The Nexus - A Compendium of Writing Guides
I've seen a lot of threads on this forum giving some good advice, and I've written dozens of articles myself on other websites on many aspects of writing, but all of that information seems difficult to access even with the search function. After all, one might use the wrong keyword and find nothing there or they might just want to be browsing to get better without a specific interest in mind.
I envision this thread to be a compendium of what I consider to be the best writing advice I've seen on the forums, as well as my own writings on the matter.
Others are free to post recommendations here as well, alongside materials from outside royalroad. The point is to create a centralized nexus and easy reference for writers to get better at writing. I am not guaranteeing I will be accepting all suggestions though, especially if I find the advice superflouous or covered better elsewhere.
If you're the type to ask why I feel qualified to be giving this advice, it's not really my advice for the most part. A lot of what I've written is based on the advice of older, better authors like Brandon Sanderson, the folks at the Writing Excuses Podcast, multiple youtube channels, and also from another private writing forum. I use my best judgment, based on my over a decade of writing experience (from fanfiction and now to original fiction), what helped me get better, and testing the first principles behind said advice.
Title and Link. (Author) Brief summary
Author - When the content in question is a link to someone else's work, I will not be giving credit to the royalroad profile as it was not their effort to summarize that info.
Worldbuilding - Information to help flesh out your world and setting.
Meta - Guides that are useful to helping you out as an author, such as artwork, how to get reviews, etc. Does not involve itself with the actual art of writing.
Resources - Useful materials to help you write with.
These last three difficulty categories refers to how quickly I believe a new writer can implement the advice being given, factoring in effort vs payoff in reader experience. This should guide newer authors specifically on what "progression" they need to be going at. No sense trying to learn pacing if you can't even format your story properly and all that.
Basic - Everyone should be doing this. It's pretty easy to do, and it pays off tremendously
Intermediate - While good to round out your foundation, only try to tackle these once you're fairly sure of the Basics.
Advanced - More niche topics.
List of Articles:
- Dialogue: The Comprehensive Guide part 1 and part 2 (HaltWrite) Learn how to use the most potent tool of a writer.
- Showing vs Telling and Adverbs Sequel (David Musk) With plenty of good examples on how to show instead of tell. Sequel covers adverb usage.
- Showing vs Telling (HaltWrite) Unlike above, this goes into the theory behind WHY showing is preferred to telling (though not always), and covers the cases where telling is useful
- Dialogue 101: Talking Heads (fleeny13) Covers speech tags, and how to build step-by-step from just plain dialogue into mixing in prose and description.
- Dialogue: Approximations of Reality (HaltWrite) Tips on how to write good dialogue, and pitfalls to avoid.
- Emphasis Techniques and Fatigue (HaltWrite) A discussion on how to emphasize, and a warning of not doing it too often.
- The Art of Paragraphing If you've been accused of walls of text and need to know where to put spaces, this is for you.
- Purple Prose or Lyrical Writing? (HaltWrite) When is too much, too much
- Engaging Characters: Sanderson's 3 Slider Model (HaltWrite) Paraphrased lessons from Writing Excuses on how to analyze characters across three criteria - Sympathy, Proactivity, Competence
- Start Strong (HaltWrite) The principles of a good summary
- The Three Types of Villains (DarthKirby) A good way of breaking down the types of villains, and how to mix and match those archetypes. Discussion which follows is also useful.
- Cheeky Guide on Romance and Flirting (Endless Paving). Very comprehensive guide ofnhow to show flirtation and chemistry between romantic leads.
- Disassociation and Association (Endless Paving) A discussion on two contrasting prose styles and their uses in story telling
- How to Write Characters in Pain (NovelNinja)
- Scent Description How to describe aromas.
- Writing With Color - Words for Skin Tone Pretty much what it says on the label
- The Evolution of Money (HaltWrite) Covers the evolution of economics systems from barter up to digital currency, and the reasons for those changes.
- Premodern Travel Times If you need help figuring out travel in your fantasy / medieval setting.
- Create Cover Without Stolen Artwork (artsymarsy) How to make your own cover art.
- Knock-off photoshop online programs (strand W)
- Checklist for New Stories (David Musk). Comprehensive rundown on what you should be looking at before posting.
- Royal Road Author Premium | Youtube Link (Joan_Ninja_Hen). This 30 minute video covers what benefits Royal Road Premium Membership gives for authors and readers.
- Writers Block: The Cause and the Cure (Mage of mess)
You've probably heard the phrase "Show, Don't Tell" by now. This advice is everywhere - but most new writers don't understand why this rule is a rule, and as a result, don't know when they can or should break this rule. It's common for people to know it on a theoretical level, but struggle to apply it in their actual writing, or go too far and show everything at the expense of murdering a story's pace.
Something is "bad" when it makes the story harder to read.
Walls of Text are bad because they engage an automatic skim in the reader and it takes that much more effort to read. Sluggish Pacing is bad because readers get bored slogging through thousands of words with nothing happening. Hyper Pacing is bad because readers don't have enough time to digest the chain of events, nor are there enough words to create emotional weight.
Telling too much is bad because it makes it difficult for readers to immerse themselves in a story, but telling by itself is not bad. All stories are a mix of showing and telling.
A story that shows every minute detail will bog down the reader. A story that tells everything doesn't allow the reader to form an emotional connection with anything and is an inferior device for reader immersion.
Showing is when you let the reader experience a story through dialogue, action, thoughts, senses, or feelings. Telling is when the story is summarized, described, or told via exposition.
Showing - "How dare you," Harry said, eyes narrowing into slits.
Telling - Harry was angry.
The trick with showing is to leave the reader enough hints that they "get" what you're going for. You can use word choice in dialogue, actions and reactions, a character's stream of thought, the sensations experienced, and context (everything you've written before in the story forms this). If you are too heavy-handed with showing (i.e. giving them too many clues), it's not good either.
A heavy handed example of above would look like this:
"How dare you," Harry shouted. His eyes narrowed into slits and his fists clenched. Something blinding hot seized his chest.
