If you just sat down to read this and haven’t read part A of this installment yet, please click here. This installment will talk more about how you can use dialogue to augment your writing, while the last part explained how to create strong, believable dialogue.
So how can you use dialogue to your advantage? Dialogue is just dialogue, right? You need it one way or another; it isn’t an extraneous addition. That’s completely true, but that doesn’t mean you’re required to think inside the box. Like anything, dialogue is a tool, and tools are there for you to use in a variety of ways. Before I get into anything fancy, though, I want to bring out one more point that I believe is key to creating quality dialogue.
First off, note that what I’m going to say here isn’t what your writing teacher told you. It isn’t what the “experts” will tell you. In spite of that, I’m right. That sounds more than a little conceited, but I’m deadly serious here, and I’m by far not the only one who holds the same view on this. What am I talking about?
“When writing dialogue attributions, almost always use said.”
It’s likely you’ve heard that before. The argument behind this “staple writing rule” is that said is invisible to the reader, and that using other verbs for dialogue is distracting and useless to your reader. There is merit behind this mindset—I don’t deny that. However, it’s a very robotic way of thinking. How should you look at it? Well that’s up to you, and in the end, your personal writing style is what matters. Let’s dive into this a little deeper.
There are pros and cons behind using only said. I’m not going to draw up a list here, because it’s not that clear-cut. When you use said, it is generally invisible. It’s the simplest attribution there is; it’s telling the reader who just “said” the last chunk of dialogue. There’s nothing wrong with that, however as a writer, you should never overuse a word. It doesn’t matter what that word is—said is subject to that rule just like anything else.
Said is not invisible when you use it too much.
Some might argue against that train of thought, but you can’t argue against what a reader sees when they read your work. I was a reader before I was a writer, and when I read a “well respected” author and saw said used over and over and over… I saw those attributions. It bugged me, and that was back when I was fairly young. It bugs me even more so now. It’s lazy. It’s a cop-out that uses the “expert opinion” as a fallback crutch.
But what if you don’t use said? What if you use screamed, or cried, or whispered? What if you take into account what’s happening in the scene before choosing what attribution to use? There’s nothing exactly wrong with that, however you don’t want to be redundant.
If your story just read … “What’s wrong with you? I know you did it!” Sally accused. … you’ve got a problem.
Why? Because there was no need to tell the reader that Sally was accusing someone of something; she just said “I know you did it!”, so why do you need to state that the dialogue there was an accusation? You don’t, and that’s a prime argument that any writing teacher will give you for the exclusive use of said.
That’s only looking at one side of it, though. It’s perfectly possible to find an attribution in most cases that isn’t redundant, and isn’t spelled s-a-i-d.
If your story just read … “It’s okay, I believe you.” Sally whispered. … do you have a problem?
No, you don’t. If you simply put said in place of whispered there, the true intent of the dialogue wouldn’t have been portrayed. There are a lot of instances where this is true, and sadly that’s something that a lot of teachers completely ignore in their discourse. I argued quite a bit with an instructor of mine about this subject (I can be a bit too difficult for my own good), and after a long discussion, he basically backed down and said that there are many different ways to write.
The fact is, you can indeed distract your reader if you continually force a synonym for said into your dialogue. As with anything, you need a balance. Your writing should flow and incite your reader’s interest, so just the same as using synonyms of said again and again, using said again and again is not going to make your reading flow. Striking that balance between the two can be difficult, but in the end it’s usually pretty apparent what attribution fits each piece of dialogue. If someone asked a question, asked is a perfect attribution. If someone said something in a harsh, quick tone, barked is a workable attribution. If someone just said something… you can still use said. You know your writing better than anyone else, so make a concerted effort to piece your dialogue together correctly.
How can we break this all up though? Well, we of course do not need a “he said/she said” after every spoken phrase. In a two-way conversation, it’s often clear who is saying what after you’ve established who is speaking in turn. This might seem like a very basic principle, but it’s a key component of writing dialogue that is enjoyable to read. Make sure you don’t confuse your reader, though.
What I want to talk about more deeply here is something called a beat. Beats are very simple, but at the same time, when you utilize them correctly, the effect is drastic. Let me illustrate.
“What am I supposed to do?” Tom asked.
“Well I don’t know,” Mary replied. “Have you tried talking to her?”
“Absolutely not! She doesn’t even know I exist, Mary.”
“That’s the problem, silly. It’s up to you to change that!”
