Steal from the best. – Kurt Vonnegut
Dallas literary agent Jim Donovan was generous in sharing helpful lists for writers after his appearance earlier this month at the Southwestern Chapter of Mystery Writers of America. Last Tuesday I mentioned the first of his “15 Most Important Things to Remember in Writing Fiction.” But we’ll want the other 14, especially as we’re rounding the last turn this week with our NaNoWriMo manuscripts. So here, with no apologies for the theft, is Donovan’s complete list.
1. Resist the Urge to Explain. “The reader will respond proper if your dialogue and action do their job,” Donovan writes. “So let them. Which leads to. . .
2. Show, Don’t Tell. Joseph Conrad said a writer should make the reader HEAR, FEEL, and above all SEE. . . to do this, use concrete, sensory details. (But note Donovan’s caution: “if a description goes on too long, I start skipping. . . ”)
3. Be Aware of Rhythm. Reading aloud helps.
4. Involve the Reader First. If possible, begin in the middle of action or a scene.
5. Kill Your Darlings. (Or as the late, great, eminently theft-worthy Elmore Leonard said, “If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.”)
6. Use Subject-Verb-Object. Avoid backing into a sentence with a modifying clause, especially if it starts with an “ing” verbal.
7. Avoid!!! Use exclamation points as sparingly as possible – almost never.
8. Know Your Characters More Than You Need To. “You should know them – at least the half-dozen or so most important ones – inside out.”
9. Use Markers. One way to make characters more vivid is to use “markers” (visual or otherwise) . . such as clothing, mannerisms, habits. . .and most obviously, how they speak. (See below.)
10. Make Your Characters a Mix of Good and Bad. No Dudley DoRights or Snidely Whiplashes. (I’d add an exclamation point, but that would violate Rule # 7.)
11. Read Dialogue Aloud. “Or aloud in your head, if you know what I mean,” Donovan writes.
12. Just Use “Said.” Unless someone is screaming, yelling, or whispering, don’t use anything but “said” with dialogue, and don’t use an adverb with “said.”
13. Everyone Talks Differently. Each character’s dialogue should be distinct, whether it’s through grammar, sentence structure, vocabulary, rhythm, etc. (See Rule #9 above.)
14. Add Business. Another way to subtly drop in details about your character is to add some “business” during the dialogue – show the speaking doing something at the beginning or middle of a speech.
15. Advance the Story, or Reveal Character. Remember, dialogue should do one of two things: move the story along, or reveal character. That’s all.
For true listaholics, Donovan also has Sol Stein’s “Secrets of Good Dialogue” (expanding Rule #15), “Helpful Lists for Fiction Writers,” “Oakley Hall’s Writing Tips,” “Elmore’s Rules for Writing” and “Creating Unforgettable Characters.” Perhaps if you ask at his email address, he’ll send them to you. Say something nice about his books, too. You don’t want to get on an agent’s naughty list.