Tics and Tells to Show not Tell

A WaterlooTics and tells are a fun way for you to “show” how a character is feeling, or who they are, without having to “tell” the reader. Yes, the quotation marks were purposeful.  The concept we’re going to discuss today builds on the foundation of showing versus telling, which I’ve talked about before. If you’re unfamiliar with the concept, I encourage you to click on the hyperlink. It includes some other great references for you to check out beyond the meager offering I wrote.

Tics and tells help you avoid poker-faced characters in your story. A poker-faced character would be a character who delivers dialogue, but reveals little in the way of body language. It’s also a means to help your characters not fall into the void of floating head syndrome.

Depending on whether you outline or not, the time to consider tics and tells will change. For outliners, you can include some of this info in your character sheets. For you “pantsers,” just see if anything happens organically and try to be consistent. Regardless, pantsers,  you might want to consider examining this aspect during your first revision/rewrite.

There are three things I like to think of when I shape this aspect of my characters: physical traits, items worn, and dialogue tics. This list is incomplete, for sure, but it’s a good jumping-off point.

Da_Vinci_Vitruve_Luc_Viatour.jpgWhen it comes to physical traits, I’m thinking beyond just the basic height, hair, skin, gender, and eye color.  The basics are a good place to start, but dig deeper.  Don’t just think of normal or beautiful traits, find the flaws too.

While this may seem unnecessary, this front-end work pays dividends down the road. A person with a giant Adams apple may swallow when nervous. It’ll look like a golf ball bobbing up and down in their throat. A person with narrow eyes may look like they have them closed when they are lying. The gap in someones two front teeth may be on display when they chew their lower lip while thinking.

This level of description saves you from having to pepper your dialogue attribution with adverbs to tell the reader information. If you build the blocks early, they will know the second eyes squint, nostrils flare, or foreheads wrinkle that [insert emotion] is being felt. The best part is it only requires a short sentence and you are moving from telling into showing territory.

broken glasses.jpgKnowing what your characters are wearing and have on their person is a useful tool. Understanding how they interact with these things is even better. It can also be of use when anchoring readers in your chapters. I’ve talked about anchoring before, but the concept is to reorient the reader in the beginning of a chapter.

If the chapter opens with a character cleaning his/her broken glasses with a torn and bloody shirt, you’ve opened the chapter with action, zoomed in on POV, and zapped the reader into who this chapter is coming from (unless all your characters are wearing broken glasses and ripped up shirts). If you’ve layered in the idea that this character cleans their glasses when they are nervous, you’ve stacked yet another layer of complexity.
Night_vision.jpgHere’s an example from my military days. Even from behind in the pitch black with night vision goggles on (which aren’t as whiz-bang as Hollywood would like you to think), I could tell who was with me on a mission by how they were acting. How are they holding their rifle? Are they constantly messing with their helmet straps? Are they constantly moving? Are they constantly leaning on something? These observations allowed me to take green and black humanoid blobs and know who they were.

We can apply this to our writing. Our characters wear clothes (hopefully), and they might have some external items with them too. Take a moment to consider how they interact with these items in different situations. Take the list of adverbs you might use (nervously, excitedly, boringly, furiously..and the list goes on) and write how they would manipulate their clothing or worn items in those situations. Again, now you can show instead of tell without bumping the word count up too much or bogging down attribution tags with adverbs.

Mannerisms tie into physical appearance and character possessions, but they can also be hidden within dialogue. Perhaps when a character is lying, they s-s-stutter, add many unnecessary and useless words to increase the length of what they are saying, or perhaps they become concise.  This can be a slippery slope (accents come to mind).  If it’s a fail, your alpha and beta readers will likely clue you in.

question-markThat’s it for today. What suggestions, additions, or ideas would you add to this list?  Do you use any of these concepts in your writing?  I’d love to talk about it and broaden my depth of knowledge.  Until we cross quills again, keep reading, keep writing, and as always—stay sharp!

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Floating Heads and Writing Desks

floating heads.jpgHave you ever heard of floating head syndrome?  I’ve heard it called talking head syndrome too.  It’s when the characters in a book are exchanging dialogue, but the author rarely mentions where the speakers are or what they are doing.  Without these little descriptive beats sprinkled in it feels like the characters are floating in the void while having conversations.

