Possibly the most important aspect of any novel is that the main characters should be engaging. If the reader doesn’t care what happens to your characters, you are sunk. When you create characters they must be memorable.
Think what fictional characters you can think of. Lizzie Bennett in Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austin’s Emma, Sherlock Holmes, Doctor Watson, Professor Moriarty, Bertie Wooster, Lord Emsworth, Sam Spade, Philip Marlowe, Endeavour Morse, Christian Grey, Tom Ripley, Hannibal Lector, Tywin Lannister. Some are heroes, others villains. All of them stay with you long after you finish reading the book they appear in.
This list doesn’t include characters created by Charles Dickens, the master creator of memorable characters. David Copperfield, Wilkins Micawber, Uriah Heep, The Artful Dodger, Bill Sikes, Nancy, Fagin, Pip, Miss Havisham, Joe Gargery, Sam Weller, Mr Pickwick, James Steerforth, Ebenezer Scrooge, Bob Cratchit, Sarah Gamp, Mr Jaggers, Sydney Carton, Daniel Quilp, Madame Defarge, and Sir Leicester Dedlock, to name but a very few.
What these characters have in common is that they are all over the top, ‘larger than life,’ unlike anyone you’d meet in everyday life. Yet, to some people, they are more real than the faceless guy who just served them at the 7-11 store.
Although instinct tells novice writers to play down a character’s eccentricities so as to make them seem more ‘believable’, I suggest you do the reverse. After all, we are writing fiction and readers are desperate for escapism.
Create Characters Readers Will Remember
When someone sits down to enjoy a Romance novel or movie, a Crime or Mystery, or an Adventure, are they looking for a slice of reality? Definitely not. They will be aware that serial killers are rare in the real world. They know the chances of someone they know being murdered in an English country house or on the Orient Express are virtually non-existent, and yet they will suspend their disbelief sufficiently to immerse themselves in the story.
People who read books and watch movies demand to be entertained, and so they give the writer a license to exaggerate.
Is James Bond believable? Not on your life.
How many men have you met who remind you of Madame Defarge or Hannibal Lector? None, I hope.
How To Create Characters That Readers Will Remember
Think of human beings you know. I’ll bet most of them are ‘pretty ordinary,’ at least on the surface. Forget them.
A few people will stand out. Maybe the ‘totally sinister’ guy who lives down the street, and who never smiles? The woman at work who invariably gets drunk and starts dissing her ‘useless husband’? The guy at the market who has a bad temper and shouts insults at his customers?
The people you bring to mind will each have some flaw or eccentricity that makes them distinctive in your eyes. Excluding physical traits, such as having a hunch-back or only one leg, it’ll be something inside them that manifests itself on the outside.
Why does the guy down the street never smile and dress in black? What happened to him? Was it an event in childhood, or something that occurred more recently?
Why does the workmate always get drunk, and does she really hate her husband? If so, what has he done to her? Maybe it’s because he didn’t live up to her high expectations?
Why does the guy at the market lose his temper so easily? What experiences has he been through? How does he view his customers?
Use this method of ‘reverse thinking’ to add depth to your characters. Put yourself inside their ‘heads’.
The Fatal Flaw
It’s a good trick to give your protagonist some flaw that will impede his or her progress towards reaching the goal you’ve set them in the novel. That goal might be solving the murder, recovering their daughter from kidnappers, returning the ring to its rightful own, whatever. Think what might stand in their way.
We all know about the alcoholic cop (please don’t use it,) but what about the scientist who’s afraid of flying but who must travel into space to complete her mission? Or, the claustrophobic father whose daughter has been kidnapped, is forced to climb through narrow caves in order to rescue her? The possibilities are infinite. Certainly ‘too infinite’ to fall back on the cliche of the alcoholic cop, I hope.
As we’ve already established, a character’s flaw can be physical or psychological in nature. It could be something in the character’s past he or she cannot get over. Think about the cop who once shot a child by mistake, or the FBI agent hunting the paedophile who was herself abused as a child, the middle-aged loveless romantic who has been dumped too many times.
Think out of the box. The man with one leg may have lost the other one in a heroic act that left him jobless and his life in ruins. That would certainly change the way he looks at life. The woman who lost her hearing in a terrorist bomb attack would have a very changed view of life afterwards.
The Character Arc
Every important character in your novel has to react to events and change throughout the novel. What happens to them is called the ‘character arc.’ They must not be exactly the same at the end of the novel as they were at the beginning.
Let’s say your lead character is a small-town American accountant, who has lived an ordinary, sheltered life. Maybe he’s a National Guard reservist, so he has some military training, but he’s never had to discharge his weapon in anger.
Supposing a gang of terrorists capture his wife and family and hold them hostage. He is the only person who can save them. The extreme measures he will be forced to take and what he witnesses will alter his personality in all kinds of ways. You have to take this into account in every chapter of the novel. The way his character will change from chapter one to the novel’s conclusion has to be gradual, so reflect that in your writing.