There’s nothing wrong with this. In fact, pick up a book off the best seller rack and you’ll likely read a passage of dialogue that is structured just like this. That’s just lovely, but it’s boring. It’s weak. It’s lazy! How can we use beats to make it better?
“What am I supposed to say?” Tom asked.
“Well I don’t know,” Mary shot him a knowing look. “Have you tried talking to her?”
“Absolutely not! She doesn’t even know I exist, Mary.”
She laughed and slugged him in the shoulder. “That’s the problem, silly. It’s up to you to change that!”
See how that works? There’s only one attribution in that exchange. A beat is extremely simple, but it goes a very long way towards livening up your dialogue. The first example was boring, simple, and told you very little about either character. Even though this is an extremely short example of dialogue, in the example above you can at least immediately see Mary’s personality a little. There’s more life in your dialogue when you use beats.
In technical terms, a beat is a sentence of a character’s action, before, after, or in the middle of a line of dialogue that shifts the reader’s focus to that character. It eliminates the need for an attribution, and it gives us a much better image of the scene.
The key is to use balance. Don’t become a mindless drone of the “expert’s” creed. Pull from each practice, mix it up, and make your writing flow. That means you shouldn’t be afraid to use said, synonyms of said, or beats. One thing I will suggest is that you make pretty heavy use of beats. Don’t be stingy with them. It’s much cleaner to the eye to read actions than it is to constantly wade through he saids and she saids, including any synonyms thereof. It might take a little bit more effort, but you should never sacrifice quality for ease of writing. That’s another thing I’ve heard from teachers. “Just use said. It’s invisible to the reader, and it’s easier on you.” Easier on you? I think the silliness behind that idea speaks for itself.
We’ve finally come to the end of this installment of Breathe Life Into Your Writing! I hope you were able to get a good idea of how you personally can create strong, well written dialogue. If you have any questions, feel free to leave a comment.
There will be more to come soon, but in the meantime, be sure to read up on the other parts you might have missed!
We’re getting deep into these now, aren’t we? I feel pretty fancy using Roman numerals beyond a series of “I”s strung beside each other; now I’m using “V”s! Stupidity aside though, if you haven’t read any of the first three parts, I’d suggest you start here. You don’t have to, but since this series is aimed to build your repertoire of skills to liven up your writing, every little bit helps. If you’re too lazy and just want to read this one? Well, that’s okay too. Let’s get started.
Dialogue sounds pretty simple. In a way, it is. Compared to the other points I touched on in this series, dialogue seems far more basic and structural. That’s true, because without good, meaningful dialogue you don’t have a story. The thing is, dialogue is much more than just a boring, structured necessity. Dialogue is something you can use to help your story soar or plummet to the earth. Use it correctly, vividly, and it might even carry your writing (which we don’t want to happen, but still). Use it incorrectly, and no one will keep reading your stuff.
Listen up; dialogue is important.
Not just a little important; dialogue makes your story. Without dialogue, your story is going to read like an essay, complete with mind-numbing blocks of exposition that no one wants to read forever. Without dialogue, you might as well be writing something like this. An article. People read articles to learn something, or to follow something someone did (in the case of blogs in general). When people read to learn, they do want to be entertained, but they’re reading for a different purpose. When people are reading a blog about someone’s life, what happened to them that day, etc, the entire piece moves because it’s a firsthand account of something that really happened. Even though it’s not dialogue, it comes across more interesting because it’s almost as if the writer has sat you down and is directly talking to you about what happened. It comes across stronger than simple exposition.
What about stories though? People read stories for one reason: to be entertained. That’s why fiction writing is so difficult. If you know a lot about a certain topic and you know how to write, it’s not that hard to write something like this; something instructional. When you’re writing fiction, you have to captivate your reader at every turn. You have to keep them guessing, but you can’t confuse them too much. You have to keep the story moving, but not too fast. You have to make the characters believable, but not too believable and boring. You have to make the story more realistic than real life, but still include aliens and vampires.
It is fun, but it’s a juggling act. Society has a pretty short attention span, and you have to make a masterfully concerted effort to keep that focus. It’s not easy. What’s the point behind all this? Dialogue is likely your number one tool in grabbing people’s attention. Exciting, believable dialogue that moves your story along will go a long way towards interesting your readers. How can we create that dialogue though? How can we do it right?
That’s an extremely complex topic. I could probably write a whole new series just on dialogue. Instead, I’ll try to be concise here. I’ll try to highlight a few things that I think are the key elements of successful dialogue.
- Understand your characters.
- Consider where your scene is going.
- Keep it real.