It’s a tap dance we do with the reader.  Give too many beats and the dialogue doesn’t flow, don’t give enough, and the reader doesn’t have a clue what the characters are doing while they are talking.  There’s a few ways to tackle the problem.

First, read the dialogue aloud and see how it flows. Next, you could also open some of your favorite books and look at how the pro’s did it.  If you are still undecided, ask someone to read a chapter or section. Once they finish, ask them what the characters were doing in the chapter.  If they’ll oblige you, ask them where the characters were as well. If the reader just shrugs their shoulders in response—it might be time to tweak those beats.

While this is good to know, it’s not why I’m writing today.  Sometimes I feel like we are all floating heads when I read blogs.  Even my own.  “Who is this writer?  Where are they writing from?  Is this blog written by a person or a futuristic artificial intelligence?” Corey wondered as he swiveled in his black office chair.

writers desk

So today I thought I would share where this blog gets written from—my writing desk.  It’s a normal desk, in a normal house, manned by a normal adult male.  However, it has the ability to let me reach out and touch the other side of the planet with my words.  It’s also the place where I create worlds, and if I want to, destroy them.  Pretty neat.

[Editor’s Update]

Writing Desk.jpgI wrote this post months ago and things have moved about in my study.  I didn’t like the cramped feeling of being surrounded.  The photo below is my new setup. It lets me spin about in my chair like a madman without bashing my legs. I also like how much it opened up the room. I wrote a post about how a writing environment can alter your productivity a while back.  This shift really bolstered my own process.

Whats your writing desk look like?  Do you have one?  Or are you a mobile master taking your work with you wherever you go?  Until tomorrow.  Keep reading, keep writing, and as always – stay sharp!

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Writing Dialogue: Exercises

Read Your DialogueThe best explanation of dialogue I’ve heard, and I’m paraphrasing here, is that dialogue is an extension of action (Howard Lawson, Theory and Technique of Playwriting).  What Lawson is driving at is that speech in fiction, for it to be effective, intensifies character action, motivation, and emotion.

With that being said, most people will agree with the idea that stories are driven by characters and conflict.  If this is true, and dialogue is in fact an extension of action, then we can begin to see how vital it is to our stories.  In essence, dialogue bolsters vital aspects of the story because it enhances character and conflict at the same time.  It’s a two-fer!

Writing good dialogue doesn’t usually just happen.  For many writers, it takes time and practice.  More seasoned writers will begin to look at every exchange of dialogue as a glorious opportunity.  It’s not just page filler, it’s a chance for verbal sparring matches.

RichardSimmonsSept2011.jpg

From Wiki-Commons

To spar effectively, it takes some exercise.  So let’s cue the obligatory 80s montage music and talk about some training methods (hopefully that last sentence conjured visions of Rocky and not Richard Simmons in bright spandex…).

[Side Note] Most of these exercises I pulled from the pages of, How to Write Dazzling Dialogue, by James Scott Bell.  I wrote about this book before when we talked about how dialogue can be used to drive and reveal agenda.

Abandon organization and freewrite the dialogue for a chapter or scene.  Dialogue action beats, attribution, punctuation…to heck with it!  Cut it all out and focus on the spoken words being exchanged back and forth.  A tendency for some writers is to lean on attribution/action tags to drive the meaning of what is being said.  Strong dialogue should be able to exist without props to support it.  What you’ll end up with is a very long string of exchanges.cat hungry.jpg

Go get me some treats!
Get them yourself.
I don’t have opposable thumbs so I can’t open the drawer.
Sounds like a cat problem to me.
I do have these claws.
Okay, I’ll get you some treats.

While this example is ridiculous, it illustrates the basic premise.  Simply let the dialogue bounce back and forth.  If done right, you’ll end up with a large chunks of dialogue to play with.  Then you can select the more solid pieces, polish them up, add the proper punctuation, and wrangle it all together.

Assign roles to speakers from scene to scene.  You’re going through during rewrites and notice a section of dialogue that is lacking substance, or simply meanders about.  One reason could be that the dialogue is mimicking normal speech.  While on the surface this seems okay, when writing fiction, dialogue is a stylized version of normal speech.  In essence, it’s speech with purpose.  Here’s an exercise to employ.