Avoid The 100% Evil Villain
Authors generally get it that rounded fictional characters need to be endowed with both good and bad traits but, for some reason, many writers ignore this rule when it comes to their villains. Not giving the bad guys a single redeeming feature is a terrible idea. In fact, the antagonist should be the most complex character of them all.
No one can be all bad or all good. Even Hitler, the biggest real-life villain of the 20th Century, patted little children on the head and loved his dog. When you create characters, it’s important you mirror real life, both good and bad.
To emphasize the badness, you must be able to contrast it with little acts of kindness. There’s no reason a serial killer and torturer can’t be a good father, mother, son, or daughter. A Neo-Nazi thug can still devote his working life to a cancer charity. It’s possible that a dictator will believe that being utterly ruthless with dissenters is good for the vast majority of his subjects.
The villain must keep surprising the reader. Don’t make them in any way predictable. We want reader to say, “Wow, I didn’t see that coming!” That is music to our ears.
This article is adapted from a chapter in The 20 Twenty Worst Fiction Writing Mistakes.
One of the biggest hurdles for any writer is being able to write. This may sound stupid, but it’s true. The best writers I know tend to agonize over every word. For them, writing is agonizing and wretched. They delete more words than they allow to stay and, at the end of the day, they’ll think themselves lucky if they achieve more than a few hundred words. They scream about ‘writer’s block’ as if it were a disease or an affliction caused by laser beams from Outer Space.
Successful writers don’t think like that. They write quickly and painlessly. Their objective is to get down as many words as possible. They know that nothing they write is perfect but they don’t care. Getting the words down is more important than aiming for perfection. Writer’s block? It’s as if it doesn’t exist.
Inside most writers — especially amateurs — is a little voice that tells them they are not very good. In fact, in most cases, the little voice is way harsher than that. It says things like, “Why are you even bothering? You are an absolutely terrible writer. Your lack of talent is embarrassing.” Sometimes, it even swears at them.
About Not Being Able to Write = Writer’s Block
Some authors listen to their little voice more than others. That’s where writer’s block comes from.
The vast majority of would-be writers, who might spend years and years trying to produce a single novel without success, almost always believe everything their little voice tells them. That’s why they fail and never manage to achieve anything worthwhile as writers. This is called writer’s block.
At the other end of the spectrum, less-than-average talents (I won’t name names here but you can probably guess who I’m talking about), ignore the little voice and go on to make millions from their ‘literary’ efforts.
Do you see a pattern emerging? The main difference between successful authors and failed writers is (a) self-criticism, and (b) and ability to get words down on paper. If a writer allows him or herself to be over-critical about their work, they fail. Simple as that. If they don’t worry about how good their stuff is, they are more likely to succeed. Sad, isn’t it?
Think about it. Forget about being a writer, imagine how the same attitude might work in other aspects of life. Can you imagine a professional athlete pulling themselves up after a few paces because they don’t think they’ll reach the finishing line? Of course not. No runner would ever do that, so why would you, as a writer? Wordsmiths seemingly regard writers’ block as a serious impediment to their livelihoods but whoever has heard of athlete’s block, banker’s block, chef’s block, or whatever? Can you imagine a cook giving up on a dish after frying the shallots because they doubted their ability to do it justice? No way.
I’ve always thought it possible that some writers don’t actually have the little voice. That would explain why many of the worst writers on the face of the earth are some of the most prodigious — and the richest. But, having spoken to a selection of them, I now know that this isn’t true. They hear the voice all right — they simply choose to ignore it. Take a look at the books on Amazon.com or Barnes & Noble in the USA, Waterstone’s in the UK. There are thousands and thousands of books, in hundreds of categories, selling in spectacular numbers. Broadsheet newspapers regularly like to mourn the death of the novel but, in reality, the business of publishing has never been in better shape. Mostly, this is because of the phenomenon of self-publishing. It has become possible for almost anyone to become a bestselling author.
Tackling the Causes
I say almost anyone (in italics) because, to succeed as an author, you need to get books written and published. Take two authors. One of them is writing the best novel ever. It’s so well written, you wouldn’t believe it. In a single day, the author of this masterpiece might produce a couple of hundred words (if they’re lucky) — but what words they are. It really is brilliantly written. Every day the author finds the time to edit what he has already written, which takes time but it is producing spectacular results. This author suffers from writers’ block but on days when no writing is possible, there are always edits to be getting on with, so no loss there.
The other author is, and I hate to say this, pretty sloppy. Every day 8-12,000 words get written but, to be honest… the quality isn’t brilliant. There’s no editing at this stage, just a mountain of words ‘on paper’. A lot of it doesn’t make any sense. There are mistakes in grammar, spelling, and… quite honestly, the writing style is pretty average. Little more than ‘the cat sat on the mat’ stuff. This author will usually write a book in a couple of weeks, including rudimentary editing during the final few days. It’ll never be perfect but then, what’s the point of perfection? Within a week of finishing this work, the author has moved on to the next novel.