This necessitates a sort of respect for the reader to be able to fill in the gaps, so to speak.
"But readers are stupid!" is not an excuse to tell or be heavy-handed with your showing. Most of this occurs at a subconscious level. A reader may not be able to tell you the exact reasoning why they knew Harry was angry, but they'll know and that suits our purposes jut fine.
Chuck Palahniuk's article advocates for a total ban on "thought verbs" (Thinks, Knows, Understands, Realizes, Believes, Wants, Remembers, Imagines, Desires, etc.) in favor of sensory specific detail - action, taste, sight, smell, sound, and feeling - as an exercise to practice showing and learning to "unpack" a scene.
Telling, of course, has its uses.
Do we really need to know what Harry ate for breakfast on his third day at Hogwarts or the exact type of wood every piece of furniture in 12 Grimmauld Place is made of? Probably not. This is where telling becomes useful, because it allows you to paint the scene without dumping a ton of useless information on the reader.
When in doubt of whether to show or tell, it can be helpful to ask questions.
Is what I'm showing important to the plot or development of a character? Is the scene or place I'm describing important and recurring as a setting? If yes, show. If not, tell.
“Purple prose!” the reader cries, pointing a finger at your ten dollar word.
But purple prose isn’t about using thesaurus words, nor is using thesaurus words bad, per se. Purple prose is when your words become so over-embellished with adjectives, adverbs, and metaphors that it becomes difficult to understand and hurts your story. When the reader has to stop and take a minute or five to process what the fuck you just wrote, that’s purple prose.
Using thesaurus words can be a characteristic of purple prose, but it is not, by definition, purple prose in itself. Only when you use too many that it takes away from the story does it become one.
“I’m heading to the abattoir for some venison,” Hermione said.
Harry rolled his eyes. “Literally no one talks like this.”
Harry stared into her verdant orbs, his soul as weak as a summer’s breeze. Her smile was decadent, filled with promises of carnal vices from her sweet-red lips. Her allure drew him in, visions of his hand running through her golden locks, her enchanting laugh escaping her lips at one of his jokes. He could already see it: Them together, living on a rocky, French precipice. They'd sleep late into the mornings, only ambling out of bed when the golden sun reached its crest at midday. They'd live; they'd laugh, and they'd spend their afternoons stretched out, lounging on the soft snowy sands of a French beach. He and Fleur, a communion of unfaltering love.
The first is character defining and relatively unobtrusive, the second is pointless and overbearing.
On the other side of the spectrum, we have people who say that purple prose is just “a matter of opinion”. That lyrical writing and purple prose are merely two sides of the same coin.
These people are just as wrong as the first.
While lyrical writing can appear similar to purple prose, there are several key distinctions between the two.
Remember our first and foremost rule: Something is "bad" when it makes the story harder to read.
Lyrical writing has to immerse the reader. The moment it goes from being immersive to making them confused is the moment it turns purple.
2) Quality and rhythm
Purple prose is, in general, sloppily put together with little thought spared for the rhythm of your prose. Quantity of thesaurus words is used as a proxy for a well-chosen one. When trying to write lyrically, you have to consider and control even when the reader is allowed to pause and breathe — and you have to get it right.
3) A light touch
Some of the best lyrical prose I’ve encountered don’t just go all out poetry on the paragraph, but actually blend their poetic words with simple ones. The reason this works is because simple lines help highlight the poetic ones, while serving to clarify the meaning of the passage.
4) Authorial Intent, Authorial Voice, & Character Voice
An interesting test is to ask yourself why you’re writing poetically. If it’s to impress your friends or in the hopes of getting your dick sucked, this is probably purple prose.
When a line also starts to sound more like the author and not something that character would ever say or think, it becomes purple. A normal twelve year old child should not be using big words like “unfathomable” to describe normal, everyday things.
5) Emotional Climax, Meaning, and Character Moments vs Superficial Description
Being lyrical has to be earned and they have to mean something.
Usually, you want these things to be aligned with the emotional climax of a story or character arc, or to be used in a way that helps the reader understand what kind of person the character is.
Waxing lyrical about pointless things that bear little significance to the plot or to the characters is superficial, boring, and wasteful.
None of the rules I’ve mentioned above are hard rules — in writing there is no such thing, it’s just a matter of knowing when you can get away with breaking rules — but if you find your prose is taking on two or more symptoms, it’s time to take a good, hard look at it.
And maybe apply a chainsaw to it liberally.
Not everything in your story can be lyrical for reasons beyond being disruptive to the reading experience. Lyrical writing draws attention to itself because it is a technique of emphasis.
When you emphasize everything, you emphasize nothing.
A writer has many tools at his disposal for emphasis. Common techniques include:
1) Adverbs and Adjectives
3) Metaphor and other figures of speech
4) Italics and other forms of editing text
6) Action beats
Unfortunately, what most writers don’t get is that When you emphasize everything, you emphasize nothing. It’s common for writers to try and eliminate the word said when characters are speaking — everything has to be shouted, exclaimed, rumbled, thundered, whispered — no one ever just says things anymore. Or everyone has to say things a certain way — quietly, quickly, loudly, angrily, surprised, frustrated.
Adding lots of metaphors is less common, but still a trap a significant amount of people fall into.
The first three techniques, when overused (and they often are) results in purple prose and reader fatigue. When you add emphasis, the reader has to expend more brain power to process this change from the status quo. Emphasis by itself isn’t bad obviously. Without it, reading would be dull!
But if you end up using a said-synonym more than 90% of the time, when you have an adverb modifying said every other line, when you have metaphors in every paragraph...it gets exhausting to read.
Not only is this bad practice because it violates our golden rule (Something is "bad" when it makes the story harder to read), this is also problematic because it’s breaks show, don’t tell and is purple prose. Techniques for emphasis are what spices are to cooking. Less is more. If you add too much, it not only ruins your story, it also reduces the impact of every subsequent emphasis you try to make. But if you use too little (beige prose), the story is bland.
Like many things in writing, it’s about striking the right balance.
