Ashley Lister

by Ashley Lister

Whenever we’re asked the question ‘Where do you get your ideas from?’ a lot of us puzzle over our response. To most of the writers I know ideas aren’t the problem: finding the time to commit those ideas to paper is the real problem.

However, I’m aware that some people do search for inspiration and I’m hoping the following list of 13 questions might prove to be a useful resource to inspire ideas.

I found this list maybe a decade ago on the internet, and have chopped it and changed it to suit purposes in classes over the years. I no know where the list came from but I’m grateful to the original author for them sharing it online.

a) Do you believe honesty is the best policy?
b) List 5 people you know. Then describe each of them in 5 words.
c) If you could have anyone locked in a room so that you could torment them for a day, whom would you choose, and how would you torment them?
d) Would you be willing to have horrible nightmares every night for a year if you would be rewarded with extraordinary wealth?
e) Would you enjoy spending a month of solitude in a beautiful natural setting? Food and shelter would be provided but you would not see another person.
f) If you could have one superpower, which would you choose?
g) Which of the four seasons do you most anticipate?
h) Would you be willing to become extremely ugly physically if it meant you would live for 1,000 years at any physical age you chose?
i) Who would you most like to be stuck in an elevator with? Least like?
j) You can select one person from history and ask them a question to which they must give a truthful reply. Whom would you select, and what question would you ask?
k) If you could bring one character to life from your favourite book, who would it be?
l) Would you be willing to commit perjury in court for a close friend? What if your lie would save his life?
m) What dead person would you least want to be haunted by?

With the above list, don’t simply answer yes, no, or insert the name of your least favourite politician where appropriate. Give each one a little thought and see if the answer doesn’t provide the kernel of an idea.

By Ashley Lister

It’s a common mantra within the writing community that we don’t write: we rewrite.

This investment in revision is supported by Hemingway who is meant to have said, “The first draft of everything is shit.” Of course, Hemingway died in 1961 so he never got a chance to read any of my first drafts, which are far from shit, but I understand a lot of people put credence in Hemingway so I won’t dismiss his opinions here.
The need to rewrite is important. Few first drafts reach the giddy heights of what we wanted to do with our work and revision helps us to achieve our goals by producing a more accessible text. However, rather than look at Hemingway’s reductive (and scatological) observations, I find more value in considering George Orwell’s guidance from his essay ‘Politics and the English Language’.

The essay itself is available on the internet and remains relevant and readable, even though it was written more than 70 years ago. It includes many valuable nuggets of wisdom and concludes with six rules that, for writers, are well worth living by. I’ve reiterated them here and I’m going to go through them in a little more detail below.

1.Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.

2.Never use a long word where a short one will do.

3.If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.

4.Never use the passive where you can use the active.

5.Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.

6.Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

*

1.Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.

This makes perfect sense as an editing rule. Readers don’t want to be revisiting tired phrases such as ‘she was as pretty as a picture’ or ‘he was working like a dog’. These are phrases with which we are so familiar that we don’t bother considering their content and simply come away from them think ‘she’s pretty’ and ‘he’s hard working’. Victor Shklovsky, in his essay ‘Art as Technique’, discussed the notion of defamiliarisation, suggesting that our readers can see things more clearly when they’re given an original description. Consequently, if we use alternative phrases such as ‘she’s as attractive as a tax refund’ or ‘he’s concentrating harder than a bomb disposal technician with shaky hands’, then our readers are seeing the world from a fresh perspective.

2.Never use a long word where a short one will do.

In an episode of Friends, Joey Tribbiani uses a thesaurus to help him write a recommendation letter for Chandler and Monica. His original phrase, that the couple are “warm, nice, people with big hearts”, has been translated into “they are humid prepossessing Homo Sapiens with full sized aortic pumps.”

This is a perfect example of why our personal vocabulary is usually sufficient for the task of writing, and a cautionary tale about the potential dangers of using a thesaurus to simply make our phrasing look cleverer. As the old joke says: if you use long words without being absolutely sure of what they mean, there’s a danger you might look photosynthesis.

3.If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.

Words like really and very are useless modifiers. You should be able to find stronger verbs or adjectives for whatever you’re trying to enhance.

Similarly, words like totally, completely, absolutely and literally are words that don’t add information to a sentence. For example, “The shelf was completely full of books.” reads the same as, “The shelf was full of books.” or better yet, “The shelf was crammed with books.”