One of these authors earns thousands every month from their writing — and it increases month on month — the other earn absolutely nothing. Zilch. Nada. Zero.
Can you guess which is which? And which of them blames ‘writers’ block’ for their lack of income?
This is a post specifically for authors who self-publish on Amazon. Sometimes you might want a title you’ve written to be permanently free on Amazon websites. The most common reason for doing this is when you are using the first volume of a series to act as ‘bait’ to attract readers to the titles that follow.
If you ask Kindle customer support for help, they’ll probably ignore you. At best, they’ll send you a polite stock email telling you they don’t know what you are talking about. That’s because Amazon doesn’t officially approve of ‘perma-free’, as it’s often called. That’s why you’ve got to be very careful about how you go about it. You don’t want Amazon to think you are ‘playing the system’, even though you probably are.
Amazon doesn’t seem to mind that perma-free helps them sell loads more books, but giving away stuff is something they say they can’t officially sanction. Which is a little odd, because they have a policy of ‘Price Matching’, which is what makes perma-free possible in the first place.
Below the Product Details of every Kindle book on the Amazon website is a link that says, “tell us about a lower price.” That’s what we’re eventually going to use to get Amazon to make our Kindle title available for anyone to download for free. But first, we have to make sure it is genuinely available somewhere else for the tantalisingly low price of zero dollars.
I find the process works more smoothly if your book is available for nothing on as many competing sites as possible. At the very least, iTunes, Kobo, and Barnes & Noble. I use an outfit called Draft2Digital for all my non-Amazon ebook publishing. It simplifies the process enormously and they take a small commission from your sales. Something like 10%, I think.
Once you’ve joined up and published your title for free on as many sites that compete with Amazon as possible, you should allow a few days for your book’s details to bubble to the top of the various websites. Not everything is instant in this digital age, and I find it’s best not to rush things. I also think it’s a great idea if a Google search reveals free versions of your chosen book.
The next step is to inform Amazon
It’s better if you don’t inform Amazon personally. If you have an email list of people who buy your books, you can take the next step straight away. Don’t send out a general email asking everyone on your list to report your lower price, otherwise Amazon will be inundated and will almost certainly smell a rat. I usually email 5-6 people who have contacted me in the past and ask them if they wouldn’t mind helping me out. Make sure you cover the USA as this is the biggest seller.
You’ve got to make it crystal clear what it is you want them to do. I usually write a paragraph like this:
I would really like my latest book, How To Make Grow Spaghetti Plants Indoors, to be available for free on the Amazon website. For this to happen, I need someone to go to the Amazon.com website and report a lower price. You can do this by clicking on the link below the product details that says “tell us about a lower price’. Here is a link to that page: amazon.com/how-to-grow-etc/B100GH860
When you click on the Amazon link, you’ll be asked, Where did you see a lower price? Please click the tab that says ‘Website’ and enter this URL, which is where the book is available for free on the Barnes & Noble website.
Most people will be glad to help you. I usually send out a mixture of links, not just Barnes & Noble, but iTunes and Kobo. This helps make it look more natural to Amazon customer services. Don’t be surprised if someone says they’ll do it and nothing happens. This might be them ‘forgetting’ to do it, or it may be Amazon either ignoring them or being slow.
Keep on asking a couple of people a week until Amazon finally relents and your title becomes perma-free on Amazon.com. Check the big Amazon sites every morning to see if it’s happened yet. I usually find it becomes free on one site, then slowly trickles down to the rest.
If you don’t have an email list, you’ll probably belong to a writers forum. Ask people on there to help you out. If you’re not, join one. Only report it yourself as a last resort.
A final word of advice: when you are dealing with Amazon Kindle, always be ultra polite and mindful of their rules. There may be times when you want to fire off abusive emails to some ‘idiot’ in customer services, but don’t do it. That ‘idiot’ has the power to stop your publishing career dead in its tracks if he suspects you of malpractice.
As a self-publishing author, Amazon Kindle is the hand that feeds you. As every sensible dog knows, you should never bite the hand that feeds you.
How to outline is one of the best skills a commercial novelist can learn. Pretty much every author who craves success will choose to create some kind of outline before they start writing. That’s got to tell you something.
Writing bestselling novels and high grossing screenplays is all about telling a great story. The latest Bond movie is admired because “It had me on the edge of my seat, how on earth did Bond manage to outwit SPECTRE?” and not because “I loved the scene where Bond and M talked about the nature of colonialism.” Story is everything. People don’t watch thrillers on Netflix because they like the costumes or read a crime & mystery novel because they’re a fan of descriptions.
