Most people who contact me wish to write their memoir. It’s an extremely popular genre with readers, too! We all love to step into the shoes of another person and learn about their world for a few hours. However, readers will put your book down if you fall into certain traps and commit basic memoir mistakes.
If you want to avoid frustration in writing and marketing your book, avoid these common memoir mistakes.
What is a memoir?
A memoir is a very personal story, told by the author from his or her viewpoint, which shares a certain period in the author’s life. While it can be confused with an autobiography, it actually has a different feel. An autobiography reads more like a biography but is told from the author’s perspective. It typically commences with the author’s birth and spans through their entire life. This book a bit more clinical in style, whereas a memoir is all about emotion.
Reading memoirs allows us to delve deeply into the lives of people who have done something remarkable in their lives. Perhaps they overcame incredible odds to reach success in some aspect of their life, or they fought an illness and survived, or maybe they lived through an extraordinary moment of history. We can learn so much about others and ourselves through memoirs.
Popular Types of Memoirs
Within the memoir genre there are a host of categories to choose from. Of course, there is bound to be some overlap, but here are a few options to consider when writing your memoir:
As a ghostwriter, these are my favorite memoirs to write. These are the stories where the author has overcome some great obstacle in life and wishes to share the details of his or her redemption or recovery. This can encompass overcoming an illness such as cancer, surviving a traumatic childhood to achieve success as an adult, recovering from an addiction, leaving a country with an oppressive government to flourish in a new place, or the classic rags to riches story, which can take many forms.
Success in business stories
When you talk to most successful entrepreneurs, you’ll discover they faced numerous daunting obstacles as they climbed the ladder to victory. People in power will often tell you that they failed many times before they figured out how to make it. They wish to share the lessons they learned and their triumph with others, and a memoir is a natural vehicle for their story. This type of memoir is also a favorite of mine (and there is often crossover with the transformational memoir).
Some memoirs take the reader on a journey through an exotic land, sharing all the details of that location. These stories usually encompass another theme, so they aren’t only about the new foods the author ate or the striking vistas he or she viewed. Rather, they are usually about a spiritual, emotional, or transformational journey for the author as well.
After talking to hundreds of first-time authors, I’ve discovered there are some common misconceptions about how to write a memoir. If you’re considering writing your life story, you’ll want to avoid these very basic memoir mistakes. Don’t worry, they are easy to sidestep.
Memoir Mistake Number 1: Focusing on the trivial rather than the big picture
When you write your memoir, you aren’t recording your life’s trivial events in detail. This is high on the list of memoir mistakes because your readers are not interested in what you ate at each meal or which bus you took to work. Toss most of the trivia and focus on the big picture.
This is fairly easy to do. Before you begin writing your memoir, ask yourself, “What can the reader learn from reading my story?” You might need to dig deep and really mine for the gold that’s there. The lessons you have learned over the years will form the backbone of your book.
It might help to zero in on a theme. This will provide focus. There are a wide variety of great memoir themes to choose from. Here are just a few examples:
- Hard work pays off
- Self-pity is a trap
- A positive outlook helps you attain your goals
- Change can be a good thing
- Life is too short not to forgive
When you determine what your book’s theme is, your next step will be to find incidents that illustrate these ideas for your readers. Of course, you wouldn’t want to come out and tell your readers what the theme might be within the pages of your memoir.
Instead, you should show your readers your message through the incidents of your book. Delve into the emotional sacrifices, mistakes and triumphs to share the journey you took. They’ll get the message!
Memoir Mistake Number 2: Covering your entire life rather than focusing on a specific time period
Remember, you’re not writing a school essay or an autobiography. A typical memoir mistake for new authors is to want to start at birth and move forward chronologically. You’re writing a memoir, which will focus on a certain period, one that would fascinate a reader and teach him or her something new about an area of life. It’s a slice of your life, rather than the whole pie.
Now, it’s worth noting that a memoir is usually not written in diary form. Journaling can be a wonderful and beautiful expression of one’s deepest thoughts, but it usually doesn’t translate directly into a book. For one thing, the target reader of a diary is, well, you; a memoir is usually written for others to read. Having said that, one client recently hired me to help her compile her life story into a book that she could then have and read. If you are the sole target reader, you should write your book the way you would like to read it.
If you hire a ghostwriter to write your memoir, keep in mind that diaries always have a strong place in the research of a memoir. Having been a professional ghostwriter for twenty years, I can tell you that a client’s diary is a rich source of color when I write a memoir for a client.
Memoir Mistake Number 3: Not considering the feelings of the real people mentioned in your book
Memoirs are not a good avenue for retribution for past wrongs done to you. Writing a book for revenge is a sharp-edged weapon which can do permanent damage. Besides being a morally questionable action to take, remember that you can open yourself up to lawsuits.
When you write your memoir, you can’t avoid discussing the lives of the people around you. They will become the main characters in your book. Sure, you can change the attributes a bit—maybe alter the name of the grouchy neighbor or make the schoolteacher a brunette instead of a blond. These minor modifications can go a long way to hide the characters in your book.
However, it will be impossible to completely conceal certain pivotal people in your life. For instance, your parents or siblings will recognize themselves.
The safest approach would be to ask all your friends and relatives who might be in your book how they feel about that. If they agree to be featured in your memoir, take the additional step and ask them to sign a release. You can find examples of a legal release online. If any friend or family member refuses to sign, it might be best to keep them out of your memoir.
The bottom line is that whenever you put something in writing, it becomes permanent. While you might feel fine with airing your family’s dirty laundry today, will you be all right with it two years from now? How about twenty years? To avoid these memoir mistakes, it’s best to write about everyone in a good light now to prevent potential upsets later.
Memoir Mistake Number 4: Writing for every reader rather than settling on a specific demographic
Before you even outline your book, you need to determine who your reader is. When I’m working with a first-time author, I’ll ask who the ideal reader might be. Many times a client will say, “all readers.” Writing for “everyone” is high on the list of memoir mistakes because you need to pinpoint a demographic and write to them. The more specific you can get, the better.
Some examples of your audience might be:
- Teenage boys who are addicted to video games
- Medical professionals who are open to holistic cures
- Parents who have lost a child to cancer
- Fans of Star Trek
Consider that you might be at a dinner party. You have a story to share, something amusing that happened to you last year. How would you share that anecdote? I would imagine that you’d tell it differently if you were visiting the White House, seated with dignitaries, than if you were sitting with your bowling buddies or your teenage children. You’d use different vocabulary and your tone would probably change a bit. That’s because you’d want to create the biggest impact with your storytelling; you’d want your audience to receive your communication on a level that they would enjoy.
So when you write, you need to keep your specific type of reader in mind, as if they were in front of you. Of course, even though you’re writing to that reader, that doesn’t mean others won’t enjoy your book. You may accidentally discover a new category of reader as you begin to market and sell your book.
When you write your memoir, it can offer your readers a peek into your soul and universe. They will relish this. Memoirs are an important genre of the literary world. Just avoid the common memoir mistakes and you might just make a difference in someone’s life.
Enjoy the journey!