This exercise comes from Bell, and he snagged the idea from Jack Bickham’s Writing Novels That Sell.  It’s called the parent, adult, and child exercise.

  • Parent: Authority driven. Lays down the law.
  • Adult: Even-minded and even-tempered.  Looks for objectivity.
  • Child: Emotional, irrational, impulsive, trusting, etc…

The premise is simple.  Assign one of these roles to each character speaking and let them duke it out.  What this ensures is that dialogue is driving conflict and agenda.  It’s also a great tool because it allows for dynamic characters.  A single character can take on any one of these roles depending on the circumstance.  As a rule, try to ensure character motivations run opposite of each other.  Characters can be united in purpose, but often go about achieving goals in different ways.

Dialogue in History

Think about the last time you participated in a group project (school, work, video game co-op, D&D).  While you all had the same end-goal (supposedly), there were likely conflicting opinions as how to best achieve it.  This is assuming you weren’t surrounded by sheeple — and let’s face it — sheeple are boring to write about.

Don’t just listen to the voices in your head, embody them.  This is perhaps my favorite exercise to improve creativity when it comes to writing dialogue.  During your day (hopefully while you are mostly alone), narrate your life.  But do it from different perspectives.  This is especially enjoyable for me with baby Thor, because I get to talk in silly accents and just be generally goofy.

So changing a diaper goes from being a silent lamentation to:

  • Movie Narratorwrite dazzling dialogue:  “In a world gone mad, one baby dares to fill his diaper to the point of explosion.  Will daddy survive this changed diaper, or will he be destroyed by it?”
  • Mad Scientist:  “Yes…the addition of five percent dry cereal to decrease the fluidity of puree has revealed a drastic increase in poop production.  Eureka!”
  • Sherlock Holmes: “It’s simple really.  I first observed you tugging on your diaper.  It was a subtle gesture, but I also noticed the caked food around your mouth.  Pair this with the blue line on your diaper and the conclusion became clear.”

Other concepts to play with (these come from Bell): action hero, alien invader, bad boy/girl, boy/girl next door, cat lady, hardboiled detective, martial arts master (a favorite of mine), gentle giant (which I feel like when I’m around Thor), thief, geek, jock, outlaw, Southern Belle, pirate, bully, drunk, wise old man, rat pack, and the list goes on.

You can focus on specific aspects of your story, or you can simply add this element to daily life.  If you are anything like me, every now and then you are going to say something golden and run off to your writing cave to write it down for potential use down the road.

question markThat’s it for today.  I’ve only written a couple posts on dialogue, so this is an area we can look forward to more discussion on in the future.  Do you use any of these exercises?  Do you have some you would add to the list?  I’d love to hear about and bolster my own knowledge and understanding.  Until tomorrow, keep reading, keep writing, and as always – stay sharp!

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Writing Dialogue: Agenda

cat hungry.jpg“Writing about dialogue is such a pain,” Corey said.  It was a futile thing to say as he was alone in his office.  Corey’s cat Niblet heard his lonely rambling and jumped up onto his desk to console him.

Corey’s eyes widened as Niblet brushed past his hands and went for the computer keyboard.  The furry fiend began smashing the buttons with her paws.  The following words stretched across the empty white blog expanse: “Human.  Why you sit and stare at this glowing window?  Fetch me treats human.  Then talk about the new book I saw you reading while squatting over the strange, water-filled litter box.”

write dazzling dialogue.jpgThe new book Niblet was referencing is, How to Write Dazzling Dialogue, by James Scott Bell.  Oddly, I don’t have a lot of books on the mechanics of dialogue.  At 135 pages this one is absolutely packed with information.  I do have a few books written by Bell, and he seems to deliver consistently.  I’ll likely give the book its own spotlight later, but today I wanted to share a tool I found in it’s pages.

When we talk in real life there is often an agenda behind our exchanges.  Sometimes the agenda is transparent.  Other times it’s hidden beneath layers.  Let’s play with a random example I’m about to pull out of my creative whirlpool.

