Writing Exercise: Observing Dialogue

Writing dialogue.  In fiction, it can be challenging to make characters sound human and, simultaneously, make sure what’s said moves the story or a character’s development forward.  How people speak, what they say, and how they say it gives a writer ample opportunity for creativity.  But how do you make sure your characters sound like people?

The Exercise

Part One

One way to familiarize yourself with creating natural-sounding dialogue is to listen to people in conversations.  For this exercise, I’m asking you to eavesdrop on the people around you.

Go to a public place and observe two people or a group having a conversation.  Transcribe the conversation as much as possible, making sure to keep what’s being said as pure as possible.  Jot down what you can.  You’ll notice how people speak in sentence fragments, pauses, and subtext.

Suppose you don’t feel comfortable doing this in public.  In that case, you can use a conversation at work or between your kids or other relatives.  Just remember that you are observing the conversation, not participating.

Don’t do it for too long, just enough to get something useful for part two.

**NOTEDo not record the conversation.  Many states have laws against recording others without their permission.  Just to be safe, take notes. **

Part Two

Write a short story using the dialogue as a launching pad for creating the characters and the situation.  The conversation doesn’t have to be where you heard it; you can have the couple in the coffee shop be astronauts on Mars.  But stick with the dialogue you transcribed as close as possible.

Now, using that dialogue, continue the conversation.  Where do things go next?  Can you use what you heard and keep that tone and feeling with made-up dialogue?

Part Three

Once you finish the short story, have a trusted friend or loved one read it.  Can they tell where the real conversation ends, and your made-up dialogue begins?  This is a good test to see if you are on the right track to creating realistic dialogue.

Final Thoughts

While it can be a challenge, creating natural-sounding dialogue will help keep readers engaged with the story.  Often when we write dialogue, we are in a room alone, speaking to ourselves or in our head.  By observing and listening to real people interact, we can further our communication skills between our characters on the page.

Happy Writing, and I’ll see you next time!

Writing Exercise: What Could Go Wrong?

We do a lot of things every day.  Some we want to do, others not so much.  Whatever the activity, there is potential for things to not go as we planned.

The Activity

Think about an activity you do that has the potential for things to spiral out of control.  This could be driving to work, dealing with customers, picking up your kids from school, etc.  We do plenty of things every day on auto-pilot, so these activities are a good place to start.

The Exercise

Picked an activity?  Great.  Now, write a list of every possible situation or scenario that could go wrong while doing this particular task.  It can be a minor inconvenience or one that’s exponentially catastrophic.  No matter what it is, write it down.

If you have had bad experiences in that situation that you can utilize, that’s even better.

Once you have a reasonably long list, pick out the ones that could be placed in order of escalation from minor to major.  Now you have a rough outline to work with.

Create a short story using the scenario and these escalating elements.  It can be comedic, it can be tragic, and it can be hyper-realistic.  Whatever tone you want to use, take advantage of your list of bad things that could happen and have fun with it.  If you come up with new things that can go wrong as you write, feel free to add them!

The Example

So, I drive on the 405 in L.A. every day to work.  There is potential for many things to go wrong in this location.  If I chose this as my activity – Driving to Work on the 405 – I could come up with some things that could go wrong based on my own real-life experiences: 

  • Car breaks down in traffic during heatwave
  • Car’s transmission dies in traffic
  • Hay truck on fire shuts down freeway
  • President Obama leaves LAX, freeway closes
  • Car chase
  • Multiple lanes closed during afternoon for cleaning
  • Roadwork
  • Car accident – three cars or more
  • Car fire
  • Multiple cars on fire
  • Plane does emergency landing on freeway
  • Big rig tips over
  • Rock smashes windshield

Next, I would take the list and figure out a way to incorporate as many as possible into a short story.

Final Thoughts

When we get stuck as writers, it’s important to brainstorm many ideas to help our characters get into or out of challenging situations.  This can help keep your writing interesting and keep your reader engaged and interested.

Happy Writing, and I’ll see you next time!

Writing Exercise: Clothing Details

I’ve been reading the Game of Thrones novels, and one of the things that stands out to me is the detailed descriptions of each character’s clothing. One to two paragraphs are often dedicated to how a character dresses, which makes sense given the era. Attention to detail can signify a character’s rank, status, and class within the story’s context.

With the unfortunate passing of Queen Elizabeth II and her upcoming funeral service, the images of the Royals and their clothing for key events gave me an idea for a writing exercise.