Check out these additional articles:
You’ve been dreaming of writing a novel and now have the time to do so. You sit down at your computer and stare at the blinking cursor on the blank screen. You know the story concept you want to write but have no idea how to start.
Instinctively, you know that “It was a dark and stormy night” probably isn’t the right beginning. But what is? To ensure that you communicate your concept effectively, you need to prepare to write your novel.
Here are a few tips to get you started.
1. Outline your story idea before you write your novel
A budding writer recently asked me for advice. She was having trouble writing the ending for her book and was stuck. The problem was that she had set off without a plan and then found she’d written her character into a situation she couldn’t resolve. While some people feel that they can write a novel by just typing away with no preparation, that approach can be difficult and frustrating for a new writer.
It is true that magic is created when you’re engrossed in the writing process, but I find that it’s most effective to prepare to write your novel before letting your story flow from your fingertips. I find that when I am properly set up, the process is smoother because I have guideposts and mile markers to help me find my way.
Writing without a plan is a bit like taking a road trip by just choosing a compass direction and taking off. It could be a brilliant choice, or you might drive for two hundred miles to discover a small town that doesn’t even have a motel. Sure, it can be an adventure, and I’m sure you’d get something out of it; but if you’d done a little research, you may have found a National Park two hundred miles in a different direction with glorious waterfalls and amazing views. Similarly, outlining before you write will save you from wasted time and words. It will save you from the disappointment of tossing thousands of words later.
There are many ways to outline. One way is to write a rough summary. It’s a bit like sketching the image before you apply paint to the canvas. Just summarize your story in a few pages. Don’t worry about grammar. Do be sure to include all major plot points.
Another system I like to use involves a journalistic approach to each incident in the book. I like to jot down:
- The title of the incident
- The characters who will appear
- When it took place
- Where it happened
- The purpose of this scene in the book
For instance, I might create an incident like so:
- Title: First day of college
- Who: Theon, George, and Mikey
- When: Sept 5, 1983
- Where: North Dorm of Harvey Mudd College in Claremont, CA
- Purpose: Introduce college setting and show Mikey living away from home for the first time.
Since the outline consists of notes from you to you, the form it takes really doesn’t matter. What’s important is that the method helps you to prepare to write your novel.
2. Shape your story
Now that you have a list of incidents or a basic outline of the story, it’s time to shape it into a format that will work. If you’re not familiar with the three-act structure, it’s worth looking into. Once you understand it, review a few of your favorite books and movies and see how they incorporate the three acts into their story. Then consider how your story can fit into that structure.
In addition, it’s time to consider the arcs your characters will follow throughout the story. The main characters need to follow paths that make sense for your book. Although you might decide to work out the details of their journeys as you write your novel, you should have a rough idea of where they’re going and where they’ll end up before you start.
Conflict is a key element for any story. Throughout your book, your main characters should encounter many conflicts and difficulties along the way. These serve to raise the readers’ heart rates as they turn the pages or swipe forward. Suspense and mystery help keep readers interested.
As you take these factors into consideration, your outline or summary may need adjusting. That’s normal. At this phase, your story is a bit like clay that you can mold and squish into the shape you desire. After all, you’re the creator.
3. Get to know your main characters
A great story has strong, believable characters. As you prepare to write your novel, you can get a head start on creating characters that your readers will identify with and cheer for. Start by jotting down notes about your main character. If you feel stuck, imagine that you are interviewing him. Prepare questions ahead of time. It might help to start with a detailed physical description. Then write down basic information about him, such as:
- Marriage status
- Number of children
After you have an idea of his basic attributes, you might delve into his ideology, general life philosophy, religious preferences, etc. Continue with this exercise until you feel you can answer any question about him with confidence. In other words, you know him inside out. Take the time to get to know each of your other characters in a similar way. When you know your main characters this thoroughly, many of the scenes will write themselves because you know how your people will act in any given circumstance.
If you still feel that your characters are disconnected strangers, imagine putting two characters into a room together. Set up the scene and watch how they interact. Take notes. Observe their mannerisms as well as their dialogue. Write it all down. You’ll learn a lot about them in this way.
Don’t worry about bit players in a scene. Although adding a few words of description can help set the scene, you don’t need to create a biography for the ballroom dancing instructor who appears only on page 39.
4. Build the world
If you’re writing a science fiction or fantasy story, you’ll need to spend some time building your world. This is a lot of fun! The laws of physics might not be the same, nor will the native plants and animals necessarily resemble those of Earth. Consider the history of the races that inhabit your world. What makes them distinctive?
One writing coach suggested to me that it helps to keep the setting somewhat familiar for the reader and change up only a few key things. If everything is completely different, it makes it hard for people to relate easily. They’ll get confused and put the book down. Also, you can wind up spending a lot of time explaining the nuances of the world, which can be boring and pull the reader out of the story.
As you prepare to write your novel, think of all the aspects of the world that you will need the reader to understand. Sometimes it works to create intricate background stories that delve into the history of the society. Of course, it’s never a good idea to dump this data in a prologue or the first few chapters, as it clogs up the story with a lot of facts. Instead, talented authors weave information seamlessly into the story. However, you, the creator of this world, must understand the basics of the universe that you’re building so that you can craft your story within the rules and guidelines of it.
For instance, for the Harry Potter series, J.K. Rowling spent some time working out the rules of the magical people. She had to do that to keep everything consistent throughout all the books. Part of that process would involve sketching out the characteristics of the basilisk, the boggarts and the dementors ahead of time.
Some authors enjoy creating detailed maps of their worlds to orient the readers with the layout of the land. You’ll also sometimes find detailed genealogy tables for a family of characters in the book. There are many ways to build a world. Select the ones that work for you and your story.
5. Set yourself up for success
It’s easy to say that you want to write your novel. It’s another matter altogether to create a plan to actually do it. I’m reminded of the “Just Do It” motivational video that circulated a few years ago. There’s some truth in that statement. Sometimes you just need to bypass all the distractions that inevitably will crop up and decide that you’re going to complete your book. However, there are a few things you can do to set yourself up for success.
Find a comfortable spot to write your novel
This might be your bed or your dining room table. It might be a lawn chair in your back yard. Or it could be a bench at a nearby park. It helps to have a steady and established spot, where you know what to expect in the environment. Comfort is important. Make sure your seat is comfortable, giving you the back support you need.
Your space should be as free from distraction as possible. Definitely don’t put yourself at the center island of your kitchen when the children are all home and running around. You’ll get interrupted in multiple ways. Ideally you have a room where you can close the door (and maybe lock it).
Find your writing time
When I was younger, I did my best work at midnight. Honestly, I couldn’t think with doing anything meaningful before 10am. Nowadays, I like to write in the mornings. I have three kids and find that I write the best before everyone gets up. 6am is a great time!
I recommend selecting the right time of day for you, then working consistently at that time every day. If you’re serious about writing a book, you’ll need to put in at least one hour. Remember, it takes a while to get into the groove, so giving yourself a 20-minute window will just be an exercise in frustration.
Set realistic targets
Some people might find it more productive to set a word-count writing target each week than a time goal. If you are a daydreamer by nature, time targets won’t help. After all, sitting in front of your laptop building castles in the air for thirty minutes isn’t going to help you write your novel.
