I've finally worked out my problem with writing

I suddenly realized why, for years, I’ve only been able to write shit. I’ve not even managed to write a lot of shit. The stories and characters are great inside my head, but they never work on the page, mainly because no matter what I do, all my characters end up talking like they’re in the Bible or Lord of the Rings or something. I just can’t write good dialogue anymore, and now I know why.

It’s because I talk like that in real life. I sound like I’m in the Bible or some especially solemn speech of Gandalf’s. It feels natural to me to talk like that, so my characters start talking like that. I don’t know why I’ve never made the connection before.

So, all that remains is to work out what to do about it. My favourite passage of my own is a diary entry written by a drunk character that I wrote eight years ago while I was myself drunk. I hope that’s not the solution, 'cause I can’t very well get drunk every time I sit down to write. And the plots would probably get too weird for the story’s good, too.

Any suggestions?

I would politely suggest that you not worry about this. Considering some of the glurge that is out there right now, some of it making millions for the authors, I really don’t think you need to worry about too-weird plots, or even for that matter, bad writing, standing in your way.

This thread suggests there may very well be a good reason for getting drunked-up. Also, if it is to facillitate your writing, the beer could be tax-deductible. I mean, where’s the down side?

Go for it!

You could re-think that assumption about not being able to get drunk every time you sit down to write.

My old playwriting instructor advised us to tape conversations (with permission) and listen for distinct vocal characteristics and methods of expression. I recommend transcribing interesting conversations to look at flow and expression (because I can’t always catch it just by listening and it’s faster to look it up on a page than find it on a tape.

Just run a tape when two or three people are around and get an idea of how people express themselves differently.

Also, listen in public to how people are talking – be an observer.

Oh, sure. Find a solution that doesn’t involve drinking. How convenient.[/futurama]

No, no, you go listen to people conversing… in a bar!

If you’re imaginative and determined enough, every solution can involve drinking!

Your writing style in your post here doesn’t sound overly formal or dramatic; in fact it sounds fairly conversational. (Well, it’s more polished than real conversation of course, but isn’t writing supposed to be heightened reality?) Just write your characters’ dialogue as though they were posting on the SDMB.

It’s probably because English is my second language. I can’t write in English the way I speak in Swedish.

If I were just a little better at English, I’d probably try writing in it, but I’m just not good enough.

shrug Worked for Hemingway…

He was also an alcoholic who killed himself. Just not worth it in my opinion. Besides, he’s hardly the kind of writer I’d like to emulate.

“So, how can I write better dialog?”
“Well, dialog in fiction isn’t just speech. It’s concise. It’s concetrated. It covers the points that are important to the characters.”
“What about their philosophy?”
“If that’s important, fine. But if they’re fighting a bettle with the evil frogs, they’re not going to say much other then ‘watch out for their tongue!’”
“So I should keep things short?”
“That’s it?”
“No, of course not. You also have to show the character’s emotional state. But I learned something years ago when writing newspaper releases that has stood me in good stead with my fiction: no paragraph should go over three sentences.”
“What? That’s awfully short.”
“Sometimes it is. And in those cases, you can write more. Like in this paragraph, for instance. But when you get to four sentences – especially four long sentences – it’s turning into a lecture.”
“And I don’t want that.”
“Avoid it as much as possible. Figure out how to explain things without lecturing.”
“Any other tips?”
“Remember, sentence length is a guide to emtional state. When you’re upset or angry, you use short sentences. Whenever you character is mad, have him express things in only a few words.”
“Is that it? Anything else to add?”
“Yup. The more you write, the better you’ll be. Also note that dialog does not have to be complete sentences*; sometimes a single word will do.”
*The “talk in complete sentences” rule is due to grammar school training. It has its reasons – it forces kids to write more than one or two word answers and thus write more for practice – but doesn’t apply once you grow up.

Write in English (in which you sound fairly ordinary - in a good way) and then translate it into Swedish.

Couldn’t you write in Swedish and then translate it afterward? That might ease some of your discomfort.

I’ve always found it helpful when I’m stuck with dialogue to say it aloud. If it sounds funny when I say it, I try to picture my best friend expressing the same idea, and how she would say it.

don’t ask, meet Lissa. When you guys figure it out, let me know.

Joking aside though, I believe Swedish-to-English wouldn’t work; it’d sound just as stilted as my Swedish. English-to-Swedish might have promise, actually.

Yeah, finding the right “voice” for a character is hard. I used to have the urge to explain everything in dialogue, too, especially because I’m the type of person that likes to go into Geeky Exposition. But slowly, I’ve been learning to get into my characters heads better; it helps to roleplay, especially with other people.

