Tag Archives: how to be a writer

Dialogue- How to Write it. Some Advice from Old Professors

For some writers writing dialogue is the worst part of writing. they feel like they just are not able to write a believable conversation. This along with all techniques of writing is a practice, practice, practice, and read, read, read, exercise, but a few tips on how to write good dialogue is also useful. As with everything in crafting your writing there are techniques. I taken many writing courses in my past (my present not so much), and I’ve collected and kept most of my notes. I took writing courses in the 90’s at Chico State California University, and in the 2000’s at Portland Community college and Portland State University. Many of these notes on dialogue are taken from various writing courses. I’ve carried these notes with me over the years, and looked back to them from time to time to give me some advice or insight into my writing. Unfortunately, I can’t attribute which part came from which professor as everything slowly over the years mashed together. 

Why use Dialogue?

Dialogue can be used to move the story forward. It serves a purpose, y ou want it to revel tension between characters. Ideally. (But, you can do whatever you want.)

Use dialogue in creative non-fiction if:
A) It focuses on a moment of explicit tension between people-or
B) It focuses on a moment of suppressed tension between people-or
C) The dialogue revels someone’s character, either through expression of what they believe, or through their idiosyncratic way of stating something.

One of the most important things to remember when writing dialogue is to avoid meaningless preamble to a real exchange (unless you feel that it is essential to the story to put in meaningless preamble- kind of like David Lynch putting a white horse, a giant, and a dwarf in Twin Peaks- what was that all about?) For example read the boring exchange written below:

“Hi. It’s me.”
“How are you?”
“All right. How are you?”
“I’m all right.”
“What are you doing?”
Yes, sure people really do talk like that because let’s face it most of the time we have boring interactions called polite fiction, but no one wants to read it (unless you have a true purpose for it).

Get to the point:
“I want to talk to you about last weekend.”
“Last weekend never happened.”

OOOO Tell us more.

There are three possibilities for how dialogue can be delivered:
A) Summary dialogue, or the brief report.

It’s efficient and suggests conversation, but doesn’t give much of a sense of how things were said:

Mary said that she had never seen Star Wars and she was happy about that decision.
Mark said he was destroyed.

Literally destroyed, but not literally because then he would be dead and wouldn’t be able to say anything.

B) Indirect dialogue, which is more detailed than summarizing but is not directly quoted:

Mary said that she despised Star Wars and everything it represented so much that she had destroyed Mark’s entire video collection, and he deserved it. After all, he had begun to call out for Luke Skywalker when they made love, (what?) and why should she put up with that? Mark said he was crushed; he had no idea she was so upset, and saying he called out for Luke Skywalker was a slanderous lie.

(Yeah, he didn’t call out for Luke Skywalker while they were making love he called out for Han Solo)

Video collection probably gives an idea of how old these notes are.

C) Direct dialogue, the most dramatic form, happens in real time as opposed to the other forms:

“I’m so sick of your love affair with Star Wars I could scream,” Mary screamed.
“I’m so sick of you!” Mark screamed back.

You can intermix the three types, with good effect.

Some extra notes on dialogue:

The writer Jerome Stern says that adverbs in speech tags sound corny.

For example: “she said kittenishly; he responded sneeringly; she hissed angrily.” If the dialogue is well chosen, the feelings of the character will be clear. If it isn’t no amount of adverbs will help the reader feel the character.

So listen to Jerome Stern unless you are writing a detective or a romance novel then keep the adverbs because it just wouldn’t be the same with out them. Here’s a nice blog post that high lights some of his views on dialogue. You can also read one of his books on writing. 

A good way to “tag” dialogue so you don’t have to say “she said/he said” is to follow the lines with an action or a thought by the speaker:

“Did you really think I’d be willing to spend my life with a Star Wars freak?” Mary pulled off her engagement ring and threw it across the room.

Or you can write like James Joyce and really confuse the hell out of your readers as to who is really talking. “Is this the narrator or the speaker?”:

Stephen looked down on a wide headless caubeen, hung on his ashplanthandle over his knee. My casque and sword. Touch lightly two index fingers. Aristotle’s experiment. One or two? Necessity is that in virtue of which it is impossible that one can be otherwise. Argai, one hat is one hat. -Ulysses,pg. 192

But you should probably know what you are doing before you make the readers work so hard.


