Monday, January 23, 2023

Don’t Let Empty Dialogue Scuttle Your Scene

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

Dialogue is usually fast-paced, but when it’s all fluff, it slows down the story.

Dialogue is one of my favorite things to write. It lets me discover who my characters are and how they interact with the world around them, and how they work though solving their problems. My first draft of a scene is always heavy on the talking.

Usually, the conversations are good and keep the story moving, but sometimes, it takes me a while to find the rhythm and figure out how the scene is going to unfold. When that happens, a big chunk of the dialogue is pointless and empty.

And empty dialogue will kill your scene, every time.

Empty dialogue feels like decent writing because characters are chatting away and often interacting, but nothing is actually being said.

At best, empty dialogue bogs down the scene and slows the pacing. At worst, it annoys readers. They skim through it and lose interest, because nothing is going on.

These empty lines typically show up at the start and end of a conversation, though they can happen anywhere. For example (exaggerated to make a point, but conversations like this actually do make it into scenes):

“Hey Hector, man,” a guy from work called out. Chuck Something.

Hector scowled. Like he had time for this. Chuck stopped and they shook hands. “Morning.”

“Good to see you.”

Hector nodded. “You, too.”

“Some day, huh?”

“Sure is.”

Chuck looked around, apparently in no hurry to leave. “I love days like this,” he said.

“Sunny and hot?”

“Yep. Great boat weather.”

“Ah. Listen, I gotta—”

“How about you? Having a good weekend?”

“To die for.” Hector twitched, picturing the body in his freezer he still didn’t know how to get rid of. Wait a sec “Um, did you say you had a boat?”

That’s a lot of words that do nothing to advance the story, plot, or characterization, and they also fail to set the scene or do any world building. It’s empty dialogue and most of it isn’t needed at all.

Let’s look at how much tighter this would be (and more interesting) if we got rid of the empties.

“Hey Hector, man,” a guy from work called out. Chuck Something. He stopped and they shook hands. “Some day, huh?”

Hector scowled. Like he had time for this. “Sure is. Listen, I gotta—”

“I love days like this,” Chuck continued, apparently in no hurry to leave. “Great boat weather. You having a good weekend?”

Hector twitched, picturing the body in his freezer he still didn’t know how to get rid of. Wait a sec“Um, did you say you had a boat?”

The narrative focus is tighter now, leading the conversation toward the boat and the fact that Chuck is a little clueless and might make a good pasty to help get rid of a body. There’s still enough of a dialogue “delay” to give the impression that Chuck likes to talk and Hector wants out of there, but not so much that the reader feels the same way.

Dealing With Empty Dialogue in Your Own Work

If you’re unsure if the dialogue in a scene is a few quarts low or not, ask yourself:

1. If you took it out, would the meaning of the conversation change?

Empty dialogue is empty precisely because it adds nothing to the scene. In most cases, you can accomplish the same goal with one line, as in my example. If you take it out of the scene, the story loses nothing, let it stay out.

2. Could you combine several lines into a single line that accomplishes the same task?

If there are four lines that basically say “hello, how are you, we need to talk,” or the like, skip the delays and get to the meat of the story.

If there are some important bits mixed in (again, like my example), consider how you might trim out the words that do nothing, and tighten up the words that need to be there.

3. Are you trying to delay the scene?

Sometimes we add empty dialogue because we want the scene to feel as though someone is dragging their feet. Instead of throwing in “useless” words, look for ways to deepen the scene or add additional information while giving the impression of awkward time passing.

Internalization can help here, with the point of view character wondering when the speaker will get to the point, or suggesting someone is prattling on without showing the dialogue.

The tighter your dialogue, the stronger your pacing will be, which helps hook readers and keeps them engaged in the novel.

We tend to look for boggy description or unnecessary backstory when editing, but empty dialogue can be just as detrimental to strong prose. And it’s not uncommon for writers to miss it—we skim right over dialogue we’ve read multiple times, because there’s technically nothing wrong with what’s being said. It’s a realistic portrayal of a conversation. It just isn’t doing anything to help the novel.

So don’t be afraid to fill those empty spaces with conversations that matter, and use them to keep your story flowing smoothly.

Are you prone to empty dialogue? Where do you most use it? If not, where do you most often see it?


Janice Hardy is the award-winning author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, including The Shifter, Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. She also writes the Grace Harper urban fantasy series for adults under the name, J.T. Hardy. When she's not writing fiction, she runs the popular writing site Fiction University, and has written multiple books on writing, including Understanding Show, Don't Tell (And Really Getting It), Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, and the Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft series. Sign up for her newsletter and receive 25 ways to Strengthen Your Writing Right Now free.