“Hello.  What do you want?”
“A caramel frappe latte with extra whip, chocolate sprinkles, and four pumps of chocolate syrup!  If there are five pumps, I’ll send it back.”

Thanks creative whirlpool!

Perks of Super Villainy

We know from those couple lines of hastily written dialogue we have two people: a customer and a server of some type.  We can also make some basic assumptions from what is said by the two.  The server doesn’t seem very friendly, and the person ordering the coffee seems like a level 27 control freak.

Dialogue Guy.jpgWe can also make some assumptions about agenda here as well.  The servers agenda is likely related to getting this person in and out as quickly as possible.  The person ordering the drink has a different agenda: to get what they want how they want it.

Grab whatever book you are reading or writing and go to some dialogue.  Take a moment to familiarize yourself with the scene, and read a couple lines.  After you are done, ask  yourself this question: What are the speakers goals?  Put another way, what are their agendas?

Dialogue, if it is going to be effective, should be building the readers understanding of the character.  Yes the words are important, but how the reflect on the speaker is just as important.  On a side-note, your agenda and the characters agenda should not be the same.  If you look at a string of dialogue and say, “That’s there because I needed to explain who, what, where, or when this was happening,” you might want to reappraise.

Consider the following example Bell offers from his book, How to Write Dazzling Dialogue:

“I simply will not have it!” Robert Massingale expostulated.  “Not while I am the head of this family of five.  Goodness knows it is hard enough to run an estate during the reign of Her Majesty, Queen Victoria.  But having a servant from Hungary come into this house without the proper references, and with a scar across his left cheek to boot, which he no doubt got in a waterfront bar somewhere during his thirty years on this earth, I tell you, I simply will not have it” (p. 7).

Writing Dialogue.jpg

Before you say, “That Bell doesn’t know anything about dialogue,” understand the above passage was a example he provided of what NOT to do.  It may seem obvious, but normal people don’t talk like this.  Those bizarre snippets of backstory tossed haphazardly into normal dialogue are jarring.  It’s easier to notice it in other peoples work.  If a character begins feeling more like a ventriloquist’s puppet, and less like a real person, this might be the issue.

The Editor_1.jpgMany times, while in the grips of creation, we begin smashing information into dialogue that shouldn’t be there.  Now don’t get me wrong, dialogue is an outstanding method of delivering information to your reader.  You just have to do it in a way that is believable, and also ties into their agenda.  It shouldn’t be dialogue for the sake of information dump.

Bell recommends to break down each scene, look at what characters are saying, and write down (or at least consider) what their agendas were.  What were they trying to accomplish with their words?

I like this tip.  I think it’s a pretty solid way of measuring the worth of dialogue.  My only addition point would be to consider that an agenda doesn’t have to be a giant thing.  An agenda can be as simple as getting under someones skin (annoying them).

That’s it for today.  Oddly enough, this is the first dialogue specific posting I have offered.  Do you have a method of evaluating dialogue?  Or do you simply give a it a read (hopefully aloud) and see how it feels?  Are there aspects of dialogue you are curious about and would like addressed in a future post?  Let me know!  I’d love to talk about it.  Until tomorrow, keep reading, keep writing, and as always – stay sharp!

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Choose Your Weapon: The Power of POV

Perspective is one of the most powerful weapons of warfare you have at your disposal.  When loading words into your literary cannon, you need to decide who is going to be firing them at the reader.  Put clearly, from whose perspective is your book written?

Most instructional books title this perspective as Point of View (POV), and most agree that there are three main approaches to it: first person, third person, and omniscient.  After this, the agreement ends.  I have seen texts offer more than 20 variations of these three.  Let’s take a day to focus on the basics.  After all, to wield the weapon, we must understand it.

scalpel.jpgFirst Person is the surgical blade many mystery writers use to carve out their manuscripts. When taking advantage of this the writer adopts the “I” voice.  You relay the story through the eyes, mouth, and mind of one of the books characters.

Renni Browne and Dave King explain in their book, Self-Editing for Fiction Writers, “…in order to succeed in the first-person point of view, you have to create a character strong enough and interesting enough to keep your readers going for an entire novel, yet not so eccentric or bizarre that your readers feel trapped inside his or her head” (p. 42).

