Monday, April 14, 2014

Effective Story Settings

Effective story settings transport readers into the action. Some writers possess the ability to develop stories and settings concurrently. What they envision, they create in the minds of their readers. Other writers go into description mode and their readers develop mental pictures of places prior to occurrences of action. These two types of writing will be illustrated here with examples.

A story might take place at one of my favorite places in Colorado, The Seven Falls. I have seen this beautiful place from the bottom of the falls. I have climbed the stairway beside the falls. I have looked down over the falls from the top of Mount Cutler. As beautiful as it might be as a setting, the environment should never take center stage by being presented in isolation.

Example 1: Description Mode

“Colored lights create rainbows on the beautiful clear water as it tumbles wildly over the granite rocks of the canyon. Spruce and pine trees seem to jut magically out of giant boulders. Rising from the canyon floor, 244 steps lead to flower-decked banks alongside the crystal-clear stream. The creek, swollen with snowmelt, swirls angrily before plunging over the boulders.

Are you sleeping yet? This is way too much telling. The story’s protagonist needs to interact with this scene.

Example 2: Concurrent Development of Setting and Story

Tourists stop to stare as I sprint up the steps two at a time. My side aches; my head throbs; my legs protest. Cold water from the cascading falls sprays into my eyes.

Blinking the water away, I glance down the stairway. The man is getting closer. I can't see the knife, but his scowling face, lighted by a blue spotlight, says he is angry. I can almost feel the firm pressure of his grasp on my arm. Gasping for air, I try to move faster. Tears form in my eyes. 

"Stop her! Stop that woman!" The deep raspy voice rises above the roar of the water.

Beside the next step, a tall pine juts from the granite. I have no time to calculate risk. Quickly, I catapult over the railing and grab for a branch. Needles pierce my hands and scratch my face. I’m sliding downward.

Sirens are wailing. My back is screaming. I’m screaming. I hear a rumbling sound. 

“She’s alive.” The man’s face is blurred but I can see his lips moving. I think the patch on his shirt is blue and white. I can’t make out the fuzzy letters.

“Ashley, can you hear me?” The man’s voice seems far away. I focus on the lights reflecting on my beautiful Seven Falls. The water no longer rumbles but silently cascades down the granite rocks of the canyon.

Everything is fading away. I’m not afraid anymore.

This type of narrative engages readers’ senses and assists them with developing mental images of the setting at the same time characters are introduced.
Things to remember:
  • Story details should be a part of actions and dialogue.
  • Everything in the environment including weather, scenery, landmarks, time, and people factor into what characters think and how they act.
  • Be aware of adjectives. They just might be the enemy that slows the action, destroys the scene, and causes confusion.

The Seven Falls at Night*
Happy Writing!

o Previous post about Story Settings

*Picture from

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Writing Dialogue

Most writing conferences have sessions that provide instruction in writing strong dialogue. Presenters for these sessions emphasize the importance of dialogue being realistic, age appropriate, fitting for the time, and succinct. That so many sessions are devoted to this topic suggests that writing realistic dialogue is a challenging task. I found this to be true.    

Realistic Dialogue
Conversations that writers overhear and in which they participate provide information that is useful when constructing realistic dialogue for their stories. Writers need to listen for language patterns used by groups of people in various circumstances around them. They also need to research in order to learn about language patterns from other times and locations.

Age Appropriate Dialogue
By mimicking those with whom they interact, children develop unique sentence patterns and words. A child who hears adults using contractions such as “don’t” and “can’t” might invent the contraction, “willn’t,” and say such things as, “No, I willn’t.” and “He willn’t share.” This is appropriate for a three-year-old. As children mature, their language patterns and vocabulary become more complex and standardized.

A family of characters in one of my winter reads includes an eight-year-old girl. In one scene, the mother carried this young girl on her back. I pictured a rather small third-grader. In an apparent attempt to include details via dialogue, the author repeatedly wrote improbable dialogue for this child. At one point, while speaking to her mother, the child said, “There is no more pressing circumstances for a woman in the home, than in an uncivilized place like this.” I contend that even a precocious eight-year-old child would not make such a statement.

Teenagers have always used unique phrases. “Whatever” would fit appropriately into dialogue written for a teen living in 2014. Partial sentences and the question, “Huh?” would also make current teenage dialogue believable.

Adult dialogue needs to be based on the sentence structure, grammar, and unique words common to the area where the story takes place. If “ain’t” is a word commonly used in the area, then it is acceptable to use this word in dialogue.

My brother writes a continuing series in which the characters are from a specific area and by-gone era. The dialogue and narration are distinctive with relationship to grammar, vocabulary, sentence structure, and language. As a writer in the 2000’s, it no doubt requires a lot of concentration and attention to detail in order to be consistent. As a dedicated writer, he is consistent.

Dialogue Fitting for the Time
Catch phrases, slang, and sayings are invisibly stamped with a time. In the fifties we said such things as “she had a cow,” “I dig it,” “don’t go ape,” “I’m steamed,” and “neat-o.” We creamed our dads’ cars and wrote KILROY WAS HERE on walls and sidewalks. Today’s teen-agers say things like “cool,” “whatever,” “get real,” “my bad,” “well, duh,” and “yeah, right” (plus many other things I wouldn't want to write here). They drive parents’ land yachts and write on Facebook walls. It’s important for writers to study culture related to the times in which their stories take place and to include only time-appropriate sayings in the dialogue.

Businesses and institutions use specialized languages (jargon) unique to their trades or professions. These languages also change over time. Writers need to research thoroughly before using jargon in dialogue.

When a familiar word or phase from a television program or commercial is used in dialogue, it is the responsibility of the writer to insure that the referenced word or phrase was aired before the time of the story. Even some best-selling authors have been required to add disclaimers to their novels because they failed to fact check.

Succinct Dialogue
Writers who are good listeners discover that most dialogue is succinct. Occasionally people relate things in great detail and refuse to allow anyone to interrupt. Their favorite connector words are “and-a,” “but-a,” “you know,” “then-a,” “um-a,” and “well now.” This is monologue, not dialogue. Unless depicting an annoying person who relates everything in unnecessary, tedious detail, succinct dialogue should be the norm.

I believe that good writers are always good listeners. Go out and listen.

Happy Writing!

(Bro's blog link - his stories are posted on Thursdays.)