Learning to Write by Reading

I’ve nearly forgotten how to do this. Days, months, year’s have gone by and I haven’t written. I’ve written a comment, or a post on facebook, a journal entry here or there, but no real writing. The last post I’d made on this blog was in 2016. It is now 2018. Two long years of not writing.

I can not say what brings on writer’s block. Apathy perhaps. Depression, mental fatigue, life fatigue there are so many reasons. At this moment the why doesn’t matter to me. Right now, what matters is the “How to get out of this rut”. Up! Up! and out. My writer’s mind has been too much like Sartre’s No Exit, and I’m ready to find a door. I need a door. We all need a door. Not for any particular reason other than to DO something.

I’ve had a student for nearly 3 years now. A poetry student. We meet via Skype once a week and discuss his poetry. My boyfriend has recently expressed an interest in writing, and I gave him the whole spiel on ways to improve the writing processes. I gave him all types of advice on building the craft of writing. I talk like I know what I’m talking about, but get me to the table, and there is nothing. Get me to the table? I’m not even getting to the table. I have always struggled with the things I want to do. If someone gives me a task to do for them, I’ll do it. If it’s something for me, I don’t do it. Maybe there is some deep psychological belief that say’s that I don’t deserve it.  Again, I don’t think it matters much; the source. I’ve written posts like this before, many, many posts, and the result is the same. I say some thing about how I’m going to change, and then I don’t. I’m an addict. Addicted to not fulfilling my own dreams. Some day I’ll get a head doctor, and we can explore. Maybe if you are stumbling across this post you too have had a similar pain of not being able to write. Today, I’ve decided to write down some tips I had offered my boyfriend and my poetry student. Maybe, one or two of these “tips” on improving your writing will trigger something in you and you’ll get up and go to the writing table. I hope you do. I hope it serves you. I want it to serve you as much as I want it to serve my boyfriend, and as much as I hope it will serve me. One day. Maybe. My last post from 2016 was about reading like a writer. This post continues where I had left off.

There is no order or rule to follow just think of it as learning from your teachers. We stand on the shoulders of greatness may they lift us to the stars.

1. Read books, but study them too.

I can’t remember the professor who taught me about private plagiarism. Stealing to learn. You may shudder at what I am about to tell you to try, but the key to this practice is not to publish what you write but to learn how other’s write. When you read a book you should read it for enjoyment, and if you really loved the writing, if you love the author then go back and study the writing. Go through your book like you are taking a lesson on the craft of writing by (author). First, find all of the words you don’t know and build your vocabulary. Sure as you read for enjoyment many of the unfamiliar vocabulary may be understandable in context, but don’t leave it at that go back, find that word, write it down and define it. Put the definition in your own words. Write it in a sentence. Use it. Put it in your vocabulary bank, and one day when you are writing that word that perfect word that you needed will rise up and be there for you.

  • I’m studying Tim O’ Brian’s The Things They Carried. I love the book. I think his writing is eloquent and moving. He carried me through the memory of his and the other soldiers’ experiences in The Viet Nam war. I’d like to learn his voice, and take what he has so graciously offered to me in his book.
  • I know a lot of the vocabulary in Tim O’Brian’s book, but it didn’t stop me from digging a little deeper into the meanings of things.

I wrote down the names of many weapons used in the war so I could see and know what these weapons could really do to a person and how much they weighed. Claymores, bouncing betties, toe poppers, bandoliers and more. I wrote down places in Viet Nam that O’Brian mentions in the book. I also looked up words that I knew, but at the same time felt unsure of because of it’s placement in the sentence, for example:

As a hedge against bad times, however, Kiowa also carried his grandmother’s distrust of the white man, his grandfather’s old hunting hatchet.

  1. Hedge /hej/ noun: A fence or boundary formed by closely growing bushes or shrubs.

  verb:   A. Surround or bound with a hedge.

B. limit or qualify (something) by conditions or exceptions. (Ah ha, here, I think to myself, is the meaning he is using.  So I write some synonyms: confine, restrict, limit, hinder, obstruct, impede, constrain, and trap. I think that perhaps he is using the hedge as both the verb and the noun, as the verb to protect and as the noun in a metaphor to surround him self with boundary like a fence of protection.)

  • Your own words: A wall of bushes or a fence something to keep people out or from seeing into your space. To place a limit on something like a caveat.
  • Your own sentence As a hedge against further roommate arguments we put together a list of guidelines regarding the use of shared rooms.

