Power up your dialogue

Friday, August 28th, 2020


By Pauline Kiernan

Dialogue does many things at once. Characters show what’s on their minds and who they are. It creates conflict, tension and release. Above all, dialogue is where the story’s essential core is most dramatically realised because stories are powered by characters and their actions and emotions. So first, use words that can be felt on the pulses. We need to stop thinking of words as mainly expressing reasons and ideas, or as if they belong to either our reason or our emotions, to stop making them either literal and logical on the one hand or only emotional on the other. Instead, when you’re writing dialogue think of words as thought-feelings. This helps to make sure the language has energy. There must be something moving, which impels one word to the next, one line into the next, one thought-feeling to the next. Listen to your dialogue as you write. If you leave them on the page you won’t know whether they’re going to come alive for the reader or not. Words must be a release of the inner life, and not an explanation of it or a commentary on it.
The aim is to create dialogue that prompts the reader to hear it in their head.
So the best way to create dialogue is to first say it out loud. Actors warm-up to stretch the body and free up the mind. Writers need to do this too. Spoken words vibrate in our bodies but they also vibrate in space. Moving around as we speak has a physical, emotional and mental effect on how we express meaning. This physical movement is invaluable for gaining a deep understanding of the rhythms of speech, how tone can colour and nuance emotional meaning, and how dialogue breathes. And it’s the best way I know of learning how to turn dull, flat, ‘do-nothing’ dialogue into emotional music.
Get up from your chair and walk around as you speak. Play around with some individual words and think about what ‘physical’ quality the sound suggests. Hard? Hot? Cold? Soft? Say out loud: Cut, Black, Flash, Cool, Serene, Shimmer, Power, Wash.
Think up more words and ‘test’ them on your pulses.
As you speak, taste, touch, smell, see and hear the words through all your senses (not your mind).
When you’ve written some dialogue, get up again and move around. Speak it out loud.
Does it have energy?
Is it original?
Is it unique to the character?
Is it authentic and believable?
Does it express the uniqueness of the character?
Does it help to drive the story?
Is it foreshadowing things which come later?
Does it have resonances of what has come before?
Does it have rhythm?
Does it move?
Does it make an emotional connection with the reader?
Does it create tension?
Does it having breathing space?
Does it create conflict?
Does it pack an emotional punch?
Does it speak to the story’s theme?
Does it make the character intriguing?
Does it tantalise by making the reader want the character to say more, but he/she doesn’t?
Does it have the right tone for this moment in the story, for this character?
Does it express the right mood?
How sharp is it?
How subtle is it?
Is each word necessary?
Does it suggest the psychological state of the speaker?
Is it the right place in the story?
Is it on-the-nose?
Is it dull?
Is it bland?
s it stilted?
Is it emotionless?
Is it rambling without purpose?
Does it have do-nothing words?
Is it unmotivated?
Is it over-ripe emotional?
Is it lacking in ‘personality’?
Does every character have the same way of talking?
Write short exchanges for your characters
Get one character to insult another. Go to extremes. What words are they using? Who’s ‘leading’, who’s reacting? Notice as you write what emotion lies behind the words?
Get two lovers talking. A scene of tenderness. A violent row. Making up. What are you getting them to say? Or not say?
Write a scene in which the characters are so excited that no one finishes a sentence.
Get your characters to go to a party. Write the scene to include dialogue.
Think of a party that you’ve been to. What made it interesting? How are each of the characters speaking?
A new person arrives
New information delivered that has an emotional impact on the guests
A conflict
A subtext going on
A confrontation
A meeting of strangers
A disruptive guest
A shy guest
Two people whispering
An outrageous speech by a guest. The host is looking uncomfortable. Everyone stops talking. It’s embarrassing
Hostility between two people expressed through subtext when on the surface all seems sweetness and light.
This is a terrific exercise in learning how to individualise the way your characters speak.
Subtext is what is going on inside the characters – their inner thoughts and feelings. It’s the unspoken, the innuendo, the nuanced moments that cannot be directly represented.
It’s something understood that isn’t said.