So, how many words should you plan to write a day? That really depends on you. You can estimate that 250 words is about a page, so I’d encourage you to write a few pages each day. When I get going (and I’m well set up with an outline), I tend to max out at 5,000 words. After that, it becomes an unintelligible jumble of syllables.
Set a daily, a weekly, and a monthly target. Also, decide on a final deadline for your book. Then make those targets, or better yet, beat them!
Being a mother of three children, I’m a planner at heart. I believe that if you really want to write your novel, you need to properly prepare and follow through with the targets you establish. Set yourself up for success and don’t accept failure as an option. If you’re embarking on your first book and want a few tips, please check out my blog or write me for advice. I’m always happy to help!
There are quite a few rules for writing, but one of the more senior commandments is show, don’t tell. I know this can be a baffling concept to new writers. Honestly, I’d hate to see a lack of understanding of this golden rule stop anyone from putting pen to paper.
As with most new skills, show, don’t tell simply takes a little practice to master. With practice you’ll find that soon you’ll begin to apply the rules almost instinctively. While honing this skill, I’d recommend that you read some of your favorite books over again and observe how the authors bring their stories to life by showing their readers various details. You’ll find there are many ways to accomplish this goal.
The meaning of show, don’t tell
Show, don’t tell simply means that you allow your readers to experience incidents through storytelling rather than overtly tell them what happened. Showing is often done through character development, in which you thoroughly share sensory details, action, and dialogue.
The reason showing is so effective is that it puts your readers directly into the shoes of the main character and lets them to see things through his or her lens. It’s a much more immersive experience for the readers, allowing them to lose themselves in your book.
In order to illustrate the difference between telling and showing, here are two passages:
Terry had a fear of spiders.
As the spider crept along the tartan quilt, Terry’s body convulsed with an involuntary shudder. His heartbeat quickened as its eight legs inched toward his arm. Would that he could move it away, but none of his muscles would obey his silent plea for escape.
Which version did you prefer? Did one make you feel the emotions along with Terry?
Most people would agree that the second example plops the reader in the middle of the scene and adds layers to his terror. And it’s possible that the reader might experience a shudder of his own.
Use dialogue to show feelings
When attempting to show, don’t tell, dialogue can be a powerful tool for a writer. You can show emotions and reveal the deep relationships between characters in an engaging way. Body language also gives the readers insight into what’s going on.
Keep in mind that people have various ways of communicating. Based on their past relationships, they will speak to each other in different ways. Consider how you speak to and interact with your grandmother. Now think about how you speak with and interact with your sibling or your best friend. Each relationship is very different, right? We all have different behavior codes for the variety of people in our lives who are important to us. Well, the same would apply to the characters in your book.
It’s also worth mentioning that people aren’t cut-out duplicates of one another. We all have different traits that create our personalities. Examine all the people you know. Do they each speak in the same way? My guess is that they have slightly different accents, use different words to communicate ideas (probably with a variety of slang terms), and sometimes slip into half-sentences. Use these personal experiences when you write. It’s through your characters’ idiosyncratic ways of speaking that you can reveal their emotions, intentions and purposes.
Sometimes I find it helpful to see the incidents of my story as scenes in a film. Screenwriters have to show what the characters are experiencing through their actions and dialogue. In a film you couldn’t say, “Joe was angry” unless you included a narrator in the script, which would be awkward. No, you’d need to show that he was angry.
Same goes when writing a book.
So, you could write:
Sally decided to leave her husband of twenty years. When she confronted him about it, he became very angry.
Or you could write:
Sally stood at the doorway and studied her husband. “Joe?” she said as she fidgeted with the hem of her shirt.
Joe crumpled the newspaper onto his lap with an exaggerated flourish. “Yes? What is it?”
“I…” she faltered, then took a deep breath. “My bags are packed.”
Joe glared at her. He grabbed his cane and slowly eased himself out of the chair to a standing position. “You’re really doing this?”
She gave a quick nod. “Yes.”
Sally watched as Joe’s face turned a familiar shade of purple. If he’d been a cartoon, steam would have been coming out of his ears right about then. She took an involuntary step backward.
“Twenty years of my life wasted,” he said through gritted teeth. “Get out. And don’t bother to come back.”
Avoid overusing adverbs
Why is it that we hear seasoned writers warn against using adverbs? After all, they are an important part of speech, modifying not only verbs, but adjectives and other adverbs. Pretty universal, right?
Well, Stephen King wrote in his book On Writing:
“I believe the road to hell is paved with adverbs, and I will shout it from the rooftops. To put it another way, they’re like dandelions. If you have one on your lawn, it looks pretty and unique. If you fail to root it out, however, you find five the next day…fifty the day after that…and then, my brothers and sisters, your lawn is totally, completely, and profligately covered with dandelions. By then you see them for the weeds they really are, but by then it’s—GASP!!—too late.”
Dramatic? Yes. But that’s Stephen King’s signature style.
So, is it wrong to use an adverb? Nah. Just don’t overuse them because they can become a crutch. After all, tossing in a ready-made adverb can be easier than investing the time to show the reader how a character feels. Maybe that’s why Mark Twain warned us that “Adverbs are the tool of the lazy writer.”
“I wouldn’t if I were you,” Becky said condescendingly.
Becky folded her arms across her chest, her lips curled into a smug smile. “I wouldn’t if I were you.”
There is no doubt about it, writing is a balancing act: You want to find your unique voice while obeying all the agreed-upon rules of the craft. If you’re new to writing, give yourself some time to develop your own style. Don’t worry too much about all the rules like show, don’t tell until you begin editing your own book. And remember, while it’s good to know the rules of writing, they aren’t intended to become a straitjacket. Keep writing and enjoy the process!
Bestselling novels and memoirs have believable and memorable characters who carry the reader through the story. Think of your favorite books. Consider the main characters. They probably followed a compelling character arc, which encouraged you to follow them loyally and happily on their adventures.
What is a character arc?
A character arc is the journey the character follows through the story. This path usually parallels a traditional three-act structure. As you develop the first act, your reader is introduced to your main character. The stage is set, a conflict is established, and the character’s goals are revealed. Then the character encounters an incident that incites her to begin her journey. This catapults her into the second act, where she follows her personal call to action. Then in the third act, she encounters the climactic confrontation and has her triumphant victory.
There are four main kinds of character arcs used in literature:
Transformational and Positive arcs are somewhat similar. At the start of the story the character is in an unfavorable situation, but, by the end of the story he winds up in a far better position. Flat character arcs have no change. The character stays the same throughout the story. This type of arc is usually reserved for superhero-type protagonists, who have no need to change. They start out good and end up good. It’s worth noting that often minor characters don’t change much. In a negative arc the character ends up in a worse position than when he started.
As a ghostwriter, I specialize in transformational or positive character arcs because I feel strongly that these make for a better reading experience. Although stories like Breaking Bad, where the main character becomes a meth dealer to solve his problems, can be very popular with viewers, they aren’t my cup of tea. I prefer to stick with uplifting plot lines.
