Category Archives: Creating a Narrative Voice

Ed Kociela Your Way guest post headshot

It’s Your Story: Tell It Your Way

How many times have you been told that there are rules to writing and that your story should adhere to those rules? In today's guest post, Ed Kociela suggests that rules are all very well (I'm an apostrophe obsessive, myself!), but only if they don't interfere with your story telling.

Tell Your Story Your Own Way

by Ed Kociela

Ed Kociela Your Story guest post headshot
There’s no lack of hints and advice available to the fledgling author.

The Internet is filled with tips on how to write the Great American Novel.

The problem? For every tip, there is a contradictory bit of advice about how to string words together in a coherent manner.

It reminds me of a creative writing class I once took in college. The professor was a stereotypical, Irish writer, down to the red-bulbed nose acquired from many years of imbibing copious amounts of Jameson Irish Whiskey to the tweed jacket with patches on the elbows and ever-present pipe clenched between his teeth.

Every sentence, he told us, must have a certain number of words. Every paragraph must have so many sentences. Almost every noun requires three adjectives.

Yeah, that kind of thing.

I was sailing through the class, adhering to his rules until one day when I raised my hand.

“Isn’t the point of writing supposed to be one person communicating their idea to another?” I asked.

“Well, of course,” he said.

“When we speak to each other, don’t we construct our thoughts in different ways, sometimes using many words, other times using very few?” I asked.

“Well…uh…yes,” he said.

“Then shouldn’t we, as writers, find the most appropriate way to communicate rather than over-burden our reader with all this flowery bullshit?” I said.

“Aye…do the next assignment your way. Let’s see whatcha got.”

And, the fight was on. Hemingway, Steinbeck, Dylan Thomas, Robert Burns, and many others were brought into the fray until, finally, the exasperated professor unclenched the pipe from between his teeth, pointed the stem at me, and said: “Aye…do the next assignment your way. Let’s see whatcha got.”

I did, and when he returned the assignment, my grade was an “A,” with a lengthy scrawled note about his desire to teach us the rules so we could then know how and when to break those rules.

So, when I see these online tips about how to go about writing, I think of Professor Casey and the brash kid who, unbeknown to him, had been earning money through writing for four years before taking his class, working in a drab and smoky newsroom of a small, southern California daily newspaper.

I would like to think that by the time somebody decides they want to write a book they would have studied grammar, know how to punctuate, and have assembled a vocabulary that allows them ample words to precisely describe the scene and characters growing in their mind.

As writers, we are under-valued. We have all listened as that relative, friend, acquaintance tells us, “You know, I been a lot of places, did good in English, and people like my stories…I oughta write a book. At least that’s what people tell me.”

After the initial urge to strangle them, we are calmed when we remember that if you placed a monkey at a keyboard, sooner or later it would peck out a complete sentence. I know that for a fact because as a newspaper editor for more years than I care to count, I worked with my share of monkeys.

Just because you can turn on a laptop doesn’t mean you have the ability and discipline to put together about 100,000 coherent words. If you think so, I’ll be happy to buy you a bunch of bananas to sustain you while you pound away on the keys.

Because I have a couple books under my belt at this point – “plygs,” a journalistic novel about a fundamentalist Mormon cult that lives along the Utah-Arizona state line, and “It Rocked! (Recollections of a reclusive rock critic),” which is a memoir from my days as the rock critic for the Los Angeles Herald-Examiner – I have had several writers contact me with questions about writing, from technique to fighting writer’s block.

“technique is a personal thing”

I always explain that technique is a personal thing and that writer’s block is something I know very little about because I have rarely experienced it.

I have read sample chapters, outlines, bits and pieces of thoughts and half-thoughts submitted to me by writers. I always encourage them to keep at it, to see where it leads, to hang on to some of the passion that inspired them to want to tell the story in the first place. As writers, we all share a certain amount of insecurity and, at times, need a little pat on the butt to keep going.

Other than that, I offer little else because I would hate to change the writer’s voice, inhibit their thought process, or interrupt the rhythm of their words. The best you can do is simply encourage them to keep moving forward. They will strengthen their words in the second or third rewrite.

A lot of writers make the mistake of emulating their heroes. The inherent danger, of course, is that there was only one Steinbeck, one Hemingway, one Mark Twain, one Hunter S. Thompson. I’ve seen writers who try to adopt the style of another. No good ever comes of it.

So, if there is one solid piece of advice I can offer, it would be, to borrow a line from Shakespeare, “To thine own self be true.”

“Know yourself, know your purpose, know your limitations”

Know yourself, know your purpose, know your limitations as well as your abilities, and tell your story as you see it, and not in the manner of somebody else or to please somebody else because, as Benjamin Franklin once said, “Write to please yourself. When you write to please others, you end up pleasing no one.”

It’s your story.

Tell it your way.

I am occasionally guilty of emulating my favourite writers - do you have to watch yourself and your writing the same way? Share your thoughts in the comments below - and with your friends, using the handy buttons!

