“If someone tells you writing is easy, he is either lying or I hate him.” —Farley Mowat

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

On Setting


What is a setting actually like? What tells us what it's like.

Have half the class makes a soundscape based on a location (hospital emergency room, or a primary classroom, or a highway, etc.) while the other half the class writes through what they hear. The kicker: the sounders keep it a secret what location they're sounding.



from John Gardner’s The Art of Fiction

4a. Describe a landscape as seen by an old woman whose disgusting and detestable old husband has just died. Do not mention the husband or death.

4b. Describe a lake as seen by a young man who has just committed murder. Do not mention the murder.

4c. Describe a landscape as seen by a bird. Do not mention the bird.

4d. Describe a building as seen by a man whose son has just been killed in a war. Do not mention the son, war, death, or the old man doing the seeing; then describe the same building, in the same weather and at the same time of day, as seen by a happy lover. Do not mention love or the loved one.


 On small pieces of blank paper, each person should write one of two types of info (one type of info per piece of paper): a) LOCATION where a story might occur and b) CHARACTER (real or fictional). Make sure you keep you piles of LOCATIONS separate from your piles of CHARACTERS. After 3 minutes of speed-brainstorming/writing, our whole class will combine ALL locations in a pile, and then ALL characters in a separate pile. Mix thoroughly. Everyone then chooses 1 location and 2 characters. Finally, spend 10-15 minutes writing a scene set in that location, where those two characters meet. Read & discuss.

Where I was born.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

It's to Dialogue For

from Roddy Doyle’s Two Pints

-What’s culture, an’anyway?
-Culture – what is it, like? Exactly.
-I don’t fuckin’ know. Opera an’ bukes. Tha’ sort o’ shite.
-Not accordin’ to my missis.
-What’s she say it is?
-Well – there was a yoke on the radio, abou’ Dublin applyin’ for the European City o’ Culture an’ tha’. An’ I said, ‘A load o’ bollix’.
-Spot on.
-She tore the face off me. She’s been doin’ an Open University thing – with her sister. Annyway. D’yeh know wha’ she says?
-We’re culture.
-Wha’ – us?
-Me an’ you – yeah.
-How did she come up with tha’?
-Well – accordin’ to her, like – it’s the way we talk, our use of the vernacular –
-The fucks an’ tha’.
-Exactly. She says tha’ me an’ you are a perfect example of the city’s livin’, vibratin’ culture. An’ somethin’ else as well. Yeah – we’re improv theatre at its most extreme.
-What’s tha’ mean?
-Haven’t a clue. But I put in an application.
-For wha’?
-For me an’ you to be included in the programme.
-In the fuckin’ pub?
-Eight performances a night, seven nights a week, for all o’ 2020. Except Good Friday an’ Christmas Day.
-Doin’ wha’?
-Wha’ we always do. Talkin’ shite, drinkin’, goin’ to the jacks, scratchin’ our arses.
-Would it not be borin’?
-It’s supposed to be. Culture – it’s supposed to be borin’. Good for yeh.
-Like vegetables.

Mostly Obvious, but Bears Repeating.

some notes stolen from YA writer Ellen Jackson.

"What is the use of a book without pictures or conversation?" 
--Alice (from Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll) 


Dialogue reveals character. 

"Show the little runt around the mansion," said Mr. Grisly, "and then feed him to the piranhas." 

Dialogue gives necessary information.

"That’s my cat," Missy told the fireman. "She’s been missing for days. Her name is Patches."

Dialogue moves the plot along.

"I’m going to the store, and when I come back you’d better have your homework done," said Mom.

Dialogue can show what one character thinks of another character.

"You stay here and brood about the meaning of life," said Chester. "I’ll take care of Patsy."

Dialogue can reveal conflict and build tension.

"You’ve got the smarts to get into medical school," said Dad.

"But I’ve always wanted to be a teacher," said Megan.

"Nonsense," said Dad. "You’ll change your mind."

Dialogue can show how someone feels.

"What’s the matter with you?" asked Jose. "I’ve never known you to snap like that."

"So what? Who cares?" said Rita. "You haven’t even called to see how my sister’s doing."


A person gets to know a character in the same way that he gets to know a real person–through her speech and behavior. For this reason, the first rule for writing effective dialogue is to make it sound real.

After you’ve written a few lines, always read what you’ve written aloud. You’ll spot mistakes and cliches that you wouldn’t otherwise notice, and you can tell whether you’ve written dialogue that feels natural and authentic. Also, note the rhythm and pacing of your writing. Is the tension increasing? Is one character getting angrier? Are the two characters in agreement or in conflict with one another?

Well-written dialogue consists of four elements.

1. The words each character speaks. 

2. The tags, or words such as "he says" or "she asked" that indicate the speaker. 

3. The gestures and actions of each character.

4. The underlying emotions of the character.


1. Good dialogue reflects a character’s age, background, and personality. 

A ten-year-old boy doesn’t have the same speech patterns as a forty-year-old woman. Be aware of these differences.