2. Find a sentence you love.

Write it down. Then copy the sentence using your own words. *Remember to write a note that you copied the sentence from another source because if you don’t you may forget. The you’ll think you wrote this brilliant line and it turns out you stole it. On accident of course.

His eyes had the blueish gray color of a razor blade, the same polished shine, and as he peered up at me I felt a strange sharpness, almost painful, a cutting sensation, as if his gaze were somehow slicing me open. (p.46)

Tim O’Brian, The Things They carried

What an intense sentence. When I first read it I thought, “God, if only I could write like that; come up with a metaphor like that. So I might as well practice the craft.

Copy the sentence structure with some of your own words. Comma for comma: Pronoun, noun, verb, article, modifier, modifier, adjective preposition, article, modifying adjective, noun, and so on.

Her eyes had the greenish black of a bottomless forest lake, the same somber darkness, and as she looked down at me I felt a strange pulsing, almost painful, a drowning sensation, as if her stare was somehow pulling me down into the abysses of water. –Mine


This can be tedious. This can be joyous. If you are in a rush to write the novel, and to find your great voice maybe you don’t want to play around with other books. Perhaps for you it is merely a resistance to the actual act of writing, and you just want to get on with it. You should do what you need to do. I’ll do what I need to do.


How To Be A Writer: Be A Reader.

Years ago when I was in college, and studying English literature and writing, I took a course called, How a writer reads. It’s been many years since the course, and I can’t even remember which professor taught the class, but there were a few key elements that I took away from that course that I think are useful when working on a book, or a short story, a screenplay or even a poem.

The best teachers in writing are the books that you read. It took years for that to sink in, but it’s true. You want to be a romance novelist you read romance novels. If you want to write YA fiction you read YA fiction. If you want to write literary fiction but all you read are crime fiction you’re not going to write a very good literary fiction piece, but you’ll probably write an awesome crime novel. If you know how to read, and if you can teach yourself how to read like a writer, then you can skip the college course and learn everything right at your own finger tips. I’m in serious debt for this information so let me share it with you freely. It’s all there for you for the taking- you want to write a book read the kind of book you want to write, and then, read some other genres of books to get your well-rounded, well-read education. You want to write a memoir read memoirs, but also read some fiction, and read some non-fiction non memoirs, but read more memoirs than anything else because that’s the class you are taking.

No one can tell you how to write. You just have to write, and then write again, and again, and again, and again. You get the picture. Books though, they can show you how to write.

A reader reads. Writers write mainly for readers, unless you are James Joyce, or William Faulkner then you write for writers. If you are Toni Morrison you write for writers and readers, and if you are Ernest Hemingway you write for readers, and writers, and journalists. If you are Stephanie Myers, or Charles Dickens, or Suzanne Collins you write for readers. Most writers write for readers. A reader wants to loose themselves, to be enlightened, to learn something about the subject, to hear a story, to be entertained, to be a part of the story. A reader picks up the book and reads it till they finish and then puts it down, and picks up a new book.

A writer reads like a reader too, but a good writer reads like a writer. A writer may read a book that is not fun to read because it is work to read. A writer takes notes then pulls the book apart—not in a criticizing way because the writer is not interested in writing reviews (unless you are a critic and like to do that)—a writer pulls the book apart in order to figure out how the author put it together. How did the author craft the book? What is the trick to their magic? The writer is looking for the tools that build the nuances, mood, tone, structure, the plot and so on. There is always something below the surface. One can even argue that something shallow can be more than it appears just by the very fact that it is shallow.

You don’t always have to know the academic language behind crafting a story in order to learn how to write one. It can be useful. It’s easy enough to find online. Type in how to craft a story and there will be hundreds of possible links. Or, take a class. Classes are good because a teacher can introduce things to you in a way that you may never have looked. They will make you write because you have to for the class. You’ll have the opportunity to meet other writers. Workshops are great too and cost less money (sometimes), but if you can’t afford school or workshops it doesn’t have to stop you from writing, and writing well. A book can teach you how to write even from the very first sentence.

It was a queer, sultry, summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn’t know what I was doing in New York. –The Bell JarSylvia Plath

I love the first line from the Bell Jar. Even if you haven’t any idea what the book is about you have the sense that something ominous is coming. It’s a hot, queer sultry summer and you know the character is in New York, but doesn’t know why. It is also the summer that the Rosenbergs were executed. You don’t have to know the significance of the Rosenberg executions to understand the book ( but it does gives you a better understanding of the cultural climate) just having the word execution in the first sentence tells you death is coming or has come, and obviously not a natural death. As I mentioned before you don’t have to know about the Rosenbergs to understand the story (you should because it’s a very important part of American history) but it does give you a time of reference. It is the summer of 1953. If you do a little info check or you are already familiar with this part of American history you know that the Rosenberg’s were executed on June 19th 1953. We don’t know exactly when Sylvia Plath’s story takes place but it’s at least the duration of 3 months. Isn’t that a great first line? We know the time, setting, temperature, temperament, and we have a character that doesn’t know why they are where they are, a character that is basically admitting she is lost. All that in 23 words. It’s a great first line. Sylvia Plath didn’t just throw that sentence together. She crafted it. She could have said it many different ways:

  1. I didn’t know what I was doing in New York the summer that the Rosenberg’s were executed, but what I did know was that there was something odd about the feeling of the place, and it was hot. 
  2. The weather was hot and humid the summer that I lived in New York.
  3. The Rosenberg’s died the summer I lived in New York.
  4. The summer that the Rosenberg’s were executed was strange and humid, and I didn’t know what I was doing there.
  5. I didn’t know what I was doing in New York.
  6. The summer I lived in New York the weather was queer, and sultry. The Rosenberg’s were executed during the time I had been living there. I wasn’t sure why I was there. 

The first sentence sets the tone. Here is another great first line:

Through the fence, between the curling flower spaces, I could see them hitting.- The Sound and the FuryWilliam Faulkner

What? Your English teacher would roast you for that sentence. What’s happening? Someone is speaking or thinking out loud to themselves, and they are looking at some people or things. They are describing the action of hitting. This narrator also looks through the “curling flower spaces.” Who actually notices something through the curling spaces of flowers? Unless they are hiding, maybe? The Sound and the Fury is written from the point of view of different characters in the book. Benji is the first character and he is mentally disabled. Faulkner chose to write in how he believed Benji’s thinking and pattern of speech was. Benji thinks and notices things differently then an average person, but if you look carefully at the sentence you’ll see he thinks things in the order he sees them. 1) Through the fence. 2) Between the curling flower spaces. 3) I could see them hitting. 1) I am standing at the fence. 2) I am looking. 3) I see them hitting. Benji is not with whoever he is watching. He is on the other side of a fence peering through the slats or a hole maybe. There is a lot of description without even using a properly formed sentence.

They’re out there.- One flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest- Ken Kesey

Whose out there?


I first met Dean not long after my wife and I split up.- On the Road– Jack Kerouac

So, we know that the narrator is recently single. Ready for a road trip!? Whoo! Sex, drugs and Jazz!

If you understand the value of the first sentence then you can imagine the importance of the last sentence. Dickens’ book, A Tale of Two Cities was so good it has one of the most well known and quoted first lines and last lines.

Stay on the Path- if you want.

Stay on the Path- if you want.

Not too long after ending my class I picked up two small pocket sized journals. One journal I titled: Beginnings. The other: Endings. For every book I’ve read I have copied the first sentence in to beginnings, and the last sentence into endings. I do this for me to study. I am gathering my lessons like investigations.

Another thing I do that is a fun practice, and I learned it in this class, is I try to write something in the exact voice of the author I am reading. Maybe something like directions:

Head to the house on the left, and if perchance you should see my fair maid on the corner, it is a right that you must take from there, and if you keep walking for a fortnight or so, you’ll see the blue colors much like the color of my mistress’s eyes, and that my fine sir will be the post office.

(My weak impression of Shakespeare, but you get the idea).

The point behind this practice is not to plagiarize, but to feel how the author writes, do you notice any technique from the writing? How do they create images. Are they heavy into dialogue? What kind of metaphors do they use and how do they put them together? What about their use of vocabulary? Never ever forget vocabulary. If you don’t know a word- look it up- it will enlighten you and increase your own vocabulary. Words are your tools. The more tools you have the better houses you can build.

In the end when it comes to writing your own book or short story, no one can tell you how to write one. Not really. The only way to write a is sit down and write. Besides, the real work is in the re-write, so you might as well get that first draft done.

Next time you pick up a book to read and read it like a writer. You’ll get a really low cost lesson- maybe even free, and read a book.  Or don’t, just read it, and enjoy it, but know that you have all that knowledge at your finger tips.


Testing. Testing.

Chuck PalahniukSurvivor