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Scintillating Dialogue

Ever felt your dialogue was not what it could be? In today's guest post, Fiona Carter covers tips for bringing your characters' conversations into the real world.  Enjoy!


On Writing Scintillating Dialogue
By Fiona Carter

Dialogue is one of my absolute favorite parts of storytelling, and as a result, it’s a part I’ve put a lot of conscious effort into getting right. Like most authors, I struggled with that stilted feeling in my earliest attempts, and I’m certain I have plenty more to learn, but I’m proud to say that I’m often told now that my funny, sweet, and/or rip-your-heart-out scenes of dialogue are my greatest strength, so here, in a nutshell, is what I’ve figured out on the topic throughout my career thus far.

First, a note on stylized vs. realist dialogue:

These are not two different techniques so much as a sliding scale. All good dialogue is, by its very nature, stylized to some extent, just as all fiction is. Reality has lots of fluff that isn’t particularly meaningful or entertaining and never leads anywhere, both in and out of conversation.

Fiction conveys emotional truth by reflecting a distilled version of the emotionally relevant parts of reality, and dialogue is no exception. 100% realistic dialogue would have a lower frequency of memorable, resonating moments and be unreadably long-winded and aimless in places. On the other hand, dialogue that is far enough removed from reality that it no longer feels sincere has also failed at fiction’s goal.

Whether you aspire to be an uncanny realist or the novelist version of Quentin Tarantino, these tips should help give your dialogue the impact you’re looking for.

1: Listen to your characters.

Really listen. Hear what they sound like. All people, even people who grew up together, have slightly different speech patterns. Your characters should too. Depending on their life experiences and individual dispositions, different characters will use different turns of phrase, often turns of phrase you wouldn’t choose for yourself.

They’ll also verbally respond to situations differently. Some will have emotional outbursts at the drop of a hat, and some won’t. A volatile character who doesn’t react to a major occurrence will feel wrong (unless there’s an exceptional reason for it), as will a usually stable character having a meltdown over a minor occurrence (again, unless their unusual reaction is a noted plot point). If you need a tough character to have a meltdown, be prepared to arrange a plot that will convincingly push him or her over the edge.

That said, if you’re going to write a dialect dramatically different from your own, be careful. Study people who speak it, and err on the side of subtlety.

2: Write it from all sides.

Give all characters the dignity of speaking as if the scene is from their perspective. As writers, controlling all sides of a conversation, we have the power to tweak things a little bit to set characters up for better reactive lines than we’re likely to get in reality, but don’t abuse the privilege.

Every line spoken by every character, even the most minor of minor characters, must have some plausible, in-character thought process behind it. If a character only says something to set another character up for a line, or to offer exposition to the reader, the line will sound unnatural.

If you can’t find an effective way to rationalize it from the speaker’s perspective, find another way to slip in that exposition, or cut that great comeback you were setting up. Your work will benefit from it as a whole.

3: Remember that a scene is more than a script. It’s also a performance.

Your readers can’t see or hear your characters the way you can. They can only see the words. Think about how many different undertones the word “okay” can carry, depending on whether it’s said grudgingly, cheerfully, or somewhere in between. Consciously look for any unintentional way the spirit of the words could be lost or misinterpreted, and make the mood clear. A single line description of a character’s body language can make all the difference.

4: Let characters say what they want to say, not what you want to say.

Few things are more obvious or damaging to suspension of disbelief than an author pushing characters into a sock puppet argument analyzing an issue. Characters can certainly express beliefs if they come up naturally and help to develop the plot or relationships, but those beliefs must believably belong to those characters and be expressed the way those characters would spontaneously express them. When dialogue begins to sound like a rehearsed, structured demonstration by a school debate club, it no longer belongs in fiction.

If your story has a message, trust the subtle, honest exploration of the world, characters, and events to communicate it naturally.

5: As in all things, show, don’t tell.

People rarely talk about how they feel in clear, clinical terms. Moments of startling honesty are great if they’re used sparingly and set up believably, such as when characters are under extreme pressure, chemically/magically/otherwise mentally altered, or in company they deeply trust, but often a point can be made much more effectively through how they say things and in what they don’t say.

Suppose your characters are making up after a big fight. A gesture of peace, a few brief words about the heart of the problem, or even a few words about some inconsequential detail of the fight if your characters are still skirting their issues, will take you much further than a whole chapter of them analyzing their psyches in marital counseling session levels of detail.

6: Finally, say it out loud!

Act it out, the whole conversation, back and forth, the way you intend it to sound, with the narration left out. It’s the most effective way to identify those last little awkward parts that need adjusting, reactions that don’t quite follow logically, contractions that need to be added or removed.

Happy writing, everyone, and may your dialogue sparkle!

Fiona Carter writes under the pen name J R TitchnellF.J.R. Titchenell and is the author of several short stories and her latest full length novel, Confessions of the Very First Zombie Slayer (That I Know of) can be pre ordered from Amazon now.

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