2. Be aware how your character would react in a given situation. 

Does your character have a sense of humor? Does he fly off the handle easily? Show these qualities through dialogue.

3. Most people use contractions when they speak. 

When children speak they’ll almost always say "you aren’t" instead of "you are not" and "it’s" instead of "it is." Using contractions make your story children’s speech sound more natural.

4. Intersperse your dialogue with body language and action. 

Dialogue interspersed with action and gestures helps the reader visualize your characters. But don’t overdo it. Too much action is as distracting and as too little.

5. Don’t allow dialogue to repeat narration. 

Avoid this: 

Madison came in the door. He threw his books on the table and went into the kitchen to get a cookie.

"I see you’re home from school," said Mom. "How about a cookie?"

6. Stick with simple tags. 

Use ordinary tags such as "he said" or "she asked" almost all of the time. Elaborate tags (queried, questioned, bellowed, stated, replied, responded, pointed out) are distracting and unnecessary.

7. Don’t allow your characters to get too verbose. 

Characters who talk too much are boring. Every line of dialogue needs a specific reason for its existence. Keep your story moving and your dialogue spare.

8. Pay attention to the developing relationships among your characters. 

People’s feelings toward one another change over time. As your story evolves, the relationships between your characters evolve too and the changes need to be reflected in the dialogue.

9. Listen to real life conversations. 

Listen to your friends, neighbors, and family. Take notes and keep a list of the interesting expressions you hear. Real speech can seldom be used verbatim, but it can often be reconstituted as dialogue.

10. Good dialogue has rhythm. 

People who are stressed out speak in short, clipped sentences. People who are relaxed speak more expansively and in longer sentences. When you listen to people’s conversations, study the music beneath the words.



Dialogue is the actual spoken conversations of the character - the bits found in the quotation marks. Like Alice in Wonderland, many young people will scan the page looking for "conversations" because dialogue shows the story will be about people. The young reader is much more interested in the people and what they do and say than he is in long exposition or lengthy lyrical passages about the weather or color of the clouds. Dialogue is often where we meet the personality of the characters and find the humor of the story.

Although dialogue gives voice to the characters, that cannot be all it does. Dialogue is unbreakably tied to the plot and must be essential to the plot. If two characters ramble on about pansies, pansies must be essential to the plot of the story. It isn't enough that the discussion shows the characters are quiet homebodies, it must also move something forward. Everything in your story must help that forward motion that is the plot. Because of this, the best dialogue is set inside the action of the story. And because of this, editors often look askance at the long passages of lecture-ish dialogue between your main character and a wise adult - these passages often interrupt plot action, bringing the story to a painful halt.


Dialogue is also not a way to dump the details on the reader. Dialogue can sneak in details, but never ever dump. For example, this would be bad dialogue:

"What's the matter?" Beth asked. "I haven't seen you this droopy since Dad up and left in the middle of the night last year and we all had to try to figure out how to survive on Mom's bitty income waiting tables at the Awful Waffle."

"Yeah," Bobby said, thoughtfully as he remembered those terrible days of questioning whether he was the reason Dad left. Dad never liked Bobby's interest in books and drawing instead of sports and hunting. "But this is even worse. There's a bully at school who is picking on me. You know how much shorter I am than all the other guys and how I can't seem to put on weight no matter how much I eat. Mom says I'm scrawny as a plucked chicken. How can I deal with a bully who is twice my size?"

That kind of dialogue is marked by characters telling each other things they already know for the sake of the reader. Kids aren't fooled by that. They know it's fake and thus it pushes them away from the characters instead of making the story more emotionally real. That doesn't mean you can't sneak in hints about the past:

Beth walked over and plunked down beside Bobby. "So, what's the matter this time?"
Bobby glared at her. Sure, he hadn't been Mister Jolly the past year without Dad but Beth acted like all he did was mope like a little kid. "Nothing."
"Right," she said. "This wouldn't have anything to do with that bruise on your cheek would it?"
Bobby's hand flew to his face. "It shows? Mom's going to freak."
"When Mom gets home, she's too tired to see, much less freak."
Maybe, but Bobby didn't like to take the chance.

Notice how it covers much of the same ground but does it a bit more subtly and puts things to see in front of the reader as well. That helps distract from a little "informing" and makes it more natural and palatable. So, whenever you need to get the reader up to speed - be sneaky.


(The “game” begins around 2’30”)

This is a picture of a plaque which commemorates an interaction, followed by an awkward silence. I wonder where else plaques marking awkward silences might be placed. What was the conversation/situation that resulted in the awkward silence?

3. Write a dialogue between two or more people which incorporates information about the history of the poppy as a symbol. Here's some info.