Positive character arcs
If your story has a happy ending, this is probably the character arc you’ll want to choose. A popular example of this would be Harry Potter. He starts his journey as an abused boy, confused by his special abilities. Along the way he blossoms into a confident hero of both the magical and muggle worlds. It’s worth noting that many of the other major characters go through their own arcs. For instance, by the end of the series, Hermione and Ron are quite different, because their personal stories are very different.
If you’re writing a memoir, you are the protagonist of your piece, and your experiences will determine your character arc. Most likely it will be a positive one, otherwise why would you write your book?
Over the last twenty years I’ve worked on seventeen memoirs. Each one told the story of my client’s fierce battle to overcome nearly impossible odds. The reason these books were successful was that the reader believed the characters’ journeys and could identify with the authors on some level.
One client shared his story of growing up in an impoverished community which lacked running water and electricity. He had a happy childhood, but there were many challenges and a lot of conflict. As he grew up, he overcame many obstacles. By the end of the book, he found his way to America and became a successful entrepreneur. The story is powerful, riveting, and relatable to many. Not surprisingly, this book is currently being made into a movie.
A few tips for a successful character arc
Tip #1: Conflict is key
Any story worth reading will start off with a bang (ie: it will throw the protagonist into a heap of trouble early on). Honestly, I always do my best to drop my readers into the deep end of the pool so that they have to tread water to keep up.
Now, in order to produce this kind of an effect on your reader, you need to create conflict throughout your book. Your main character needs to struggle and fight his way through whatever circumstance life throws at him. Sometimes this conflict can be quiet; perhaps it comes in the form of a disagreement. Or it can be splashy, like the beginning of a war or an invasion. A story without conflict will become a book that collects dust in a forgotten thrift store.
Tip #2: Develop strong characters
Your goal is to create a main character your reader will want to follow. This can be difficult if she isn’t well developed. You must introduce your main character to the reader early on and make her intriguing and captivating. Give her strong characteristics. Be clear and certain in your presentation of her attributes and personality.
I recommend that before you begin writing your first draft, you create bios for each of your major characters. Flesh out their back stories, work out their motivations, and make sure their behaviors are believable. Really understand who they are. Know them just as well as you know your real-life best friends. Once you have realistic three-dimensional characters, you can create compelling arcs for them to follow.
Tip #3: Show, don’t tell
Show, don’t tell is a popular phrase among writers. It means that you need to show elements of your story through action rather than through narrative. Keep this in mind as you create your lead character’s transformational arc.
For instance, how boring would it be if your protagonist announced out of the blue that he planned to turn over a new leaf and stop selling drugs. Where is the conflict and drama? Your character needs a reason to make a change. And you must show that to the reader.
Tip #4: Determine the correct character arc for your story
By choice I have never written a book with a negative or flat character arc. But that doesn’t mean that these are not viable options. You will determine the correct path for your character based on your story and the message you wish to impart.
For instance, if you’re writing a high-action adventure story along the lines of Indiana Jones, it might not work to have your main character undergo too many changes. A flat arc could work. In addition, it’s possible to tell a powerful story with a positive message through a negative arc illustration. The Godfather comes to mind as a good example. Michael Corleone starts out as a good guy, but by the time the door closes at the end of the first movie, you can see that he’s undergone a transformation for the worse.
Not every character arc needs to see the protagonist through from complete failure to complete success or have a complete one hundred-eighty degree shift in viewpoint. Not every protagonist needs to be an Ebenezer Scrooge who turns from a miserly grump into a philanthropic benefactor by the end. No, the change might be a bit more subtle.
As you work on outlining your book and creating the protagonist for your novel, consider the arc he or she will follow. Choose one that works for the story and the message you wish to write. Create an engaging character and a compelling arc, keeping in mind that you want your readers to relate to and understand them. Using these tips, you will find your readers rooting for your main characters and happily and loyally following them on their adventures.
Every writer battles word errors. You know the words I mean. Yours might not be the same as mine, but I would imagine you have common word errors pop up in your writing just as I do.
These trouble words can lead to nightmare scenarios that are enough to keep some people from ever writing. Imagine your embarrassment when you find out the query letter you sent to an agent was riddled with common word errors. Or your chagrin when you learn about all your mistakes from various poor reviews after you finally publish your first book on Amazon.
As a writer, you know the power of words. The words you choose leave a lasting impression on your reader. You want the impression to be good, but the incorrect use of words can spoil the effect you work so hard to create.
Unfortunately, common word errors happen more often than would be expected, especially in these days of self-publishing, when some authors cut costs by skipping the editing phase of a book project. Learning how to edit your own manuscript is key to minimizing common word errors.
I’ll be discussing various kinds errors in this series, but in this article I wanted to zero in on homonyms.
Homonyms are two or more words that sound the same (and are sometimes spelled the same), but they have different meanings. When you fully understand each word, and the differences between the homonyms becomes clear, then it’s easier to use them correctly. Here are a half-dozen of my favorite trouble words.
There or Their or They’re?
These three words mean completely different things:
There indicates a location: Put the pot of petunias there.
Their shows possession by people or things previously mentioned: Put their pot of petunias there.
They’re is a contraction of “they are”: They’re putting their pot of petunias there.
Tip: If your trouble word involves a contraction, try expanding it out into two words. For example: “they’re” becomes “they are.” It can help you determine the correct choice.
It’s or Its?
This one is probably top on the list of common word errors. The confusion lies in the apostrophe. That mark is used to indicate either missing letters (a contraction) or a possession. In this case, the apostrophe signals a contraction.
It’s means “it is,” as in: It’s a beautiful rose.
Its indicates that something belongs to “it”: It’s a beautiful rose that lost its petals.
Again, if you expand “its” into two words you can quickly see if the contraction or the possessive is the right choice. For example:
The child stood on its (or it’s) head.
Expanding out the contraction, you’d get:
The child stood on it is head.
Nope! That makes no sense. Must be:
The child stood on its head.
Your or You’re?
The misuse of these homonyms leads to funny statements. Your indicates that something belongs to “you.” And you’re is a contraction of “you are.”
For instance, there is a big difference between:
The first one means you’re about to eat, and the other means that you won’t be around long enough to worry about grammar anymore.
Than or Then?
Then is used in relation to time, while than is used to show a comparison.
So, you’d say:
Barry went to lunch at noon. I’d like to go then.
I’d rather go to lunch with Barry than later at 2pm.
Now, it can get really confusing if you’re comparing two time periods, as in:
I’d rather go then than then.
But that’s a different story…
Farther or Further?
Both words indicate distance, but it’s the quality of the distance that makes it tricky.
Farther indicates physical distance, whereas further implies a more figurative concept of distance.
So, you’d say:
I’m farther down the road than she is.
I’m further along in the book than he is.
Tip: Farther has the word “far” inside it. This can help you remember that it has to do with physical distance.
I hope this helps make it far more clear so it won’t give you further difficulty.
Complement or Compliment?
Sometimes, it’s just one little letter that makes all the difference.
To compliment is to praise something or someone and to complement is to complete or enhance.
So, you’d say:
He complimented her on her new dress.
He complemented her so well they got married.
Remember that scene from Jerry McGuire?
“You complete me.”
“Shut up, you had me at hello.”
Yes, they complemented each other nicely. No compliments necessary.