The other four techniques are less common. Italics and other forms of editing text include, but are not limited to: Bold, Underline, Different Colors of Text, using different formats to signify different things (a common example is ~Parseltongue~ for fanfiction) and even using different fonts and sizes of text.
In the vast majority of cases, italics, bold and underline are the only ones you should ever be using.
Different colors of text are hard to read and strain the eye. Relying on this to convey emotion (as is common in Lantern SI fics) is lazy. Different formats are never good as well. One can rarely keep it straight in their heads, creates additional work for the author, and adds nothing of value to a story. Fonts and sizes should, almost always, be kept standardized as well for ease of reading. There is an argument to be made that fonts can convey different feelings, but unless you have an eye for this sort of thing, it’s rarely worth the effort for the potential marginal improvement to your story (nevermind that there are better tools in our repertoire to address this).
Italics, Bold, and Underline
Italics are my favorite form of emphasis in this class. It’s versatile as a means of adding stress to a sentence and, when paired with context, can eliminate the need for said-synonyms, adverbs, and adjectives.
For example: "How dare you," Harry said.
Even with nothing but the choice of words and an italics, you still understand intuitively that Harry is angry/outraged here. Imagine how much more you can get away with when you have a couple hundred words before that building up the scene and context.
Bold and underline are less versatile in that they tend to come off as a strong, in your face, statement. There’s a lot less room to play around with these, but can still be useful in some cases when an italics’ versatility works against itself by becoming vague in its subtext.
It goes without saying that these can be overused as well and are bad when such is the case. Again, less is more.
This, I find, is an overlooked and much ignored tool in our arsenal. Often, people think of spacing as just a means of breaking up Walls of Text, not realizing the power proper spacing can have as a means of emphasis. Words or short sentences that form their own paragraph naturally draw attention to themselves.
Action is good tool for emphasis as well. It tells us a lot about a character’s emotional state. Posture, gestures, facial expressions, among other things are powerful clues — just make sure that everyone isn’t smiling or scowling for ten lines straight. Communications is 80% non-verbal as they say.
Specifically, colons, exclamation points, parenthesis, em dashes and en dashes. Without bogging us down in the specific rules that dictate their use, all of these break up text and, therefore, draw attention to themselves. Colons are useful for making powerful declarations and to signify importance.
Exclamation points are for volume and emotion! (Parenthesis act as kind of little notes or addendums. Use these sparingly, if at all). Em dashes — and en dashes — can be used to draw attention to things within a long sentence.
But be warned. Punctuation can be overused and are just as annoying when it happens. I'm looking at you, dashes, semicolons and exclamation points.
Good dialogue sits somewhere between entirely unnatural conversation and an exact mimicry of it. Really, it’s an approximation of reality.
Why on earth would making dialogue “closer” to how real people talk be a bad thing, you might wonder. It has to do with the magical thing that our brains. When people talk, we usually have a lot of filler words and sounds to fill in the silence while we’re thinking — ah, um, er, I think, well, yeah and many, many more. Your brain automatically filters these sounds out when you hear them (and even then, any public speaker of note will tell you to cut these out when talking).
The thing is, your brain only does that when you hear them, not when you read them. Those, er filler words, uh when you put them into writing, are, well, I think really annoying.
No one wants to read that shit.
Alfred Hitchcock described good stories as “life, with the dull parts taken out.” Dialogue is the same.
In that vein, unessential dialogue should also be kept to a minimum. There are two questions essential to answer when deciding what to keep and what to cut.
What does this do for my plot? What does this show about my character?
Remember, what a character says (or doesn’t say) in any scene reflect the why — they always have some motivation coming in and what they say should drive towards achieving that goal (Plot!). How they say something, on the other hand, reflects their upbringing, social status, education and intelligence, personality, nationality, and a host of other things about them (Character!).
Dialogue is, in my opinion, the best tool for plot progression and characterization you have. You’ll be amazed how many emphasis techniques you can bypass when the dialogue is on point simply because the subtext says so much by remaining unsaid.
On the other end of the spectrum, we have writers that struggle with making dialogue sound authentic enough, what people refer to as wooden dialogue.
Usually, wooden dialogue is a result of having your characters speak too stiffly and formally. This is more often than not an overcompensation for having a weaker grasp on English. The thing is, real people don’t speak with perfect grammar! They like contracting words, fragmenting sentences or running them on to death, using slang (or jargon), and using shortcuts that have entered the everyday lexicon. These might not be grammatically correct, but that shouldn’t matter.
Dialogue, more than anywhere else, is where you can break the rules of grammar.
Not all people have extensive vocabularies either. A University Professor using “exquisite” is fine. A four year old doing the same is jarring.
This doesn’t mean you should just throw away all the grammar rules. If the sentences you construct are incomprehensible gibberish, you’ve still broken the the golden: Something is "bad" when it makes the story harder to read.
There’s really no quick fix for this, nor is there a definitive guide showing which rules you should break and which rules you shouldn’t when it comes to grammar in dialogue. It’s something that you have to learn through immersion in the languages nuance — listen to how people talk, eavesdrop on daily conversations, consume media.
When in doubt, read your dialogue out loud. If you ever find yourself stumbling over something, it means something’s wrong.
Obvious exposition is also another thing to avoid in dialogue. Real conversations have so much left unspoken and implied that people just naturally pick up on. When your characters start stating the obvious every single time, it starts to feel like everyone in the story is retarded.
Having walls of text is also weird. Natural conversations don’t usually have one-sided lectures, but a sort of back-and-forth dance between people. Nor do conversations follow a strict question answer question answer format (something many writers use in place of walls of text to infodump on readers). Instead, dialogue often has multiple threads running through at the same time — you can be discussing the meaning of life while at the same time talking about what to get for lunch.
People don’t just talk at each other like set pieces either. They act and interact with their environment and use body language. They get sidetracked, mishear, misunderstand, interrupt themselves, interrupt each other, get stuck in awkward silences, and aren’t always sure of what they know.
In short, your characters are people.
