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Monday, May 11, 2015

"All together now": Using friends and family to hear how your story sounds

Just how great is that sequence of dialogue that you just wrote? It's a frantic, dramatic scene in which two of your major characters reach their boiling points with one another. There's yelling, screaming, a bit of crying, and that was just you trying to get out the right words. But are they the right words?

Your friends and family are your biggest fans of your writing. If you're like me, your mother has no doubt said this to you on at least a few occasions, "You are so talented! I can't imagine why the whole world wouldn't want to read your writing!" After stopping yourself from chastising your mom for using a double negative, you sit and ponder her poorly constructed words of praise. "Mom's right," you say. "I should be a best-selling author."

There is, however, one small issue. You see, even though those closest to us love us unconditionally, they are not publishers. Or literary agents. Your sister in Des Moines and your bff in Vegas are not key holders to the mythical kingdom that is "Paid Writing." So, while their intentions are good, their compliments do nothing in the way of furthering your professional career as an author. It is nice to hear how awesome you are every once in a while, though.

But if words of praise do nothing for your story other than boost your self-esteem, there is a way that grandma and aunt Clotilda can still help you. They can be your voice actors!

You see, fictional dialogue has to flow naturally. It has to seem organic and realistic. When two lovers reconcile on a bridge under a starry sky, the words they say to each other need to sound like something two people would say in real life. If it's forced or cheesy, your readers will be able to tell.

In my novel, I Will Follow, the characters find themselves in several overwhelming situations where what they say to each other truly defines who they are as human beings. Remember, readers cannot see the facial expressions on the people who live in the world you've created. The only way they can gauge if the person speaking is genuine or not is by how they say what they say.


She leaned in as they danced slowly across the marble floor. Gazing up into his eyes, she let a coy smile play at the corners of her mouth. After five long years, she could finally reveal to him how she truly felt.

"I like you. I like you a whole lot. When I see you, I know how much I like you. Which is a lot."

Not exactly something publishers are going to be racing to print, is it? Granted, that's a humorous exaggeration (I hope), but the point is, you can paint the most exquisite setting for your characters and destroy the whole image with stilted dialogue.

So how do we find out if what the people who live in our head are saying is presentable or not? You have people read the words aloud. Invite your friends over for a reading of your novel, and assign everyone a character as you narrate the action. By doing so, you will hear where your interactions fall flat, and where it is really working. I have heard stories where writers had people read their work and the actors had to stop for a moment as they became so choked with emotion at what they were speaking.

That's how you know you've got a winner.

Until next time, keep your keyboards warm.


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