No kidding, that’s it. If you get those three points down, you’ll be a dialogue god. Unfortunately, not many have done that. I guarantee that even the greatest authors of all time still write a scene, read back the dialogue, and throw it in the trash. It’s a constant struggle. That’s not too say it’s hopeless; a lot of the time you can sit down and pound out a scene full of dialogue, read it back, and it’s perfect.
You have conversations yourself, so you know how people talk. When you try to replicate real speech onto the screen it often comes out sounding funny. Still, there will be a lot of times where it just flows. One character says something, and the next replies like anyone would, just like two people in real life. Hopefully you made sure to make their conversation mean something to the piece, but I’ll get to that in a minute. Let’s go over each point in a little more depth.
Understand your characters
The point behind this is that you don’t want dialogue written that doesn’t match your character. If you’re writing the dialogue of a six-year-old, which spoken phrase would he use?
The sound of tiny scampering feet against linoleum made Mrs. Parker turn towards the noise. Her little one latched onto her leg—almost causing her to fall—and whined, “Mommy my tummy hurts!”
Obviously the first one doesn’t fit, unless little Timmy was abducted by aliens where they injected arcane knowledge into his little brain before laying him back in his bed. That’s the point here, dialogue needs to mirror your character’s motivations, goals, and personality. If you understand your character inside and out, you won’t make as many mistakes when you’re writing their dialogue.
If I could choose any of these three points to pick out as being the most important, it would be this one. I can get over a line of dialogue in a story that doesn’t have much purpose being there, or sounds a little contrived when I read it aloud, but when a character says or does something that just plain doesn’t fit them? That annoys me, and unless I’m really absorbed in the writing, I might not keep reading. Still, this is only one point. They’re all important; especially this next one.
Consider where your scene is going
This point is actually too simplified. Not only do you want to keep in mind the direction of the scene, you also want to look at the big picture. I’m talking about the plot, theme, and direction of the entire piece of writing. Dialogue in the first chapter might connect to something at the end of a book! Read the example below and keep in mind that this dialogue is placed a story titled… “A Shadow In The Deep” (if there is a real book called that, woops).
The smell of booze and saltwater drifted about the sleepy tavern, old neon lights above the bar humming a peaceful tune. A ratty old man, weathered and grey by the raging seas took a swig of his bottle and said to a man across from him, “Went out yesterday an’ caught me a whole mess of cod. Should have seen the nets full to bursting, ha ha!”
The smell of booze and saltwater drifted about the sleepy tavern, old neon lights above the bar humming a peaceful tune. An old man sat across from another, terror fixed on his wrinkled face as he whispered to the man across from him, “I think my days on the sea are over, Ted. Have you seen it? That thing? I swear, I saw it! Sliding beneath the waves, bigger than a whale! Someone’s going to get killed by that monster, mark my words…”
This one isn’t as obvious as the first examples with the little boy. There’s believable dialogue in both of these, and each example stays pretty true to a discussion between two old seadogs over a pitcher of ale. The difference here isn’t that one of these examples is wrong, it’s that the second one has a purpose being in the story and the first doesn’t.
There’s nothing wrong with a casual conversation between fishermen talking about their haul, but what does that tell the reader about the theme of the story? How does that move the story forward? It doesn’t, but when we read the second example, we see that one of the men is haunted by something he saw. He warns his old fishing buddy about what he thinks is out there, beneath the waves and waiting to strike, as he believes. When we read that, we’re given a glimpse of what’s to come. It creates suspense in knowing that as we read through this story, we’re slowly getting closer to learning the truth and meeting this monster face to face.
Don’t you agree that the second example accomplishes more, considering where the scene and story are going? This is a more difficult point, because we don’t want to load every line of dialogue too heavily with plot information, but we need for our dialogue to serve a purpose. Even if two of your characters have a casual conversation, it should serve a purpose, even if that purpose is just making the characters more comfortable around each other. Perhaps they shoot the breeze about sports in chapter three, and end up falling madly in love in chapter eight? The first small conversation served a purpose, and that’s the idea here.
Keep it real
The focus behind this point is pretty simple. We just want our dialogue to be believable. We want to be able to see the characters in front of us, and hear what they’re saying. That’s a difficult task you have as a writer, in that you’re trying to make words come across as visual. When your reader can picture what they’re reading clearly in their mind, you’re doing a great job. How can dialogue lend strongly to this, though? Lets look at another example.
The slam of the door echoed through the house, shaking the walls as a woman stood facing the blocked doorway and said, “Abbie, you need to calm down. Open the door.”