There are 782,000+ Harry Potter fanfiction stories on fanfiction.net alone as I write this. That means the probability of a reader randomly picking out your story from the teeming hordes is lower than you being killed by fireworks.
Fortunately for you, readers don’t tend to pick stories at random, but rather develop their own strategies for finding “good stories”.
Here’s the thing: We live in an age of instant gratification. Your prose could be Shakespearean but if your Title, Summary, Opening Lines, and Chapter One suck, you’ve already lost them.
The beginning is paramount to ensure that readers keep reading.
Of course, if the rest of your story sucks readers will eventually wise up and leave, but that’s a problem for another day.
Titles are two-fold in this regard. First, they must act as a catchphrase that encompasses your story. They are your branding so to speak — when people hear that title you want them to think of you. That’s pretty hard to do when there are a couple thousand other stories that have similar names to yours. Here, and here alone, do I actively encourage people to break open their thesauruses to find a word that hasn’t been used before (or at least, not as overused).
In this regard, Google is a useful tool for gauging how popular a title is, and conversely, how bad it is as a means of differentiation.
There are quite a few techniques that can help you with naming your story. I’ve already mentioned the thesaurus trick. One can also use simple translations if they feel thematically appropriate. Important and uniquely named plot devices in a story are also good choices (The Hunger Games, Lord of the Rings, Skitterleap, Dreamcatcher). Titular characters are also something to consider (but not for fanfiction because that shit is overdone).
When in doubt, always ask yourself what the story you want to tell is about and extrapolate from there.
Having a bad title isn’t the end of the world, but having a bad summary is. This, more than your title, determines whether or not someone reads your story. You have to get this one right.
Luckily for you, most people are shit at writing summaries, so avoiding common pitfalls is enough to get yours above average.
First and foremost, never ask your reader questions explicitly. It’s annoying in the extreme and kills their curiosity in a story to be forced to ask questions. Instead, your words should be strong enough to make them ask the questions.
Never give away your whole story, and never give the readers nothing. A summary is actually a misnomer in the sense that it isn’t meant to summarize the story so much as give you just enough to want to read, but not enough to kill any reason to read. If your story gives your readers all the answers, they won’t read. If your story is too pretentious trying to be poetic, they won’t read.
I write primarily massive AU fanfics, so that is my story’s unique selling point (Or, for the original fiction space, I tend to focus on political dramas which are quite a bit rarer. When it comes to say a broad genre like Litrpgs or Xianxia, Virtuous Sons is an excellent example of marketing done right by broadcasting itself as a Greco-Roman Xianxia). Thus, my summaries tend to highlight this fact and give readers a sense of the changes I’ve made. When unsure of what to write, always ask yourself what makes your story weird or different and try to emphasize those things. Your story might just be playing on an age-old trope but with (hopefully) better quality writing, but we expect you to at least have some small twist in there to change up the dynamic.
One technique I’ve grown fond of is quoting my own story in the summary, when I can find a passage that can encompass what to expect. Quoting real life people is, for the most part, ill advised.
Another thing to pay attention to is Efficiency of Words. If you can something with less words, do so. Fanfiction.net allows you around three to four sentences given the character limit, so you need to be able to condense your point. This often means having to cut down on overly flowery language and using shortcuts (AU, HP/Initials of Arbitrary Romantic Interest of Choice) to condense some ideas. Ideally, one should never use Slytherin!Harry (and similar tags) because if it’s important enough a point to make, readers should get an idea that that’s the case from your actual summary.
RoyalRoad Note: While Royal Road doesn't have a word limit for summaries, it is still generally good form to have your summaries be as short as possible while still getting the essential idea across. Remember, readers have a very short attention span, so the longer you need them to pay attention to your summary, the higher the risk of losing them.
And that’s all you really need to not be completely shit at summaries. To recap: don’t be too flowery, don’t ask explicit questions, and focus on differentiating your story.
For some more technical advice there is something that I see that at its worst renders otherwise reasonably written fanfiction stories unreadable, and that is tat new writers often do not consider how they use paragraphs.
The Art or Paragraphs - Fred D. White
Skillful paragraphing aids readability.
In fiction writing, you should consider starting a new paragraph when any of the following occurs:
- There is a change in perspective.
- There is a shift in location.
- A different character speaks (you should create a new paragraph anytime someone different says something).
- There is a change in focus or thought
- PARAGRAPHS MANAGE CONTENT: A scene can be constructed in any number of ways—it’s up to you to break it down to the most dramatic effect.
- PARAGRAPHS AMPLIFY VOICE: How your narrator sounds and thinks affects the rhythm and even the design of the paragraph.
- PARAGRAPHS HELP GENERATE MOOD: Is it introspective and thoughtful, or hurried and staccato? Note how the length and type of the paragraphs can maintain or change the mood in a scene.
The Single Sentence Paragraph
When looking to add emphasis and build suspense, it’s hard to beat this device. Take a look at an example from the thriller The Blood Gospel by James Rollins and Rebecca Cantrell:
Quote:Erin’s head jolted forward, snapping her awake. Deafened by the roar of the helicopter, she found herself looking into an amazing pair of eyes, light blue with a darker ring around the edge of the iris. The eyes smiled at her. She smiled back before she realized that they belonged to Jordan.
She had fallen asleep on his shoulder and woken up smiling at him.
A married man.
In a helicopter full of priests.
Once the scene is set, the character’s revelations are broken into short lines of their own so that each one makes an impact on the reader. This can work well to heighten tension and interest in the middle of a scene, and can also make for a page-turning end to a chapter.
Done well, it can reveal so much about the story you're telling - characterization, emotion, conflict, events, worldbuilding, foreshadowing…but done poorly, and it will murder your story in its crib. Throughout this series, we will be covering how to write dialogue, the pitfalls to avoid, and help you get better at it.
As always, the Golden Rule of Writing applies: Something is "bad" when it makes the story harder to read.
- Flow - It should be easy to read, appear effortless, and look good on the page. This section covers the technical aspect of writing.