As you can see, understanding the meaning of the words helps in choosing the right ones so that you can avoid common word errors in your writing. If you find these confusing, I recommend keeping a little journal of your personal trouble words so that you can refer to them whenever needed.
Today I’m pleased to present a guest blog from Erick Mertz, author and ghostwriter, who is an expert when it comes to structuring a book. I asked him to write this article to give my readers a good foundation in the three-act structure.
Writing a good book, one that connects with readers, requires the mastery of story fundamentals. You must understand characters, the “who” of your book, as well as the setting, the time and locations where your story takes place. No element, however, is more richly rewarding than the plot.
The plot describes the series of events that take place throughout the course of your story. It is the action, those challenges your character faces on his or her path toward achieving their end goal.
A lot gets written about how to properly formulate a plot. Structuring the events in a story the right way leads to a higher degree of readability, meaning your readers will simply enjoy the book more. Getting the right events in place is important, but the right events in the wrong order will leave your readers confused, or unsatisfied, which ultimately leads them to put your book aside in frustration.
Don’t let that happen. Once your readers get into your book, you must do everything that you possibly can to keep them engaged. Getting the right events in the right order is critical to achieving this. One of the ways you give yourself the best chance of achieving this is to follow a classic story structure that has been around and engaging readers for nearly two thousand years.
What Is The Three-Act Structure?
The first thing you may have thought of when “three-act structure” was mentioned was the theater. Stage plays breaks into acts, usually two or three, with an intermission between them. This is the time when the stage changes form and you can go out into the lobby for a quick breath of fresh air.
Using a three-act structure in a book or a screenplay is not indicated by a roadblock break in the action. There is no end of Act I break written on the page. In a book, structural shifts are seamless. While some changes may come in the form of a chapter break, there isn’t a callout anywhere that says, commencing Act II, as there would be in a stage play script.
Rather than roadblocks, a writer signals changes in the act by way of subtle shifts in the focus of events. Instead of being told the act change has happened, the reader senses it through the events that unfold. Events in a three-act structure build off of one another, behaving like emotional building blocks. Early scenes set the tone for future events, always narrowing in focus and increasing in intensity until the very end when the main character — your protagonist — reaches their goal.
Three-Act Structure & Character
Before diving into the elements of the three-act structure, it is important to establish a fundamental understanding of core character archetypes. In the most rudimentary terms, characters break down into three main types: protagonist, antagonist, and ancillary characters.
The main character, or the protagonist, is the central focus of the story’s central journey. They are the person (or creature, force of nature, or animal) whose path of change we are following. Change comes to all characters, but the protagonist’s change is the one we really care about the most.
Opposing the protagonist is the antagonist. This is the story’s villain, the force putting up the resistance to the main character’s change. Their actions are focused on holding back, slowing down, or stopping the protagonist on his or her way toward their goal.
By and large, ancillary characters are along for the ride. They attach themselves to either protagonist or antagonist (although sometimes they act alone) and are the ones helping achieve those ends. Think of them as the cast of fun, interesting, helpful, or hindering partners that move the story along.
When we refer to events within the three-act structure, they come in reference to what the protagonist is doing and where they are. In rare instances, those events connect to what is being done to them. You will see that the other character roles are usually there to affect what the protagonist is doing.
During the first act, setting and character are established. This is what writers call the ordinary world, where the main character has their roots planted before the real story starts. We see this is how they were living before the “inciting incident” an event that happens during this section.
Act One is important for a couple of reasons. First, it provides the necessary context. We need to see who our hero or heroine is before the adventure. At some point in this story they are going to change — hopefully drastically, in the direction toward a better self — so this is our chance to see their life before.
The other reason Act One is important is because it is where the “inciting incident” occurs. Every hero receives a call and it usually comes in the ordinary world when they least expect it.
The demarcation between Acts One and Two is the moment when the story’s hero chooses to accept their call to action, something they may have denied before. They’ve debated about the ordeal long enough. They’re no longer thinking about doing something extraordinary — they’re on the path to doing it.
Act Two is the book’s longest section. It comprises roughly 50-60% of the length. This act comprises most of the action, from the early part of the adventure to the introduction of antagonist forces to the set-up for the final conflict.
Every hero is faced with a unique challenge all their own. In Act Two, they are meeting that obstacle, learning about the mountain they must climb, and actually climbing it. This is where they stumble and fall down, before getting strong enough to make the push to the end
Any storyline can be thought of this way, from fiction to memoir to business book. All of our lives and journeys, real or imagined, are filled with conflicts that require acceptance, practice, and trials before the climactic moment on the path to ultimate success.
Act Three commences moments before the final challenge is breached. It is arguably the shortest section of a story, centered around the climactic confrontation and falling action.
What is the climactic confrontation? Think of the moment in the story when the hero meets the villain, opposite forces facing off against one another. The protagonist has been moving steadily toward meeting their goal and the antagonist has been pushing back. This is when push comes to shove, the moment when someone has to triumph.
What constitutes the falling action is everything that happens after the climax has been resolved. Maybe the antagonist is vanquished, and the protagonist receives the proper laurels. In one way or another, the journey of transformation has been completed and the hero can return home.
The Three-Act Structure In Action
Perhaps the simplest visualization of a three-act structure is through the Disney classic, “Dumbo”.
In Act One, our protagonist, a baby elephant with ears too big, is born into an unforgiving world. He is an outcast in the circus and struggles to find his worth in a world cruel to misfits.
Act Two begins when Dumbo works to find his place in the circus. His journey is to find his means of fitting in despite an outcast status he is helpless to do anything about. At first, he fails in his big change, but with some grit and determination (and the help of his guide Timothy Q Mouse) he works to find a place for himself. Through this process, he learns that he may have the ability to fly.
At the beginning of Act Three, Dumbo on the edge of trying out his new trick of flying in front of a packed entire circus tent. After much trepidation, he is successful, which ultimately solidifies his place in the circus as an equal to his peers. The antagonist of prejudice has been vanquished.
The Three-Act Structure — In Conclusion
Understanding how to employ the three-act structure is an invaluable tool for reaching your readers. While the idea of a structure might seem rigid, it actually works quite the opposite way. Knowing where certain events should fall makes structure intuitive and leads to happy readers.
Erick Mertz is a ghostwriter/editor/manuscript consultant from Portland, Oregon. You can read more of his thoughts about the business and craft of writing at his website here.
If you want to be a great writer, and create a best-selling novel or memoir, you must learn how to edit your own book.
Now, I’m a huge fan of Star Trek. Doctor McCoy would often say, “Damn it, Jim. I’m a doctor, not a _______!” (fill in the blank with brick layer, engineer, etc.) I have the feeling that some writers might identify with that sentiment. I can just imagine them saying, “Damn it, Laura. I’m a writer, not an editor!”
I hear you.
I get it.
However, I beg to differ. There’s no getting around the fact that you need to know how to edit your own book.
While you are a writer and can magically weave words together to create worlds and entice your readers, you are also in charge of making sure your words communicate. The editing process will help you accomplish that.