“No mom,” Abbie replied. “You don’t understand me. I don’t want to talk to you.”
The slam of the door echoed through the house, shaking the walls as a woman pressed herself up against the doorway and pleaded, “Abbie! I’m sorry, I just want to talk, please! I love you…”
“You love me? You make me sick!” Abbie screamed back, her voice muffled through the thin walls. “You just don’t get it. Leave me alone!”
Do you see the difference this time? There’s nothing especially wrong with the first example. The dialogue stays true to the feelings of both mother and daughter, and it has a purpose. The problem is that it’s weak, robotic. Phrases like “You don’t understand me. I don’t want to talk to you.” tell the reader what’s going on and how the character feels, but they don’t sound natural. When you read that, you feel like you’re reading dialogue, not hearing it. It doesn’t flow like dialogue should.
In the second example though, it’s different. The dialogue is moving, active, raw. It fits the characters and progresses the scene, and it also sounds like a real argument between a teenage girl and her mom. You can feel the emotion here much more strongly than before, and because of that it’s much easier to hear it in your head as you read.
That’s the key behind this point: you want the dialogue to sound real. You don’t want your reader to read it; you want them to hear it. When your characters speak, it should sound as natural as if they were right in front of you having a conversation. How can you accomplish this? Well, it isn’t really that difficult. You’re human, you have family and friends. You talk. You know how people interact and converse, and when you create dialogue, you’re trying to mirror that. The subject of the written words can be anything, but the naturalness you hear in everyday speech needs to carry those written conversations. Beyond that, just read your dialogue aloud after you write it. If it sounds funny, you’ll probably hear it.
I hope all of that wasn’t too much information at once. Dialogue is an extremely deep and complicated process, but at the same time it’s very simple. There are a lot of ways to make your dialogue hit harder, but in the end, the KISS (keep it simple, stupid) policy works just as well. If you’re doubting some dialogue you’ve written, just ask yourself three questions mirroring the points above.
- Would my character say that?
- Does this dialogue serve a purpose?
- Does it sound natural?
If you can’t answer yes to all of those questions, odds are you should probably work on the dialogue in question till you can.
Thanks for reading. If you didn’t notice, this is a two part installment, so keep your eye out for part B of the dialogue discussion. Also be sure to check out any parts of this series that you missed!
- Breathe Life Into Your Writing! Part III: Symbolism
- Dialogue – a powerful tool! (madgeniusclub.com)
- Writing Believable Dialogue – 1. Less is More (bardicblogger.wordpress.com)
The past two days have been absolutely ridiculous. I touched on what happened a little in my last post, but today I figured I’d delve into the details of what happened. It’s been an interesting couple days.
It all started two nights ago. I downloaded a handful of Photoshop brushes and a few fonts that day. So I brought em over to my writing/art laptop and started unzipping. Unbeknownst to be, one of them was gonna turn my computer into a virus playground. My old hard drive broke. I had the laptop for years, and then it just started freezing for no apparent reason. No viruses, no nothing, just freezing. So after a mess of time-consuming hardware checks, I learned the hard drive was basically just kaput. I got a hold of an uncle of mine who’s a wiz when it comes to computers, bought and sent him a new hard drive, had him load it up with programs through the company he works for, and bam. The replacement hard drive saved me.
Problem is, the computer was never online. I never bothered to update the antivirus or anything, so when I unzipped this “brush” that I got from a third party site (that looked completely legitimate and had no red flags), all hell broke loose. Everything froze, including my heart. I probably swore; I don’t remember. The icons on my screen disappeared, a Windows “System Check” box popped up and started scanning My Computer, the HDD, the RAM, and the registry. Wait, scanning My Computer and the HDD? Aren’t those the same thing? And why is the system check still running with my custom color barf theme I created? Why is there a little “System Check” shortcut next to the start menu? Why is it is discolored and odd looking?
Who cares! My computer’s exploding! I ignored all the fishy signs and paid full attention to this scan. It only took about five minutes. Wait, what? Five minutes to scan the HDD? I’ve done that before. It took two hours. Four errors in My Computer, four in the HDD, three in the RAM, four in the registry. “The C: drive is unreadable.” No! I pressed the “Repair” button and sat
patiently unpatiently. Hey!—it’s fixing the problems now! Oh wait, it can’t fix the C: drive. Awesome. I try not to cry.