Great stories sell. More importantly, they have the power to wash away other imperfections. Just look at the work of James Patterson, Tom Clancy, and Dan Brown. Not one of them would win a literary prize, but when it comes to enthralling readers and keeping them on the edge of their seats, these guys are faultless.
Why outline your novel?
There are two types of authors of commercial fiction. Those who know how to outline, and those who don’t. Writers who sit down to a blank page and try and make it up as they go along are called ‘pantsers’, not because their fiction is ‘pants’, but because they write ‘by the seat of their pants’. Believe me, this makes it sound more exciting than it is.
The main advantages of outlining are:The ability to see the overall story: does it work? If not, you can easily change it without having to throw away tons of writing.
Knowing exactly what you’re going to write speeds up the writing process and makes it more enjoyable.
If you research during the outlining process, it means you’re not wasting writing time.
Writing an outline gives you a clearer idea of the overall story, and so helps keep you focussed.
Why I believe in outlining
I’ve ghostwritten quite a few thrillers and detective stories in my time, and even more erotica. I’ve always worked from an outline. Usually the ‘author’ — that’s the person whose name will appear on the finished work, not the person who’s actually doing the writing — will have some kind of outline already formulated. It can be as simple as:
Danny McTavish is a private detective working in the Gorbals area of Glasgow, Scotland. He is an ex-policeman in his mid-forties, divorced and alcoholic. He is unsuccessful and is on the verge of giving up. Danny’s motivation is that he is desperate to be allowed to see his children, who have moved with their mother to Australia. Danny is offered a simple case that leads to him being framed for murder. Against all the odds, Danny proves his innocence, finds the real killers and uncovers a plot to blow up The Houses of Parliament in London. Danny may have succeeded but he does not get to share the glory. At the end of the novel, he is no closer to seeing his children.
It’s then up to the ghostwriter to fill in the gaps and write a detailed outline for the ‘author’ and the publisher to approve.
More About Ghostwriting
I’m told the more usual way it happens is for the ghostwriter to be presented with a complete and detailed outline. This will often be in the form of chapters. The outline for a single chapter may read something like this:
Chapter 22: Danny awakes to find himself smelling of whisky and urine, in a strange room. Hung-over and barely able to function, he is lying on the floor, fully dressed. The sun is shining in through boarded-up windows. He realises he is in a derelict building, and it is some time in the morning. A male voice says, “So, you’re back with us, eh?” It is Dominic, leader of the Business Centre gang. They have a conversation that reveals that Dominic is looking for information about Sam. Danny realises the gang know nothing of Tracy’s involvement. After their conversation, Dominic leaves Danny with a warning not to interfere with the gang’s plans. Danny goes back to sleep.
That’s how James Patterson does it.
How James Patterson writes a novel
Although he doesn’t work with ghostwriters as such, Patterson co-writes most of his novels with people who are really credited ‘ghosters’. I signed on for the James Patterson Masterclass to get some ideas for a series of novels I was thinking of writing. After all, he is the biggest-selling author in the world today and his books, co-written and otherwise, sell in their squillions. Although I couldn’t claim to be a major fan, I’d read a couple of the early Alex Cross novels and enjoyed them. I like his short snappy chapters, and I liked the way he adds twists and turns to keep the reader guessing.
The Honeymoon Period…
Patterson is a big fan of outlining. He says the biggest mistake new authors make is not using one. During the Masterclass, you’re given his own outline to Honeymoon (written with Howard Roughan) to look at. Here’s a typical chapter:
On a Friday at dusk, a Lincoln Town Car pulls into Gordon’s Belgium block driveway. The hired driver steps out to open the door for Nora but it’s Gordon who gets there first. He’s that anxious to see her. And by the way Nora jumps into his arms and straddles him with her legs, the feeling would appear to be mutual. As the driver shakes his head and grabs Nora’s luggage from the trunk, the two lovebirds are all over each other. “You’re insatiable,” Gordon says. “And aren’t you the lucky one,” retorts Nora.
You’ll notice that Patterson advocates writing the chapter outline in almost the same way he’d write the finished novel. He even adds notes to himself, such as for chapter seventy-seven:
The suspense doesn’t let up. O’Hara looks around outside the cabin. Her car is gone. Then the police arrive. O’Hara’s cell phone rings. “You fucked with the wrong girl, O’Hara! Now I’m going to hurt you where you live . . . for real. Can you say New Canaan?”
During the Masterclass, James comes across as a nice guy, and very open about how he works. If I saw him on the street, I’d be tempted to rush over and say, ‘Hi,’ even though I know he doesn’t know me from Adam.
Reading To Learn
I picked up an armful of his more recent novels (he’s very prolific, especially now that he only works with co-writers), and started to read them, looking for guidance on straight-ahead plotting. It pains me to admit this, but I was amazed by how awful they were.
