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Making Your Story Real

Below I have included the outline of my talk last weekend as a speed presenter at a writers conference. I was speedy because this was too much material for 15 minutes. The topic was "making your story real," and there are a lot of ways one could approach that subject, but I chose this way.


It is already real for you. This is about making your story real for readers.

Ask and answer three questions (and it might take a while)

1. What is your story (now)? Can you state it in fewer than 25 words?

2. Who are your readers?

3. Who could be your readers (buyers)?

The second two questions are less fun than the first one. They are only necessary if you want to attract readers, which you should.

I will cover three aspects of making your story real plot, character, dialogue, and setting:: Research, Details, and Dialogue.

I. Research. Story about rejection letter. However, I have read novels that have gotten the historical details wrong.

You cannot do too much research. None of it will be wasted. But not all of it will be before the actual writing; some will be during the proces

A. If writing

1. contemporary fiction: How did the situation happen? What really happens in a particular? In my writing group, a member was questioned about a detail in a police procedural. “That’s how they do it on TV.” TV and movies are not research. Anyone who has sat on a jury knows the courtroom isn’t like the dramatic scenes on TV. As a college professor I am annoyed by how they are portrayed: the bells ring at the end of class and the professors all have affairs with their students.

2. memoir: Research for your memories. You don’t remember everything and were a child through a lot of it.

3. historical fiction: “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.” (L. P. Hartley)

4. more in the fantasy realm: Consistency within the world you create, but characters still need relatability, humanities, foibles, virtues. Harry Potter. There is no Hogwarts, but the children act like teenagers today, although English

B. What to research:

1. Historical settings, happenings, details. Famous names in the area (why is one of the main roads in Nashville “Demonbreun?” Who was president?

2. Geographical

3. Other writers in the field.

4. Slang of the time (and profanity)

5. Available technology of the time.

6. Overriding social problems of the time.

7. Demographics of the area and era.

8. Of course, not all research happens before you write. But you need to know that your basic premise actually is based in fact and possible.

C. Tips

1. Probably keep with one era at a time.

2. Research with open minds, and leave your preconceived ideas at the door.

D. Where to research: Reliable; don’t be afraid of books. The Internet can be too easy.

II. Getting details right.

A. The devil is in the details; better, God is in the details. Reality is in the details.

B. Binding rule of fiction: You do not want to take your reader out of the setting. After you have established people in a certain setting, your reader has “bought into it” and a small detail can jerk them out and make you lose credibility.

C. Example: My first novel had a suicide about a minor character, and one of the readers had one question about the whole book—“why did the character commit suicide.” In retrospect, I should have had a good answer.

D. Corollary: Never think your editor or readers will not notice it.

E. You must have beta readers in process and at the end of the first draft. They will catch those things. (In my writers group, the men knew the difference between guns with bullets and those with shells)

III. Realistic dialogue

A. What is the purpose of dialogue?

1. To break up the narrative?

2. To reveal character?

3. To move the plot along?

4. To explain backstory?

5. To interest the reader?

6. Answer: All of these, but not all at the same time or same level.

Remember: Dialogue is essentially your characters communicating with each other.

All human communication contains a relationship dimension and an information. (Watzlawick, Beavin, and Jackson, 1967, The Pragmatics of Human Communication)

B. There are lots of good YouTube videos on writing good dialogue (some are more geared toward screenplays, but those can be helpful, too). Overall:

1. There should be a point-counterpoint dynamic in the dialogue. It doesn’t have to be full blow conflict all the time (or even most) but there should be “this is an idea” and relevant response, such as a why question, an informational question, a doubt, an alternative viewpoint.

2. Subtext is what is going on under the words that is not being said

3. Good dialogue, sounds natural and appropriate, to character, setting, tone, situation.

4. People should not “orate” in dialogue (long information dumps)

5. Is dialogue “tell” or “show”? (Depends)

6. Writing good dialogue comes from listening to people talk.

7. Three tips:

a. know the punctuation rules

b. keep tags simple

c. the dialogue and narration shows the emotion, not the tag.

“What are you doing?” she screamed angrily. The adverb is unnecessary. The dialogue and context should carry more weight. By today’s standards, this comes across humorous.

Closing: Read the best. Read your genre, and read the best in your genre.

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