Website | Facebook | Twitter | Pinterest | Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | iTunes | Indie Bound



And don't forget - #IWSGPit is this Wednesday, January 25 from 9:00 am - 8:00 pm Eastern Standard Time!

Create a Twitter-length pitch for your completed and polished manuscript and leave room for genre, age, and the hashtag. On January 25, 2023, Tweet your pitch. If your pitch receives a favorite/heart from a publisher/agent check their submission guidelines and send your requested query.
Many writers have seen their books published from a Twitter pitch - it’s a quick and easy way to put your manuscript in front of publishers and agents.
Click the tab above for guidelines and hashtags.
See you Wednesday!

Monday, January 16, 2023

Ten Rules For Pitching Your Book During #IWSGPit

It's quite a challenge to compose an amazing, agent-attention-catching micro pitch.
The IWSGPit is next week, so here are a few quick tips to get you moving. 

1. DO schedule your tweets. 

2. Follow the rules! 

3. Do NOT use up all 240 characters for your pitches if you can avoid it. Tight, concise pitches are easier to read.

4. But DO be specific. Vague pitches, or pitches that overuse cliches, won’t draw that much interest. 

5. Do NOT use inaccurate comps just to draw attention. You don’t want to promise something you can’t deliver.

6. Do NOT "like" other people's pitches.

7. DO keep a spreadsheet or list of every agent and editor who likes your tweets, and include their specific guidelines (if they tweeted any). Sometimes these will vary from their typical sub guidelines!

8. Do NOT feel like you must query everyone who likes your pitch. This is all fun, and it’s wonderful to have requests, but it’s also a business.  

9. DO research everyone before you query them. Scammers and sketchy publishers love contests. If you’re not sure about someone, check QueryTracker or ask a friend.

10. DO ask your friends to retweet! It boosts you in the feed, and they’re your best cheerleaders!

Are you participating in the upcoming Twitter Pitch? You have approximately one week to practise and polish your pitch before the big day!

Monday, January 9, 2023

Seven Sizzling Tips to Write That Absolutely Killer First Chapter

By Damyanti Biswas

Irrespective of genre, writing the beginning of a novel is all about seducing the reader. In today’s world of easily available and multiple avenues of entertainment, a novel has to compete with far more than other novels.

You need a beginning that’ll snag the reader’s attention right off the bat.

As humans, we’re geared to find answers to questions and notice anything that is out of the ordinary. Without these two essential skills, we wouldn’t have lasted long in a pre-historic jungle. This is why stories hold our interest, why readers pick up stories to read.

Here’s how to hook their attention, and keep it:

1. Write a killer first line or paragraph.
That first line needs to lead into the second and the third.
You can either go with a big voice, active opening like: “Call me Ishmael.”
Or something off-kilter: “It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.”
You can also set the tone of the entire tale with the first paragraph:
No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality; even larks and katydids are supposed, by some, to dream. Hill House, not sane, stood by itself against its hills, holding darkness within; it had stood so for eighty years and might stand for eighty more. Within, walls continued upright, bricks met neatly, floors were firm, and doors were sensibly shut; silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there, walked alone.

2. Give the Who, Why, What, Where, How.
A writing teacher I once learned from, said: While telling your story, imagine your reader has been in a coma, and that you have to orient them to what happened when they were unaware. Who are the characters? What do they want, what are they up to, and why? How do they achieve it? Where are they? Not in a journalistic fashion (though exceptions to this exist, depending on the voice of your narrator), but so that the reader is somewhat oriented in your world.
In my recent novel, THE BLUE BAR, I spend a lot of time making sure the reader sinks into the setting, all the while curious about this child-woman in a blue-sequinned saree, posing at a crowded railway station for the pleasure of a distant voyeur.

3. Raise story questions.
All novels begin with a story question that must be answered by the end of the novel. The reason beginnings are diabolically hard is because in some cases you need to write an entire draft before you know what the story is exactly about. A mystery doesn’t need to begin with murder in the first paragraph, nor a romance with a kiss in the first chapter. But most mysteries end with a dead body at the end of the first chapter.

4. Make the action and the setting vivid and clear.
If your reader is confused about what's happening right off the bat, or cannot figure out where they are, then it’s time to sit up and take notice. World-building is especially important in fantasy and sci-fi, because the world and its rules might be different than our own. You’ll want to balance this with action—even when showing the status quo, the reader will be more invested if the character overcomes some sort of challenge that presents his or her current situation, and gives enough of the character’s core to get the reader invested in it.