You’ll probably say I have a cheek criticizing the biggest-selling author in the world, and I probably have. Even so, I genuinely couldn’t read Step on a Crack without grimacing, which can get you some very odd looks when you’re reading it on a train.
The main character of Step on a Crack is a New York detective who, for reasons known only to himself and to the authors, has adopted ten (deliberately cute) children. Christmas is fast approaching, his wife is dying of cancer, and Michael Bennett s put in charge of a major hostage situation at St Patrick’s Cathedral. The action alternates between the schmaltzy wife dying/ cute kids set-up, and the brutal actions of the hostage-takers.
James Patterson’s Big Secret: How To Outline A Bestseller
Using Step on a Crack as an example, I could see how James Patterson (and co-author Michael Ledwidge) set about constructing the story. In the Masterclass, he revealed he starts off by setting the scene, introducing the central plot point before asking himself, ‘What could happen here?’ As you’d expect, he piles on the pressure (conflict!) and the twists and turns in the plot are mostly unique.
All the way through, he repeatedly asks himself, “What’s the worst thing that could happen here?” All well and good, I thought, but I had a nagging feeling that something was missing…
Patterson revealed the answer almost in passing. At one point, he said he worked out who his reader was going to be and he wrote for them. Straight afterwards, he casually mentions that most of his books are bought by women. Although taking up less than a minute of the entire Masterclass that, for me, was the big Eureka! moment.
In Step on a Crack, you can tell the novel was written for a certain type of woman reader. I’d guess, someone aged between 35 and 65, who maybe likes to read a lot of Romances and Mysteries. When Patterson was plotting this book, I’ll bet he was writing for his target woman, so let’s call her Madge.
He was asking himself, “Would Madge want Michael’s wife to die or be miraculously cured?” “Would Madge prefer it if Michael’s humanity be punished or rewarded?” And so on…
Obviously, there’s more than to plotting a bestseller, James Patterson-style, than imagining what a Madge (or a Jeffrey, or even a Scarlet) would expect and like, but it’s a good place to start. You can adapt it to fit any commercial author. Who was Tom Clancy writing for? Ken Follett? Dan Brown? JK Rowling? James Elroy?
How I Outline
My newfound interest in outlining arrived when I came to plan a mystery series of my own. It’ll be centred around a medical detective called Dr Lucian Gentle and his assistant, Professor Harold Wise. Their first outing will be a trilogy of linked novels, which I’m intending to publish myself on Amazon Kindle. I’m expecting each book to be around 80,000 words, containing a standalone mystery as well as a continuing plot concerning events from Gentle’s past that will progress through each book, before being solved/explained in the final volume.
I’ve spent time inventing and developing my central characters and I’ve worked out three individual mysteries I think will baffle the reader, as well as the bigger puzzle. Working on a complicated plot means you have to think differently. My poor little brain couldn’t cope, especially with all the other things I’ve got on the go.
Look at the photograph at the top of this page showing Norman Mailer’s outline for Harlot’s Ghost. Similarly, the example (right) is what Joseph Heller used to write Catch 22. This proves outlining is a very complicated business. Before you end up with James Patterson’s neat chapter by chapter outline, there’s a lot of working out and timeline planning to do.
How James Patterson Helped Me
To help me work out how best to create a workable outline for my Lucian Gentle books, I decided to research the subject. What began as a weekend project has occupied me, off and on, for the best part of a year. Taking the James Patterson Masterclass was just one avenue. I decided to write a guide to Outlining Fiction, to share what I’ve discovered. It’s fair to say that the methods I use have radically altered.
Outlining for Fiction is a subject worthy of an entire book, so there’s only room here for a very basic overview. The first step in the process is to break down what story you already have. For most people, this will be a basic idea: for example, a detective operating during World War II. That’s an idea, not a story. We need to put flesh on its bones.
I’ll stress at this point that I have no idea where this is going: I’m working out the options as I go along…
After you’ve got you When?, the next question to ask is, Where? There are plenty of places to choose from: likely candidates might include Berlin, Rome, Tokyo, Paris, London, Casablanca (sound familiar?), New York, Singapore, Jersey (under Nazi occupation), Cairo, neutral Lisbon or Geneva? For the sake of argument, let’s say Ramsgate in Kent. I chose this partly because I live there, and partly because it’s less than 30 miles from what was then Occupied France. Plenty of scope for spies and intrigue.
How a Mystery is Outlined
Mystery thrives on murder (fiction is always better when the stakes are high), so our detective will be assigned a seemingly straightforward homicide. It’s not straightforward, of course, but he doesn’t know that when he arrives at the murder scene. Before we start work on the characters, perhaps we should fix the time more precisely. Ramsgate was an exciting place to be just before the D-Day Landings, and Hitler would have considered sending in spies. Of course, no one outside of the top brass in the military and government would have been aware the invasion was imminent, and we can use that to our advantage.