4.Never use the passive where you can use the active.

Passive sentences aren’t incorrect; it’s just that they often aren’t the best way to phrase your thoughts. Sometimes passive voice is awkward and other times it’s vague. Also, passive voice is usually wordy, so you can tighten your writing if you replace passive sentences with active sentence.

5.Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.

This is not Orwell saying that foreign phrases, scientific words or jargon are verboten or non licet. It’s simply his observation that the complexity of these words can sometimes be a barrier to clarity. I’d argue that some foreign phrases, scientific words and jargon need to be used: but this is only in cases where there isn’t an English equivalent that has the specificity of meaning I require. Other than that, I try to place a moratorium on vocabulary that might drag readers from the narrative I’m sharing.

6.Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

As I said at the start of this blog, we don’t write: we rewrite. Personally I find Orwell’s rules are a useful tool to help me when I’m rewriting. I sincerely hope they might be of use to you if you’ve read this far.

By Ashley Lister

Without wishing to sound like a neurotic writer, constantly begging for acceptance and validation, I think the question at the top of this blog post is one that we often ask ourselves: is it good enough?

I’m not talking about the worries we all have over our creativity. We have an idea for a novel or story. We love the idea. But then we begin to worry that it’s been done before. Invariably, because the nature of story gets the comparable from the parable, we realise our idea is similar to something else. And a lot of writers step away from the good idea at that point, bleakly confident that there is no place in the world for their slant on creativity.

These sorts of doubts are commonplace and are a typical part of the insecure writer’s toolkit. Originality is an abstract concept. Even if we’re so original we write an erotic story that describes a new and previously unchartered method of sexual congress, there will be readers out there who dismiss our genius as, “a horny story about a couple getting it on.”

Here I’m talking about the worries we have once we’ve produced a piece of fiction. Is it good enough for the marketplace? Is it good enough to be worth troubling an editor? Is it good enough to meet the needs of a readership?

Unlike those forms we can complete online, which tell us that we’re 58% of the way through the content, and there are only 212 questions left, there are no convenient guides that tell us when a story is ready for its audience. Because of the solipsistic nature of writing it’s common that the only person who knows when a story is ready is the person who wrote it. And a lot of us have barely convinced ourselves we’re capable of writing a story, let alone understanding when it’s ready to be published.

So, I thought it would be helpful to mention some of the tell-tale signs which let us know a story is ready for publication.

1. This is probably the most important one: are you happy with what you’ve written? You finished your story a fortnight ago. You’ve allowed a little distance between yourself and the text you produced. Now, returning to the story with fresh eyes, you’ve had a chance to read it and answer this question: are you happy with what you’ve written?
This is the point where you should be making sure it tells the story you wanted to tell. The characters are the characters you wanted to see in this story, and the whole piece has the cohesive feel you envisioned when the idea first struck.

2. Does this story do what was asked for in the Call for Submissions (CfS)? If you’re writing for a CfS, or to the remit of an editor or publisher, does the story you’ve produced do what they wanted? Is the word count correct? Does the vocabulary match other titles from this publishing house? Or, for example, if the story asked for steampunk themed stories, is your story sufficiently steampunk, or does that content need to be developed in the edit? If the story was for an anthology of lesbian vampire stories, are the main characters in your narrative lesbian? Is there some suggestion of vampirism?
I’m not suggesting any of us make these latter sorts of mistake regularly, but I do know editors who have received futuristic science-fiction stories when they’ve been asking for Victoriana, so I believe it’s always a point worth making.

3. How close is the deadline? I’m not saying this to be brutal or callous but, if you’ve been working on this story for the past six months, and the deadline is midnight tonight, the thing is ready to send. Stick it to an email and dump it in the editor’s inbox.

4. What do your beta-readers think? No man is an island (except for the Isle of Man) and a second set of eyes is always useful to appraise the manuscript we’re producing. If you’ve had a beta-reader or two go over your story, and they’ve given a green light, it’s time to hit send.

The French essayist, Paul Valéry, said, “A poem is never finished only abandoned.” This is a helpful way of avoiding responsibility for any of the poems we’ve ever written, but it’s an unhelpful approach to gauging whether or not our material is ready for the marketplace.

I sincerely believe, if a writer considers his or her responses to the four questions above, they’ll be a step closer to knowing whether or not now is the correct time to publish. And, if you have any other ideas for how we can tell when a manuscript is ready, I’d love to see them in the comments box below.

Ash

Inspiration

by | Feb 6, 2019 | 1 comment

By Ashley Lister

A colleague got in touch with me the other day. He was sitting in front of a blank sheet, waiting for inspiration, and he wanted my advice: “I’m blocked,” he explained. “What should I do?”

My response was immediate: “Write a haiku.”

When it comes to physical exercise, we’re all sufficiently savvy to know that it’s sensible to warm up before running or pumping iron. If you start to run without having stretched your body into an appropriate state of limberness, then you court the danger of serious physical injury. If you start lifting weights without having stretched, then you could easily strain a muscle or tear something important.

And yet, when it comes to writing, a form of psychological exercise than can be as draining as a marathon and as challenging as any weightlifting competition, the idea of warming up with a brief exercise is invariably dismissed.

I know I’ve mentioned haiku on here before, but I do think the simplicity of the form is impressive. More importantly, I think the discipline that comes from writing a haiku, forcing oneself to focus on a clarity of image and a rigidity of syllabic expression, helps each of us to enter that special zone of focus that is needed for writing.

It’s a form of exercise that I try to use before each writing session. The concept is relatively simple. I need to write a single haiku before I can begin. This means I need to compose a three line poem where the first line contains five syllables, the second line contains seven syllables, and the final line contains five syllables.

Obviously there are variations on the haiku form, and there’s the distinction between a haiku and senryu that I tend not to worry about, but I stick with the traditional form because it best suits my needs.

This was a whimsical one I wrote the other morning:

I’m worried because
One of my balls is larger
Than the other two

It’s nothing special. But the syllable counting and making this quip in a specifically concise manner, was enough to get my mind into my personal zone of creativity.

My colleague got back to me. He’d written a haiku and then managed to get a few more pages down on his current WIP.

by Ashley Lister

Happy New Year everyone. I hope 2019 brings you all that you deserve, and may your happiness and pleasure be enviable.

Last month I wrote about the importance of description and the lovely Lisabet Sarai was sufficiently sagacious to remind me that it’s a common error in new writers to include too much description. Consequently, I thought that this month we could look at balance in writing and description.

Before we begin, I’d seriously recommend watching this video from the hilarious Weird Al.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SHnTocdD7sk

I think this song illustrates how easy it is to overwrite any piece of fiction. Weird Al is parodying ‘Trapped in the Closet’ and is doing it with his usual panache and style. In one scene, when the couple have decided to go out for a meal, we’re treated to the following lines:

“We head out of the front door.
Open the garage door.
Then I open the car door.
And we get in those car doors.
Put my key in the ignition.
And then I turn it sideways.
Then we fasten our seatbelts…”

This is funny because it’s so much unnecessary detail: far more detail than any audience would ever want. However, if this was in a piece of fiction, we wouldn’t be enjoying it. Rather than feeling as though they were immersed in the physicality of the situation, our reader would simply become bored with the iteration of dull minutiae. And the golden rule of all fiction is: never bore the reader.

So, how does this apply to description? Well, frustratingly, description can sometimes be the dullest part of a piece of fiction. Below is my least favourite piece of description in all of literature:

 

One step brought us into the family sitting-room, without any introductory lobby or passage: they call it here ‘the house’ pre-eminently. It includes kitchen and parlour, generally; but I believe at Wuthering Heights the kitchen is forced to retreat altogether into another quarter: at least I distinguished a chatter of tongues, and a clatter of culinary utensils, deep within; and I observed no signs of roasting, boiling, or baking, about the huge fireplace; nor any glitter of copper saucepans and tin cullenders on the walls. One end, indeed, reflected splendidly both light and heat from ranks of immense pewter dishes, interspersed with silver jugs and tankards, towering row after row, on a vast oak dresser, to the very roof. The latter had never been under-drawn: its entire anatomy lay bare to an inquiring eye, except where a frame of wood laden with oatcakes and clusters of legs of beef, mutton, and ham, concealed it. Above the chimney were sundry villainous old guns, and a couple of horse-pistols: and, by way of ornament, three gaudily-painted canisters disposed along its ledge. The floor was of smooth, white stone; the chairs, high-backed, primitive structures, painted green: one or two heavy black ones lurking in the shade. In an arch under the dresser reposed a huge, liver-coloured bitch pointer, surrounded by a swarm of squealing puppies; and other dogs haunted other recesses.

Wuthering Heights, Emily Brontë

As a piece of description, I think this is effective and I can’t fault Brontë for the detail of her description. I can clearly picture the villainous old guns and the liver-coloured pointer. But I think this also slows down the pace of the story and, speaking personally, I think there is a strong danger of the reader becoming bored. The description is static – nothing is moving and nothing seems to be happening other than the narrator standing in the doorway and taking a mental inventory of what he can see.

By contrast, this is how I started a piece of description on a short story:

 

The parlour was quiet enough so Victoria could hear the tick of the Grandfather from the hall outside. Stark spring sunlight filtered through the net curtains to illuminate the elegant furnishings. The family’s finest bone china was laid out on a lily-white tablecloth. The afternoon tea was completed with freshly baked French fancies. Sitting comfortably in one of the parlour’s high-backed chairs, Victoria placed one lace-gloved hand over the other, adjusted her voluminous skirts, and stared down at Algernon as he knelt before her.

She knew what was coming.

She had anticipated this day for months.

Before he started to speak, she knew what he was going to say.

It was the first time they had ever been together without a chaperone. Unless he had come to the house with this specific purpose her parents would not have allowed her to spend any time alone with a suitor. The idea of her being alone with a man was simply too scandalous for civilised society to contemplate.

“Victoria, my dearest,” he began.

There was a tremor of doubt in his voice. Victoria liked that. It suggested he wasn’t entirely certain that she would say yes. His bushy moustache bristled with obvious apprehension. His Adam’s apple quivered nervously above his small, tied cravat. His large dark eyes stared up at her with blatant admiration. He looked as though his entire future happiness rested on her response to this single question.

 

Here, what I’ve tried to do is make the description dynamic rather than just being static. We hear the sound of the clock. The sunlight is filtering through net curtains and Victoria is adjusting her voluminous skirts. I’ve also tried to use description to help build the narrative tension. So, in the final paragraph, when the reader is wondering what Algernon is going to ask, and how Victoria is going to respond, I’m drawing out the moment by describing Algernon’s appearance, from his bristling bushy moustache to his quivering Adam’s apple.

Description allows us to inhabit the world the writer has created, but there is a time and a place for it. Too much unnecessary detail leads down the road of the Wonderful Weird Al song. Description that is static slows down the pace of a story. Keep your description dynamic, and have it work to keep your reader interested.

Ash

Description

by | Dec 6, 2018 | 2 comments

by Ashley Lister

One of my favourite writing exercises comes from Jose Silva and Philip Miele, reiterated in Julia Casterton’s Creative Writing, a practical guide.

It goes:

Close your eyes and sit quietly.
Bring into your inner field of vision – a lemon.
Examine it closely.
It is porous, with a little green dot in the middle of each pore.
Feel the knobbly cool surface.
Imagine a knife.
You are slicing the lemon in half.
You raise one half to your mouth and sink your teeth into it.
What has happened?

 

Casterton bets that anyone reading the description, and investing in the content, will find their salivary glands pumping at the stimulus of the description. Personally, I think she’s right because, even though I’ve shared this exercise with dozens of classrooms, it continues to make me drool in response to that fictional acidic rush of citrus juice.

And this is what we should be aiming to do with each aspect of description in our fiction. Description should be an immersion for the reader into the physicality of the storyworld. If a character is wielding a whip, we want our readers to flinch from each snap that it makes. If a character is enjoying a sensual massage, we want our readers to shiver with the tactile frisson of skin touching skin.

Description is where the magic happens in writing and it’s a skill that can best be developed through practice. As writers, we’re involved in a contract with the reader where we’re supposed to facilitate their suspension of disbelief. This is greatly helped when we present them with a world that seems so real they can experience it through their physical senses. And we achieve this by using exactly the right words with specificity, detail and sound symbolism.

Specificity: don’t tell your reader there are yellow flowers at the side of the road.  Describe them as daffodils or dandelions or buttercups. It’s not a fast red car: it’s a scarlet Ferrari. It’s not a jaunty nineties pop song: it’s Britney singing, ‘Hit Me Baby One More Time.’ Notice how, in each of these examples, it’s easier to see or hear the more specific description.

