Posted in Tips for Young Writers

Seeing What’s Important, Not What’s There

This morning I walked the kids to school and then kept walking up to the cafe at the local supermarket, with the idea that I would get a mocha and drink it as I walked home. Somewhere between the school and the cafe, the $50 note that I had stuffed in my jeans pocket (because, I didn’t want to carry my purse with me) fell out. When I got to the counter, I put my hand in my pocket and ta-da, it have vanished.

Why am I telling you this? Well, firstly because it’s really given me the irrits and I want to share that with you, but mainly (and most importantly) because it’s a great example of how we – and therefore so should our characters – focus on what’s important to us in the moment, not on everything that’s around us.

My walk up to the cafe was lovely. I noticed the grass, and the sky, the clouds rolling over which made me think about how it’s meant to rain this afternoon. I smiled at mums walking home from the school with toddlers and preschoolers. The walk home was different. I noticed every leaf and piece of rubbish that caught the light and could, at a distance, be mistaken for a shiny plastic note. I looked intently at corners and fences where a note, picked up by the wind, might have lodged.

None of us can take in all the visual information around us. If we did, how would there be room to think about, or do, anything else?

Instead, we take in what’s most important to us at the time. And that’s as true for our characters as it is for us. Let’s say your protagonist’s crush walks into the room with his/her best friend in tow. Chances are, all your character’s focus is going to be on that one person. They’re not going to notice what the best friend is wearing, or if they do it won’t be until they’ve taken every aspect of their crush. Hell, I know the guy I had a crush on in school had freckles on his ear-lobes, like little brown studs. Who else do you think noticed that?

Now, let’s say their crush walks in with an attractive stranger or their girlfriend/boyfriend. Your protagonist will definitely take note of that, won’t they? Maybe even before anything else. This person is a threat. A direct obstacle between them and the person they want to be with. They might never act to get rid of this threat, but they’ll still recognise it.

The point is, while you might want to describe how the clouds are wafting across the sky, or the meticulous detail on the birthday cake that’s being rolled out, you need to consider if that is actually what your character cares about in the moment. Because, if it’s not, your wasting your readers time, and a valuable chance to give insight into your character.

Just so you know, I’m still $50 down.

Posted in Tips for Young Writers

Improve Your Dialogue Writing

Eaves dropping is rude. That’s what my mum taught me. But I do it all the time and, if you’re a writer, so should you.

I’m not saying this just to justify my own behaviour. Whenever you have more than one character in a story, you’re most likely going to have dialogue, and you want that dialogue to sound as natural as possible. In order to do that, you need to know how people speak.

Most of us speak with other people regularly. Our friends, family members, people we meet in the street or at the shops, but when we’re doing this, we’re thinking about the topic of conversation, not the way in which we’re speaking. That’s why listening to others speak is important for improving your dialogue writing.

What Should You Be Listening For?

  • Language choices: I guarantee that your mum speaks to her friends differently to how she speaks to you. And, that you speak differently to your friends to how you speak to your mum. Whether we’re conscious of it or not, we make different language choices depending on who we’re speaking to, the situation we’re in, whether we’re drunk or sober (and thus our inhibitions are different) and what our emotional state is. Listen for these language choices next time you’re ‘listening in’.
  • Slang and Colloquialisms: Slang refers to language used by certain groups of people – teenagers, soldiers, nurses, people within the LGBTQI community. Colloquialisms refers to informal language, which may include slang, that most (if not all) native speakers from a particular country or area know. For example, ‘lit’ is teenage slang, ‘duffer’ is an Australian colloquialism for a someone who’s a bit of an idiot. By listening to the slang and/or colloquialisms someone uses, you can find out a lot about their age, profession and where they’re from. If they sound awkward when saying it (like I would saying something is ‘lit’) this might give you another clue about their personality.
  • Space fillers: We pepper our speech with lots of ‘um’, ‘ah’, ‘like’, ‘so’. It gives us time to think. In this case you’re listening for things not to include in written dialogue. Written speech should sound natural, not be an exact replica of real-life speech, because adding in all those space fillers would just slow the pace and make reading the dialogue a grind. Used strategically, these space fillers can work well but don’t feel you should include them in every place a person might actually say them.

These are just some of the basics of speech to keep in mind. Start here, and see how you go. When you’ve got a moment to yourself, make a point of listening to how people speak. Just, don’t get caught.