- Speech Tags, Action Beats, and Speaker Clarity
- Formatting and Punctuation
- Serve a Purpose (Why) - Anything written down must have a point. What is it your dialogue does in service of the story you tell?
- Plot (What)
- Characterization (Who)
- Worldbuilding (When and Where)
- Entertain (How) - Surprise the reader
- Simulates reality (but not too closely) - Good writing is like real life with all the boring bits cut out.
- Too close to reality
- Speech characteristics
- Filler Sounds
- Foreign Languages
- Failing to finish
- Jumping topics
- Speech characteristics
- Wooden Dialogue - Too far from reality
- One note dialogue - Responsive, Descriptive, Instructive, and Expressive
- Lack of abbreviations
- Slavish obedience to grammar
- Perfected - lack of tension
- Written vs Visual Mediums
- Too close to reality
- Be a Conversation - All dialogue involves two, or more, people. Some of those people might not say much, some of them might not be talking at all! It's possible what one person says to another is really meant for the ears of a third person listening in.
- Tension - Characters have agendas in conflict
- Subtext - Better left Unsaid
- Excavating Emotion
- Goals and Desires
- Denials and Biases
- Context - Clue in your Readers
Flow - It should be easy to read, appear effortless, and look good on the page. This section covers the technical aspect of writing.
a. Speech Tags, Action Beats, and Speaker Clarity
1. Speech Tags and Action Beats
A speech tag is anything which describes the actual talking (he said, he questioned, her interjected, etc.). Since this punctuates the dialogue, this is not considered a new sentence even when it ends in a question mark or exclamation point. Hence, you do not capitalize the dialogue tag if it does not need it.
Furthermore, you should use commas (not periods) to end dialogue for speech tag.
"What are you so angry, boy?" He asked.
"I don't know!" The boy exclaimed.
"Fucking psycho." Murmured the first man.
"What are you so angry, boy?" he asked.
"I don't know!" the boy exclaimed.
"Fucking psycho," murmured the first man.
An Action Beat, on the other hand, is some action interspersed between the dialogue (he walked, he laughed, he smiled, etc.). As this does not directly describe the actual talking, you must treat this like a separate sentence and capitalize the first letter!
For however awesome your protagonist is, he cannot smile or glare words.
"Is that your wand, or are you just happy to see me?" she smiled.
"It's definitely" he leaned closer, pulling out an honest to god stick from his pocket "my wand."
"Is that your wand, or are you just happy to see me?" She smiled.
"It's definitely"--he leaned closer, pulling out an honest to god stick from his pocket--"my wand."
2. Speech Tags and Adverbs as Modifiers
"I know what it's like to write dialogue. To feel so desperately that you should modify, yet to suck nonetheless. It's frightening. Turns the writing to shit. I ask you, to what end? Read it. Revise it. Readers will judge all the same. And now, it's here. Or should I say, said is." -Thanos, probably.
It may seem to you that more accurate or colorful words -like snarled, shouted, interjected, questioned, retorted, complained- would be a better choice in place of the humble "said".
Here's a secret: it makes you look like an amateur.
"Said" is a true wingman. It stays sober so you ingrates have a driver at the end of the night. It talks you up to that person you've been hitting on all night. "Said" should be your best fucking friend when you're writing dialogue.
Repeated occurrences of "said" don't really register in a reader's head. It's an important, invisible cog in writing.
"Now," Halt said suddenly, "before some of you get clever and start using 'said' and 'adverb' pairs," said Halt seriously, "this is just as bad, if not worse," he said emphatically, "than using alternative speech tags," said Halt matter-of-factly.
If "said" isn't 80% (Eighty! Not eight you hear me ya shits!) of your speech tags, you're doing something wrong. As a rule of thumb, consider whether that line of dialogue really needs that speech tag. Not want, need.
Can you rephrase the dialogue so that the emotion is clearer?
Can an action be included to show what's being felt or implied?
Does the context and situation make it clear without modification?
Non-said speech tags and adverbs are like spices: use sparingly, so that the flavors are heightened. Use too much and ruin your scene.
3. Setting and Action
"Your characters, in most cases, aren't going to just be sitting down and talking most of the time." Halt shifted in his crappy plastic chair.
"They won't be?" asked Ri Ter.
Halt rolled his eyes. "They're people too."
You can low-key sneak in action beats during dialogue, while readers are paying attention to something else. They can interact with things around them (where they are, what's around them) to help the world come to life and establish setting.
Actions can also convey subtext, emotions, and context in ways dialogue can't.
4. Who's who?
Speaker clarity is one of those things people often forget. It can be easy to assume readers will know who's talking.
Here's the thing, Sherlock. Have you actually written it down?
Some of the worst ways this occurs are scenes that start with dialogue, but do not mention (through speech tags or associated actions) who is talking! Listen, even Charles Xavier could only read your mind when you were in front of him, and the rest of us poor schmucks don't have a Cerebro (or telepathy for that matter).
"One other thing, Halt," she said.
"No, this section is perfect as is." He crossed his arms.
"No it's not, Halt, and you know it," she said. "Halt."
Don't have characters address other characters in their dialogue too often. Once in a scene is usually more than enough, and most times, I never do at all. It's just plain better to use speech tags and action beats to signify who's talking.
"Now one more thing," Halt said.
"Is this about especially longer pieces of witty repartee?" Ri Ter asked.
"Yup, kinda like what we're doing now. Make sure the length of the lines aren't uniform. See? I'm making this sentence longer on purpose."
"Why is that important?"
"Because variety is the spice of life," Halt said.
Ri crossed his arms. "Get out of here with that wise man bullshit and get to the point."
Halt sighed. "When your sentences are roughly uniform in length-"
"-like what you're doing right now?"
"Stop interrupting." Halt looked at his notes. "Uniform lengths make people skim."
"They do?" Ri asked.
Halt bobbed his head. "Not as much as walls of text of course," he said, shuddering, "but make it long enough and it starts to get stale. It's not so bad here, but be sure to look out for it in your own writing."
c. Formatting and Punctuation
One of the cardinal sins of dialogue is to mix the dialogue of two characters together. That's like pairing red wine with fish, or Harry Potter with Severus Snape.
