Scenes are the backbone and heart of novels. There are many types of scenes and many ways to write them. Genre is the biggest concern because in order to write the perfect scenes for your story, you need to know who you are writing to.
Too often writers sit down and pull a scene out of their heads. They don’t spend much time planning the purpose of the scene. This speaks to a bigger issue: lack of overall plotting. If you don’t understand novel structure and what the key turning points are, you will find it challenging to write the kinds of scenes needed.
Certain types of scenes are found in different sections of a novel. Setup scenes are focused on setting up character and premise. Scenes near the climax are about high stakes and high energy.
I’ve written a lot of blog posts and book chapters on scenes, and if you aren’t a scene master, be sure to dig into these (and other) resources.
Consider coming to one of my Scene Mastery Boot Camps too! There is still room to enroll. Here is the info on these camps.
Just to give you a taste of what we cover in these 3-day intensives:
Scene placement in novels: scenes in the beginning are about setup: character, premise, tension, conflict, stakes, the world, etc. Middle scenes are about progress and setback, rise in action, twists and victories. Later scenes are intensified in action, emotion, stakes, consequences.
The different types of scenes and different types of scene structure
Scene mechanics: structure, wording, description—all that
Character change: how that looks in the scene itself and overall change across the novel
Scene openings, middles, endings. Hooks—at front and end
Action-Reaction, Deep POV, Character Arc. Setting and description. Sensory details that bring your scenes to life
Genre and why it’s so important. Deconstruct to nail scene structure, tone, balance of elements, voice, tone, pacing.
What microtension is. Identify microtension in your scenes, sample scenes, others’ scenes.
Balancing elements. Discuss sample scenes and how those balance elements.
You can imagine it’s not easy to learn everything about scene mastery in just three days, but we try to cover it all! And of course you’ll be writing!
Because so many writers have expressed a desire to take one of our scene mastery boot camps but couldn’t attend due to travel, money, or timing concerns, I am planning to open enrollment this fall to my online scene and plotting boot camps! I’m excited to launch these intimate 3- and 4-month private groups, which will cover all the pertinent material and will include Zoom meetings (maximum 15 participants) every two weeks, homework assignments, personal coaching via monthly phone chats, and critiquing of your material each month.
You’ll have your own moderated, private critique group with other dedicated writers, everyone sharing ideas and feedback and constructive suggestions.
Stay tuned for more on these unique online coaching courses. If you’re chomping at the bit, email me and I’ll put you on a priority list (since space will be very limited). Cost will be around $175/month, and the value you’ll be getting way exceeds that amount.
Want to master scene structure? Then jump into one of our boot camps or get on the list to participate online via my new coaching portal. Isn’t it time you committed to becoming the best writer you can be?
My family lived in Germany for five years, and when we first got there, we went to a German restaurant. We soon learned that we had a lot to learn. When my twelve-year-old son asked a German waitress where the bathrooms were, she gave him a cookie.
In spite of the difficulty of learning a foreign language, I am in awe of foreigners who are able to learn our difficult English language. Still, the complex and convoluted nature of our language is addicting and wonderful.
That is why we writers have become addicted to the English language. Isaac Asimov once said, “If my doctor told me I had only six months to live, I wouldn’t brood. I’d just type faster.”
Although we are enthralled by words, we know that reading too many poorly chosen words to describe something is like eating too much of a mediocre meal. The US government regulations on the sale of cabbage, for example, consist of 26,911 words. The Gettysburg Address, however, consists of only 286 words. Thomas Jefferson appropriately said, “The most valuable of all talents is that of never using two words when one will do.”
While in junior high school, I was not enthralled with the rules that I learned from my rather dour English teachers. Still, I found that my insatiable reading helped me to absorb many of the rules of good writing. I even found that there were fun ways to learn to write well.
Verbs has to agree with their subjects.
It is wrong to ever split an infinitive.
Also too, never, ever use repetitive redundancies.
I soon learned that English is a language that cannot be governed entirely by rules and logic.
There is no egg in eggplant.
Quicksand works slowly.
Boxing rings are square.
Noses run and feet smell.
Quick does not rhyme with Buick.
A drain must be opened up because it is stopped up.
A house burns up as it burns down.
Some words are just odd. Words such as kayak, level, and radar are called palindromes. They are the same word backward or forward.
After I learned many of the rules of good writing, I also learned that, in spite of grammar checkers, that there are times when my writing could improve when I occasionally and skillfully broke some those rules. For example, the rule not to use sentence fragments can sometimes be broken to lend drama to writing.
As another example of breaking the rules, Winston Churchill once became irate when an aide suggested that Churchill should not end a sentence with a preposition. The angry Churchill replied, “This is the sort of bloody nonsense up with which I will not put.”
Funny rules helped me to spell better. For example, one can easily remember the difference in the spelling of desert and dessert. The word dessert has “ss,” and that stands for “sweet stuff.”
More people should have more of an interest in writing well. Some job applicants, for example, learned that the power of even one misspelled word can ruin their chances of landing a job.
“Was instrumental in ruining an entire operation for a Midwest chain store.”
“Received a plague for Salesperson of the Year.”
This announcement of a lab report also shows the woes that come from spelling errors:
“The lab test indicated abnormal lover function.”
A restaurant window a sign read “Don’t stand there and be hungry; come on in and get fed up.”
A cleaner’s establishment got the attention of potential customers. The sign in their window read “Drop your pants here, and you will receive prompt attention.”
These newspaper headlines demonstrate the embarrassment that results from poorly chosen words:
“Safety experts say school bus passengers should be belted.”
“The police surrounded the building and threw an accordion around the block.”