When you learn to edit your own book, you will become a stronger writer. Your first drafts will become better and better with each subsequent book, because you will spot your weak points and correct them. Not only will you improve your ability to structure plot, create characters and highlight themes, but you will probably reduce the number of spelling and grammatical errors.
Edit your own book before you publish it
It’s important to note that after you edit, and before you publish, you will need to hire outside editors to make sure everything works. Most authors hire at least a developmental editor and a copy editor. If you have questions about this area, please check out my article about the different kinds of editors available to you.
However, before you turn over your work to a professional editor, you will need to make sure it is the best you can make it. That way the editor can do a better job for you.
The editing process begins with you
Think about it.
Your editor can do a much better job if he doesn’t need to wade through a super rough draft. It’s a little like hiring someone to clean your home after a party where litter and lampshades are strewn around the floor. While some may feel it is silly to clean up for the cleaner, it actually makes sense.
With the obvious mess out of the way, he can spend his time doing a detailed cleaning. It’s the same with your manuscript. When you clean it up, it will save your editor time, which will save you money.
The editing process ends with you
When you hire a professional editor, she will give you a lot of comments. Some will be elements that you must change, while others will be an opinion. You need to recognize the difference and act accordingly.
If you misspelled a word or misused a comma, you’ll need to make those corrections. However, sometimes the editor might not quite get your voice, your style, or your meaning. In those cases, you need to know not to make those changes. If you plan to develop a long-term relationship with an editor, communicate directly with her about those points so that she can understand how to better edit your work. If she is defensive, find another editor. There are many good ones out there.
While it’s true that traditional publishers provide in-house editors for all the books they have under contract, you still need to get in the front door. It’s vital to present the best draft you can. Otherwise, they will ignore your manuscript and reach for one of the many thousands that grace their inbox.
Most authors opt to self-publish. Although you can self-publish anything these days, the last thing you want is to publish a book full of plot holes and riddled with typos and errors.
You can never erase the bad reviews you’ll get.
Proper editing will go a long way to encouraging a slew of five-star reviews, which will help you to develop a following.
Edit your own book with the big picture in mind
It’s a mistake to focus on grammar and editing when you sit down to edit your own book. This isn’t a good place to start. Instead, begin by looking at the overall structure and flow of your book. Later you can work your way down to the fine details. When you tackle the big picture first, many of your words and sentences will change, thereby possibly eliminating the need to correct spelling and grammatical errors.
To get a sense of the big picture, I find it helps to find a one-line answer to the question, “What is my story about?” The answer you come up with will help you align your book around that central concept.
For instance, let’s say you determine that your book is about how you struggled through adversity to become a successful business owner. Skip the late-night stress-baking scenes or the irrelevant tiffs with in-laws. Unless the scene directly relates to the purpose and thrust of your book, delete it.
Let’s examine various key elements of the big picture.
When you first start to edit your own book, I suggest that you examine the plot. Make sure it hits all the areas you need it to hit:
- Have you followed the three-act structure?
- Does the story flow logically?
- Is there a good level of conflict and tension?
If you haven’t outlined your book, now might be a good time to analyze the purpose of each incident within your story. If you can’t find a purpose for the scene, delete it.
The next step is to scrutinize your characters carefully from a big picture viewpoint. Do they each have a purpose in the novel or memoir? If not, cut them out. This can be the hardest part of editing for an author, I know. Writers tend to get attached to the people they created.
While you are sharpening your editing sheers, keep in mind that a character’s role can be small, yet significant. For instance, the barista who serves Joe a cup of joe every day might be a sounding board for his new ideas. Or Clarissa’s strict piano teacher might help the reader understand why she is such a perfectionist as an adult.
The main characters should all follow character arcs. In other words, they need to have some sort of transformation through the incidents of the story. Look over a few of your favorite books. Can you identify the character arcs within the stories?
If you’re writing a memoir, keep in mind that you are the main character of your story.
Themes are the main ideas that tie your story together. Universal themes deal with ideas about Love, Friendship, War, Faith and the like. More specifically, you can have themes such as “Persistence always wins in the end,” “Family is important,” or “Being true to oneself has rewards.” For more information about themes, read my article, Great Memoir Themes.
Your book should explore one or more themes. I like to think of it like weaving gold thread through tapestry to make it shimmer. You never want to hit your reader over the head with a theme. Instead, you want to suggest it and have the readers recognize the concept for themselves. Or not. Readers never like to be told what to think. I mean, who does?
As you edit, make sure your story aligns with your theme. For instance, if you want to promote the idea that kindness wins in the end, you might not want your lead character to succeed by gleefully hurting others around him with no consequence.
Zoom in to edit your scenes
Now that you have all the big picture elements the way you want them, it’s time to closely examine your individual scenes one by one.
In the opening scene you want to grab the reader by the scruff of his neck and (hopefully) never let go. One way to do this is to drop him in the middle of the ocean and demand that he treads water to keep up. This is the make-break point of your book. The opening scene can be the most challenging to write, so some authors rewrite that first crucial scene after they complete their first draft. It can be easier to edit after the book is completed because you know exactly where the story winds up and you have all the story elements worked out.
As you review each scene, make sure it has a strong purpose in your story. It should move the story forward or illuminate an important aspect of your characters.
Also, determine if the scenes flow well the way you have them organized. You might need to switch them around. If you do, be aware that you may need to create new transitions.
If you’re a writer who writes by the seat of his pants rather than outlining ahead of time, this is a good time to sprinkle in a few foreshadowing elements. If you’re a plotter, these may be covered. However, while editing, you might have brilliant insights that inspire you to add in a few more.
This is also a good time to review your transitions. If they are too jarring, your reader will be flung out of your book and might never find his way back. Ideally, you want one scene to flow into the next like a long river.
Characters, a closer look
When you examine your characters, make sure they are believable and three-dimensional. Even if a character is secondary, she needs to have proper development and realistic motivations for her actions. Of course, a bank teller who appears once on page fifty-nine doesn’t need a back story, but consider that the third-grade teacher, who is featured in a quarter of the book, will need more than a mere physical description.
Continuity is something to look at in this phase. In the big picture you’ve gone over the character arc and made sure each main character has hit the highs and the lows that he or she should. But now it’s time to make sure each character is consistent in his speech and actions. If Matilda was angry and sullen in the first part of the book, but suddenly becomes cheerful halfway through, there needs to be a reason. Likewise, if you established that Terry wasn’t very bright, it wouldn’t make sense if you later have him wax intellectual about a scientific discovery.
Point of View
You can write your book from different points of view:
- First person – The protagonist is telling the story. He is part of the story and shares his experiences directly.
- Second person (rare) – The narrator is telling the story of “you,” so that it seems like the action is happening to you (the reader).
- Third person limited – The narrator shares some of the thoughts and experiences of the characters, usually just one character.
- Third person multiple – The narrator shares the thoughts and experiences of several characters.
- Third Person omniscient – The narrator shares the thoughts and experiences of all characters.
Make sure you are keeping the point of view consistent throughout the story. For instance, if you’ve chosen third person limited and are writing from Mary’s point of view, you can’t suddenly switch over to James’ in the middle of a scene. Find a way to show how he is feeling from Mary’s viewpoint.