It’s what lies beneath the words – like a river flowing beneath the words hinting at or illuminating what a character thinks and feels but does not say. It’s what lies hidden between characters under the surface of their words. It’s almost invariably the key in establishing the character’s inner life: their goals, motivation, fears. We know from what they say and do on the surface what it is they may be trying to do but it is what lies beneath that gives the reader a deeper understanding of why they’re doing what they do and say. It’s what is meant not what is said. It’s the underlying meaning or significance of a character’s words. That makes subtext a great power in writing. It’s a way to make a direct connection between the emotions of the characters with the emotional response of the reader. Think of subtext as something we read deep between the lines. It is in the gaps between that subtext lies. And they’re gaps that the reader has to fill in. Gaps that the reader will love to fill in. So subtext can do even more things than surface dialogue does. It is revealing character, showing how the character develops, revealing the deeper dynamics of relationships and forwarding the story.
Write a dialogue in which your characters have a conversation about one subject, but are really talking about something else. In other words, what are they really saying?
Here’s a very basic dialogue without subtext.
Woman: How are you?
Man: I’m fine, how are you?
Woman: Fine. And the family?
Man: The family’s very well, thank you.
This may be how we talk in everyday conversation, but it’s boring. It doesn’t tell us anything about these characters. Their speech is identical, so there is nothing to individualise them. It’s not doing anything to make the reader curious about them.
Dialogue has to intrigue the reader. So, what if we include a tiny change. A little subtext?
Woman: How are you?
Man: Fine. Yes, I’m fine. Fine.
Woman: And the family?
Man: No answer.
This sets up a question in the reader and it starts to be a beginning of a story. We
haven’t been explicitly told that there’s something wrong. The subtext has
inferred the underlying meaning underneath the words. The reader is drawn into
the moment. This is using subtext in a fairly basic example to reveal the inner
feelings of the man who cannot bring himself to express them. Subtext is terrific
for this kind of avoidance or aversion. Notice he doesn’t ask the woman how she
is. The repeated ‘Fine’ suggests he’s anything but. The response to the question
about his family is silence. Silence can speak volumes as they say.
So what has been revealed about the inner life of this character? He’s troubled,
and it seems to have something to do with his family. Even with this example,
it does begin to intrigue the reader – we want to know more.
Here’s a couple who’s marriage is falling apart, discussing which restaurant to go to. In the context of their story, the reader is being encouraged to discern what’s going on underneath their exchange.
Jill: I thought you said we were going to Bertoli’s.
John: I couldn’t have. The wine list’s abysmal. Full of pissed traders looking no older than 13. Wouldn’t know a Perignon 95 from a can of Fosters… Jill? … Did you hear me?
Jill. I was cancelling the booking.
John. Great. We’ll never get in anywhere now.
Jill. I’ll order an Indian.
John: What?
The subtext here could be hinting at or revealing several things about the characters and their relationship. It suggests that John is the dominant one in terms of the power structure in the marriage, that he feels the need to show off his knowledge even to his wife, and that perhaps beneath his mockery of young rich traders is a feeling of envy.
Jill is the passive one, can’t do anything right – and it seems that her submissive behaviour gets John even madder. It also has an element of surprise in that the reader expects that she’ll ‘fight back’ when he blames her, complaining they won’t be able to get into a restaurant now. Her line about ordering an Indian could suggest some ambiguity. It may be placatory or exactly the thing she knows will rile him!
In dialogue, answers to questions should be oblique. On-the-nose exposition, where the dialogue explains everything to the reader is a No-No.
Talk in dialogue is action and when using subtext aim more for the oblique and indirect. Is it saying too much? Is it necessary? Imagine a character wanting to say something but can’t bring him/her to say it.
Some suggestions:
Practise writing dialogue using subtext.
Notice subtext in novels and short stories you read. Look out for subtext used in films you watch. As you revise your work, mark places where you could include subtext.
See how you can evoke feeling and emotion using subtext.
Make every line work.
Avoid insignificant ‘do-nothing’ dialogue.
Finally, the writer Anthony Burgess once told a writing seminar that he always began a new novel by typing about sixty pages of dialogue – no narration, no description, just voices talking. Then, he said, he knew what the novel was about and could write it.
Hearing voices might well give you some great pointers to make your work really powerful!

The 2020 Booker Prize longlist announced | The Booker Prizes

Tuesday, July 28th, 2020

20 Booker Prize longlist announced

Source: The 2020 Booker Prize longlist announced | The Booker Prizes

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Tuesday, May 19th, 2020

I had been writing my novel for a long time. Like many, I’d been on several creative writing courses, writing retreats, writing weekends (you name it – I’d done it) but still, I couldn’t focus, couldn’t develop my book in the way I wanted to. Eventually I found myself at the (metaphorical) door of the Oxford Editors. They welcomed me. That was the first step. They didn’t make me feel like ‘just another aspiring author’ but someone with potential. Even if I didn’t know it then, that was the beginning of a long path to rebuilding my self confidence as a writer. After months of editing and reviewing pages, talking, listening to advice, drinking coffee, crying, all with my mentor, Cherry Mosteshar, from the Oxford Editors, I can say I have now finished what I feel is a good enough draft to send out to agents. That is down to the Oxford Editors. Without their support I would never have reached this position. They gave good sound advice and weren’t bitchy but also didn’t hold their punches. They were just honest about what they thought. They also didn’t make promises they could never keep. They were upfront about the fact that there is no magic wand. They can’t get you published by using their services. But they can put you in the best possible position to get to where you want to go. Everyone I have met involved with the team are experienced writers and editors so they know the process from both sides and can advise accordingly. I’m so glad I spent my time, money and energy with them and recommend them to each and everyone of you.
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I shopped around, with the help of Paul Warrington, the book’s designer and friends, and we found THE OXFORD EDITORS. I had never expected to get so much advice on the structure and ordering of material. On what seemed irrelevant and ought to be dropped. On finding a consistent and rigorous style – not switching from chatty to academic from one paragraph to the next. It’s surprising how hard it is to get used to being `told off’ about the ordering of a piece of writing which is so personal. But you get used to it. And when the outcome is as successful – to judge by the public response – as Are You Going to do That Little Jump? is proving, then thanks and gratitude must go to Oxford Editors for their devoted work.

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I have worked with Oxford Editors for the last 24 months. Specifically, I was lucky enough to have Cherry Mosteshar as my writing mentor where, miraculously, she helped me turn a very ordinary piece of writing into a full manuscript which I am very happy with. The mentorship was a very special relationship where Cherry and I meet frequently working on my writing style and helping me find my authentic writing voice. It has been the most wonderful process where Cherry listened and understood my vision for the work completely. At every stage, I had guidance and support, continuing through the publishing phase. I do not hesitate to recommend working with the Oxford Editors if you value your work as art, and wanting to go beyond the ordinary.

Elise Klein

I used the Oxford Editors for a manuscript assessment. I had to borrow the funds for this on a credit card so I prayed I was in good hands, and not wasting my money. The report I received back from the company was really good. Not good in being complimentary, but more in honesty which is what I wanted. Though they did give me some positive feedback also. Initially I had thought my book was ready for the next stages, but the assessment made me rethink the book in general. It pointed out a few things that needed clarification that I had not done. I have since relooked over the whole manuscript, and taken the advice the company gave me. I now feel a lot more confident about pushing my book to the next stage. Therefore I feel that the report was worth every penny. The communications between myself and Cherry were also very helpful.

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Richard Kirwan

Please thank my editor very much for her comments: they will be extremely useful, especially the guidance re outline and planning, which I have so far been struggling with. It has been very useful to get a professional opinion in such an easy to read format and it has encouraged me not to go back to the law just yet!


My own experience is that once a story has been written, one has to cross out the beginning and the end. It is there that we authors do most of our lying.
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I found the Oxford Editors efficient, helpful and friendly. I needed my 64,000 word manuscript assessed fairly quickly and received a helpful written reply and annotated manuscript three days after emailing it. The suggestions were spot on and very supportive; having incorporated them into my book my editor and publisher here in Australia were delighted with the changes. I have been singing the praises of the Oxford Editors ever since and am looking forward to working with them again.

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I submitted the first 55k words of my novel for assessment, and I got back a 7k document – including excerpts for commentary – with detailed analysis on each chapter, character development, dialogue, process, mediums through which the story develops and such. Chehre opens with a synopsis of her analysis, which I thought was great, and in which she very quickly produced some real insight, both kind and critical, but always constructive.

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Journey to becoming a writer by Christie Selph

Sunday, February 16th, 2020

Grandma Moses and I….
Like Anna Mary Robertson Moses with her painting, I began writing fiction, later in life. I had an earlier start than she, but tackling novels in my golden years was a challenge which took me nearly a decade to conquer. I will leave it up to you, dear readers, if I’ve been sufficiently successful or not.
Why would I take on such a task? Truthfully, I don’t know. Maybe I wanted to keep my brain active; maybe I needed a new goal. I like to quip that novel writing is profession #17 and that is not much of an exaggeration. What else can a college grad with a double major in English and history who does not want to teach do? So, you test career pathways until you find one that lets you eat something better than hotdogs and beans.
Since I worked in the newspaper business as a teenager, doing all the back-office tasks in my mother’s newspapers, I’ve always liked to write. Though after only a few years of sitting at an editor’s desk, the newspapers were sold to a conservative publisher, a publisher whose politics and mine mixed like proverbial oil and water. Alas, to the unemployment line I went.
I ran art galleries in Europe; wrote grants and travel copy, and when the internet ate my travel agency for breakfast, I put on a real estate hat and told Harriet Homeowner how this new house would be her forever-dream-home. Finally, I only ate hotdogs at the ball park, though my mind craved more.
Writing college essays or newspaper copy is totally different from writing a novel. I didn’t even know how to punctuate dialogue much less compose it! After a few college courses, a slew of how-to books, and the reading of umpteen best sellers, Man Booker, and Pulitzer winners, I stared at the blank page and started a story about an Irish poet who had caught my fancy.

Even I thought it was awful. So back to the keyboard I went. ‘Why not write about something you know?’ I said to myself. And Lorelei Harte, the young girl who dreamed of becoming a journalist, was born.
I love my main character, Lorelei Brennan Winthrop Harte. She is everything I am not, well almost everything… I hope you will love her as much as I and cheer her on as she survives an emotionally abusive mother, leaves a parochial southern peninsular behind, and tests her journalistic wings as she flits from Washington, DC to Greece to Lebanon and lands in Northern Ireland. She triumphs over tragedy, conquers sexism without abandoning her gender, and captures the human side of war. She is as tenacious as Marie Colvin yet she is more than a war correspondent. Her words fight for women’s rights and her columns condemn oppression. She is besieged by the Klu Klux Klan and kidnapped by the Protestants during The Troubles.
My Mermaid Trilogy will be available in e-books February, 2020. Maybe, I’ll have my novels made into audio-books, but right now paperbacks are beyond my budget.
Check out my website please, https://christieselph.com/. There’s a discount if you buy all three. Let me know how you like: The Siren of Loreley Rock, The Mermaid Hunters, and The Merrow’s Red Cap. I want to hear from you. I think conversations between a writer and her readers benefits us all especially when you are a new writer like me. I have two more drafts I’m working on, or I may do a spin off and write about Lorelei’s lover, John Carlton. He’s “damaged goods”, you know.

Christie Selph
Anyone who writes knows it’s a solitary vocation. A former fifth generation Washingtonian, I spend my time in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, overlooking the Pacific and in places around the world, I have been fortunate to visit or have an inkling to see. Maybe our paths will cross or even better come for a visit and share a Margarita and a sunset with me. I like mine with salt and a splash of Grand Mariner.



The Hare Trilogy: By our very own Dennis Hamley

Monday, December 2nd, 2019

A most moving and sensitive animal fantasy.’

Richard Adams, author of Watership Down.



‘Things aren’t untrue just because they never happened.’



Hare’s Choice, Badger’s Fate, Hawk’s Vision


Dennis Hamley




The Hare Trilogy is an omnibus edition of three short novels for children, first published by Andre Deutsch and Scholastic between 1988 and 1993. They were aimed mainly at children between the ages of 8 to 13. I think they are the best things I have ever written.


They are not intended for children only. They are a meditation at an adult level asking the questions, ‘What is truth? Can stories be ‘true? If so, how?’’


The last thirty years have been crucial for education. The Hare Trilogy now reads like a manifesto, pitting primary schools then against primary schools now, asking what is lost, whether the values which replace it are better and coming to a decisive answer.

 Buy on Amazon: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Hare-Trilogy-Dennis-Hamley/dp/1916061826/ref=sr_1_1?keywords=The+Hare+Trilogy&qid=1575312650&sr=8-1


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