People like that disgust me. Personal bubbles, people!
This doesn't just apply to dialogue, but also to actions of characters. One way to think about it is in visual terms. Imagine yourself as the camera man. Each time you have to turn the camera away from one character to another, you should have a new paragraph.
"Do you understand now?" Halt asked.
Ri Ter stared at his feet.
Halt sighed. "Okay, let's take this from the top. Should punctuations fall inside or outside of quotation marks"?
"Inside," Ri said. "Even commas, question marks, and exclamation points."
"Good," Halt said, "and what's the difference between--"
"--Em dashes are for cutting people off," Ri recited. "Ellipses are for trailing off…"
"You're very rude," Halt said. "Finally, when you have a really long speech to write, and please don't do this often in writing as it's an eyesore to read, you can omit some quotation marks to make it look snappier. See here how I omit the end of the quotation mark at the end of this paragraph.
"Then continue the next paragraph with a quotation mark? Seamless transition!"
Serve a Purpose (Why) - Anything written down must have a point. What is it your dialogue does in service of the story you tell?
- Plot (What)
Does your dialogue advance the story's progression of events? This tends to be one of the more straight forward uses of dialogue, and generally advancement of plot through dialogue is much smoother than through prose. So long as the dialogue isn't just a sequential listing of events A, B, and C, it tends to be a subtler way to show plot, whereas prose tells the plot.
- Characterization (Who)
Does your dialogue reveal something about who your character's are? This works on several levels.
Background - This includes things like where they grew up, their socio-economic class, their age.
While in general it is not recommended that you heavily accent the dialogue of characters who will have plenty of lines in your story (and instead heavily accent a line or two, and let the reader's mind do the hard work for you), that does not mean you should just ignore it.
Accent can be used to show where someone grew up, and conveys a rich amount of detail compactly.
Word Choice is another tool to help establish character background. How do your characters describe something? People are not perfect narrators, and tend to interpret the world around them through a specific lens shaped by their experiences.
For example, Bran (a young boy) in A Song of Ice and Fire, upon witnessing Jaime and Cersei's infidelity does not describe it as adultery or sex. Instead, he describes it as "wrestling".
An academically intellectual character (such as Gellert Grindelwald) would likely have a large and expansive vocabulary, words like indubitably, admonish, facetious, etc. A character who never finished high school would speak with simpler words -- no doubt, scold, joke.
Turn of Phrase / Catchphrase is more a tool to help distinguish a specific character voice rather than convey information about who they are. Tonks greets people with "Wotcher!" while Harry Dresden is known for swearing with "Hell's Bells". An unusual way of speaking helps solidify that character's voice in the reader's head (though this should generally be kept to select characters).
2. Values - What is it that characters value as important? Is it their religious beliefs? Their intellectual superiority? Their sense of right and wrong? For that matter, what version of right and wrong do they prescribe to? Utilitarian ethics? Justice theory? Consequentialism? Kantian ethics?
Characters in conflict, even characters ostensibly on the same side and with the same goals, can differ in how they might achieve those goals.
Remember that everyone is the hero in their own story, and so must believe that what they're doing is the "right" thing. In fact, most individuals tend to believe that what they're doing is in service to some good.
That mafia boss who runs the drug trade? Well, he doesn't allow his men to sell to kids, he keeps violence off the streets, and he provides for the community. These might be self-deceptions to justify their actions, but they're important self-deceptions.
Two protagonists in conflict, on the other hand, might arise from a difference in how they think justice ought to be executed. A classic example of this in heroic stories are "heroes who do not kill" and "anti-heroes who will kill a villain to prevent future casualties."
It's important, of course, that these values aren't stated outright or risk feeling cheap and fake (unless you want a character to come across ingenuine).
Rather, these things should be implied by the dialogue.
"We have to defuse the bomb," Halt said.
"If we defuse this one, we won't have time to get to the one on Main Street," Ri Ter said.
"We can't just leave my family to die!"
"You have to consider the greater good."
Compare above to this:
"We have to defuse the bomb," Halt said.
"My utilitarian ethics tells me that we can save more people if we defuse the bomb at Main Street."
- Worldbuilding (When and Where)
Does your dialogue provide information about the setting?
Perhaps the easiest means of doing this is by characters mentioning something in reference - either an approaching event, some past historical event, a past personal experience, the name of a location, etc. These do not necessarily have to be explained right away, so long as the name is evocative enough.
In my own story (What Wicked Warthings), characters mentions "Bastion Cities" which brings up images of city fortresses, and further suggests humanity as a whole is under threat from something, possibly even on the backfoot of a war and so have resorted to hiding in select, heavily fortified locations.
Referencing known events not unique to your world helps ground the reader in when the story is taking place.
"Anything new on the news today?" Halt asked.
Ri shook his head. "Just that German fellow demanding Sudetenland again."
"Adolf Hitler? Ha! Not like we'll bloody let him take it."
- Entertain (How)
Is your dialogue fun to read?
This is one of the more difficult things to master in writing in general, and can't really be taught, so much as practiced.
There are some authors who are capable of writing back-and-forth that is genuinely funny and endearing to read about, even without any narrative advancement. The ability to write chemistry and humor. These are the "It Factors" which elevate writing from an intellectual experience of reading, to an emotional experience of connecting with the characters.
Humor is a complex topic I find little use in discussing the theoretical practices of as all the theory in the world won't help you become funny as a writer. The best advice here is to hang out with genuinely funny people, and study them. But generally, it boils down to setup (creating expectations) and subversion (going down an unexpected path).
Chemistry is the energetic exchange between two characters - whether it's romantic, familial, friendly, or casual.
Now, the basis of all chemistry is having good characters to begin with. Do they have motivations and goals? Complexities? Are they active? Without good characters, chemistry cannot exist.