The entire encounter was lots of fun. By the time I got to the end of it, the window tells me that if I want to fix all the errors, I have to pay for the full version. Pardon my Caprican, but what the frak? I have to pay to fix my computer? That ain’t right. I shut everything down and got extremely depressed, but that doesn’t mean I gave up. I’m not a computer expert, but I know my stuff. I started the boot diagnosis and… waited. The entire process takes almost two hours, so I laid down and tried to sleep, unsuccessfully. When I trudged back into the living room, expecting the worst, a pleasant sight met my eyes.
“Nothing’s wrong with your computer, bro.”
Okay, the screen didn’t say that, but it should have. You have no idea what a relief seeing that message was. All was not lost! Still, my computer was crawling with viruses. Things were bleak, but my hard drive was safe. Turning the computer back on (and wading through this dang “System Check” nonsense) I was able to find my files. They weren’t gone. The virus hijacked the start menu, as well as the desktop. My Computer and My Documents got moved to the “All Programs” tab. Tricky, but only to someone freaking out and blinded by thoughts of “MY COMPUTER IS BROKEN“. Everything was still there, to my incredible relief.
I went to bed at around 4am, finding solace in the fact that the virus was more a trick than a destructive force. Here I was thinking I got hit by some horrible virus that blew my hard drive to hell, like Magistr or CIH. The next morning I set out to find out what I was up against. It only took a single Google search to find my problem. The “System-Check Virus”, I found it was generally called. It’s not your typical virus, it’s called a “rogue“, or “rogueware”, and it’s a part of virus family called FakeHDD. Basically it’s a big illusion to trick you into giving out your credit card number. Remember the entire “buy the full version” prompt? You get it. Mostly people get hit by it when they get conned into those “free virus check” sites, but that certainly wasn’t how I got hit. I quickly found a step by step guide on getting rid of it and got to work. (Go bleepingcomputer.com!)
The process was pretty complicated. The first step was to turn on the computer in safe mode; easy enough. I downloaded all the necessary programs and threw them on a thumbdrive, like a warrior with his armor and weaponry coming toe to toe with the mighty dragon. The first step was to run a program called RKill, which basically kills all the processes that the virus runs to stop you from doing… anything really. Realize that it crippled my actions on the computer so badly that I couldn’t right click, move things, or even press crtl-alt-delete! It took multiple tries to run RKill, and I was forced to change the name of the program to “iExplore.exe” for the virus to let it through. That’s right, this virus protected itself in a big way. Try to run a program to fight the virus? The virus shuts it down. This was only the beginning of my battle.
Finally, after countless tries, RKill ran. It shut down a slew of processes and my desktop icons came flooding back. So far so good. The next step was to run a program called TDSSKiller. The aim of this program was to find and destroy a piece of the virus called a “rootkit“. Not only was this rootkit the culprit for killing my anti-virus and blocking out my virus killer programs, it also royally screws over your internet. If your computer is infected by a rootkit, your Google searches will give you crazy results, and you’ll often be redirected to ads and all sorts of nasty stuff. I think it’s commonly called the Google redirect virus, but either way, I had more problems than just that.
The rootkit proved to be a very difficult foe. Like diamond-hard dragon’s scales, no matter what I tried, my blows were deflected. TDSSKiller—no matter what I renamed it—was immediately shut down by this nasty bug. Why? The dolts over at Kaspersky Labs decided to put a nice big “Kaspersky Labs made this!” inside the properties of the program. So when I tried to open it, the rootkit saw the inner workings and source of the program and shut it down cold. I was screwed.
The solution was to download another program called Verpatch that I could use to change those inner properties of the TDSSKiller. Problem is, Mr. Rootkit stopped that program in its tracks too. Formidable opponent, right? I found a link to a version of TDSSKiller without Kaspersky Labs’ idiot name all over it, but to my great anger and frustration, the link was dead. I set down my sword and decided to move on to the next step.
It was time to ditch the sword and pull out the bazooka.
Malwarebytes is an awesome program. Not only did it break right through the virus’s defenses and run the setup and updates without a hitch, it also found eleven different viruses in the system. Yeah, eleven. I was back in business, and stomping out the bugs left and right. Problem was, the rootkit was still in business, protecting itself from the program that could root it out and kill it: the TDSSKiller.
I redoubled my search for the version of the program that would slip through its defenses, and I found what I was looking for. Kaspersky redeemed themselves, they had made an alternate version without their brand name all over it. If you’re screwed like I was, go HERE for the right version of TDSSKiller (you do have to register to the forums to download it). You can thank me later. I didn’t even have to rename the program from “TDSSKiller” and it started up like a charm. There are many breeds of this virus that I had; it looks like the one I had was nasty indeed, smarter than most versions. It wasn’t even looking at the name of the program—only its inner workings. Sneaky, huh?
