’t enough for me to know. Continue reading

Developing A Genuinely Scary and Evil Villain

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I’ve written previously about anti-heroes and villains and how they seem to be the characters of choice these days, at least the characters that seem to resonate most with readers searching for complexity. So, of course, growing numbers of people are attempting to cash in on that. The problem is that we are being flooded with ridiculous caricatures that are no more scary than me in the morning before I’ve brushed my hair and had some caffeine. Every James Bond villain ever may have something to answer for this.

When we examine the more successful and enduring villains, such as Dracula and Frankenstein (or his monster – depends on which of them you think was the bigger baddie), and some of the more recent but no less memorable, such as Dexter Morgan and Hannibal Lecter, we find people and creatures who scare us but who also exhibit vulnerability, meaning that in some capacity they are scared themselves. They’re at the darker end of the light and dark scale but they’re more deep grey than black. And regardless of their villainy, there’s also something attractive about them, something tempting about them, something that draws you in, even when you know you’re probably going to end up dead if you don’t resist.

If you’re planning to give it a go, here’s a few things to consider to make sure you have readers crying in terror instead of with laughter. Continue reading

My Top Ten TV Shows – Part Two

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This is part two of my list of top ten TV shows with a focus on dialogue, which (as I explained previously) I decided I could create from the one show that towers over all others when it comes to this topic – The West Wing.

You might notice that all the episodes I’ve used are from the first three seasons. However, this is not a show that ever gets anywhere near to jumping the shark. All seven seasons are equally terrific and equally jam-packed full of wonderfully witty dialogue. I could have had an entry for every episode. In fact, I could have had a top ten list of dialogue from just the show’s first episode.

For anyone who is serious about mastering the art of writing dialogue, I would highly recommend watching The West Wing – over and over and over again. Continue reading

My Top Ten TV Shows – Part One

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After constructing my Top Ten Movies list with a focus on dialogue, I thought I would do the same for TV shows. I easily came up with ten well-written, witty productions – Buffy, Angel, Firefly (yes, I’m a Joss Whedon fan), Veronica Mars, Frasier, Scrubs, The OC, Dawson’s Creek, The Newsroom and The West Wing (yes, also an Aaron Sorkin fan).

You can probably identify the common theme running through all of them. At the time of their original screenings, they were known specifically for their dialogue – verbal battles, perfect slap downs, quick comebacks, dry and highly intellectual humour, all those words we wished we could come up with on the spot but never did.

However, the more I thought about it, the more strongly I felt that although I love all these shows, I could easily find a top ten list of terrific dialogue that would outshine all others in just one of these shows. And that show is The West Wing. Continue reading