I try not to give my characters too many weird quirks; I’ve since regretted making one guy a walking thesaurus, because his dialogue is a pain in the ass to come up with. Vocabulary’s just one way of distinguishing a character. Does he/she/it use contractions? Is he the blunt, straightfoward type or the shy, withdrawn type or a smooth operator? Do they gesticulate wildly when they talk, or do they have the perfect poker face?

Words are power. They often have a second (or even third or fourth) layer of meaning lurking under the surface.

Maybe you can post some of your dialogue here, and we’ll take a crack at suggestions?

Like I said, it’s in Swedish. I doubt many of you could help with that. Thanks for the offer, though.

You folks have trouble with dialog? I just don’t understand that – dialog is the easiest part for me. I can’t write narrative or description worth a hill of beans, but once my characters start talking I can write all day long.

Many people find it easier to write for an already established character. A trick some writers use is to secretly steal their character from another book or movie. For instance, your character may be a San Francisco P.I. named Bob Smith, but in your mind he’s really Bruce Willis from Die Hard. You might have no idea what Bob Smith would say in a given situation, but if you imagine him as John McClane, the words might come flowing out.

There’s plenty great archetypal characters out there to borrow from. Just be wary of plagiarism laws and don’t “borrow” too many details. Fortunately, you can’t copyright a personality. :wink:

ok, I am going to get bombed on this, but I will have my say. Write what you feel, screw the conventions of proper grammar. Real people don’t talk that way, and real people don’t expect characters to speak that way in a book. They expect them to be real. I write a bit as a hobby, have never been published, just give it away to friends. I once gave one of my stories to an editor and what came back was so not what I was trying to say. Go with your guts, it is you telling the stories, not an editor. I might say again I have never been published, probably for good reason. I write about things that have happened to me, but throw in enough entertainmaint value that I call it fiction, even though 90% of it is true. I find that writing about stuff that really happened gives a lot of credibility to it, writing fantasy stuff takes a lot more imagination and talent that I have. I Don’t have to make stuff up, I merely have to make it interesting. I know it is long, but I include a modest example here:
Episode 47
The Power Outage

So it is Friday night. I have had a bad week and am feeling more than a little bit sorry for myself. I have a few stiff drinks and go to bed early. Early for me is like eleven PM. At about 1:30 or so my eyes pop open. It is quiet. Dead silent. I hate quiet. Quiet is not a part of Mort’s normal life, or at least as normal as Mort’s life gets. I have a fan always on just for the noise, and an aquarium with the noisiest filter pump I could find. But it is silent. Shoot. Power outage. Sherry says Mort! Get a flashlight! I tell her to just settle down and above all, don’t panic. The power company people will have it all sorted out long before morning.

She insists I get a flashlight. I have over the years bought about a half dozen MagLite flashlights, those totally everything-proof aircraft aluminum you can drive a truck over it and still works jobs. They always disappear. I keep a cheap “it comes with a ten pack of batteries” plastic job in the bathroom cabinet. No one ever swipes that one. So I get up to get the light. It never occurs to me why the blind lady wants a flashlight to begin with. She is the one person in the house who does not need it. So I get up, in total darkness, and walk right into her, lose my balance and we both go down with a thud.

“Don’t panic” I tell her. “But as long as we are both down here anyway…” She makes it clear the flashlight is a priority. So I get the flashlight, and hand it to the blind lady. She then leaves me standing in the dark, taking the only known flashlight with her.

I go back to bed. No need to panic. A few minutes later there is a tug at the blankets. MORT! MORT! The lights are acting funny! What the heck? I look up and the lights are acting funny. Just barely on. I realize we are not having a blackout, but a brownout. That is when the power is not out, but you are only getting a small piece of the normal power. My father in law was a refrigeration
mechanic and told me that a brownout is the worst for fridges and freezers, because the compressor motors try to get started, but without enough juice to start properly, they burn out trying. So I tell TA to turn off the main breaker, cutting off all power to the house. Then I tell everyone, “Don’t panic and go back to bed.”

Momma bear is having none of it. Full emergency measures in effect. Battery powered radio on the kitchen table. Shoot, I can see the power company truck driving by outside, this is all going to be over soon.

“Don’t panic!”

There is no arguing with Momma bear when she gets this way. We get the oil lamps off the mantle and make sure they are ready to be fired up. She says since it will be at least a little while before the power comes back and we should start up the fireplace. Well it was real warm under my blankets, but I know there is no arguing with momma bear at this point. Fireplace sounds reasonable.

“You do it.”

I head for bed. A little while later, just when I am inspecting the inside of my eyelids…MORT! MORT something is wrong with the fireplace! I drag my ass out of bed yet again, in the cold, in the dark and look at the fireplace.