For instance, you wouldn’t say:
James couldn’t believe his ears. How could she have said that?
Instead, you might say:
Mary took a step back as James advanced on her saying, “How could you say something like that to me?”
Dialogue should have a purpose. It should move the story forward by providing information, advancing the plot or giving insight into your characters. Dialogue can be a wonderfully subtle way to reveal your characters’ motivations, as well as their overall moral compass and viewpoints.
Each character should have his or her own way of speaking. For instance, someone who is angry at the world will speak in shorter sentences, whereas someone with a flair for the dramatic might wax poetic with long, flowery prose. In addition, people in the real world sometimes make up their own words or phrases.
As you edit your own book, read your dialogue out loud or maybe have a friend read it to you. Listen carefully to the words and see if they sound real. Bad dialogue stands out like a leech on your leg.
Make sure each character has a distinct voice which is consistent and predictable. Pay close attention to your main character’s voice, especially if he or she is the narrator.
Edit your own book line by line
Now it’s time to zero in on each line of your book. Again, you shouldn’t focus on this task until you have completed the big picture and the scene analyses. Here you’ll focus on the word choice and look for errors.
Line editing is an art and there are many, many ways to edit your words so that they communicate effectively and efficiently. There are too many areas to discuss in this article, but I wanted to highlight a few key ones.
Show, don’t tell
This is a writer’s mantra.
When you edit your own book and see that you’re explaining something such as an emotion or a thought, consider how you might show it. This allows the reader to see it and draw his own conclusions, making him an active part of the story.
For example, you wouldn’t say:
Susie thought of the way Barry broke up with her. This made her feel sad. She missed him so much.
However, you might write:
Susie saw Barry across the room. She turned with a sigh and blinked away a tear as she fingered the silver chain he’d given her the previous month.
For a more detailed explanation of this concept of show, don’t tell, please check out my article on the subject.
Minimize your use of adverbs
Adverbs can weaken your writing. They also tell the reader something rather than allowing him to experience it. So, it’s good to use adverbs sparingly. Instead, use strong verbs to show the reader what is happening.
“I’ll do it later,” he said tiredly.
Instead, use something like this:
John yawned and closed his eyes. “I’ll do it later,” he murmured.
Keep your language real
Never try to impress your reader with fancy vocabulary. Instead, focus on words that best communicate your ideas.
For example, please don’t say:
Katie was stultified as the lecturer pontificated.
Katie found the lecture boring.
Take out needless words
When you write your first draft, the emphasis is on getting your ideas on paper. You should just let your ideas flow. To do that, you’ll probably use a lot of words to give them form. Now it’s time to delete the filler words.
For example, you may have written:
Smith took over the empty pilot seat in order to navigate around the mountain peak.
You can tighten it like this:
Smith took over the pilot seat to navigate the mountain peak.
After all, we can guess that no one was in the seat when he sat down and of course you’d go around the mountain peak.
When you write your first draft, you may find that you’ve repeated yourself. This is the time to edit out those redundancies.
For example, it is not uncommon for writers to write:
…he thought to himself.
You can simply say:
You can only think to yourself.
Or if you wrote:
She kicked him with her foot.
You can edit it down to:
She kicked him.
We know it was with her foot.
Check your “trouble words”
These are words that give you difficulty. Maybe you just can’t remember the spelling or the grammar rule. No worries, everyone has them.
For instance, some people struggle with the difference between “your” and “you’re”. Or they have trouble remembering when to use “it’s” and “its.”
Luckily, there are plenty of online resources and tools to help you with trouble words. But nothing beats finding these errors for yourself. So, keep a list of your trouble words handy and look out for them as you line edit your own book.
You’ve made it through the editing phase of your book project. Now you can turn over your manuscript to one or two professional editors. Then it’s off to the printing presses, virtual or otherwise.
If you have any questions or need help as you edit your book, please feel free to comment below or write me directly.
I belong to a few online writing groups. I love to answer questions that new writers have about how to write and encourage them to continue on their writing adventure. Writing takes practice. And to be able to write dialogue requires a good ear. Check out my article on How To Write Great Dialogue for a more in-depth analysis on the subject.
In this video, I wanted to highlight a few key points to remember.
Tip#1: Write dialogue that sounds real
Have you ever read a book or watched a TV show and just found yourself snapped out of the story? Chances are that the dialogue didn’t sound real to your ears. When characters speak in a way that sounds artificial, the readers can lost interest.
When I was in high school, I remember watching General Hospital. Soap operas are notorious for having poor dialogue. I couldn’t watch one nowadays. There’s no purpose for the interchanges half the time. Or the purpose might have been to prolong the scene.
You’re writing a book. You’re interested in drawing in the reader and keeping him or her engaged. In order to do that, you need to make sure your dialogue is tight and sounds real.
Tip #2: Delete unnecessary pleasantries
The only way to learn to write great dialogue is to start somewhere. I remember when I first started to write stories in grade school, I would begin at the beginning. It made sense. Mary walks into the room to talk to Joe. Wouldn’t Mary greet Joe? Then wouldn’t Joe greet Mary?
Well, sure, in real life you might hear:
“Hello, Joe,” Mary said.
“Hello, Mary. How are you?”
“I’m good. How are you?”
“I’m good, too.”
In a book, these pleasantries are a bit painful to read. Most of the time you can shorten them and cut right to the purpose of the dialogue between the characters like so:
“Hey, Joe,” Mary said. “How’s it going?”
“Great! I got a new job.”
That’s better. It leads into an interesting conversation.
Tip #3: Add humor into dialogue when possible
Now, I’m not saying you should force humor into every scene. That would be awkward.
However, I know that when I really know my characters, when I’ve truly developed them, they tend to create their own dialogue. Some of my characters are good friends. And when two friends get together, they usually crack jokes. This lapse into comedy often includes inside jokes that others on the outside might not get. As an author you need to make sure the reader is in the loop, so that he can understand the banter.
Tip #4: Write dialogue for your readership
Remember that not everyone is always going to get every joke. Some readers won’t get your sense of humor. That’s OK. They aren’t your readership!
In the above scene with my daughter, we throw in a reference to Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Will everyone know the film? Probably not.
You don’t need to write dialogue so that everyone in the world will understand each joke on the first pass. It’s hard to create inside such a tiny box. Simply go for communicating to your readers.
It’s important to identify your readership before you start writing, then write to those people. Teenage boys will probably have a different sense of humor than middle-aged mothers. Maybe.
Simply consider your readers as you write dialogue between two characters. And remember, you can perfect dialogue when you edit your book! Don’t stress about it too much in the first draft phase.
I hope you enjoyed this video and found these tips helpful.
When two characters struggle for conversation in a book, the dialogue stands out like a blooming weed in a garden of tulips. The reader’s attention is quite suddenly ripped from the story and shifts to the awkwardness of the passage. Bottom line, if you want to be a writer, you need to learn how to write great dialogue so the reader feels like he is eavesdropping on your characters.
If you look back at all your favorite books, you’ll discover that you probably got lost in the conversations. The words flowed naturally as they might if you got together with your best friend or sibling.
Honestly, writing dialogue isn’t hard. It just requires a bit of understanding, study and practice.