Second, it is a dance of opposition and harmony. Chemistry is not a static state of affair, but something which shifts continuously with every line. Banter is a perfect example of this. The playful exchange which appears like argument, in which parties attempt to one-up each other verbally. This can have undertones from lighthearted, inconsequential playfulness, to real disputes with grave stakes.
Much like a dance, this back and forth must be just that, a back and forth. One character cannot completely dominate the conversation or it will kill the delicate balance you have. Each has to have some jabs of their own they can use, allowing them to give as good as they get.
The key to great dialogue? If you can let it accomplish multiple purposes at the same time.
Simulate reality (but not too closely) - Good writing is like real life with all the boring bits cut out.
All good writing is about walking a fine balance between two extremes, whether it be showing vs telling, planning vs pantsing, minimalism vs embellishment. Dialogue is no different in that regard.
Too close to reality - Dialogue should simulate reality, but not too closely.
Filler Sounds - It is all well and good for dialogue to be something we can "see happening in real life", but one should not slavishly transcribe conversations and think it good dialogue. The truth is our brains are wonderfully complex organs that automatically filter out things - such as your nose from vision, the word "said" in a story, and filler sounds.
These are your 'um's , 'uh's , 'you see's, 'well's and many more - words that we use to fill the dead space when speaking with others as we desperately buy ourselves time to think.
Your ears do mostly tune these out (unless they're too repetitive), but your eyes don't.
You should generally not include these things in your dialogue unless they fulfill a specific purpose such as showing social ineptitude, bumbling, or nervousness.
Foreign Languages and Accents - As a rule, less is more when it comes to depicting accents. A dash of dropped h's here and a sprinkling of the odd French word, and voila, your character is delightfully French in your reader's mind.
But don't get caught into the trap of having to add an accent to every other word of your foreign character's dialogue. Doing so not only draws too much attention, and becomes annoying to read about, but it can actually actively harm comprehension. When your readers have to reread a line in order to understand your character's thick accent, you have not succeeded at giving them a thick accent, you have just failed to write.
Instead, play with the perspectives of your characters, telling or showing incomprehension (if you do not intend to have your character understand), or later have them realize the meaning, de-accentified (if you do intend your characters to understand).
The same rule applies for foreign languages. No need to write down every line in German or Essossi or Numenorean if your character doesn't understand (and indeed, only write down lines which might become extremely important later on).
Your readers are here to be entertained, not to gape at your mastery of foreign fantasy languages like French.
Failing to finish
Interruptions - In everyday life, we are interrupted constantly by other people, honking cars, accidents, and the like.
These should generally be cut out of writing, unless you are specifically using this as a means to restrict key pieces of information from the reader or to show a specific aspect of setting.
Otherwise, interruptions for the sake of mimicking reality should be cut out. These don't serve much purpose except padding your word count, slowing down pace, and generally making your story more boring to read.
Jumping topics - Similarly, listening to conversations reveals how quickly people jump between topics. This rapid fire pace works great in real life between people who know each other, or even in visual mediums (Sorkin and Wes Anderson come to mind here), but keep in mind the medium you work with.
Thus, the rules for jumping, non-sequitur topics is not to do so, unless like interruptions you intend to restrict information from readers, or show a certain dynamic your characters have. By this, I do not mean your characters cannot change topics, just that they should do so when a certain topic has been exhausted.
These should not, however, be taken as carte blanche to do it excessively in your story.
Rambling - Which is to say, having your characters go on and on and on without really getting to the point. Readers have no patience for that, and even your characters who tend to ramble ought to get to the point quicker than a real person would.
Dialogue should be sharp, short, and simple.
Wooden Dialogue - What is it we mean when we say "you have wooden dialogue"? It's a broad, all-encompassing term, but generally it boils down to this: Your dialogue doesn't sound realistic enough.
One note dialogue - This is dialogue which is formulaic in its pattern, and thus unnatural. Whether it’s a question-answer-question-answer, an overabundance of obvious exposition, or boring chit-chat which doesn't seem to ever get to the point.
Rather, your dialogue should be a mix of things, evolving as the characters' dynamic does. Dialogue can be responsive, descriptive, instructive, and expressive - you shouldn't feel limited to just using one of these in a scene.
Mix it up!
Overformality - Writing one character who speaks in perfect grammar, formality, and politeness is good characterization. Writing all of them that way is bad characterization, because most people don't talk that way. This is also called "stilted dialogue".
Some of the more common traps to fall into are:
Lack of abbreviations - can't, don't, gonna, coulda, shoulda. I'm not saying use all of them all the time, but throwing a few into the mix won't hurt.
Slavish obedience to grammar - I'm of the opinion that so long as your average reader can understand what is being expressed without difficulty, then you can go burn your grammar textbook in the deepest pits of hell.
Perfected - Perfected lack of tension is dialogue which has no conflict built into it. When all your dialogue sounds like two people commenting on the weather and how nice it is, resolves the potential conflicts before it has a chance to build, then your story will leave people wondering: What's the point of this all?
Predictable - This isn't to say that your dialogue should be balls to the walls wild, jumping into non-sequiturs at the turn of the dime (we just spoke of the dangers of that, after all). Rather, when your reader can figure out every step of your dialogue chain, perhaps you ought to throw in a surprise or two in there.
After all, why should they bother reading a story that can't surprise them even once?
Written vs Visual Mediums - Writing, and reading of writing, is a necessarily linear flow of information. Where the real world (and visual mediums) allow for things to happen concurrently, in writing we can only hope to come close to replicating such an effect in certain ways.
Thus, one should pay special attention to how they arrange their words.
A common mistake I often see is in action-dialogue sequences like this:
"You." Halt narrowed his eyes.
Halt narrowed his eyes. "You."
Think about how you imagine it in your head, and you'll soon realize the first comes across strange. In both cases, no doubt, the writer wishes to establish both of these things happening at once, but due to the limitation of our medium it doesn't translate as well.
As a rule of thumb, any action and dialogue sequence where the action should naturally occur first as a reaction should have the action come before the dialogue.
Be a Conversation - All dialogue involves two, or more, people. Some of those people might not say much, some of them might not be talking at all! It's possible what one person says to another is really meant for the ears of a third person listening in.