We need to make our central characters believable and lifelike. We need to decide on a scenario the hero is presented with. Two German spies come ashore from a submarine and are taken to a house owned by a Nazi sympathizer in Ramsgate.
The murder victim could be a neighbour who heard German being spoken, or maybe a fisherman who saw the spies arrive? Perhaps even the sympathizer, who wasn’t quite as sympathetic as the Germans were expecting? In this scenario, I think it would help to make the spies sympathetic. Villains must always come in shades of grey and they have to be at least as accomplished as the hero. If the reader thinks it’s going to be a pushover for the detective, what’s the point in reading on?
You’ve got to tease out your story, adding embellishments as you go. As we’ve discussed, pick your target reader and ask yourself at every turn how you might be able to surprise them. Keep expanding on your original idea until you have enough to make a detailed chapter-by-chapter outline.
That, in a nutshell, is how to plot and outline a novel. There’s obviously more to it than that. For example, you’ve got to ask questions about how you’re going to structure your story. In this case, it might be fun to alternate chapters between the detective’s viewpoint and that of the spies. List the questions that are raised in the course of the outline (eg, Who murdered the fisherman and why? Why did the vicar leave the church door open? How did the spies know it was Inspector Wells who was knocking on the door?), and make sure you answer them.
I’ve finally finished my Outlining/Plotting ebook. Outline Your Books Or Die! (not at all over the top) is available exclusively available for Kindle at Amazon. I aim to add a print version soon, but that’s still in the pipeline, and I wanted to get my system working 100% before I published. Finally, I managed to get it right!
To be honest, what I’ve been learning has helped me improve plotting my own stories immeasurably. Sign up to my email list and you’ll get my tips on how to outline, plus get the chance to buy all my books for a big discount.
Fiction consists of people doing and talking, often in broadly equal proportions. Screenplays, novels, and stage plays are stuffed with dialogue, and yet far too few authors spend any time trying to get it right. Knowing how to write dialogue is a key skill every author has to master.
My email box was starting to overflow with writers asking me about dialogue. The questions ranged from “Can I say things like ‘He said knowingly,’ or does that break Elmore Leonard’s Ten Rules of Writing?” to “How many lines can I go without adding a tag to say who’s speaking?” In the end, I decided to write a book about it. I’m adding the finishing touches to How To Write Dialogue That Sparkles when I’ve written this article.
Writing coaches say that good dialogue can sometimes save an otherwise badly-written novel. My time as a publisher and editor showed me that the opposite is more often the case. I’ve seen literally hundreds of manuscripts made unpublishable simply because of ineptly written or formatted dialogue. It’s a pity because the key to writing dialogue that sparkles can usually be taught quite easily.
Although it would be difficult to summarise the contents of my book in this short article, I’ll run through the basic information and include some useful tips I picked up along the way. I want this article to compliment How To Write Dialogue That Sparkles, not duplicate what’s in it.
Good dialogue is an enhanced version of real-life speech
When people talk in real life, they don’t make a lot of sense. People tend to repeat themselves, stutter, don’t finish sentences, and often use the wrong words. The human brain is hard-wired to ignore most of this extraneous stuff and feed us the gist of what people are saying. When we don’t understand what they mean, we say something like ‘pardon?’ or ‘what?’, which implies we didn’t hear the words. It usually means we didn’t understand them.
Unfortunately, the human brain doesn’t respond in the same way to fictional dialogue. Not only that, but readers and movie-watchers soon become bored if they’re fed stuff that strays off the point. That means writers are forced to write a hybrid form of speech called dialogue.
Make no mistake, no one talks like they do in movies or in novels. No one can ever be that perfect. Whereas people talking have to conjure up words on the spur of the moment, an author has time to work on the words and hone them down to a form of speech that works. That’s what we call good dialogue.
Here’s an example of what I mean. Very few humans could ever have a real-life exchange like this one, taken from the PG Wodehouse short story, Jeeves and the Impending Doom, published in 1926:
… Aching for sight of a friendly face, I gave tongue like a bloodhound.
He spun around; and, by Jove, his face wasn’t friendly after all. It was what they call contorted. He waved his arms at me like a semaphore.
“Sh!” he hissed. “Would you ruin me?”
“Did’ you get my telegram?”
“Was that your telegram?”
“Of course it was my telegram.”
“Then why didn’t you sign it?”
“I did sign it.”
“No, you didn’t. I couldn’t make out what it was all about.”
“Well, you got my letter.”
“I didn’t get any letter.”
“Then I must have forgotten to post it. It was to tell you I was down here tutoring your Cousin Thomas, and that it was essential that, when we met, you should treat me as a perfect stranger.”
“Because if your aunt supposed that I was a pal of yours, she would naturally sack me on the spot.”
Bingo raised his eyebrows.