Some words fit the definition of oxymoron. For example:
Why is abbreviated such a long word?
Why is a television set called a set when there is only one?
Why is the word phonics not spelled the way it sounds?
Why do “fat chance” and “slim chance” mean the same thing?
During his career, Yogi Berra was a baseball player, coach, and manager. He also had the knack of using words in ways that were incorrect but funny. For example, he once said, “We make too many wrong mistakes.” He made so many statements like that one that his comments were collected and called “Yogisms.”
Is there any wonder that we writers have become addicted to the English language? How could we possibly not become addicted?
Well, I have to pick up my wife now at the beauty parlor where she went to curl up and dye. My best wishes to all of you wordsmiths out there.
Dan Vale has a PhD in counselor education. Over a seven-year period, he wrote 785 articles for Examiner Online. He has written two books, which can be seen on his Amazon author page.
Romance is a part of life, and so it should also play some part in our novels—if we intend for our characters to mirror real life. Even if you don’t write in the romance genre, don’t be too quick to dismiss adding the element of romance to your story.
However, just slapping a few romantic moments into a scene or developing a romantic interest to add flavor may not help your story. In fact, it could even sabotage it.
Depending on your genre and plot, your story structure is going to vary. As will the role romance plays in your novel. And this is important to understand.
Romance Threads Need to Serve a Clear Purpose
Most novels have one engine that drives the story. There is one primary focus or plot the protagonist is involved with. The hero is chasing a visible goal, which is reached or not at the climax of the book. That main goal is not centered on a romantic relationship developing.
Romance, then, is a component of such a story.
If you are writing in any genre other than romance, it’s important to understand the purpose romance can serve in a story.
In most strong story structures, a romance character is either by the hero’s side from the start, acting as an ally or mirror character (who may turn rival), or she’s the “reward” at the end for the hero coming into his true essence and reaching his goal (and, of course, you can reverse the genders here).
Beware of Misdirection
When romance threads don’t follow either of these structures, they usually don’t work well.
Inserting a random romance element partway through a novel to add conflict can cause confusion because it might send the wrong message—that your story is veering in a new direction.
For example, let’s say you are writing a story about a mission to Mars. The clear plot goal for the hero (and his cast of characters) is to find a way to establish a base and start growing for because earth is dying. This is the basic premise behind the movie Red Planet.
Your hero may have a clear attraction to the female captain, and while that’s palpable to readers, that attraction merely forms the basis for allied support in the story. As the characters meet with obstacles and disasters, and tension ramps toward the climax, there might be moments when the two characters get closer, maybe even seem to be falling in love, with a hint (or more than a hint) at the end that they may get together.
But if partway through the story, the focus shifts to their relationship and the perils and joys of their blooming love, the primary plot will suffer. This applies to romantic entanglements with your secondary characters as well.
Your Chosen Genre Is a Promise to Your Reader
You make a promise to your reader when you establish your story line and genre. If your back-cover copy describes your story as a sci-fi thriller about a mission to Mars, you aren’t targeting romance readers. Those readers aren’t expecting a romance focus. They will be annoyed to see their exciting thriller turn into a romance novel.
So a romance character in non-romance genres can play a strong part, along with other ally or antagonist characters. She might betray the hero and cause him grief. Or she might provide that strong faith in him that keeps him going when all seems lost.
So, just as with the others in your cast of characters, a romance character will either help or hinder the hero in his effort to reach the goal.
We See This in Stories All the Time
We’ve all seen plenty of movies that start off showing the hero going through a divorce or having “failed” in his love relationship. In Outbreak, we see virologist Sam Daniels estranged from his ex-wife Roberta. The crisis of the outbreak throws them together, and as they face the difficult challenges together, their relationship is healed by the end of the movie. He “saves the day and wins the girl.”
This story structure is very common—and that’s because it works. No doubt you can think of a number of movies that follow this basic structure. Another that comes to mind is National Treasure—Book of Secrets, in which Ben Gates’s divorced parents, still fuming and hostile toward each other over a trivial past incident, make up at the end.
This plot element featuring secondary characters adds humor and tension and problems to the story. But it doesn’t distract or veer the story onto the wrong track. All the bits involving the romance serve the purpose of impacting and affecting Ben’s attempt to reach his goal.
Note, of course, that there is a gradual progression through the entire story, as each incident makes the two characters work through their issues until they get to a place of harmony. This would be considered a subplot for your story.
If you’d like to see how this might lay out in very specific terms, I’ve created a helpful chart that you can download here. It shows how you can layer in just about any subplot over the ten key foundational scenes for a novel.
If you keep this in mind—that any element in a novel, including a romance one—must “orbit” around the premise and plot, helping or hindering the hero in his attempt to reach his goal, you won’t go wrong.
Adding in romance elements can greatly enhance a novel—if done correctly.
What romance component do you have in your novel—or are thinking of adding? Can you think of any novels or movies that use this typical structure of having the hero “win the girl” in the end as a reward for reaching his goal?
A few years back, I decided to create online video courses. Many writers had expressed interest in getting deep into topics that I had written blog posts (as well as an elaboration of my free email course on Amazon success, which you can take anytime, for free, by clicking on the link at the right).
Since I opened my online school, more than 1,000 writers have taken my courses! And I’m presently putting a new course together on emotion: a really intense, deep look at how to both show emotion in our characters and evoke emotion in our readers. I plan to launch that course this fall.
In order to encourage you to check out my courses, this month, July 2019, I’m doing something I have never done. I’m offering all my courses and course packages for HALF OFF. While you get to access these courses forever (or as long as the world and/or internet exist …), you would have to enroll in my school and pay for the courses in JULY using this coupon: JULYHALFOFF.