Detail: in the example at the top of this page, we are shown the little green dot in the middle of each pore. I had never noticed this feature until I read the description and now I see it on every lemon I encounter. If you’re describing buttercups, tell your reader about the silky sheen on the inside of each petal; talk about the way the petals sit awkwardly together; or mention the icing-sugar dusting of pollen that coats the stamen in the centre of the flower.

Sound Symbolism: I was once engaged in a discussion with a publisher about which word was most appropriate to describe a type of glass: the snifter or brandy balloon. Snifter is the US name for this type of glass whilst balloon is the UK name. Being a UK writer, balloon was my go-to phrase when I described this in a story. However, the publisher suggested I reconsider the word and use snifter. Their argument made sense. The fiction was going to be published in the US and, as per my point above regarding specificity, it made sense to use the word readers would most easily recognise.

But I wanted to argue for holding onto balloon. The vowels in snifter, a short i and a concluding uh, don’t reflect the full rounded shape of the glass I was describing. Balloon, with that full final vowel sound and the association of roundness we have when we hear the word ‘balloon’ seemed more appropriate to my ear.

Description is a vital tool in our writing arsenal that can make readers feel as though we’ve spoken to them on a very personal level. With the careful use of specificity, detail and sound symbolism, we can ensure that the description we provide helps our readers to immerse themselves fully in  our fiction.

by Ashley Lister

Rene Descartes said, “I think; therefore I am.” And, whilst he wasn’t talking about the construction of characters in fiction, it’s fair to say that describing a character through their thoughts is one of the most effective ways of letting your reader know all about a story’s protagonist.

For the past few months I’ve been looking at the different ways we can represent characters in fiction. We’ve looked at speech, action and physical description. This month we’re looking at thought. I’m going to start by sharing the opening page to a short story I’ve written called, ‘Here Comes Orgasm Girl.’

Betty Swolenski was startled by the faraway clatter of breaking glass. Immediately she knew a robbery was taking place. She stiffened in her chair and glanced toward the closed office door. A robbery? Here at Dildo & Son? Who in their right mind would rob a factory that met orders for sex toys and sundry adult novelties?

She supposed the answers to those questions were self-evident.

Here I’m allowing the main character to give narrative information, but I’m trying to constantly do it so the reader learns more about who she is and how she is motivated. Betty is startled by the noise. She stiffens in her chair. These are, in fairness, physical reactions. However, with the next sentence, we move directly into her thoughts. A robbery? Here…? Who in their right mind would…?

These three questions give the suggestion that Betty is panicked by her situation, which tells your reader that Betty is in a state of panic. This is not to suggest she is someone who is always in a state of panic. But it tells your reader that she is panicking in this situation – and with short fiction we only care about the character in that particular situation. The opening to, ‘Here Comes Orgasm Girl’ continues with:

Times were hard. On an industrial estate where most of the factories were boarded and abandoned, and the remaining warehouses were decorated with battered signs notifying creditors of liquidations and bankruptcy orders, the success of Dildo & Son was proving to be something of a local anomaly.

An enviable anomaly.

Again, this is from Betty’s perspective. This is her interpretation of the local economy. This is her paranoia colouring the interpretation of local business owners being envious. We’re already getting a sharp picture of Betty, and none of this has come from blatant exposition. All we’re reading are Betty’s thoughts. This passage concludes as follows:

The Dildo & Son workforce were only a small number. But they each took annual holidays and most of them met their personal bills and none of them, to the best of Betty’s knowledge, had to run a second job to cover life’s additional expenses. Big Eric, the owner, was currently driving a fairly new Mercedes. And although Betty figured this added to the truth of what she believed about Mercedes owners, she knew for a fact that he’d managed to acquire the car without having to employ some shyster accountant to fiddle figures or cook books.

As readers, we’re privy to Betty’s thoughts and get a shrewd understanding of who she is. There has been no physical description of her so far, but we already have some small sympathy for her and her plight (because we’ve all been in situations where we were a little bit scared). We’re aware of enough background for the story to begin, and this has been delivered through a nervous character’s iteration of facts, rather than narrative exposition. We’ve been given no dialogue up to this point but still, I think, we already feel as though we know Betty.

I’m not trying to suggest this is an exemplar for how quality fiction should be written. I’m not that arrogant. But I do think the opening to this story shows how easy it is develop a character by just using their thoughts.

As always, if you have examples of your own characters being portrayed through their thoughts, I’d love to see them in the comments box below.