The Exercise

Pick a member of the Royal family or the Royal staff and write as detailed as possible about what they’re wearing in one to two paragraphs.  

Pay specific attention to the clothing, don’t worry about who’s wearing it.  

This exercise is to work on how detailed and intricate you can describe what your chosen individual is wearing.

Now, suppose you don’t want to use someone from the funeral of Queen Elizabeth II. In that case, you can find Google images of Meghan and Harry’s wedding and pick someone from that event.

Bonus Exercise

Find another person wearing one of those intricate hats at the wedding or funeral and describe it in one or two paragraphs. Again, the more detailed your description, the better.

Fine-tune your paragraphs and read over them a few times.

Final Thoughts

A character’s clothing can give us insight into who they are. By showing and not telling, the reader can get a sense of who the character is before a line of dialogue is spoken.

Happy Writing, and I’ll see you next time!

Writing Exercise: A Mundane Task

As writers, we always look for ways to hook and excite the reader.  We want to engage the audience and keep them intrigued by the story from start to finish.  Whether it’s a murder mystery, an action sequence, or a knitting contest, our goal is to keep our readers turning to the next page.

And while creating excitement, conflict, and tension are built into certain events, I wondered this weekend if mundane, day-to-day activities could be written similarly.

  • Pick a mundane task that everyone does (laundry, dishes, paying bills, getting gas or charging your car, etc.).
  • Write it in the first-person POV.
  • Take some time to write out the steps involved in the task in the order that works best for you.
  • Examine the list.  Are there any places where you can add excitement, conflict, or tension?  Where could a problem occur that might prevent you from completing the task?
  • When you set out to write the scene, be as descriptive as possible, making sure to use all five senses to transport the reader to the location and make them feel they are there with you while you undertake this seemingly tedious task.
  • The task should be completed by you as the character by the end of the scene.
  • See if you can write it in 500-words or less.

By taking day-to-day events and finding creative ways to twist them into a compelling narrative, you can enhance your stories and deliver page-turning narratives to your readers.  

If you are working on a story, are there ways to add moments with your character doing day-to-day things that can give us insight into who they are as a person?  Are there ways you can give this run-of-the-mill task a boost by having the character do it uniquely?

Happy Writing, and I’ll see you next time!

Writing Exercise: Using the Story Formula

Last time, we looked at the template needed to create a basic story formula:

HERO + GOAL + OPPOSITION = CONFLICT = STORY

For this exercise, use this template and brainstorm five to ten original ideas that utilize this framework.

  • What types of HEROES can you create that are unique and interesting?
  • What variety of GOALS can you come up with that would motivate a hero to actively pursue them?
  • What types of OPPOSITION would throw the hero off-balance and cause them to lose sight of their goal?
  • Do any of your ideas stand out as potential concepts for a larger story?

Maybe they all work, perhaps only a couple, but this is a great way to flesh out in its most basic form how a story and its conflict might work on a larger scale.

Happy Writing, and I’ll see you next time!

Writing Challenge: Creating a Character

People.  We see them every day in some form.  Whether it’s in person, on TV, in a movie, or in a photograph, each person is unique and has their own unique look, traits, and personality.

Either through observation out in the real world or via your TV, computer screen, a new story, etc., find a photo of a person (they can be anyone), and write a detailed description of them.  If they are a celebrity or politician, give them a new name and profession.  

  • Describe what they look like.  
  • What do they do? 
  • What are they doing that day?  
  • Who are they with?  
  • How do they interact with others?  
  • What thoughts do they have?  
  • What do they think others think about them?  

In this exercise, details matter, so take your time to create a three-dimensional look at this individual.  Don’t be afraid to get silly, or dark, or outlandish, this is your opportunity to flex your creative muscles and create a whole new life for an existing person.

Happy Writing, and I’ll see you next time!

Writing Tip of the Week: Are You a Plotter, a Pantser, or a Hybrid Writer?

All writers have their own unique ways of crafting a story.  The creative process allows writers to develop skills over time, and with each project, writers hone these skills into a method that works most effectively for them.  Experimenting with different writing methods is a great way to see what works best for you, especially when starting out.

Let’s look at three writing methods you can work with to find what works best for you!

The Plotter

You are a person who needs to know what’s happening in your story at all times.  Every story beat, every plot twist, and character moment must be nailed down and set in stone before you start.  You have your story organized on color-coded index cards, in a formal outline, or handwritten on legal pads.  You won’t start writing until you are 100% certain that all your ducks are in a row and you are confident in your story’s path.

