Sunday, March 14, 2010


Heavens, has it been a year since I last posted? Bad editor, no biscuit.

Dialogue is tricky for some people to write, and you need to approach it with as much attention to craft as you do any other aspect of fiction.

It can help to actually record (WITH PERMISSION!) a couple of friends talking, then transcribe it. Notice how each person has a distinctive style, and that spoken language does NOT usually come out like written language does. Sentences are incomplete, or run on, or sort of merge with other sentences. Each person also uses a distinctive vocabulary. There have been studies done about the ways in which certain kinds of verbal "stalling" techniques -- anything from a stutter to a series of "Ums" -- are used to control the flow of conversation (mostly to prevent somebody else from beginning to talk).

Then transcribe a bit of talking done by someone whose speech is polished and professional -- for instance, a politician during a question-and-answer session with the press, or a movie star on an interview show. Again, notice the techniques for controlling the conversation. Notice that the professional's spoken language is likely to be fairly similar to written language. Someone whose speech is transcribed and reported learns to avoid some of the styles common in ordinary speech.

And of course, consider how the dialogue you write will move the story along and reveal the personal traits of your speakers. Each speaker needs to present, during their dialogue, some piece of your overall puzzle. Perhaps Person A states some information as fact. Person B must either disagree in some way, or amplify the fact with further details, or their sentence does not add to the story. Dialogue can be interspersed with thoughts, but they should stay brief. If you decide to write dialogue as a series of questions and answers, don't dumb down your characters.

And finally, when you have your dialog written, read it out loud to yourself to see if it sounds too stilted, or if your vocabulary could be misinterpreted when heard. (Then again, a misinterpreted homonym could become a plot point. Example: San Francisco has a gathering place called "Le Central"; Herb Caen once reported that someone's office assistant sent the boss's guests off on a wild goose chase for the "Lace and Trowel".)

-- Rachel Holmen

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Full sentences, please

And commas. I would love to strangle the person who started the trend for displaying the phrase "Hello world" as a sample computer coding project. It should be "Hello, world!" Note that the phrase "Love, Dad" is not the same as "Love Dad."

Ahem. I digressed. Back to topic.

"Sentence fragment" is the term for a group of words, typically beginning with a capital letter and ending with a period, that lacks either a noun or a verb. The occasional use of a sentence fragment can add a staccato, emphatic note to your writing. But frequent use is a bit like shouting all the time, or else proves that you have not actually mastered (personed?) the language in which you write.


He went on and on. And on.

I haven't died. Yet.

Living in central America, the constant expectation of mold and decay.

Jane stared at the tiny rose in his lapel. A deep purple rose.

The green awning, cracked in places from the sun, drooping from its supports.

Pop quiz: examples 3 and 5 are just illiterate, right? Right.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

More comics

A site about publishing: -- Rachel Holmen

Monday, October 13, 2008

Comics? Mockups?

I recently finished reading (accurately, listening to the audio book of...) Karen Joy Fowler's novel WIT'S END. One of the characters, a novelist, always creates a dollhouse of each book. It certainly might be a useful method for anyone writing a book or play to create a physical mockup of their main locales. (For that matter, part of the book's charm is the way it evokes Santa Cruz, California.)

At Foolscap, I found a business card for the "weekly web comic" Comics are another way to tell a story. (And don't miss an old but fabulous book Understanding Comics by Scott McCloud (originally McLeod) -- see publisher's website.

-- Rachel Holmen

Sunday, August 03, 2008

Story within a story -- forget it

Sometimes when I would read manuscripts at MZB's Fantasy Magazine, I would find myself drawing a pencilled arrow at the start of some paragraph, often 3 pages into the story. "Story starts here," I would add. Sometimes all that nice backstory you've worked so hard on, just doesn't belong at the beginning. Start by grabbing your reader's attention. Rarely does the "story within a story" format add anything -- only if one story really DOES illuminate the other should this format be kept.

-- Rachel Holmen

Wednesday, July 25, 2007


I had been mulling a post about foreshadowing -- letting the reader know what's coming. It is often a rather clumsy way to heighten the tension in a story .... "John enjoyed his dinner, not knowing that disaster was waiting...."

Ho, hum.

But for some stories, the ending is known already -- familiar tales such as that of King Arthur and Guenevere. We read new novels on these themes partly to see how a new writer will interpret the old story, much as Shakespeare buffs compare different interpretations by various actors and directors.

And recently I listened to the audiobook version of "Brokeback Mountain". Thanks to its Oscar victory, I doubt there's any who doesn't have at least an inkling of the plot. But I was quite struck by the way the author begins with a skillful foreshadowing of the doom awaiting the characters. By the time the first paragraph is over, we know the story will be about the friendship between two men -- maybe even more than friendship. Since the tale might be unpleasant to some, they can shut the book, turn off the audiotape, right then, and avoid anything they might consider offensive. (And others may stop reading right after Ennis pees in the kitchen sink.) But for the rest of her readers, it simply sets the tone: this story is epic, and parts of it will be sad. Against this backdrop, the rest of the story, with its recounting of brief times spent in country high and beautiful, is highlighted and enlarged. Wow!

-- Rachel Holmen

Sunday, June 10, 2007

Beginnings, Endings

I've already spoken about the importance of a good beginning -- grab the reader with something interesting right away.

This week I've been listening to an audiobook of a Tony Hillerman novel, and I've been struck by the effective way he ENDS each chapter. Sometimes it's a sentence that's a bit of a cliffhanger, sometimes something different, but often it leaves you with a lingering thought to chew on before you begin the next chapter.

-- Rachel Holmen