5. Ensure tension.
Irrespective of genre, what keeps the reader turning the pages is tension. The tension of the unknown. Something weird or slightly strange. Chemistry between characters.
Here are a few points to keep in mind to keep tension alive and kicking:
• You can have an intriguing opening, but not a puzzling one. Confusing your reader is a cardinal sin, and kills tension.
• Most good novels begin at a watershed juncture of the protagonist's life, just before everything is about to go wrong. Foreshadow that doom.
• Use all five senses on the page to give the reader a real, three-dimensional experience of the story universe.
• Make sure the action is choreographed right so that it’s clear and easy to follow. If your reader is lost, trying to figure out what happened, you haven’t done your job.
• Begin in the middle of an action--in medias res is always more intriguing than a long description of setting or character.

6. Make your character interesting.
Characterizing through action moves the plot forward--couple this with engaging the reader with the setting. This is tricky, but if you get all least two of the three going at the very outset, you'll have that hook right away. Of the three, the setting and character are crucial (for me). Once you give the reader an experience of the world they are in, and get them to care about your protagonist, they would automatically be invested in the plot.
In THE BLUE BAR, the reader knows a fait bit about Tara at the end of the first chapter and is (hopefully) keen to find out more.

7. Find a strong narrative voice.
This is the most elusive, yet the most crucial of them all. If the narrator has an engaging voice, readers would respond to it immediately. A voice gives the reader confidence they are in the hands of an assured storyteller. It’s a mixture of world-view, word choices, style, and the choice of the story that is being told. This comes with a lot of practice, and unless you’re a genius, will take a lot of rewrites. Make sure not a single superfluous word remains on your first page.

The beginning of novel is the setting up of a contract with your reader. The reader agrees to give their time to you, the writer, in exchange of being either educated, or entertained, or both.

A solid beginning of a novel sets up this contract, so you need to pay enough and more attention to get it as snappy as you can make it.

What do you think makes a great beginning to a novel? What’s your process for beginning your novel? Does your beginning stay intact through various drafts?

Damyanti Biswas
lives in Singapore. Her short stories have been published in magazines in the US, UK, and Australia, and she helps edit the Forge Literary Magazine. Her debut crime novel You Beneath Your Skin has been optioned for screen by Endemol Shine, and her next, The Blue Bar, was published in January 2023 by Thomas & Mercer.

The Blue Bar by Damyanti Biswas
A serial killer. A missing dancer. A Mumbai inspector on their trail.
Cold-case murders in Mumbai are unearthing decades of dark secrets.
Dead or alive, he must find her. He can’t put the past to rest until he solves it.

Thursday, January 5, 2023

IWSG Day, #IWSGPit is January 25, and IWSG Goodreads Book Club Reads

This week it’s another group posting of the Insecure Writer’s Support Group! Time to release our fears to the world – or offer encouragement to those who are feeling neurotic. If you’d like to join us, click on the tab above and sign up. We post the first Wednesday of every month. I encourage everyone to visit at least a dozen new blogs and leave a comment. Your words might be the encouragement someone needs.

The awesome co-hosts for the January posting of the IWSG are Jemima Pett, Debs Carey, Kim Lajevardi, Sarah Foster, Natalie Aguirre, and T. Powell Coltrin!

January question - Do you have a word of the year? Is there one word that sums up what you need to work on or change in the coming year? For instance, in 2021 my word of the year was Finish. I was determined to finish my first draft by the end of the year. In 2022, my word of the year is Ease. I want to get my process, systems, finances, and routines where life flows with ease and less chaos. What is your word for 2023? Why?

#IWSGPit is coming!

The next #IWSGPit will be January 25
9:00 am - 8:00 pm Eastern Standard Time

Create a Twitter-length pitch for your completed and polished manuscript and leave room for genre, age, and the hashtag. On January 25, 2023, Tweet your pitch. If your pitch receives a favorite/heart from a publisher/agent check their submission guidelines and send your requested query. 

Many writers have seen their books published from a Twitter pitch - it’s a quick and easy way to put your manuscript in front of publishers and agents.

Get the full details here.

Here are the January selections for the IWSG Goodreads Book Club

Fractions of Existence (Existence #1) by J Lenni Dorner

The Emotional Craft of Fiction by Donald Maass

Our next IWSG post day is February 1 and the monthly question is:
If you are an Indie author, do you make your own covers or purchase them? If you publish trad, how much input do you have about what goes on your cover?

What is your word for this year? Are you participating in #IWSGPit? Part of the Goodreads club?