- Tension - Characters have agendas in conflict.
A lack of tension. There has to be conflict between the two parties speaking, a reason for us to care and to expect that things won't go perfectly for all involved without effort.
Why is it more interesting this way?
First, tension creates uncertainty. Uncertainty creates mystery. Mystery creates interest.
Second, tension allows for exploration of character dynamic. Like the advice that says to travel with your girlfriend before you marry them, putting your characters in situations where they might be opposed to each other gives their relationship a chance to grow, or fail.
Third, it allows for exploration of character. How a person deals with adversity tells you a lot more about who they are than when everything is swell and the world is great. Do your character become defensive? Do they stay quiet and reserved? Are they angry, violent, and prone to outburst?
So how do we go about creating tension in our dialogue?
Length - Keep your exchanges short and curt. This is not to say that you should never have a character go on the occasional, long-winded outburst, but keeping the barbs short gives the writing a feeling of a quick back-and-forth verbal spar, preventing either side from gaining an upper hand for long.
Action - Interspersing action in between dialogue, especially sudden, violent action, can be a way to show the simmering conflict without it being said.
Contradiction - This is the easiest tool to use. Harry believes Veelas are This is the easiest tool to use. Harry believes the Chudley Cannons are going to suck this year, and Ron disagrees.
Interruption - When characters cut across each other, there's a suggestion there of people struggling to say their piece and be heard. This is especially effective in conversations involving more than two people.
Tone - How something is said can imply more than what is actually said. The use of italics is a favorite of mine to inject terseness and emphasis with minimal need to explain.
Uses of short, sharp, and blunt responses or questions can also lend dialogue a tense tone "What?" "Why?" and every teenager's favorite response: "Fine.".
To which authoritative figures response with imperative commands, which make them sound angrier. "Don't sass me, boy. Go to your room."
Finally, and laziest of all, is to simply describe the quality of voice. "His voice acquired a threatening tone."
- Subtext - Better left Unsaid.
Subtext is such a tricky subject to write about and explain. It's something that comes to you with experience, empathy, and practice. As Kakashi is fond of saying, understanding subtext is to "look underneath the underneath".
Essentially, these are the things better left unsaid.
Subtext makes your dialogue richer, more meaningful, and ultimately more enjoyable to reread.
e.g. An example of dialogue without subtext:
Fleur stood to leave.
Quote:"I don't want you to go just yet," Harry said.
"I can stay a little longer."
e.g. An example of dialogue with subtext:
Quote:Fleur stood to leave.
"Fleur?" Harry said.
She smiled at him. "Yes, Harry?"
He held up a vial. "You wouldn't happen to know how to brew some Veritaserum, would you?"
- Excavating Emotion - Subtext, by its nature of relying of readers to infer rather be spoon fed, is hard. It's one of the larger leaps of faith we as authors have to take. But you have to.
Subtext isn't a nice to have in dialogue, but a critical component in order to make your dialogue feel authentic, and the most obvious way this applies is with emotion.
Dialogue that spells out exactly how a character things and feels strikes us fake, grand emotional "I love you"s aside, because in the real world, people aren't so transparent about these things. We obfuscate, we hide, and we rely on the other person to pick up on cues. And, sometimes, we might not even know what to say and saying the wrong thing could end a friendship, or get you fired, or hurt a loved one.
In Captain America, this scene in particular is a masterful use of dialogue of the third party as a means of suggesting emotions.
Quote:Peggy [to Steve]: I see your top squad is prepping for duty.
Bucky: You don’t like music?
Peggy: I do, actually. I might even, when this is all over, go dancing.
Bucky: Then what are we waiting for?
Peggy: The right partner. [leaves]
Bucky [to Steve]: I’m invisible. I’m turning into you. It’s a horrible dream.
Steve doesn't say a word throughout this exchange. And yet, while it's Peggy and Bucky doing all the talking, one can't help but understand it's really Steve Peggy is speaking to here, and Bucky is the odd man out.
- Goals and Desires - What is it your character is looking to get from the other person in the conversation? Do they want to convince them of something? Get them to reveal information? Encourage them to act in a certain way? Whatever it is, they rarely go about it the direct way.
- Denials and Biases - Consider too what are the base assumptions, denials, and biases your characters might have. Slughorn in Half Blood Prince is not some malicious, muggle hating, mudblood killing Death Eater, yet he still shows his bias against muggleborns during his conversations with Harry about his mother.
What are the things your characters assume to be true about the world, but aren't wholly aware that they believe such things?
- Context - This is perhaps key. The decision of whether to clue your reader in, and by how much, will determine how much hidden meaning they'll be able to understand. In traditional novels, writers have the option of withholding information, allowing readers to reread certain scenes with the full context and understanding more of what's going on and being implied in the rereading.
Fanfiction, in general, lacks this option unless you have planned your story out in advance and stick with it.
e.g. From one of the more recent chapters of my story Zero Requiem, I encounter this very problem.
She pouted. "Do you dislike my company? Or perhaps…" She put a finger to the side of her lip. "Your cousin Donnall tells me you've a horse named Seamoke. Do you prefer riding?"
Lelouch blinked. The only Seasmoke with stories to speak of was a dragon his great grandfather’s great grandfather had ridden before the Dance. According to Mushroom’s Testimony, Laenor sought the company of handsome men, enjoyed them more than was appropriate. Was she implying what he thought she was? "I am better with a bow and a target to hit, but best with a book in hand."
Joanna's implications here can only be understood by understanding some particular obscure lore about Lelouch's family history - something that most readers are likely not to have. Thus, there's a need to spell things out. Thus, while the dialogue itself obscures a lot, it was necessary for me to include a lot of detail so that the reader can themselves follow along.
Ariana Wrote: All is fine, but what's with the pale-green text? For a light-mode person like me, it is close to unreadable :( . Otherwise, this is gold!
Hmm sorry about that. Seems like the formatting is a bit weird when I copy paste over. I'll get to fixing this tonight