The TDSSKiller fired up and found it. Buh-bye rootkit. I was glowing. I bested the beast. I ran Malwarebytes again and it found another handful of viruses. The rootkit was hiding them? I don’t know, but I was glad that thing was toast. I decided to turn the computer on without safe mode before running Malwarebytes two more times (yes, I was paranoid). You can only imagine my joy when the results came up with a big fat zero both scans. I was virus free. The final step was to run a little program called “Unhide.exe“, since the virus goes into your system files and checks “hidden” on all of them. A weak trick, but still.
And that’s my tale. Probably not very exciting, but I thought I would share, and hopefully help out anybody who’s run into similar problems. If you’re going through a FakeHDD virus hit and are stuck, feel free to get a hold of me. I might not be able to help, because each situation is different, but who knows?
Dealt with a rogue before? Comment about it! Viruses today are worse and worse. I’m just glad I came out on top this time.
- System Check Virus Removal Guide (bleepingcomputer.com)
- A Step by Step Guide To Removing The Google Redirect Virus From Your Computer (makeuseof.com)
I had a fun morning today, and my work still continues. A rather nasty virus attacked my writing laptop (the one with my life on it, y’know), so I’ve been frantic to get it working again. Thankfully I think I’ve got it under control, and I also snagged a little job this morning, so I decided to sit down and tell you lovely people about a publishing opportunity I came across today.
A weird one.
Obsolescent.info has an open call out for short stories. About what, you ask? About octopusses—er, octopi. I kid you not, this little press is working up an anthology of short stories focused on our aquatic eight-legged friends. Odd? Yeah, it is, but it also sounds like fun, doesn’t it?
This company is offering 20 bucks for each story. They need 10-15 of them, and they’re looking for stories about 1000-7500 words long. As for the contract, it looks like they’re only claiming non-exclusive rights, so basically they’re allowed to do what they want with your work, and so are you. What genres are they looking for? Well, basically anything. No kidding.
That’s about it. If you’re interested or just want to find out more, check out the page for submission guidelines below!
Usually I’m never at a loss for word when it comes to writing. If you frequent the blog, you’ve probably noticed that I tend to go on and on and on and… well, you get the point. Even if I may give some people headaches, that long-winded quality I have is a blessing when you’re a writer. You can always edit yourself. You can’t always pull new things to write out of your arse. (Unless you’re far more talented than I.)
In any case, let’s talk about blogger’s block today. Is that a real term? Beats me—I just made it up. I’ve heard the comment “fiction writers are terrible blog writers” again and again, mostly spammed on twitter by someone who tweets “writing tips”. I didn’t agree. Heck, I still don’t agree. Fiction writers are the best writers anywhere. Not only can they write their butts off, they have the imagination to back it up! I don’t post a whole lot of fiction or writing on this blog; I mostly post tips and lessons off the top of my head for my lovely readers. If you’re new to the blog, I’d suggest you follow and/or check out my Breathe Life Into Your Writing! series. I’m not gonna link it or shove it down your throat, but it’s there if you wanna check it out. It’s pretty helpful if I don’t say so myself.
In the end, I think everyone gets blogger’s block. I post something everyday. It can be tiring, especially when I forget to all day and then throw something up at 6pm (which coming from Hawaii is much later anywhere else). Those days certainly don’t get me many hits. So how do you keep up on things, keeping them fresh, useful, FUN? Beats me, I’m flying by the seat of my pants. Since this post should be useful and informative, I’m gonna take a step back and link people who know more than me. Believe it or not, I do not know everything (can you believe it?), so occasionally I should leave it to the other know-it-alls. They need love too.
As you can see, blogger’s block is a serious thing, and a real term (I just found that out). So to take a tip from those articles, I’m gonna ask a question:
What do you guys want me to write about?
I’d honestly love to hear. The comments box is right down there, just scroll… click… type. Did you do it? Attaboy/girl!
That’s all for now. Have a nice weekend everyone.
Today I thought I’d try my hardest to be brief, yet helpful. I’d like to set the spotlight on a little site who both publishes stories online, via e-book, through a weekly review subscription, and also appears to be interested in full novels. Who are they? Katherine Press.
If you don’t feel like checking out the site, I’ll say that their market is that of chick-lit and anything pertaining to girls and young women. Their site looks so nice and cleanly put together that a part of me wants to submit something too, but… well, chick-lit isn’t my thing. I think I would crash and burn, but maybe you wouldn’t! They’re looking for everything from poetry and short stories to personal essays and full length novels.
They offer to pay flat-rates for the various types of submissions. They don’t advertise what those rates are on the site from what I can tell, but their email is there on the site and I’m sure they’d be happy to answer any of your questions. They also are giving themselves a six-week window before they reject or accept your work, so be patient.
Hope it goes well for you if you decide to take a shot at submitting something. Be sure to tell me what you think or have experienced with this company too!
In this installment I’m going talk about something a little more… epic. Like personification and metaphors, this tool will go a long way towards giving something bland and boring new life. What’s different about it, though? It’s far more difficult to pull off, unlike the relatively simple practice of using personification and metaphors. What is it?
I think this concept makes a lot of newer writers nervous—like they want to use it effectively, but are afraid that they won’t be able to execute it correctly. Those concerns aren’t unwarranted. There are certainly simple uses of symbolism that you may have already used without thinking, but creating lasting, powerful symbols that carry through your writing is another story.
Because symbols are so… symbolic, it’s easy to turn them into clichés. Clichés are something you want to avoid as a writer. Some people like them, and I’m one of the few that believes they can add to a story with careful thought, but that’s another topic entirely. The point is, symbols can easily become clichés. Why should we avoid that? We’ll get to that a little later. For now, let’s look at some examples of simple symbols.
A man wearing pastel colors with a wide smile on his face.
The permeating smell of death inside a dreary old mansion.
A crusty pile of bones deep in the woods.
These are all pretty simple, and that’s the point. You probably wouldn’t think twice about any of these things as you read them within a story, but they are indeed symbols. The first would immediately tell you the pleasant, sunny demeanor of the man (unless you use it as an oxymoron, and he’s really an axe murderer). The second paints an immediate picture and mood behind a very scary venue. If a mansion smells like death, it’s not a very nice place. The third example is the most obvious use of symbolism. If your protagonist finds a pile of bones in the woods, it immediately tells him that he’s in a dangerous place. It creates suspense.
Did you notice? Each of these symbols have very different effects! The first might tell the reader about someone’s character (or create suspense if the symbol is an oxymoron), the second paints a better picture of the mood and setting, and the third primarily creates suspense, as well as telling you the mood of those woods. That’s the thing about symbols; they can achieve a variety of effects in comparison to the other writing practices I’ve highlighted in this series. While a metaphor might just make your reading a little more interesting, and might help set the mood a little but, even the smallest, subtlest symbols can paint a picture of your story in very graphic ways. That’s why it’s easier to mess up on them!
But how about bigger symbols? Ones that stretch far across your tale? Those are the most difficult to use to perfection, because they usually go a very long way to conveying two very important qualities to your entire story.
The first is mood and setting. Usually mood and setting only apply to one scene. The type of words you choose within a scene go a long way to telling the mood. If you employ verbs like “sweeping, drifted, ebbed, murmured” the mood of the scene is quite clearly slow, dreary, measured. It’s probably building suspense and leading up towards actions. If you use verbs like “snapped, bolted, snatched, barked” the mood of the scene is frantic, urgent, intense. As you can see, your word usage tells the mood of one particular scene.
Setting is a bit different, and not so straightforward. It’s up to you and your skill as a writer to paint the picture of your setting correctly. Setting directly relates to mood, and vice versa. If you write about a dark, scary tunnel full of ghostly whispers, the setting is going to make the mood scary. You can tell why setting is important now, can’t you? If you create a lackluster image of the setting, the reader probably won’t be able to interpret the correct mood, or a mood at all! If the reader doesn’t feel the mood of the scene, it’s very hard for the words on the page to draw them into your writing.
How can powerful symbols carry both setting and mood across your story, though? Well, that usually goes hand in hand with the theme of the story. Theme generally is a wide-stretching mood cast upon your entire story, but it also directly relates to the conflict and goal, beginning and end. It also makes up the entire message of the story. It tells the reader why the story is what the story is, as well as the purpose of the story. Before I create a few examples, look at a powerful use of symbolism in a famous piece of fiction.
In A Sound of Thunder by Ray Bradbury, a butterfly is stepped on far in the past by a time traveler from the future. That small death changes history in a drastic way. Where’s the symbol there? Well, it’s the butterfly. That seemingly small symbol highlights a powerful theme of change. That tiny, insignificant insect changed everything, and placed a fierce level of guilt upon the person who stepped on it, and that guilt goes a long way to setting a very dramatic mood. Pretty epic stuff, right? Doesn’t it make you want to think up a powerful symbol for your own story?