How to recognize great dialogue
Dialogue is a tool that can breathe life into your story. It must always have a strong purpose, or it will fall flat and be boring. Never have two characters chat for the sake of filling a page with words.
When you write great dialogue, it allows the reader to see how a character feels and what motivates him to do the things he does. It defines his relationship with other characters. In addition, dialogue allows you to move your story forward, provide background information, foreshadow events, or set the mood for a scene. If it doesn’t do any of those things, those passages probably need to be cut.
One of the best ways to learn to write dialogue is to study the dialogue within other works. Sounds simple enough, right? Well, it’s true.
Definitely read lots of books. When you find one which captivates you, go back over the scenes you liked best and observe how the author conveyed his or her message. Look for style points that you might be able to use.
I also suggest that you glance at screenplays you like. After all, scripts rely on dialogue to tell the story. By studying these you can see what works and what doesn’t.
In addition, watch movies or television shows and pay attention to how the screenwriter tells the story through the people. Each main character should have his or her own way of speaking, which helps us understand their personality better. For instance, Tyrion Lannister (from Game of Thrones) uses off-color humor and intelligence to overcome potential prejudice. Or when Teal’c from SG1 lifts an eyebrow and says, “Indeed,” it speaks volumes about the stoic Jaffa warrior. Both characters are beloved by fans.
If you’re anything like me, you were probably brought up to never listen in on the conversations of others. Well…I’m going to ask you to break that rule. I know it sounds weird, but if you eavesdrop on the conversations of strangers, it will assist you in your quest to write great dialogue.
Airports are good places to find interesting people from diverse backgrounds. Malls and cafeterias are other hot spots. If the place is too crowded, the ambient noise might be overwhelming, so pick a place where you can zero in on one group of people.
Really listen to how people naturally chat. Take notes. What slang do they use? Keep in mind that slang and pop culture references will date your piece. This can be helpful. “Groovy, Daddy-o…” would put us in a different era than “Gag me with a spoon.” “Wassup?” was huge in the 90’s, whereas the term “newbie” only became popular this century.
Really observe others as well. Conversation isn’t just about the words; it also involves gestures, facial expressions and vocal tones. Note these down. You can sprinkle them into your story later to make your dialogue more realistic.
Great characters use great dialogue
The best way to write great dialogue is to truly know your characters. To do so, I recommend writing character biographies. Besides physical description, background, hobbies and the like, you can do a deep dive into the characters’ personalities. Is Sam angry because he was overlooked for a well-deserved promotion? Perhaps Georgia is grief-stricken by the death of her husband and Luke is so self-involved that he doesn’t even see another’s point of view.
Give your characters distinct voices
By knowing your characters, you can jot down phrases, physical mannerisms or speech patterns that reveal their true natures. Following the examples above, you’d probably find Sam speaking in short, clipped sentences, while Georgia might speak more hesitatingly. And Luke might have trouble answering a question directly because he doesn’t really care what anyone else is saying.
Make the speech realistic
Some new writers might wonder about contractions. As a child, I was taught that a good writer never used them in formal writing. Later, I learned that isn’t always true.
Sure, there are times when a character might shout, “I will not do that!” If you read that line out loud, you’ll probably find yourself punching each word individually. “I…Will…Not…Do…That!”
However, most of the time, in a normal (not yelling) conversation, the character would use a contraction. “I won’t do that!” It is more casual. And that’s often the right way to go.
Also, consider if characters completely spell out their thoughts or do they sometimes trail off mid-sentence. I think you’ll discover that in real life we often don’t speak in complete sentences. And we don’t always say what we mean.
For instance, you wouldn’t write:
Darla approached Sam uncertainly.
“Go away, I’m mad at you!” he huffed angrily.
This on-the-nose exchange is boring. Instead, here’s another option:
Darla tiptoed over to Sam, biting her lip. “So, I was thinking…”
Sam folded his arms across his chest and glared at her. “What?”
The reader can see that Darla is uncertain and Sam is angry. We don’t have to spell it out.
Like your characters
Whenever you invest yourself (and the reader) in a character, you have to be sure to like him or her on some level. Otherwise the character probably won’t be authentic.
Robert De Niro said in an interview that he must really like every character he plays—even the evil ones. He explained how he had to be able to relate to each character he portrayed in some way in order to get the audience on board. I have to say, that was very enlightening for me, as that concept applies for writers as well as actors.
If you look at it, evil people rarely consider themselves to be evil. They have a reason for their actions, just like anyone else. It’s just that their purpose is often self-serving and contrary to agreed-upon moral codes, making it disturbing for the rest of us.
When you write dialogue for a bad guy, get his or her viewpoint fully; think as he or she would. Otherwise your character won’t be believable.
Tips to write great dialogue
If you want to improve your technique, I recommend doing exercises geared towards writing dialogue. Here is an article with a few writing prompts. Personally, I like to put two developed characters in a room and just listen to them converse.
Then I write what they say.
It’s so simple it can feel like cheating.
Let it flow
While you are writing your first draft, just let the dialogue flow. Don’t worry if it matches your character’s voice or motivation. Don’t agonize over whether or not it’s relevant to the story. And please don’t fret over grammar, spelling or punctuation. Just let it flow.
When you do this, you’ll uncover some sparkling gems of conversation that you might never have discovered otherwise. Don’t worry, you’ll have a chance to fine-tune your character’s words during the editing phase.
Delete the boring stuff
In real life, we sometimes carry on mundane conversations.
“How are you?”
“Good. And you?”
This sort of dialogue is terribly boring for a book. No one wants to read it. As Alfred Hitchcock said, “Drama is life with the dull parts cut out of it.”
As a writer, you must be creative and work out how you can get your point across, forward your story, and develop your characters, all while trimming the humdrum.
Keep your dialogue exchanges short and snappy. Get straight to the point. You want to make an impact, so drop the reader into the middle of the exchange.
Watch the dialogue tags
When I was starting out as a writer, I loved to use any alternative to “he said” I could think of: “She argued” or “He pontificated” or “She moaned” (you get the idea). I went way overboard, and it became terribly distracting for my poor readers. Most of the time it’s much better to stick with the bland “he said.” Having said that, you can skip most of the tags, popping them in when needed for clarity.
For instance, you might write:
“Last night was rough,” Jane said.
Mary nodded. “You’re telling me. I’m sore all over.”
“Think we’ll be called in again tonight?”
“It’s Tuesday,” Mary said. “Nobody wants to see us wrestle on a Tuesday.”
Read your dialogue out loud
When you complete your book, leave it alone for a few days to a week before you edit. Give yourself time away from the piece.
Now, read your dialogue out loud.
Bad dialogue pops out beautifully when you do this.
Here’s a rule of thumb: if the words don’t slide off your tongue easily, your character will trip over them, too. As will your reader.
Note: If you’re bored as you read through the dialogue, you need to edit. Don’t worry, that’s normal! Ideally, even though you wrote your book, you should be just as enthralled by it when you read it over as your future readers will be. When it flows and you get drawn into the story, you know you have a winner.
If you need help with dialogue, email me and we’ll sort it out. Dialogue-driven stories tend to be my favorites.
Additional articles you might find helpful: