Characters Should Say and Do Only Things That Have Purpose.

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Writers may think characters should talk and act like real people. If a movie showed actors doing that, the theater would soon be empty. That’s why films cut to the important dialogue and actions. It’s the same with novels. 

Purposeful dialogue, inner thoughts, and actions deepen motivation, conflict, and tension.

Let’s take a look at an example.

No Purpose (reality)

“You’re back,” Alex said, looking over his newspaper. “Where’ve you been?”

“To the store.” Gretta set her grocery bag on the floor.

“Did you get milk? I’m low on milk for my morning cereal.”

“Yes.” Gretta crossed to the African violet on the window sill and plucked away brown leaves. The plant looked better. 

“Good.” Alex turned his attention to his newspaper.

Gretta moved across the room and collected a stack of folded laundry on the coffee table. “Well, I guess I should put the groceries away and get dinner started.”

Analysis: The example shows no conflict or tension to intrigue readers. Nothing is said, thought, or done that tells us something about the characters. Boring.

image by ASSA

Purpose: Show a Shaky Marriage 

“You’re back,” Alex tossed his book onto the end table. “Where’ve you been?”

Gretta set her grocery bag on the floor and planted her hands on her hips. “Where do you think I’ve been?” 

Alex checked his watch. “You’ve been gone a long time to get milk.” 

“So you think I’m having an affair?” Gretta crossed her arms over her midriff.

“I don’t know what to think anymore.” Alex stood and walked toward the back of the house, shaking his head.

Had she pushed him too far? “I stopped to look at houseplants,” she called. “Dinner will be ready in thirty minutes.”

His car keys jangled as he returned to the den.

Her heart raced. Was he leaving her for good? 

Analysis: The actions show Alex is irritated, disappointed, and has had it. Gretta’s actions tell us she’s defensive. The dialogue and Gretta’s internal thoughts show she goads then is afraid she’s gone too far. We have conflict, tension, motives, and feelings. Deeper. 

Purpose: Show a Possible Murder

“You’re back,” Alex said, looking over his newspaper. “Where’ve you been?”

“To the store.” Gretta set her bag of unnecessary groceries on the floor and concealed in her fist the bloody necklace she’d found in his car. Did he believe the store had been her one destination? If only Kirsten had come to the door when Gretta had made the detour.

“Come here.”

Her heart shot up against her throat. Would he recognize her fear if she came too close? What if he asked what was in her hand? Kirsten had always worn that necklace.

Gretta nodded toward the bag. “I should put the groceries away.” 

“Come here.” Alex laid the newspaper aside and extended his hand.

Had his voice held a slight edge? 

“Just one second.” Gretta crossed to the African violet on the window sill and plucked away brown leaves as she let the gold chain slip to the soil. She wiped her hand on her black slacks. 

“You pay more attention to that plant than to me. Maybe I’ll dump it down the garbage disposal.”

Analysis: Conflict, tension, feelings, and a good reason to pull leaves off the violet. We know Gretta suspects Alex of hurting Kirsten and is afraid of him. We see Alex is a jerk.

How do you check your paragraphs for purpose?



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Zoe McCarthy’s book, Tailor Your Fiction Manuscript in 30 Days, is a fresh and innovative refocusing of your novel or novella. Through a few simple—and fun—steps, Zoe helps writers take their not-ready-for-publication and/or rejected manuscripts to a spit-polish finish. Writing is hard work, yes, but it doesn’t have to be difficult. —Eva Marie Everson, best-selling and multiple award-winning author, conference director, president of Word Weavers International, Inc.

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A Great Story Is More Than a String of Interesting Events

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Like many new writers, I thought I had to create a string of interesting events to make a good story. Some scary, some romantic, some brave, etc. I didn’t see the story as my protagonist’s journey to become someone better.

Goals

Now I know my protagonist’s internal and external goals need to guide the events I include. The events will have conflicts and disasters that push my protagonist forward to attain her goals or direct her to change her goals.

Here’s an example showing how to create events so that designer Abby can do something she couldn’t do in the beginning.

image by sasint

First, look at her goals and what she struggles with.

Internal Goal: Abby wants people to notice her and listen to her.

External Goal: She wants to be promoted to manager of a design team.

 

Next, identify what she’s good at.

Competency: She’s an accomplished designer.

Then, considering the above, brainstorm the initial event that sends Abby on her journey.

Possible Inciting Incidents

Case 1: Abby must use vacation time to go home and take care of her loving mom.