“Why? Be reasonable, Bertie. If you were your aunt, and you knew the sort of chap you were, would you let a fellow you knew to be your best pal tutor your son?”
It’s just the kind of exchange two young upper class Englishmen might have in a country garden in the 1920s, but there’s not a word wasted. Even the repetition and misunderstanding you’d expect in a conversation has been artfully turned into humour. Your job as a writer is to turn dialogue into a conversation two people might have if they were clever enough.
Every verbal exchange has to impart information
There’s no room in fiction for chit-chat. Your reader will only take so much of it and then they’ll get bored and leave you forever. Every line of every novel – including people speaking – has to move the story forward in some way. It’s OK to have conversations to establish someone’s character or underlying motives, but you only need to do it once. Avoid repeating information, especially in dialogue, unless it’s something vitally important the reader might have forgotten.
The same goes for screenplays and theatrical fiction, only more so.
In case you didn’t already know it, here’s an example of bad dialogue:
“How are you, John?” Mary asked beseechingly.
“I can’t complain, Mary. You know how it is. I can’t expect miracles.” John rose to his feet and gazed across the English Channel towards the Continent. “I never know if Ramsgate faces France or Belgium.”
“It’s France, John. Broadstairs faces Belgium, but as you know, Ramsgate faces south and so the next country you’d arrive at by boat would be France.”
“Damn, it’s complicated, Mary,” John chuckled. “Still, Daddy went across the sea to France in 1914 and never came back.”
“Bad luck, John,” Mary sympathised.
A few more lines like that and there wouldn’t be a reader left. By contrast, here is an exchange of dialogue that sparkles. It’s taken from a much-neglected detective novel called The Last Good Kiss by James Crumley, published in 1988:
I finally used my dime to call Mrs Trahearne collect. As usual, she sounded distantly reluctant to accept the charges.
“Well,” I said more brightly than I meant to – I blamed it on the whiskey – “I finally ran the old devil to the ground.”
“Finally,” she said coldly. “In San Francisco?”
“No, ma’am,” I said. “In a great little beer joint outside of Sonoma.”
“Isn’t that quaint.” she murmured. “In what condition did you find him?”
“Drink,” I said, not specifying which of us.
“I assumed that, Mr Sughrue,” she said sharply. “What is his physical condition?”
“Yes, ma’am,” I stalled. “He’s fine, he’s all right, he should be out of the hospital in three or four days, and he’ll be as good as new.”
“It may seem presumptuous of me to ask,” she said smoothly, “but if he is in such wonderful shape, why then is he in the hospital?”
“It’s a long story,” I said.
“Isn’t it always?” she said.
“Well, he had a little accident.”
“He fell off a barstool and strained his back,” I said quickly.
“How absolutely delightful,” she said. “Perhaps that will teach him a much-needed lesson.” Then she laughed, deep and elegant, like the rich susurruses of a mink coat being casually dragged down a marble staircase. “But nothing serious I hope.”
“A minor strain.”
By the way, susurruses are whispers.
In the examples I’ve quoted, there is never any doubt as to who is speaking at any one time. It’s not something you even notice until things go wrong. I’m always surprised at how often even experienced writers make me go back and retrace my steps to see who’s saying what. This is just bad writing.
There are various ways to indicate who’s saying what, the most obvious being tags (he said, she said, Miss Moneypenny said, and so on), and beats (Jenkins lifted his head and spoke, I broke into his revelry, etc). It’s true that there’s a fine line between under-using tags and beats and over-using them. If in doubt, my advice would be to stick to ‘said’ and risk having too many rather than leave the reader confused. Another way to indicate speakers is by using the correct formatting and punctuation. There’s a lot explaining all that in my latest book, How To Write Dialogue That Sparkles. Click on the cover or this link to find out more.
The bestseller lists have always been dominated by tellers of good stories. From Dickens and Poe to Dan Brown and J.K. Rowling, nothing sells better than a book with a brilliant story. In fact, as the title of this article states: story is everything.
Truly great stories endure for thousands of years. The fairy tales of Cinderella, Aladin and Red Riding Hood have their roots in the spoken word of ancient cultures, going back to times before people could even read or write.
Look at television. The most-watched programmes on TV tend to be the ones with the best, most original stories: Homeland, Breaking Bad, Heroes, Lost, the soaps. People love to be taken out of their drab, everyday lives and propelled into worlds beyond their experience. The same goes for movies and, of course, novels.
Dan Brown is often derided for his writing skills, but it doesn’t matter: he has the gift of storytelling. Once you start one of his novels, be it The Da Vinci Code or Angels & Demons, you simply have to turn the page and find out what happens next. I agree that his style can be a little irritating and his use of adjectives slightly grating, but who cares? Dan Brown sells books.