Pros

Being organized is an important part of the creative process, especially when developing a story.  Having a roadmap from scene to scene and from start to finish can keep you on track and ensure that you will get to THE END sooner than later.  

Cons

There are times when being meticulous and following the map are encouraged, but they can also stifle and harm creativity if used too rigidly.  What you’ve written out is great and will get you to the endpoint, but if you don’t allow for a few detours along the way, you may miss opportunities for your characters and story to grow in ways you didn’t think of weeks ago during the outlining process.

The Panster

Always the renegade, the Panster likes to play fast and loose with their stories.  They have an idea or concept and have no problem diving into the fray, allowing plot and characters to bubble up whenever moments arise. You look at a blank piece of paper or a new Word document as your personal playground where you can build or tear down whatever you want, whenever you want.  Creativity is fun, and you are here to have fun!

Pros

There’s a feeling of creative autonomy that comes with this style of writing.  Your gut is in control of where your story and its characters go.  You don’t have the “limitations” of an outline or rigid story structure, and you can make immediate decisions.

Cons

Like many writers, you probably have had a great idea, jumped into it, then lost your way a few chapters in.  Where is this going?  Who are these characters, and why do they matter?  You can quickly lose your way, get frustrated, and walk away from the unfinished story.  

The Hybrid

Utilizing both methods, you can be the responsible adult (Plotter) and engage your free-spirited child (Panster).  You’ve created an outline that leaves room for creative flourishes and detours along the way.  Maybe something you have in your outline isn’t working, but a new sequence will work better.  In a Hybrid setting, you can switch things out and around without losing the overall story structure (since you have the outline), but also have the ability to be spontaneous when needed.

Pros

It’s the best of both worlds.  You can stay on track and know where you’re going but also live a little within the confines of the story.  

Cons

If you are rooted in your Plotter or Panster ways, it may be hard to implement a mixture of the two.  If you are a Plotter, give yourself a few scenes to play around with.  Likewise, if you’re a Panster, maybe create a rough outline of the major story beats that get you to the end of the story.  

Through trial and error, you can work to create a storytelling method that gets you where you need to go faster and more efficiently.

Final Thoughts

Figuring out who you are as a writer, your strengths and weaknesses, can help you fine-tune and evolve into a methodology that makes you a stronger writer and storyteller.  Creativity should be freeing, but sometimes you need a little guidance to keep that creativity – and the story being told – on the right track.

Happy Writing, and I’ll see you next time!

Writing Tip of the Week: What Actually Counts as “Writing”?

Did you write today?  What did you write today?  How many pages or words did you write today?  Sometimes, the thought of sitting down at the computer or laptop at home after 40 hours in front of a computer at work can be a difficult task.  You want to get outside, see people, do anything other than sit and stare at a screen – well, one where staring requires active thought and creativity.  

While the act of physical writing is an essential part of the writer’s life (especially if they plan to show their work to others), I often do a lot of the creative legwork in places other than in front of the computer.  I find that these activities open up my creativity channels and help me to brainstorm and connect ideas in a more productive manner.

Let’s talk about them!

Thinking

I often get hung up on the seeming finality and concrete nature of typing or writing an idea down; they seem to have more weight once they make it to the page.  This can prevent your ability to explore, add to, or remove concepts or ideas that don’t work in a fast-paced manner.

I like to actively think out my ideas for scenes, chapters, plot points, etc., and workshop them in my head for a while before I commit anything to paper.  I have found that this method allows me to swap out characters, change settings, create dialogue, and alter story points faster and more efficiently.

If something isn’t working, I can explore other options.  What about this?  What about that?  What if she went here instead of there?  What if he didn’t answer the phone?  Once I’ve worked things out, I’m more prepared to write the idea down.  Depending on how I fleshed out the idea, I will either write it in bullet point or paragraph form.

I do this on the couch, watching YouTube videos, cleaning, or doing other mundane activities.  Sometimes giving your creative brain free reign is a great way to solve a complex story problem.

Sleeping

Sometimes clichés deliver solid advice, and “Sleep on it” is definitely one that can result in many creative epiphanies.  Often, we are distracted throughout the day with dozens of other projects, chores, and activities that we don’t have the time to focus on our story.  

Once I’m in bed, ready to drift off, I will start to think of the story problem or issue that I’m having.  The crazy thing is that the subconscious often can find a way to resolve the issue while you sleep, resulting in you waking up with the answer to your story problem.  Does it always work?  No.  But when you do have that moment when you wake up, and the story dots all connect, it’s a great feeling.

Exercising

Walking.  Running.  Swimming.  Any form of physical exertion can help you get out of your head and allow your brain to do what it does best: solve problems.  I’ve been on a walk on a break at work and develop story ideas or story solutions.  I’ve been on the treadmill at the gym and worked out big story sequences.  

It’s amazing how even ten minutes of walking can clear your head and let the creativity flow.

Motivating Yourself

Yes, crafting a narrative and creating compelling characters and dialogue takes time and effort.  But it is work that should be fun and get you excited about the story you want to tell.  If you dread working on your story, all the thinking, sleeping, and exercise aren’t going to get you very far (although you might have solved other problems, be well-rested and in good shape).  

You are the only person who can get yourself excited and motivated to work on your novel, screenplay, or play.  If you can’t find the motivation, ask yourself why.  Ask yourself what’s missing from the project that would get me excited and motivated to get it done.  

The key is to find an aspect of the story you love and want to explore and express to audiences and use that energy and motivation to create your fictional world and its characters.

Final Thoughts

Creative people are always creating.  No matter where creatives are, stories, scenes, characters, and dialogue flow in and out of their brains rapidly.  A legal pad and pen or a computer and word processing program don’t make you a writer; they are just tools to help finish the job.

By taking steps through thinking, sleeping, exercising, and motivating yourself to open up the creative reaches of your mind, when you do commit your ideas to paper, they will be more impactful to you and the reader.

Happy Writing, and I’ll see you next time!

Writing Tip of the Week: Becoming a Self-Aware Writer

Most writing takes place in a state of solitude.  It’s us – the writer – versus the blank page in an epic battle to create a compelling narrative that will leave future readers or viewers spellbound and wanting more.  It’s great to have the mindset that what we are creating is exceptional, but we also have to give ourselves the opportunity for reflection and self-awareness when it comes to our own work.

Self-Awareness, Not Self-Criticism

Being self-aware as a writer means having the ability to write something, step back, and find the issues that need fixing.  It doesn’t mean beating yourself up or telling yourself negative things about your writing skills or you as a writer.

It doesn’t matter what level of writer you are; the ability to look at your work and make the changes necessary to craft a stronger narrative is a skill that can assist your quest to become a better writer.

This is not a skill that can be achieved overnight but can be learned over time.  The more you write, the more you’ll sense when pacing is off, dialogue isn’t working, or there’s a lack of conflict or stakes in the chapter or scene.  It’s easy to see these issues in other people’s works, but utilizing this skill with your own work is a must in your writer’s toolbox.

Self-Awareness and Your Subconscious

Have you ever written something, walked away, and a few hours later began to deconstruct what you wrote and found problems with the story or a character’s actions?  That is self-awareness, and it’s your subconscious telling you that there are potential changes to be made.

Don’t get upset or frustrated.  This is where the growth and writing magic can happen.

Your mind is still writing long after your fingers have quit tapping the keyboard.  Your subconscious knows your story, knows your characters, and knows where the problems are.  Don’t get discouraged when these red flags pop up.  Your brain gives you clues as to what to fix to make your work stronger.

As long as you take a proactive approach to the changes and don’t stop writing, these moments of creative clarity can profoundly impact your writing and subsequent drafts of your project.

Self-Awareness from the Start

As you craft your outline, you may start to internally ask yourself questions about various aspects of your story.  That’s good.  Write these questions down.  Will they be answered later in the story?  Are the questions related to structure or character?  Keep a list of these questions as you work on your outline and see if they are questions worth exploring once the outline is completed.  

It’s often better to have most of the answers related to your story resolved before you start writing to avoid any hang-ups during the drafting process.  While drafting, you may come across other issues, but answering questions that pop up while working on your outline will get many structural problems fixed before you begin.

Self-Awareness Makes for Better Writing

Your writing reflects you and reflects who you are as a writer.  If you think that your first draft is perfection with no need to edit or even have a trusted person read it before you publish, you lack self-awareness as a writer.

Every good writer takes the time to hone their craft and make revisions when necessary, and they almost always are necessary to some extent.  Yes, you may have written a short story that is 100% perfect on your first draft, but novels and screenplays will often have issues that need to be fixed before they are taken to the next stage.