Case 2: A design manager’s accident keeps him home for at least 2 months. The firm will choose the interim manager from Abby and her peers. The chosen designer will show how successful she is as a manager.

Case 3: For the open manager position Abby wanted, the company hires a handsome man from outside the firm.

Case 4: Three top designers must present a design for a particular project. They’ll each have three junior designers to help them. Company vice presidents will judge the design. The winner gets a manager job.

Creating Meaningful Events

Although we could make Case 1 work, it doesn’t naturally mesh with her internal and external goals or her competency. For Case 3, we could, again, brainstorm twists to make Case 3 work with Abby’s goals.

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I can see great possibilities for a series of events that flow from Abby’s goals for Cases 2 and 4.

In Case 2, the first set of events could center on Abby getting the interim job because of her competency. She thinks a permanent manager job is hers. But she applies hard-nosed tactics to get her reports to listen to her.

In the next events, conflicts and disasters surge as her reports avoid her, and production and quality decrease. Abby’s internal and external goals are at risk.

Then new events arise when a mentor explains to her what good management is: using her expertise to help her reports be their best, to obtain what they need to do their jobs, and to lead them with firmness, not meanness.

Then the crisis event occurs when the manager returns. Abby is a peer again, and the manager scraps her design.

More events carry her to a satisfying ending. Possibly, her peers back her, and the manager reinstates the design. Then, upper management recognizes her leadership and sends her to management training.

Unlike in the beginning, Abby now knows how to get people to listen to her, is a noteworthy leader, and is on the road to management.

Case 4 could flow with similar events.

Replace interesting story events with events meaningful to your protagonist’s goals. Click to tweet.

What system, such as the Hero’s Journey, do you use to map out events?

Enliven Your Dialogue with This Easy Exercise

image by geralt
image by geralt

 

What you can learn about dialogue from actual conversations is amazing.

Exercise

 

Recall a discussion you’ve had that contained conflict. Write the dialogue down as close to what was said as you can.

I had this dialogue with my husband this morning:

image by USA-Reiseblogger
image by USA-Reiseblogger

Me: (descending the stairs) “Are you going to eat breakfast?”

John: (reading from his iPad) “Yes.”

Me: (after performing breakfast and other tasks while he continues to read his iPad) “Well, I’ve done all the tasks I can think of down here.” (my foot on the bottom step) “Call me when you’re ready to have breakfast.”

John: (closing his iPad cover) “I’ve been waiting on you.”

Me: “Me? When I come downstairs that means I’m ready for breakfast. I’ve been doing tasks down here until you were ready.”

John: (rising from chair) “I’ve been waiting on you. You haven’t cut your apple yet.”

Me: (pointing to table) “It’s already on the table.”

John: (looking at apple slices in a baggie) “How was I supposed to know you had apple slices in the refrigerator?”

Me: “I’ll try to be more specific when I come downstairs for breakfast in the future.”

What did I learn from this dialogue?

 

image by yank_sobirova
image by yank_sobirova

1. We don’t always say what we mean. I asked if he was going to eat breakfast because that’s the question he usually calls upstairs to me. Sometimes I skip breakfast. But he always has breakfast. What I wanted to know was whether he was ready for breakfast.

2. We use our actions to speak for us. I’d hurried downstairs because I didn’t want to keep my husband waiting for breakfast. When he didn’t rise immediately, I retrieved our breakfast items and performed other tasks. All obvious activities showing I was ready to eat. Wrong.

3. We create conflict through what we say. Instead of asking him if he was ready, I brought out my big gun. I told him to call me when he was ready.

4. We may speak truth from our perspective, but it doesn’t mean we’re right. John was waiting on me, but he was basing this on his expectation I would cut apples.

5. We can choose to keep the conflict going. I had ammo in my gun: I had apple slices on the table.

6. We become easily defensive by tone. When I pointed to my apple slices with my ta-da! attitude, John shifted blame. How was he supposed to know I was ready if I didn’t cut apples?

7. We may understand the other person, but we don’t want to give in. I could’ve said, “I should’ve told you I was ready.” Instead, my apology was a droll statement.

Much subtext occurred during our dialogue. It also showed the woman wanting the man to be in tune to her and know her wants. It depicted the man enjoying his “newspaper” and expecting the woman to tell him what she wants.

Use this exercise to create models for better story dialogue. Click to tweet.

What have you learned from actual dialogue that you used in a story?