First Person is also a double edged blade (it cuts both ways).  You gain the advantage of intimacy, but lose the ability to offer insights outside of the characters range of knowledge.  You can only offer suggestions as to what other characters are feeling, based upon the understanding (or lack there of) of your narrator.  It’s fun to write, but over the long haul, challenging.  Trust me, my current book Wastelander, is in this POV.

Here is a brief example/teaser (the unedited first two paragraphs) from my book.  It is first person-tastic.  I don’t want to hear any cyber scoffs…

          As far as luck goes, it hadn’t been my greatest day.  It’s hard to cling to those sparkly, silver linings when you’re buried underneath no less than ten-and-a-half bloated decaying bodies in the hopes you don’t get eaten alive by a bunch of inbred, radioactive cannibals. 
          Believe it or not, this predicament was premeditated by yours truly.  The plan was to collect on cannibal heads.  Four to be exact.  I figured four heads should net me a couple jugs of water, some grub to munch on, some rounds, or maybe the sweet comforts of the female persuasion.  I hadn’t really worked out those details just yet.

mushroom cloud.jpgAt the opposite end of the weapon rack is omniscient.  Where you could only cut with precision from the viewpoint of a single character with first person, you now can drop a hydrogen bomb of information on the reader with omniscient POV.  The omniscient narrator is godlike in their knowledge.  They have the inside scoop on character motivations, historical background, and everything in-between.

The challenge with omniscience is you can struggle to create a deep bond with the reader.  The all-knowing being can be hard to relate to.  It obviously can be done and there are countless books out there written from this POV.  The website, Literary Devices, has some great excerpts, as well as more information about omniscient voice.  You can check it out here.

bayonet rifle.jpgNestled snugly in the middle of the rack is Third Person.  It is the bayonet adorned rifle that allows you to shoot at a distance, or stab from up close.  In plain terms, with third person we can create distance in the narrative and we can close it.  How do we do this?  One of the best examples I have seen comes again from Self-Editing for Fiction Writers (p. 48-49).  Check out these two examples from that book and look for those differences in word choices.  How do they make you feel?


Coral Blake mopped the gritty sweat out of her eyes and gazed up at the dusty green underside of the oak.  The dog days of August had settled in, it seemed, and like most folks in Greeleyville, South Carolina, she took cover from the sun on her front porch under that grandfatherly tree. 

          My, how she hated that tree in autumn.  Then, she’d stand out in the scraggly front yard with a rake and curse the leaves that multiplied like loaves and fishes as they fell.  But now, with her head up against the cool metal of the glider, the tree was a positive blessing. 

Compare that excerpt to this revised one, also in third person.

self editing for fiction writers.jpg          Coral Blake mopped the sweat out of her eyes and gazed up at the dusty green underside of the oak.  It seemed the dog days of August had arrived, and like most of the citizens of Greeleyville, South Carolina, she took refuge from the sun on her front porch under the tree.
          Ironic how much she hated that tree at other times.  Every fall she’d stand in her threadbare front yard with a rake and curse the leaves that multiplied as they fell.  But now, resting her head against the cool metal of the glider, she considered the tree to be a blessing. 

The differences in language and word choice are subtle, but they create the differing distances I was talking about earlier.  Depended on your particular work, and what you are trying to accomplish with a passage, you may need some distance from the reader, or you may need to breath down their neck.  This is the power of third person.

That’s it for today.  Like I said when I started this post, there are more variations on these three POVs than I have fingers and toes.  One of these days we might examine those variations more, but for now, go forth with these weapons of war.  Just don’t put your eye out…

red ryder bb gun.jpg

What are you favorite perspectives to write and read from?  I am enjoying writing in first person (but am looking forward to finishing this book so I can write in something else).  I’m not a huge fan of reading omniscient narrative, but easily sink into third and first.  There are exceptions to this, but there is it.  Until tomorrow, keep reading, keep writing, and as always – stay sharp!

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The Adverb Addiction: Save Yourself!

To keep my head from exploding, stay on track, and improve my weak sauce skills, I have been reading books about writing and listening to podcasts from author friendly sources like Writing Excuses while I hammer out the last bit of my novel.  One of the books I am finishing now is Self-Editing for Fiction Writers by Renni Browne and Dave King.  I actually did a blog post about this book once before here, but hell, the book is good enough to mention twice.

book-coverSo here’s the rub.  My name is Corey, and I am addicted to using -ly adverbs in dialogue. This addiction has, and will, affect me in the following ways.  I will spend hours and hours fixing this in re-writes (after the first draft is done).  The realization of my addiction has shriveled my precious pint-sized ego in ways a cold shower could never replicate.  If not corrected, according to Browne and King, I will be nothing more then a hack writer of fiction.  Let’s cut into it!

Browne and King provide these examples:

“I’m afraid it’s not going very well,” he said grimly.

“Keep scrubbing until you’re finished,” she said harshly.

“I don’t know, I can’t seem to work up the steam to do any thing at all,” he said listlessly. 

They continue on to explain, “Perhaps it’s a lack of confidence on the writer’s part, perhaps it’s simple laziness, or perhaps it’s a misguided attempt to break up the monotony of using the unadorned said all the time, but all too many fiction writers tend to pepper their dialogue with -ly’s” (p. 87).

Now lets take a look at my hack fiction, slather on some Neosporin, wrap it in some maxi-pads and duct tape, and back away slowly.  Here are some randomly selected excerpts from Wastelander: The Drake Legacy.

Wastelander Layout

“Easy kid, I’m from Stanley Station just like you.  I was just in the wrong place at the wrong time, just like you” I replied calmly.  The use of calmly is pointless here.  The commas I used in the dialogue to break up what Drake is saying reflects the idea that he is, at the very least portraying, calm.

“The kid’s name is Jim.  He was with a hunting party” I replied impatiently, shielding my eye from the spotlight.  “You going to let us in or what?”  Again, I don’t need to put impatiently in here.  It’s obvious Drake is impatient or he wouldn’t have followed with, “You going to let us in or what?”

“So where does that leave us,” I replied coldly.  Drake has just realized the person he is talking to may want to do him harm.  It’s obvious to the reader.  He doesn’t need to reply coldly, because the statement has an undertone of coldness to it.

Quill_(PSF)_vector.svg.pngLament with me brothers and sisters, lament and rejoice!  Another of my amateur techniques has been slain, and a slightly more polished writer emerges – stronger, better, faster.

I write this post with a hint of irony because when I edit these adverbs jump out at me.  Does every adverb have to be annihilated?  Not at all.  Sometimes there is no better word than an adverb.  But when the adverb is redundant, why waste the words?

Regardless, when I write those pesky -ly adverbs seem to effortlessly worm their way in.  I encourage you to save yourself heartache and time by avoiding the adverb addiction.  An adverb here and there is okay, but beware the sudden adverb explosions.  Good luck in your work and until tomorrow, keep reading, keep writing, and as always – stay sharp!

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Resist the Urge to Explain (R.U.E.)

book-coverI‘ve recently been reading Self-Editing for Fiction Writers by Renni Browne and Dave King.  Let me tell you how hard it is to read a book so insightful it tempts you to stop making forward progress on your novel and start hacking away at what you have already written.  While I shall resist the temptation to dissect my more than 200 pages of work, I will acknowledge how important it is to recognize your pitfalls and address them – in good time, after the first draft, once it’s all on paper (or screen, or notebook, or post-it notes, or whatever).

I have no illusions about my amateurish writing prose.  There is a big difference between editing a book and actually writing one.  I haven’t written stacks of books.  I will be happy to finish my first and start the next.  However, knowing this doesn’t excuse sloppy writing when resources are available to grow your craft.

Some people can read books within their genre and make changes to their own prose and adapt.  I’ve worked with writers who are able to borrow styles and adjust them to make them uniquely theirs.  They have an instinct for it.  I’m a little more analytical.  I want the why and how of what works and what doesn’t.  If you feel you might be this way too, I would encourage you to crack this book open and give it a test drive.

I would especially recommend this book if you edit others people work, are in a writers group, or want to understand more thoroughly why some things work for you and others don’t.  Just another tool for you to add to your belt.  Until tomorrow, keep reading, keep writing, and as always – stay sharp!

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