Ash

Back in June, I mentioned that characters can be built through four elements: appearance, speech, action and thought. We looked at appearance in June and I touched on dialogue in July and August, which means that it’s time to look at action.

In the ‘show don’t tell’ world in which we live, action is probably the best way to introduce a character. However, action in erotica doesn’t always have to be vigorous passion and Olympic sexual aerobics. In the opening to one of short stories below, the action is relatively static.

 

“He treats us like slaves,” Sarah hissed.

She had whispered the sentiment into her mobile phone but the words echoed around the haberdashery shop as though they had been bellowed through a megaphone.

Monica glanced at Sarah in surprise.

Old Mrs Higgins closed her eyes and shook her head in dismay.

Green, his eyes unreadable through his dark glasses, regarded Sarah with an expression that was thin-lipped, inscrutable and unsmiling. It was a moment that transformed the mood of the day into something lethargic and heavy with the threat of impending disaster. Each passing minute dragged like slow-motion footage of an inevitable car crash.

Monica’s chest was tight with the sense of anticipation.

An aeon later the church bell chimed six times to indicate it was the end of the working day. In the stillness of Greens’ Haberdashery the sound was like the champagne cork-popping promise of a long-awaited armistice.

Monica took a step back to watch developments. Old Mrs Higgins reached for her coat. Sarah was rushing to the doorway with unseemly haste.

“Wait!” Green snapped the single word as Sarah placed her fingers on the door handle.

 

Monica is our narrative perspective in this story and the tension builds from her perspective. She glances at Sarah in surprise. Her chest tightens with anticipation. She is giving the readers cues for how to respond to the action in the story. As a narrating character she is going to remain relatively undeveloped in this story but we’re already aware that she’s someone trapped in an uncomfortable situation and, as readers, we’re trying to work out whether it will be best if she simply observes the action or becomes a participant.

Admittedly, I’ve got a couple of pieces of dialogue in this, so the example isn’t all action. However, the majority of character development comes from the action.

Old Mrs Higgins, closing her eyes and shaking her head, is clearly a been-there-done-that individual who has seen it all. She’s not going to be surprised by any development in this narrative – and I think it’s fair to say we all know someone with similar collected composure. We’re not told that Old Mrs Higgins is cool under pressure. But we can see that’s how she’s responding to the situation.

Green, is motionless – the antithesis of action – yet we get a sense of his character. We’ve heard Sarah say, “He treats us like slaves”. If we associate that phrase with this inscrutable, unsmiling individual in the dark glasses, the individual who seems to be causing the tense atmosphere that’s tightened Monica’s chest, we have enough action from this inactive character to understand that he is a powerful and dominant individual.

And then there’s Sarah. Sarah is the one who made the remark that’s caused the tension. Sarah is the one who spoke more loudly than intended. Sarah is the one who breaks from the pack and runs for the door. Sarah is clearly in a state of panic and dread: but there was never any need to mention that to the reader. The use of action has told the reader all they need to know about this character, just like it is action that has defined each of the other characters at the start of this story.

Action in erotica doesn’t have to be overblown descriptions of  passionate interludes. As the example above shows, it’s relatively easy to introduce characters through their actions, even when they’re relatively motionless and trying to avoid the impending perils of one character’s wrath.

As always, if you have your own examples of introducing characters through action, I’d love to see them in the comments box below.

Ash

By Ashley Lister

Back in June, I mentioned that characters can be built through four elements: appearance, speech, action and thought. We looked at appearance in June and I touched on dialogue in July. The wonderful Lisabet Sarai shared an example of her dialogue writing in the comments on that post and it’s well worth checking out as an exemplar of how to construct character through dialogue.
I want to briefly touch on dialogue again this month, just because it’s such an important element of what we, as writers, produce. And the message I want to share is: know who you’re writing for.

When we’re reading, and we grow weary with a text, most of us flick through the pages until we reach the next piece of dialogue. If it’s good, we’ll carry on with the story. If that bores us as well, then the story gets put aside.

Which suggests, if we want to make sure our readers stay with the story we’ve written, the dialogue needs to be intriguing, credible and engaging for the audience we want to satisfy. Characters chatting about the weather and engaging in the sort of banal exchanges the linguists describe as ‘phatic communion’ can be used to give a frisson of reality to your story. But keep in mind that some readers are reading your story to escape from reality.

