If you are interested in blogging or want to promote your book, please contact E. B. Davis at writerswhokill@gmail.com.

July Interviews

7/1 Lena Gregory, Scone Cold Killer
7/8 Jessica Baker, Murder on the Flying Scotsman
7/15 TG Wolff, Driving Reign
7/22 Leslie Budewitz, The Solace of Bay Leaves
7/29 Cynthia Kuhn, The Study of Secrets

Saturday Guest Bloggers

7/11 Mark Dressler
7/18 James McCrone

WWK Bloggers:

7/4 Valerie Burns
7/25 Kait Carson


Susan Van Kirk's Three May Keep A Secret has been republished by Harlequinn's Worldwide Mystery. The WWK interview about the book can be accessed here. We're so glad another publisher picked up this series.

KM Rockwood's "Burning Desire," and Paula Gail Benson's "Living One's Own Truth," have been published in the anthology Heartbreaks & Half-truths. Congratulations to all of the WWK writers.

Please join Margaret S. Hamilton's Kings River Life podcast of her short story "Busted at the Book Sale" here. Congratulations, Margaret!

Look for Kaye George and Margaret S. Hamilton's short stories in the new Mid-Century Murder by Darkhouse Books. Kaye's story is "Life and Death on the Road" and Margaret's story is titled "4BR/3.5BA Contemporary."

Grace Topping's second novel in Laura Bishop staging series, Staging Wars, was released by Henery Press on April 28th. Look for the interview here from April 29th.

Kaye George's second novel in the Vintage Sweets mystery series, Deadly Sweet Tooth, was released on June 2. Look for the interview here on June 10.

Annette Dashofy's 10th Zoe Chambers mystery, Til Death, will be released on June 16th. Look for the interview here on June 17.


Sunday, July 19, 2015

A Dialog Exercise (A 12-Step Program)

Earlier this year on one of the listservs I follow (I can’t remember which one or I would tell you; maybe one of the commenters will remember the thread?) well over half the people who responded to a question about their writing skills indicated the best part of their writing was their dialog.

And gosh, doesn’t it shock you that my knee-jerk reaction to the question was that the best part of my writing is dialog? In retrospect, I’ve come to a different conclusion, which I’ll give at the end. (Those of you who have read my novels, what do you think I do best?)

Much of the dialog I read in poorly written books fails miserably for two reasons: lack of tension, and too much filler having nothing to do with the conversation or argument or whatever is going on in the scene.

Here’s an exercise to hone a scene of dialog:

Step 1: Make a copy of your current scene.

Step 2: Remove everything that is not the actual dialog. EVERYTHING. [For example, if this snippet was in your scene “How dare you?” Jane said. She strode over to Fred, reared back, and slapped his face so hard her fingers stung. “Don’t you ever say that to me again.” Becomes “How dare you? Don’t you ever say that to me again.”]

Step 3: Pick a few of the lines and read them aloud. Pretend you don’t know what is going on in this scene; would a reader know which of your characters is speaking without any attribution clues?

Step 4: Still using only dialog, consider whether you can insert speech patterns or vocabulary or other clues to help the reader know who is speaking without attribution.

Step 5: Temporarily add a “said” attribution to any line that is not clear. [Our example would become “How dare you?” Jane said. “Don’t you ever say that to me again.”

Step 6: Now read the dialogue and mark any questions followed by direct answers. We rarely answer people’s questions directly – particularly if we are somehow in opposition to the other speaker. We have our own agenda; we mishear questions; we delay giving answers when we know the other person isn’t going to like it or it makes us look bad; we lie; we have history together that means a question might mean something entirely different from the mere words.

If at all possible, eliminate the direct Q&As. [Remember it’s all still dialog at this point with a few attributions.]

Step 7: Read your opening lines. Does the reader care about these lines? [“Oh Jane, good morning. Isn’t it a nice day?” “Yes, it’s cleared up so nicely after last night’s thunderstorm.” – If we must know about the nice day or the evening thunderstorm, find a better way than this.]

Delete dialog until there is something happening that is meaningful to the reader.

Step 8: Repeat step 7, now looking at closing lines. It is rarely necessary for two characters to close a scene by wishing each other a nice day. If you can find an earlier line that carries with it foreshadow or seeds of a future concern or implication of unresolved conflict, try ending your scene there.

Step 9: Reintroduce beats (actions, descriptions, internal thoughts that break up the actual dialog), but with a purpose. (1) Look for places where a beat can do double duty: provide attribution and something else (a bit of scene setting, a titch of self-reflection, an observation about the other character {thereby characterizing both characters at the same time!}) (2) Introduce beats that provide tension. {“Barbara, will you marry me?” My confidence puddled around my ankles as she stared at the portrait of her father.} (3) Introduce beats to purposefully slow down the action if a scene is rushed.

Step 10: Remove stage directions whenever possible and any attribution that is now unnecessary. With the work done in the previous steps, most attribution will be unnecessary.

Step 11: Read your scene aloud. If you stumble over anything or notice something not right, fix it.

Step 12: Compare to your original scene. Better, isn’t it?

Oh, and although I do think I do dialog well, the aspect of writing I think I do best are scene openings and closings. We’ll see if the commenters agree.

~ Jim


Sandy Cody said...

Interesting approach, Jim. I'll try this on my WIP. Thanks. I'm always glad to have a new way to look at my work.

Jim Jackson said...


We all learn and work differently. I like trying different things, some of which are helpful and others (that some swear by) don't help me at all. I hope this is one that works for you.

~ Jim

Warren Bull said...

I have not read about this approach before. Did you develop it?

KM Rockwood said...

This is an interesting approach. Actually, the exercise sounds like my first draft of dialogue. I have to go back & put in the tags & the beats, since I usually start out with a page or two of straight dialogue.

Jim, I've read your books, and I think your dialogue is quite effective. So are your scene openings and closings.

Shari Randall said...

Your opener for Cabin Fever was extremely effective!
I'm with Warren. This is a great approach that you have developed. I'm going to keep it handy as I work on my WIP.

Jim Jackson said...

Warren -- Don Maass has an exercise where he strips out everything except for the dialogue itself. Then he has you play with that (make the characters trade insults, make it a rapid-fire exchange of no more than five words per line) and then rewrite your scene.

I took the strip everything idea and then built my steps from there.

BTW -- I think Don's approach can, indeed, help make a blah scene memorable. But I've found this works well for me.

~ Jim

Kait said...

Hi Jim, or should I say, hi Jack, because that is just what I did. I cut and pasted the blog into a Word doc and printed it. Wonderful advice, and I intend to us it!

Kara Cerise said...

Great exercise, Jim. I will save your 12-step dialogue program and use it when I edit.

In addition to effective dialogue, I like the pacing of your books.

Jim Jackson said...

Kait -- you would not be the first to call me Jack. :)

~ Jim

Grace Topping said...

Terrific post, Jim, and very timely. I just received a comment from a publisher saying that some of my dialogue was a bit stilted. I'll use your technique to help improve it.