It only takes a minute to sign up. Go to my school (cslakin.teachable.com) and enroll by putting in your email and a password. That’s all! Choose which course you want to take, go to pay, and type in the coupon. Easy peasy!
My courses on craft will walk you through a thorough step-by-step process to master novel structure. All courses are video modules that you take at your own pace, offering lifetime access, and numerous handouts and worksheets to aid you in your learning. Hey, and there is a 30-day money-back guarantee, so no risk! You can also preview for free a few of the modules (scroll down on the course pages for the curriculum and note the ones that are marked “preview”).
Here are the courses currently available on Writing for Life Workshops:
The 10 Key Scenes That Frame Up Your Novel: This course, built on my highly touted Layer Your Novel book, lays out the time-tested basic story structure that most novels, plays, and movies follow.
International best-selling author Jerry Jenkins says this of Layer Your Novel: “I loved this book. There is so much here, yes, even for us pantsers—because in every novel manuscript there comes that point where we wish we were plotters. And as much as C. S. Lakin eschews winging it, her layering method actually allows for enough creativity and innovation that we get the best of both worlds.”
This twelve-module course goes deep into the first layer of scenes you need to know. In addition, you’ll learn all about the six stages of the protagonist’s journey so you don’t have to guess how to build a character arc! It’s all laid out in clear, easy steps.
The 4 Foundational Pillars of Novel Structure: Before you can write a novel, you need to know how to build strong pillars. Drawn from my book The 12 Key Pillars of Novel Construction, this mini course walks you through the four essential corner pillars that support every great story: Protagonist with a Goal, Concept with a Kicker, Conflict with High Stakes, and Theme with a Heart. Nail these corner pillars before you go any further in plotting your novel!
Targeting Genre for Big Sales: Writers often don’t realize how important genre is when it comes to selling success. Instead of writing a novel and hoping it will “fit in somewhere,” learn how to target genre for success. You’ll learn the tips and tricks to success on Amazon, the top-selling site for authors, as well as how to deconstruct novels in your genre. In addition, you’ll be shown step by step how to drill into Amazon to find the right niche genre for your novel—one that will give you the best chance of discoverability and success.
10 Easy but Essential Self-Editing Tips: This short course is packed full of great tips on how to self-edit. Writers need to learn to be brutal self-editors in order to write concisely and clearly. These ten tips are easy but will make a huge difference in your writing if you apply them!
How to Make a Great Living as an Editor: This course is for anyone interested in turning an editing business into a global enterprise. This is not a course that teaches how to become an editor or start a freelance editing business. Rather, it’s for editors at any level of experience to learn how to make a great living doing what they love by breaking out of the freelancing mentality and discovering what unique offerings they can bring to their business and name branding.
I hope you’ll take advantage of this special monthlong deal! Remember: if you sign up and then decide you don’t like the course or you’re not getting anything useful out of it, you can ask for (and get) a full refund. So what are you waiting for? Enroll HERE!
More Online Courses Half Off!
My good friend and writing instructor Beth Barany is also offering all her courses and packages for half off in July! She has an excellent assortment of classes to help writers : creating characters, branding, book launches, how to get book reviews, story structure, deep POV, and more!
Just go to her online schoolHERE and enroll in a course, then apply coupon code VENTE2019 to get the discount.
All our courses and packages for the entire month of July are half off. Remember: you only have to sign up and pay in July. You get lifetime access to these courses and all the videos and handouts and worksheets. Watch the videos over and over again. There is no required starting date, so if you don’t have time to start taking these courses in July, no worries. Once enrolled, you are good to go anytime!
Don’t miss this unique offer to pack your writer’s toolbox full of great writing and marketing skills. Challenge yourself to become the best writer you can be!
MasterClass is excited to announce its newest class launch, David Baldacci Teaches Mystery and Thriller Writing. The class is officially live HERE and available for full access today.
In 18 lessons, bestselling thriller author David Baldacci teaches you how he fuses mystery and suspense to create pulse-pounding action. David Baldacci has captivated readers across the world with gripping, suspense-fueled thrillers.
Now the New York Times–bestselling author of 38 novels shares his techniques for crafting authentic characters, developing research-based plots, and navigating the world of publishing.
Learn how to write a novel with red herrings, clues, and plot twists that will keep your readers turning the pages.
The cool thing about MasterClass is you can purchase an all-access pass for one year for $180. That means you have access to 60+ instructors and their videos and other content!
Baldacci’s class by itself is $90. I would heartily encourage you to get the all-access pass so you can dive into other great writers’ courses—like Margaret Atwood’s and James Patterson. I’ve taken Patterson’s class and also Steve Martin’s class on comedy. That was terrific. Check out these writers HERE.
Check out the lesson plan for Baldacci’s class. Here are just some of the things he shares with you:
Finding the Idea
You want to write—but how do you find your idea? David walks you through his daily practice of looking at the world through what he calls the “writer’s prism.”
Research Methods and Sources
Firsthand research brings depth and breadth to your story. David discusses why he recommends visiting locations in person, talking directly to people, and creating a battle plan.
David shows you how he writes outlines, emphasizing that it is an ever-evolving process. I’m a huge fan of outlining!
The first chapter of your book should be a touchstone. David talks about how to open with a “big pop” and how to reference that opening in the rest of your chapters.
Pacing, Tension, and Suspense
How do you keep readers on the edge of their seats? David shares how he builds suspense, using such strategies as red herrings, plot twists, cliffhangers, and a ticking clock.
Creating Compelling Characters
David describes the tools he uses to create compelling characters: Expect your characters to change, allow them to have flaws, and give equal importance to your sidekicks and antagonists.
Action in your story can reveal information about a location, someone’s motivation, and someone’s special skills. David explains how you can use choreography and pacing to maximize the impact of your story’s action.
MasterClass is a superb site that gives you quality instruction from some of the best in various fields. You can also take cooking classes from Wolfgang Puck, music classes (how about film scoring from Hans Zimmer!), even learn how to play basketball from Steph Curry!
I hope you’ll take some time to peruse the courses. It’s money well spent! I am going to take Baldacci’s class next month for sure. I’m excited because I’m writing a thriller right now and need all the help I can get.
Have you taken any of the MasteClass courses? If so, which ones? Did you learn some cool things? Share in the comments.
Did you know that all art forms and spiritual work are rooted in deliberate practice? Practice is the time set aside every day to honor your work and develop your skills. It takes the shape of rituals and exercises. Practice gathers your attention and brings it to your work.
Ballet dancers train for hours. Even the most basic steps are repeated over and over again. The movements and the dancers are inseparable. When they are on stage, these movements are transformed into performance.
Singers warm up with the basics, stretch their vocal chords for two to three hours a day. Athletes and gymnasts train every day. They are always in shape and ready to push to the next level.
How can you bring that disciplined practice to your life each day instead of jumping straight into a project and laying fallow between these projects? What are the warm-ups that you as a writer can do? What is the jumping jacks equivalent to writing?
You can easily develop your writing practice by planning your time, what you’ll write, and what you’ll read. And then do it. Every single day.
Planning Your Practice Time
You’ll need to set aside at least two hours every day for dedicated writing and reading practice. It excludes projects that you are working on and books that you may be reading for pleasure. The first two hours of the morning or the last two hours before you hit the sack are ideal, as your mind is clear and there are fewer interruptions.
When you write in the mornings, as soon as you get out of bed, the writing may have a dreamlike quality to it. Another benefit? The censors are not up just yet.
If two hours is too big a chunk out of a busy schedule, you could set aside an hour in the morning and an hour at night, or even in the afternoon. It doesn’t matter when you practice so long as you don’t skip the practice.
Making Reading Your Practice
Reading practice involves reading with a goal in mind. The goal is to analyze the text that you are reading. Instead of reading for pleasure, you need to dive deeper. It means you will cover less ground, but it’s thorough.
When you read as a writer, you’ll be looking at the writing techniques used and the craft of writing. You could annotate the text and make notes on the side. Pay attention to how sentences are structured and what purpose they serve, symbols, repetitions, other standout literary devices, plot points, and so on.
Reading deliberately is an exercise in developing discernment. What makes good writing? What works and what fails? Books that will give you guidelines on reading critically include Roy Peter Clark’s The Art of X-Ray Reading and Francine Prose’s Reading like a Writer.
Flexing Your Writing Muscles
Your writing practice should ideally include a freewrite in the morning when you wake up, as recommended by Julia Cameron in The Artist’s Way. Cameron suggests engaging in three pages of uncensored writing, which she calls the morning pages, as soon as you wake up.
You could also work with prompts and freewrite for ten to fifteen minutes. The purpose of freewriting is not to create perfect writing but to simply exercise your thinking and writing muscles.
Prompts can be found online or in books on the craft of writing such as Natalie Goldberg’s. You could choose a phrase at random from a novel or a poem. See what it triggers. Or try exercises that are specific to writing techniques, such as description, dialogue, or character.
You may have a few favorite prompts. However, it works better if you constantly work with new ones. Just think, if you do only your favorite ab crunches, the rest of your body will remain weak. Push yourself out of your comfort zone with a new prompt every day.
These practices don’t take up much time, and they will help you stay in the habit of writing. Often new ideas for projects are born through these simple practices. And when you do start working on a project, you may find that your skills have vastly improved.
It will help to continue your writing practice even when you are deep in a project, though you may want to shorten the time spent on it. No athlete, singer, or dancer would get into the meat of their practice without a warm-up. And that goes for the writer too.
Anuradha Prasad is a writer and editor. She also writes poetry and short fiction. Her work has appeared in Muse India and Literally Stories. Visit Anuradha at her blog.
Something remarkable happens today. And it has the potential to be a turning point in your writing career.
My friend and colleague, New York Times best-selling author Jerry Jenkins (the guy who wrote the Left Behind series), has just opened spots in his most comprehensive novel-writing program in more than forty years of teaching writers.
It’s called Your Novel Blueprint. You can find all the information right here.
But here’s a quick overview of what you get when you sign up:
Lifetime access to 84 video lessons that take you step-by-step through Jerry’s entire novel-writing process. He’ll guide you from start to finish, all the way to a completed manuscript.
Instructions for every writing session, so you’ll never stare at a blank screen wondering what to do next. You’ll love the confidence that comes from a clear purpose and direction each time you sit down to write.
A PERSONAL VIDEO from Jerry, evaluating your novel idea, in which he’ll tell you what he thinks works, what could improve, and how to make it as compelling as possible for agents or acquisition editors. His goal is to give you confidence in the foundation of your novel before you spend months building on it.
A FREE Professional Critique of your novel’s first 10 pages from a celebrated, award-winning novelist or editor from Jerry’s stable of handpicked experts.
Exclusive access to the private Your Novel Blueprint Facebook page (currently 475 members strong), where you can get to know fellow members and interact about your works in progress. This has become a most popular feature and many have formed mutual accountability groups. You can also post pieces of your work for informal evaluation and ask Jerry questions about any aspect of your novel. He says this community impresses him every day!
An invitation to a live, in-person Mastermind Session Jerry hosts annually after you and fellow members finish your novels—a full day of group coaching and in-depth conversation about your writing…and a chance to celebrate all you’ve accomplished! Jerry says many have established lifelong friendships here.
Access to Jerry’s Query Letter and Proposal Package, everything you need to confidently pitch your manuscript to agents and publishers. It includes his guide, How to Impress Agents and Editors (what decision makers look for and how to make your work stand out), access to 2 novel proposals that resulted in best sellers (you can use these as templates for your own proposals), and his 90-minute seminar, How to Write Winning Queries and Proposals.
I’ve had time to look through some of this course, and I’ve heard some great comments from some who have taken it. Here’s what I really love about this program:
It’s one of the most comprehensive courses I’ve ever seen. You’ll learn everything from generating your idea to planning the novel, and from nailing your first chapter to writing an epic ending. If you schedule six hours a week, you can expect to finish your book within about six months. If you are someone who procrastinates and needs to be pushed along, this will do it for you!
It helps you overcome the struggles that destroy most writers’ dreams—fear, procrastination, and writer’s block. You’ll learn how to finally defeat all three.
It’s taught by Jerry Jenkins, a pro who has hit the New York Times best-seller list a whopping 21 times, and whose books have sold over 70 million copies worldwide. In this course, he teaches you everything he’s learned about writing a novel.
You receive personalized guidance. When you submit your book idea to Jerry, he sends you a video evaluation of it. Also, you get a thorough personal edit of your first 10 pages by a Jerry Jenkins–approved professional.
This course has some seriously great testimonials from successful students. So if you’re looking for start-to-finish guidance from a seasoned pro on your next novel, check this course out right now!
There is NOTHING to risk by signing up as there’s a 30-day money-back guarantee on this course, so if you join, you can get your money back at any point, for any reason, during the first 30 days.
This opportunity is only open for a week, so be sure to check it out right away. If you want to get that novel written and have the best chance at success as a novelist, Jerry can help you!
Dialogue is the epitome of “showing” instead of telling. Dialogue brings characters to life and engages readers. If we have no dialogue in our “scenes,” those long descriptive paragraphs will get boring. These basic tenets apply to fiction as well as in memoir.
Dialogue adds “white space” to our pages, makes the reading move quickly, and helps keep our story from becoming cumbersome.
But dialogue can be boring, right? And who can accurately remember every word of a conversation? If you’ve ever had a fight with a friend or spouse, you know that it only takes a minute or two to forget something that had just been said—especially when it’s a hot, emotional argument. I’ve often blurted, “But you just said . . . !” and my spouse replied, “No way! I did not!”
Needless to say, we often have selected memory.
Unless you have tape-recorded every moment of your past, you are not going to remember, word for word, what was said.
And here’s another point: you wouldn’t want to repeat exactly what was said in a given situation, because, for the most part, much of what we say is boring and repetitive.
Fiction writers learn the technique of distilling dialogue. What this means is exactly what it sounds like. Dialogue should present the gist of what needs to be said, minus the ums and uhs and unimportant stuff. No one likes to engage in boring conversation, so it stands to follow they wouldn’t want to read it either.
Adding in realistic, dynamic, maybe humorous dialogue is the key to a terrific memoir.
Don’t be afraid to “put words in someone’s mouth,” even your own. That’s what you have to do. That’s what good memoirists do. You want to be true and faithful to the intent of what’s being said, and honestly represent those who are speaking.
Recall the conversations to the best of your ability. We all know we have memories that are like colanders—a lot slips out.
As you write dialogue, be sure each person sounds authentic, like himself or herself. Their speech should reflect their education, upbringing, and all the factors that make them who they are.
Here’s a great exercise to get you thinking about dialogue: go to a public place, like a coffee shop or a mall and eavesdrop (respectfully). Listen to how people talk. It’s funny that we don’t tend to pay attention to the way people speak: their diction, vocabulary, sentence structure.
Study Other Memoirs
Here’s a great example of effective, tight dialogue, from Kimberly Rae Miller’s Coming Clean:
“Wow, you girls did a great job,” my mother said.
I didn’t say anything. I couldn’t say anything. I was so angry with them for living this way again.
Rachel took over, talking to my mother about her plans for grad school and her summer job working as a dockmaster on Fire Island.
I watched my father look for some sign of his papers, under couch cushions or in coat pockets. Something to find comfort in.
After Rachel left, the questions started coming.
“Where did you put my box of old Day-Timers?”
“I hope you didn’t throw out my ice-cream maker; it only needed one part to work again.”
I didn’t say anything.
“Oh, you’re not talking to us,” my mom said as if I were seven years old again and being adorably rebellious.
“I’m not talking,” I said. “The refrigerator still needs cleaning.”
Notice how tight and concise the dialogue is, interspersed with brief lines of narrative and action. The writer uses said because that verb, to readers, is “invisible.” We blip over it so that it doesn’t snag our attention, and that’s important.
Use speech verbs like said and asked, instead of fancy verbs, such as extrapolated, cajoled, and elucidated. Those words will distract readers instead of allowing the dialogue to flow naturally.
You don’t need to use a speech verb with every line, if it’s clear who is speaking. Add in beats for reaction where reaction is needed. As we speak to people, we pause to process at certain times. We want our dialogue to reflect this natural behavior. If we don’t, the dialogue will be rapid-fire, sounding more like a comedy sketch than real life.
In Ultramarathon Man: Confessions of an All-Night Runner, Dean Karnazes uses snappy, fast-moving dialogue to set the “runner’s” pace of his story:
Exactly twenty-five minutes later, a dusty pickup truck with oversized tires came barreling down the road. My pizza had arrived. To my surprise, the young manager was behind the wheel.
“Dude!” he cried, jumping out of the car. “You’re mad. This is awesome!”
He pulled the pizza off the passenger seat and opened the box. It was masterfully crafted, almost as high as it was wide, with lots of pineapple and olives piled on top. It looked like something you’d feed a rhinoceros. I paid the tab, thanked him, and prepared to charge on.
“You’re gonna keep running?” he asked. “Don’t you want a lift?”
“Now that I’ve got some fuel,” I answered, holding up the food, “I’m going to put it to good use.”
“But how far are you gonna go?”
“I’m headed to the beach,” I said.
“To the beach!” he cried. “Dude, Bodega Bay’s at least thirty miles from here!”
Actually I was heading to the beach in Santa Cruz—over 150 miles from here—but I didn’t think either of us was prepared to face up to that reality.
“I can’t believe it’s humanly possible to run thirty miles,” he gasped. “Are you like Carl Lewis or something?”
“Ah . . . yeah,” I replied. “I’m like Carl Lewis, only slower.”
“Where will you sleep?”
“You’re running straight through the nights? This is insane. I love it!” He jumped back into his truck. “I can’t wait to tell the guys back at the shop.” He sped off.
. . . With the cheesecake stacked on top of the pizza, I started running again, eating as I went.
Here’s another good example of authentic, effective dialogue from Issa Rae’s memoir. Notice how some of the pertinent information is quickly summarized so that only the key parts of the conversation are played out. Pay attention to those pauses she inserts for processing:
“I don’t think you like me very much,” he started.
“What? What are you talking about,” I asked.
“Oftentimes, I will call you and you won’t call me back. Or when I come over to spend time with you, you’ll just go to sleep . . . What are we doing?”
As I listened to him go on about what he wasn’t getting from me in our “relationship,” I grew confused—what was this?
I opted for the truth. “Honestly, I thought we were just . . .” What were the French words for “friends with benefits”?
“What did you think we were ‘just’?” he insisted.
I scrambled to put words together without sounding vulgar. It was the first language-barrier issue we’d encountered. I kept repeating the words in English, hoping he’d understand . . . but the more and more I said it, the dumber I felt. Frustrated, he proposed a solution. “I think we should stop seeing each other, since you don’t like me.”
I was shocked. I had never been broken up with before, much less from someone with whom I didn’t even know I was in a relationship. . . .
“If that’s what you think is best.”
Notice, also, that when writing dialogue, every time you switch speakers, you begin a new paragraph. That is the simplest way to be clear who is speaking.
The “rule of three” is helpful when writing dialogue. Don’t go more than three lines without inserting some narrative: a speech tag, gesture, expression, or commentary. It helps keep monotony at bay.
Using dialogue in memoir brings your story to life. Apply these simple tips and dig into the art of dialogue.
Need help with your memoir?
If you are working on your memoir or considering writing one, get The Memoir Workbook! It will help you organize your memories into a compelling and cohesive tale!
It’s important for writers to convey the description of setting and characters through the POV character’s eyes and emotions. But just as we don’t take notice of every single detail in a room or about a person we encounter (I think our brains would explode!), our characters are going to notice particular things, and that’s determined by their personality and mood at the moment.
For example, if a beautiful woman wearing provocative clothing walks into a diner, a young man is going to notice different things about her than, say, a five-year-old child would. He’s going to think different things as well, and it’s likely that, if you put ten men in that diner, you could have each think very different thoughts about that woman because of who he is. An old priest will think different thoughts than a twenty-something bad boy. The priest might notice how tarnished and unhappy the woman seems. The young man may only be checking out her curves and the hemline of her dress.
Scenes are going to feel deficient if description is dumped outside of POV.
But there are also other problems that can occur because of POV, and they stem from what happens when a writer forgets where his character is placed in his scene.
Characters and Their Sensory Limitations
Few writers pay much attention to character placement, but this is something of paramount concern to filmmakers, and a subject I cover in depth in Shoot Your Novel. A director has to lay out his camera shots, deciding when a close-up shot would be more effective than a long shot, for example. He may want the camera positioned far away from the action, to make details unclear and evoke curiosity or misinterpretation. Or he may have an extreme close-up to ensure viewers don’t miss a tiny detail that is crucial to the plot.
Adept novelists mimic this technique in their books to good effect. But if writers don’t think through where they are placing their characters, they may end up with description issues. Meaning, their character is reacting to and processing details that she really can’t react to or process—due to where she is in the scene.
Here’s what I mean.
Tracy stared out the windshield of her old VW bug at the red light. Would it never change?
Then she spotted a boy about seven or eight across the four-lane intersection, pounding on the Walk button over and over. He was humming something as he poked, straddling a too-large bike, with his new Nikes digging into the dirt. He looked at his feet, obviously unaware that all his button pressing was preventing the light from changing.
Tracy gritted her teeth, then swung the door open. The heat blasted in. She glanced around. No other cars on this Sunday morning in this tiny town she’d been driving through mindlessly.
She stepped out onto the sizzling pavement.
The boy looked up and saw her glowering at him. His face paled and he sucked in a breath, no doubt figuring how to make his escape. He hopped on his bike but didn’t see the crack in the pavement. His front tire slipped in and wrenched the bike, which caused it to ricochet off the pavement. The boy slammed into the handlebars, which smacked him right in the nose, breaking it.
He quickly righted himself and looked up to see if she’d witnessed his mishap and flushed almost purple when he realized she had.
Mortified, and desperate to get away, he pulled with all his might and managed to lift the front wheel up above his head so he could pivot the bike around, but as he did so, the bike and its rider fell to the ground. He lay on the smoldering pavement like a fish out of water, wiggling and thrashing, his little legs tangled up in the metal spokes.
Then Tracy spotted something in the corner of her eye. She spun around. Behind her, the car lurched forward, almost knocking her down.
Oh no, I forgot to put the car in Park.
She ran over to her car door, hoping to jump inside, but smacked into it instead. Her right foot locked as the tire rolled over her shoelace and pinned her in place. She fell to her knees and watched helplessly as the unmanned car continued rolling across the street, heading straight for the little boy who was still flailing about beneath the giant bike, his face stricken with fear.
“Get up! Get out of the way!” She screeched as she struggled to her feet and scrambled to run after the car. Judging the distance between the car and boy, she knew she was never going to make it.
The boy wiggled and whimpered as Tracy ran, panting, trying to reach him.
Just in time, she caught up to the rolling car, threw open the door, lunged over the seat, and pulled up the emergency brake. She stared out the windshield, gasping for breath. The boy’s bike was mangled under her tires. The handlebars were crushed.
Tracy turned around and saw the little boy sitting on the curb across from her, his head buried in his arms, trying not to cry. She ran over to him, relieved he was alive.
“Are you okay?” she asked him.
He nodded but wouldn’t lift his head to look at her.
She let out a breath, her shoulders sagging. “I’m sorry about your bike. I’ll buy you another one.”
Did you spot all the problems with the description in this passage? At first glance it may seem as if it all works. But let’s take a look at the After passage and then tear this apart.
Tracy stared out the windshield of her old VW bug at the red light. Would it never change?
Then she spotted a boy about seven or eight across the four-lane intersection, pounding on what she guessed was the Walk button over and over. He was straddling a too-large bike, kicking one foot into the dirt. He looked down, obviously unaware that all his button pressing was preventing the light from changing.
Tracy gritted her teeth, then swung the door open. The heat blasted in. She glanced around. No other cars on this Sunday morning in this tiny town she’d been driving through mindlessly.
She stepped out onto the sizzling pavement.
The boy looked up and saw her glowering at him. He stiffened, then hopped on his bike. Suddenly the bike toppled sideways and ricocheted off the pavement. The boy slammed into the handlebars and smacked his face.
He quickly righted himself and looked over at her. Then he lifted the front wheel up above his head and pivoted the bike around, but as he did so, the bike and its rider fell to the ground. He lay on the pavement like a fish out of water, wiggling and thrashing, his little legs tangled up in the metal spokes.
Then Tracy heard something behind her. She spun around and saw the car lurching forward, almost knocking her down.
Oh no, I forgot to put the car in Park.
She ran over to her car door, hoping to jump inside, but smacked into it instead. Her right foot locked as the tire rolled over her shoelace and pinned her in place. She fell to her knees and watched helplessly as the unmanned car continued rolling across the street, no doubt heading straight for the little boy. Was he still tangled in his bike? She hoped he’d gotten out but knew it was unlikely.
“Get up! Get out of the way!” She screeched as she struggled to her feet and scrambled to run after the car. Judging the distance between the car and boy, she knew she was never going to make it. Across the intersection, she spotted the boy—still trapped. Tracy ran, panting, trying to reach him.
Just in time, she caught up to the rolling car, threw open the door, lunged over the seat, and pulled up the emergency brake. She stared out the windshield, gasping for breath. The boy’s bike was nowhere to be seen. Oh no, did I kill him? She pictured the gruesome scene—the bike mangled under her wheels, the handlebars crushed. And the little boy . . .
Tracy turned around in the seat, craning to see out the side windows. Oh, thank God! The little boy was sitting on the curb across from her, his head buried in his arms. She ran over to him, relieved he was alive.
“Are you okay?” she asked him.
He nodded but wouldn’t lift his head to look at her.
She let out a breath, her shoulders sagging. “I’m sorry about your bike. I’ll buy you another one.”
The details might be minor, but we want to be accurate in our descriptions, and the Before passage reveals a lot of problems as the scene is played out in Tracy’s POV. Did you notice these things?
She’s too far away to hear the boy humming or know what brand of shoes he’s wearing.
She’s too far away to see his face pale or hear him suck in a breath (and no doubt the sun is glaring on this hot morning, making visibility even worse).
She can’t see a crack in the pavement to know that’s what caused the bike to fall.
She’s too far away to see that the bike hit him directly in the nose or that it may have broken it.
She can’t know he’s mortified, or desperate to get away, or that he’s pulling with all his might. From where she is, she might be able to tell he’s struggling.
She can’t see something behind her from the corner of her eye. She has to completely spin around to notice the car is moving behind her.
When she’s on her knees next to the car and it starts to roll away, she isn’t in position to see clearly that the boy is in the car’s path and that he’s still tangled in the spokes. She’s too far away to see his face stricken with fear.
She might be able to see the boy wiggle, but if the car is almost upon him, and she’s coming up alongside the car, it’s not likely. And she wouldn’t hear him whimpering. Maybe shouting, yes.
She can’t see the mangled bike under her tires as she looks forward out the windshield.
If she turns around, that implies she sees the boy behind her, through the back window. But he’s sitting on the curb to her side.
She can’t really know he’s trying not to cry. His head is buried in his arms.
It’s so easy for writers to hurry through such descriptions without taking time to envision the scene’s details and ensuring the POV character can actually see, hear, and do all the things written. By picturing a movie camera capturing the action, writers will catch these kinds of description errors.
Put yourself in your character’s shoes and try to see what she can see and hear what she can hear. If you need your character to notice small details, get her closer. Conversely, if you want her to miss certain details, put her further away. It’s all about distance when it comes to POV perspective. So keep this in mind to avoid this pitfall of this fatal flaw.
In Conclusion . . .
Description is important. Without it, readers can’t experience what your characters are experiencing, and they can’t be transported to the world you imagine in your head. But too much description or ineffective details will bog down a story and put your readers to sleep.
Take the time to examine your scenes carefully for description of characters and settings. Make sure you include details that will bring your scene to life and that come through the senses and emotions of your POV character. Similar to backstory, a balance is desired. Study great novels in your genre to see how the authors wield description—what kind and how much, and told in what way. That’s one good way to get a feel for proper balance. Think like Goldilocks: not too much, not too little, but just right.
Don’t fall victim to the fatal flaws of fiction writing.
This extensive resource is like no other! With more than sixty before and after passages, we five editors show writers how to seek and destroy these flaws that can infest and ruin your writing.
Here are some of the 12 fatal flaws:
Overwriting—the most egregious and common flaw in fiction writing.
Nothin’ Happenin’—Too many stories take too long to get going. Learn what it means to start in medias res.
Weak Construction—It sneaks in at the level of words and sentences, and rears up in up in the form of passive voice, ing verbs, and misplaced modifiers.
Too Much Backstory—the bane of many manuscripts. Backstory has its place, but too often it serves as an info dump and bogs down pacing.
POV Violations—Head hopping, characters knowing things they can’t know, and foreshadowing are just some of the many POV violations explored.
Telling instead of Showing—Writers have heard this admonition, but there’s a lot to understanding how and when to show instead of tell.
Lack of Pacing and Tension—Many factors affect pacing and tension: clunky passages, mundane dialogue, unimportant information, and so much more.
Flawed Dialogue Construction—Writers need to learn to balance speech and narrative tags and avoid “on the nose” speech.
“Underwriting”—just as fatal as overwriting. Too often scenes are lacking the necessary actions, descriptions, and details needed to bring them to life.
Description Deficiencies and Excesses—Learning how to balance description is challenging, and writers need to choose wisely just what to describe and in what way.
Don’t be left in the dark. Learn what causes these flaws and apply the fixes in your own stories.
No one need suffer novel failure. You don’t have to be brilliant or talented to write strong fiction. You just need to be forewarned and forearmed to be able to tackle these culprits. And this book will give you all the weapons and knowledge you need.
I’ve spent many hours enjoying this part of the CA coast. As a diver, I’ve ventured into these amazing coastal waters to shoot pictures and search out fish (and sharks). While many of my friends were spearfishing, I headed the other way (not wanting a shark to mistake me for lunch when smelling all that blood), enjoying the underwater beauty the Mendocino coast has to offer (though the water is often below 50 degrees!).
Mendocino is a quaint town, with wonderful little shops, restaurants, and bakeries. But what makes this place heaven are the gorgeous views. This is one of my favorite places in the entire state, and I have quite a few faves!
Here’s the cool thing: my co-instructor Catharine Bramkamp and I set up our boot camps in beautiful settings so that attendees can make this a write-cation. Meaning, in addition to working hard to plot out novels and learn scene structure, attendees can see and enjoy a breathtaking corner of the world.
Our boot camp in Mendocino is one of only two plotting boot camps we’re holding this year. The one we have scheduled for South Lake Tahoe is nearly booked, so if you are interested in attending that one, sign up soon! The rooms in the house are full, but you can arrange other lodging and come for the day sessions.
Sign up right away to reserve your spot! It’s only $300 to attend the boot camp. And that includes lunch, lots of coffee, wine, snacks, and desserts!
Sunrise Vacation Home
Our Plotting Madness boot camp in the Mendocino is held at The Inn at Schoolhouse Creek in a gorgeous vacation home. Stay at the inn or nearby at one of the area’s fine accommodations. Or grab one of two rooms in the house itself. In this warm, inviting ambiance, we’ll gather each day, Monday-Wednesday, for our boot camp.
This spectacular modern craftsman style home offers a perfect blend of luxury, privacy and the spirit of the Mendocino Coast. Mendocino Sunrise, perched on the bluffs overlooking Russian Gulch and the Mendocino Headlands, beautifully combines old-world artistry with a relaxed contemporary style.
White water ocean views are captured from every room and, for the early riser, the south facing design provides spectacular sunrises and morning light while providing protection from the coast’s north winds.
Features include: a bright and airy great room with 18-ft vaulted ceilings, exposed timbers, a well-designed galley kitchen with top-line appliances, and large glass doors that open on to great redwood decks. In-floor radiant heat provides ”quiet” warmth while the Waterford wood stoves offer romantic ambiance and all the peace and quiet one could want.
Mendocino sunrise vacation home provides guests several opportunities to relax and enjoy your time away; from an old world Scandinavian sauna to the oversize soaking tub to the serenity of a private “basking garden” for ocean view meditation to private ocean access that is just a stroll away.
The Inn at Schoolhouse Creek is located in Little River, just 3 miles South of the Village of Mendocino, on the beautiful Mendocino Coast. It sits just 7 miles north of the intersection of Highway 128 and US 1, and 11 miles south of the intersection of Highway 20 and Highway 1.
Want to stop procrastinating, stop letting distractions and work and family keep you from getting that novel plotted? Come to Plotting Madness! And think about making this a write-cation. Bring the family, enjoy the coast!