Here's a cartoon that does this:

4. What I did for breakfast: TWO HAVE A CONVERSATION

-two people transcribe what the others say.

-then switch.


now edit. what do you leave out.
how could you make this exciting.
-what if there was a knock on the door and an alien was there.
continue conversation as if this happened and include Alien.

5. The scenario:
Two people have been becoming friends for a while. One of them needs to tell the other a secret (can be good or bad), but knows she/he can’t just blurt it out. So what do they say?
[Decide who you are and what the secret it. Now edit.]

6. Write a scene in which one person tells another person a story. Make sure that you write it as a dialog and not just a first person narrative, but clearly have one person telling the story and the other person listening and asking questions or making comments. The purpose of this scene will be both to have the story stand alone as a subject, and to have the characters’ reactions to the story be the focal point of the scene.

7. Write a scene in which one person is listening to two other people have an argument or discussion. For example, a child listening to her parents argue about money. Have the third character narrate the argument and explain what is going on, but have the other two provide the entire dialog. It is not necessary to have the narrator understand the argument completely. Miscommunication is a major aspect of dialog.

8. Write a conversation between two liars. Give everything they say a double or triple meaning. Never state or indicate through outside description that these two people are lying. Let the reader figure it out strictly from the dialog. Try not to be obvious, such as having one person accuse the other of lying. That is too easy.

9. Write a conversation in which no character speaks more than three words per line of dialog. Again, avoid crutches such as explaining everything they say through narration. Use your narration to enhance the scene, not explain the dialog.

Sample Characters

  movie star and fanatic fan
  officer and speeder
  psychiatrist and patient
  waiter/waitress and diner
  man on a ledge and psychologist
  principal and student
  hairdresser/barber and client
  teacher and parent
  little sis and big sis
  driving instructor and student driver
  deejay and phone-in listener
  reporter and accident witness
  priest and confessor
  cheerleader and nerd
  girl and boy on blind date
  dogcatcher and dog owner
  player and coach
  two late-night grocery shoppers
  girl's date and little brother or sister
  flight attendant and passenger
  man and God
  angel and devil on character's shoulder

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Introducing Characters to the Reader

Introducing Characters to the Reader

a. telling it directly
Mr Maurice Smith was something of a snob.

b. allowing the character to tell it.
I am much more discerning than I used to be, Smith thought. Though I suppose I’ve become a bit of a snob in the process.

c. allowing some other character to express it.
“Don’t waste your time on him,” Jane Roberts said to her younger sister. “Maury Smith has no time for the likes of us any more.”

d. letting the character’s actions suggest it.
When Smith turned the corner, he discovered the source of the shouting. A demonstration. Labourers in hard hats wielded placards. One of the men pushed a pamphlet into Smith’s hands. He dropped it as he might have dropped a handful of steaming dung, and hurried away, glancing to either side in case someone he knew had seen.

Showing Emotions

1. Physical evidence: His heart raced. His palms were damp.
2. Revealing actions: Again he dropped the hat. Once he’d picked it up, he squeezed it and twisted it between his hands.
3. Facial expressions: He closed his eyes quickly, and turned away. His lips, you could see, were moving.
4. Stream of consciousness: I will not let them see, he thought. I will not give them the satisfaction. Let them think I am as courageous as they are.
5. Dialogue responses: “Me?” His voice cracked. “Me? But there must be…I can’t do…Excuse me, I’d better sit down.”
6. Projection onto setting.  The room, when he entered, was crammed with people buzzing with contentment at one another’s company. All turned, and leveled gazes at him that said: And what right do you have to come amongst us?
7. Metaphor: Why did he feel, whenever she turned that lion-sized smile on him, that he’d been mistaken for a Christian?
8. Allusion: For a moment he felt himself to be a trembling Faustus, about to cry out a pleas for a merciful postponement.
9. Rhythm: No, he would not. He would not. He would refuse. He would grit his teeth and smile till his lips bled. He would never, never, never let them see.
10 Sympathetic language: Perhaps the curtains flutter nervously, or the walls sweat condensation; perhaps the people bray when they laugh, growl when they suggest, bully when they persuade, or rear back, as though about to charge him.

Characterization through actions and movement. 

Even single words—verbs—can change the whole feel of a sentence:

Megan opened the door to the classroom and walked to the teacher's desk
Megan opened the door to the classroom and tiptoed to the teacher's desk. 
Megan opened the door to the classroom and crawled to the teacher's desk. 
Megan opened the door to the classroom and flew to the teacher's desk. 
Megan opened the door to the classroom and stumbled to the teacher's desk.
Megan yanked open the door to the classroom and scrambled to the teacher’s desk.

How does your character talk? What markers (emotional, regional, class, etc) in their speech note their character? How do they interact with others?

adapted from Barbara Haworth-Attard, & Jack Hodgins,


House Mother Normal by B.S. Johnson