Start by walking away from your draft for a week or two, then come back with fresh eyes.  Maybe your subconscious has been gnawing at you for the past two weeks about issues in the story, and you’ve written them down to address them later.  

Now start at page one and read – don’t skim – every sentence, paragraph, and chapter with fresh eyes and a new perspective.  You will see some glaring problems, maybe a few typos, and other things that definitely need tweaking.  

And that’s great!  You are making a better product and making yourself a better writer.

Final Thoughts

Being a self-aware writer means that you care about the work you are producing, and you respect your completed work’s potential reader or viewer.  By taking this step and putting in the effort to make your writing better, you further your goals of being a more productive and confident writer.

Happy Writing, and I’ll see you next time!

Writing Tip of the Week: Purposeful characters

No matter what type of fiction you’re writing, characters are essential to the story.  They engage the reader, generating empathy, sympathy, and connection.  Your characters must serve a purpose within the framework of your story’s world.

As writers, it takes time to craft, shape, and mold our protagonist, antagonist, and other characters into the overall story arc that we have created.  We shouldn’t be wasting creative energy creating superfluous characters who have no reason to be in the story.  

Here are some tips to help you eliminate aimless and purposeless characters from your story.

Take Inventory

Who’s who, and why are they there?  If you are in the beginning stages of writing your story, take time to establish your main characters, secondary characters, and background characters on a spreadsheet or piece of paper.  Do they serve an essential function in the story?

If you have already written your story, take inventory of your characters as you read through.  Do they all serve a purpose?  Is there anyone that doesn’t belong or isn’t really essential to the story?

By creating a spreadsheet, you can list who the characters are, their role, and how they tie into the story.  If you find characters that serve no critical function or role, you may want to cut them because…

More Characters = More Problems

Taking on an ambitious fiction project can be exciting.  Still, you also have to make sure that everyone you introduce has a reason for existing and serves an essential role in your story.  The more characters you bring into the mix, the harder it can be to keep track and keep things focused.

Limiting the number of characters can help keep the story and its conflict focused, so you don’t get lost in the weeds, which reminds me…

Where’s the Focus?

Your story has a main storyline with a protagonist working toward a goal amidst numerous obstacles.  That should be your primary focus as you write.  Find yourself deviating too much into subplots and side quests with other characters?  It may be time to either rethink the protagonist or move those other characters into their own story.

If the subplots tie directly back to the main character and their story, that’s fine.  But if you do notice that what they’re doing has zero impact on the main narrative, it’s time to cut it.

Superfluous Characters

Are there characters you’ve created that don’t really go anywhere or serve any real purpose within the story?  Maybe you wrote an elaborate backstory for a Starbucks barista that the main character encounters on their journey.  But, if they are in one chapter and never seen or mentioned again, you may want to trim out how they saved their grandma and her cat from a space heater fire in the fifth grade. 

However, if the barista’s backstory serves a key role in the story later on, and the character comes back to help save the day, they serve a purpose.  Just make sure that if you put in the time to provide lots of detail on a specific character, the reader has a reason to be given that information.

Elevate or Eliminate?

If your creative mind has crafted a complex side character who initially has no real purpose in the overall story, you have a few options:  

  • You can cut them out of this story and move them to one where they can play a more significant role.  
  • You can elevate them and combine their character and attributes with a less-than-stellar secondary character who may need some extra life.  
  • Or you can see how this character’s current role can be elevated through further interactions with the protagonist and the main story.

There are ways to make it work, but the character can’t detract or deviate from the main story.

Should My Protagonist Have a Pet?

I’ve seen this brought up before, and it’s an interesting question.  The answer is simple: only if you are willing to have the main character’s dog or cat be a part of the story.  You can’t just introduce the reader to the protagonist’s dog in one chapter and never mention them again.  Once you commit to your main character being a pet owner, you have chosen to keep that pet as a part of the story.

So, if your main character travels the world on quests, it’s probably best to keep the pets out of things. Otherwise, readers may wonder, “Who’s watching Rex?  Is the dog okay?  I know cats are independent, but she’s been gone for three weeks!”  

Read, Read, Read

Skim through novels and see how different authors set up and establish their various characters.  Some will be more detailed than others, but the key to this research is to identify how main characters, secondary characters, and others are described throughout the story.  

Whether you’re writing a short story or short film, a novel or a screenplay, knowing who your characters are and their purpose is essential to keeping the story moving and the reader or viewer engaged.

Happy Writing, and I’ll see you in two weeks!