Whilst this might sound like conflicting advice, what I’m trying to say here is: know your audience. Write short snappy exchanges that engage your reader, OR write slices of reality that allow your reader to hear the soul of your character – but always be aware of what you’re writing and who you’re writing it for.

The reader who wants snappy dialogue is going to grow bored with the banality of a real-world exchange, just as the reader who wants a true reflection of reality will not be content with punchy one-liners and witty comebacks. I try to write with one particular audience type in mind, as can be seen in the following exchange from the early part of my recent novel, Doll House.

Ben didn’t want to be intrigued but he couldn’t help wonder about the building.
“Where are you taking me?”
“You sound like a fucking kidnap victim,” John yawned.
“It worries me that you know what kidnap victims sound like. Where are you taking me?”
“I told you where I’m taking you,” John spoke with weary resignation. “For the next three months I’ll be giving you what every lazy writer needs. I’m putting you in my personal country cottage. You’ll have the solitude and the isolation necessary to finish your latest novel. I’m taking you back to your writing career.”
Ben stared out of the window. He scowled at the sign saying WELCOME TO SANDALWOOD.

As always, I look forward to reading your comments in the boxes below.

Ash

by Ashley Lister

Last month I mentioned that characters can be built through four elements: appearance, speech, action and thought. As we looked at appearance last month, I figured this month would be a suitable time to consider speech.

The basic rules to writing speech in fiction can be summed up in one word: clarity. So long as your reader understands what your character is saying, you’re doing it right. And one of the most frustrating ways of messing with clarity comes when readers give their characters regional accents.

The following examples comes from Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights.

‘What are ye for?’ he shouted.  ‘T’ maister’s down i’ t’ fowld.  Go round by th’ end o’ t’ laith, if ye went to spake to him.’

‘Is there nobody inside to open the door?’ I hallooed, responsively.

‘There’s nobbut t’ missis; and shoo’ll not oppen ’t an ye mak’ yer flaysome dins till neeght.’

‘Why?  Cannot you tell her whom I am, eh, Joseph?’

The first and third line of dialogue belong to the broad Yorkshire character Joseph. Those who are familiar with Wuthering Heights will probably be familiar with the intrusion of Joseph’s dialogue in this otherwise entertaining tale.

Perhaps I’m biased here. I grew up in Yorkshire and Brontë’s representation of Joseph’s accent strikes me as being a long way from what I encountered from friends and family. But, more importantly, I find this to be a distracting piece of text. Instead of concentrating on Joseph’s message, I’m trying to work out how to pronounce ‘T’ maister’s down i’ t’ fowld.’ This is a novel and I’m supposed to be engaged with the story and the characters. I shouldn’t be trying to work out how to say words.

Elmore Leonard in his 10 Rules of Writing says, “Use regional dialect and patois sparingly” and it’s a rule I would fully support.  Dialogue is intrusive and, regardless of how much fun the author things the reader will have in decoding a phonetic transcript, the truth is most of don’t want that added nuisance.

If it’s important to your character to have some regional flavour in their speech, allow them to use the vocabulary of an area rather than the dialect. For example, in the extract above, Brontë could have written, “The maister’s down in the fold.”  We’ve got that single word ‘maister’ which suggests a Yorkshire accent, but is sufficiently close to ‘master’ so we’re not puzzled by the content.  And we know that Joseph isn’t going to simply utter one word in this dialect and then articulate the remainder of his speech in BBC English. To my mind, this is a more effective way of conveying regional difference without interrupting the reader’s suspension of disbelief and their immersion in the narrative.

This is not to say that no one should ever write characters with a regional accent.  I’ve just come back from a writing conference where a very clever lecturer explained that no writing rule is an absolute and there will always be scope for subverting rules under some circumstances.

I agree with what he said and I believe, if you’re writing a piece and it’s essential that your character says, ‘T’ maister’s down i’ t’ fowld.  Go round by th’ end o’ t’ laith, if ye went to spake to him,’ then you should follow your authorial instinct and produce the story in that distinctive fashion. However, if your beta-readers and your editor say that some parts were a little confusing, or dragged them out of the story, I don’t think it will take long to work out where the problem is.

I’ll talk more about creating characters through speech next month but for now, as always, if you want to share any of your dialogue in the comments box below, I’m always happy to read and respond.

Ash

Hot Chilli Erotica

Hot Chilli Erotica

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