It’s possible to create a really good novel or movie set in the most unlikelyÂ of settings. Provided you provide enough twists and turns, you can set it in a dark house, an underground cell, wherever… It doesn’t matter what the setting is – whether it’s Hollywood, Hawaii or the next street to where you live – the most important factor is the story.
And for a successful story, you need structure. You have to have a beginning, a middle and an end. You have to have a protagonist who experiences conflict when he strives to achieve his (or her) goal.
For more about story structure and plotting, check out my inexpensive Kindle eBook: Million Dollar Story
Many would-be writers attempt to copy a winning formula. Some get away with it, but everyone involved from their publisher to their readers and even themselves know they are following rather than leading. There’s an old publishing saying: Originality Sells.
They also miss the point. To write a blockbuster, a true bestseller, it helps to be original. Though maybe not totally original.
Before Joanne Rowling wrote the first Harry Potter book, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, there was no tradition of books about schoolboy wizards. If there had been, her efforts would almost certainly have been lost in the crowd.
J.K. Rowling didn’t invent stories about wizards and she didn’t invent stories set in public schools, as we call “private” fee-paying schools in the UK. What she did was to combine the two into a situation that offered a wealth of dramatic possibilities. The result was a series of fantastically successful stories about a schoolboy wizard called Harry Potter and his friends.
Needless to say, there have been dozens and dozen of books published since then trying to emulate J.K. Rowling’s success, but very few, if any, of them have made their authors millionaires.
Dan Brown didn’t so much invent the genre of “code mysteries” as resurrect it and give it new life. Back in 2003, the thriller genre was in decline. Stale novels containing serial characters who had run out of plots and the demise of the Soviet Union combined to deflate the genre. The Da Vinci Code woke everyone up with its great story, full of original aspects.
As a reviewer, I’ve lost track of the dozens of copycat novels that have plopped onto my mat since then. One even managed to top the New York Times bestseller lists. But the bottom line is that none of these clones made the impact or gave their authors the money that Dan Brown has earned from his original idea.
To make it really big, you’ve got to be original first.
Having said that, plenty of authors have used successful novels to guide them into giving readers what they know they want. For example, it’s OK to look at books that are already selling and see how they are constructed and built. This isn’t what they teach at Creative Writing class, but it’s a formula that works.
For instance, there may be a reason why novels in which Aliens solve murder cases have not troubled the bestseller lists. Or it may be that no one has thought of writing it.For more help writing your novel, check out my new eBook, click here
Although your novel must have a great story for it to succeed, it also needs to be populated by believable, flesh-and-blood, characters. When writing fiction, most established authors will tell you that their characters come first.
Here’s a real review from Amazon (I’ll spare the author’s blushes by not identifying the book in question) that’s typical of many on there:
Part of the blurb called it “unpretentious writing”, but it would be better to call it uninspired. I don’t think we’re witnessing the start of a stellar career: no cliché goes unused, and it’s the same with stereotype characters.
I wanted to like this book – I like a period setting for crime novels, but for me the skill level just wasn’t there, and life’s too short to read so-so books.
If the author had spent more time working on his characters, then I’ll bet that would never have been so negative. Readers can forgive many failings in novels, including “no cliché going unturned”, but never cardboard or stereotypical characters. If the reader doesn’t care about and relate to the people in the book — especially the protagonist and the antagonist (a.k.a. hero and villain) — then all is lost.
Three Simple Steps to Generate “Real” Characters
Step One: take a long, hard look at your story and decide exactly what characters you will need. Just the main guys, donâ€™t worry about minor roles at this stage. Jot down the absolute basic information about who they are and what their roles are: protagonist, antagonist, protagonist’s friend, protagonist’s boss at work, and so on. You can give them names (though remember that nothing is written in stone at this stage and everything can be changed and improved on before you start to write) or you can leave naming them until after step two.
Step Two: build up your characters into flesh and blood— metaphorically speaking. Think about their part in the story, and slowly build up a picture of each character. Decide their sex. Their age. Think about their habits, what quirky mannerisms they might have. What do they look like?
Once you have a broad framework of their physical aspects, move on to decide what motivates each character. What their past is. Write a mini biography for them. Think about how will they change during the course of your novel.
Remember: everything you write at this stage can be changed as you work on the other characters and begin to plot your story. If any character starts looking like or behaving like any other character you have seen in fiction or in the movies, change it. These are your characters, not someone else’s. Be original.
Step Three: interview your characters. Yes, pretend you are a radio or TV interviewer and ask your character a series of questions to find out who they are. Write down the questions and the answers. Imagine what their voices sound likes. If any questions do not receive satisfactory or unlikely answers, change the biography accordingly.
At the end of the process, you should have a set of believable, flesh and blood characters. And, even more important, you will know enough about them and what makes them tick, to be able to write your story.
Here’s another useful hint: if, during the writing process, you run into a problem or a block concerning one or more of your characters, interview them again. Find out what they think. You might be surprised at the results.