Let’s look at some examples now. Open your mind and let your creativity flow! I hope these can stir up your imagination. Focus on the structure of these—how they work—and then sit down to think up some powerful symbols of your own!
Deep in the blistering Sahara, a spelunking hero battles murderous smugglers within looming desert caves. A sandstorm howls a violent tune as the combat ensues. The protagonist fights valiantly, and bests the thieves as he blows the entrance to the cave shut with a bundle of dynamite, entombing them with their ill-gotten treasure. As he steps back onto the blistering desert sands, the storm dies down and rain begins to fall.
A withered old man sits on the porch during a nice big family reunion… except it’s not nice at all. His children and grandchildren bicker like kindergarteners. He tries his best to keep the peace, but his words fall on deaf ears as grudges and rivalries lock in the negative mood. Sat upon his old wicker chair on the porch, he watches the tranquil, trickling creek in front of the house. Since his childhood, he’s played along the bank of the gentle stream, but now the feed of clear crystal water is stopped up and dirty. Taking a long deep breath, he thinks on a kind and happy past before passing on.
As you can see, these examples aren’t short little sentences. They aren’t simple visuals that portray a mood or help paint a better picture of a setting. These larger, stronger symbols can be literal or figurative—usually both. They can be embodied in a concrete object or something more ethereal; maybe an emotion, or a state of affairs, or even a spoken phrase. Something that almost always makes up that symbolic connection is a visual (or perceivable) symbol directly connecting to a figurative message. Let’s pick each of the examples above apart and see how they utilize symbolism.
In the first one, we have something like you’d see in an Indiana Jones flick. You might think that in a story involving so much action, there isn’t a whole lot of room for symbolism. Well, that’s not exactly true. When you’ve got lots of action, there might not be a great deal of room for deep, thoughtful symbols. They don’t always fit into a fast paced, action-packed tale. That doesn’t mean these kind of stories need to be devoid of strong symbols though. In the example above, I used weather as a symbol.
I think we can all think of a movie we saw where rain poured down as the protagonist cried or dealt with some saddening emotional situation. That’s a very cliché symbol to use. Like I said above, we should generally avoid clichés. They’re predictable and they can very easily make your story boring. That’s why I personally dislike the vast majority of romantic comedies. The symbolism and structure is usually very “cookie-cutter”, and that’s basically just another word for cliché. When a romantic comedy like 500 Days of Summer comes along, I’m pleasantly surprised. That one broke down certain walls and did a great job at finding originality within a genre that’s been beaten to death, but I’m straying from the point.
In my action story example, while the protagonist battles the bad guys, a violent sandstorm rages outside. The wild weather mirrors the action the hero is involved in within the caves, and once he comes out victorious and back into the desert, the storm dissipates and turns to rain. I took the old rain cliché and gave it a twist. Instead of the rain symbolizing pain and sorrow, it’s an emotional release. A washing, peaceful symbol contrasting the frantic, stressful scene that made up the rest of the story. It’s a happy ending, and it allows the reader to set the story down feeling good. Cliché? A little bit, but it works. Never underestimate the power of a soothing happy ending. I might enjoy and write stories with a darker, emotional undertone, but that doesn’t mean happy endings are all bad. You just have to figure out what fits your story best.
In the second example, we have a very different use of symbolism. It’s a very reflective story, and the theme underlying is that of change. The protagonist, the old man, is surrounded by stress, bad feelings. He’s thinking back on his childhood; on happy times when that stress wasn’t there. The symbol here is the creek he played around as a child. While times were once tranquil—just like the stream—now they are stressful and dirtied up. As a reflection of that, the creek is now stopped up and tainted. The theme entails change of situation and a change of times, and the symbol of the creek plays a powerful symbol between those things.
So, now that you’ve seen some examples of symbolism, do you think you can put them into your story? It takes a bit of effort creating those powerful links and ideas, and even more effort putting emotional strength and visuals behind your symbols, but if you understand your story on a deep level, the symbols will almost create themselves.
Unlike the last two chapters of this series, there’s no exercise to test out your skills this time. Instead, post a comment telling about a symbol you’ve used in your writing before, or one that you’d like to use now!
Be sure to check out the first two installments of the Breathe Life Into Your Writing! series in the links below if you haven’t read them yet! Stay tuned for the next part, where I’ll talk about… dialogue!