Dang! She got one wowser of a fire going. I mean “Smell the chimney pipes get hot” kind of fire. This one log is burning like an F-4 Phantom jet just laid down a napalm strike. This log must have gotten something soaked into it or something, it is just not right. Burning way too hot, and not just burning, but shooting flames out. TA and I try to squirt a little water on it to calm things down. No effect. Now I am getting scared. Fortunately we have a fire extinguisher near the fireplace. A fairly good sized one charged with foam for just such an occasion. I give TA the nod to let her fly. TA let it rip, and the obvious happens. If you shoot a lot of stuff at high velocity (the foam) into a small box (the fireplace) some stuff is going to come back out. And in this case, a lot of it is still on fire. I am still saying “Don’t panic”, but am rapidly changing my mind. There are a thousand little “Lightening bug” embers flying around the place, TA is trying to nail them with the extinguisher, and catches me in the face with the foam spray. A fine snoot full of foam there thank you. At the same time he yells “It is no good, it is just spraying soapy water!” With the calm that can only settle in at such a time I ask “What the hell do you think foam is???” Okay we are beyond the panic stage.

In a remarkable show of teamwork, TA uses the last of the foam to knock the flames down enough so I can grab the log with the fire tongs and Sherry opens the patio door and that log, still on fire, goes sailing out the door looking like a fleeing jet with the afterburners on.

“Don’t panic” I say.

“Get stuffed” is the general reply.

Now while this is entertaining enough, remember this all is happening without power, the only light being the fire we are trying to put out. Add soot, smoke and other assorted airborne impediments to vision and it is pretty dark. And if that isn’t enough, we are not all exactly suited up in our fire-fighter gear. Skivvies and body hair is about it.

So we are all exhausted. Get the smoke cleared out and everyone goes back asleep (which is what I said we should do at the start, but noooooo, momma bear knows better). Except AJ. He doesn’t have to go back to sleep. He is sleeping at the start and never wakes up during the whole sorry mess.

So a few hours later I am once again awaken.



Twenty degrees below zero outside, and nobody remembers to turn the main breaker back on. Is there a flashlight around here? My cheapie flashlight has disappeared, so with the little LED flashlight on my keychain I get to the power box and throw the breaker back on. Light and heat come back online. Life is good.

As I stated at the start, I had a few drinks down the pipes when this whole mess started. Little did I realize TA had been downtown and was not in Einstein mode himself. As he observed the next day, four people in the house; sleeping beauty, two drunks and the blind lady. No wonder the dog wanted to go outside so badly…



I first decide between fiction and non-fiction. For me, it’s something non-fiction. That is one of the reasons I gravitated to my profession: technical writing!

Then I decide what I want to write about. It has to be something I want to say, regardless. The form of writing comes last.

You probably want to hear that I have some magic formula for curing your Gandalf syndrome. I don’t. You may end up having a lot of that in your writing, but you don’t have to let it dominate you. You just have to be willing to work hard to overcome it.

If you want to write, you’re going to have strengths and weaknesses. You may be good at plots (I’m terrible at them), good at conversations (ditto), good at characterizations (I’m OK), good at descriptions (one of my strengths), good at organization (I’m good at this), or good at ideas (one of my strengths).

Use your strengths to best advantage, and work hard to overcome your weaknesses. The overcoming takes courage and practice.

seenidog, there’s no right and no wrong in this, but in my opinion, in the case of your dialog, it suffers from two things.

The first is inconsistent punctuation: some speech is in quotes, and some is not. It’s confusing for the reader. At the first “Sherry says Mort!” I had no idea what was going on. It could be:

“Sherry”, says Mort! - he wanted some booze.
Sherry says: “Mort!” - Sherry wanted Mort’s attention.

But in actual fact it just read like nonsense at first. I had to go back and re-read to know what was being said. Later speech was indicated with quote marks, but then it stopped being indicated again. Then reappeared. If you’re going to adopt a convention, you can go without th punctuation, but I personally think you should stick to it, otherwise it confuses the reader.

Secondly, you say “Real people don’t talk that way, and real people don’t expect characters to speak that way in a book.” That’s true. Problem is, people don’t speak this way either: “But as long as we are both down here anyway…” “It is no good, it is just spraying soapy water!” Especially in the second quote. This is a panic situation - who bothers saying “it is” when they could say “it’s”?

I’d say go ahead screw the conventions of proper grammar, but not to the detriment of comprehension. Some of it’s there for a reason. And sure, report how real people speak, but make sure they actually do say it like they would.

Priceguy, something we did at college was to record a short, random conversation between two people, then script it. Buy a Caryl Churchill script (in translation if available) and look at the heioglyphics she invented to make a conversation sound “natural”. Obviously you can’t do this for on-the-page writing, but it might help to give you an idea of intent, interruption, continuing thought, etc. and get a more realistic tone.