Unspoken

On February 19, 2018, Nichole wrote, I want to know what suggestions you might give for the parts of writing that I suppose I would call “background description.” See, I’m a writer who loves dialogue –I love to know what people choose to say and what people say in return. My problem, though, lies with describing what is going on in-between the dialogue.

Allow me to give an example from one of your books I grew-up with: Ever.

“You never crawled,” Aunt Fedo says.

Merem corrects her. “Once or twice you crawled.”

Aunt Fedo ignores the correction. “You were too eager to walk and dance.”

“And climb!” Merem says. She pats Kezi’s hand.

Senat, Merem, and Aunt Fedo laugh.

“Nothing was safe from you,” Senat says, breaking off a section of bread for her.

In this example, using “say” and “said” are the first tools in breaking up straight dialogue as it tells who said it. But, what about the rest? The –as I put it- “background description”- correcting of facts, patting of Kezi’s hand, laughter, and Senat breaking off the section of bread. How would you suggest I write “background description” to break up dialogue?

Christie V Powell wrote back, I think that being able to see the whole thing in your mind would help you nail those details. In writing dialogue, you’re often focused on the words the characters are saying, but you might miss out on everything else going on: real life doesn’t stop when people have a conversation. Visualizing the setting might help.

Also, those little descriptions are a great way to build subtext. Senat handing her bread shows that he’s caring for her. Merem patting a hand is a gesture that shows that she’s an older woman, probably family, showing fondness and possibly a bit of teasing. There is a ton of subtext going on–reading between the lines, if you will. Not everyone will pick up on it, but it makes the story richer.

Here’s a section I’m working on right now (still in progress).

—He nodded slowly, but his guarded expression cleared when he saw her bandaged arm. “Hurt during capture?” he asked. Despite his husky accent, she easily picked out his words.

“No. That tiny griffin…”

“Ah.”

He unwrapped the bandage with fingers scratchy with callouses, but gentle. The wound began to bleed again, but he pressed one hand over it. The warmth grew to heat, higher and higher, but a second before it grew painful he let go. The cut had vanished completely. Mira thought of the Spektrit visitor who had fixed her limp on the beach.

“It brought me to you on purpose. For the healing.”

“He,” the Spectrit corrected. “That griffin is a he. I’m Arvid, Keeper.” He tapped his black collar. “Keepers herd, sometimes heal. You’re a minder. General labor. Sometimes pets…”

She shot the griffin a suspicious look.

I’m with Christie V Powell. The description lets the reader’s senses enter the story to see, hear, smell, and feel what’s going on. And description also allows us to move the plot along with action. In her sample, Christie V Powell even manages to drop in the experience of Spektrit magic or power.

I was just thinking about this in my own WIP. I started a bit of dialogue when an older man, a duke, sits with a young woman and complains about his creaky knees, after he’s demonstrated their effect in the stiff way he sat. But following that introductory moment, the scene becomes disembodied, as I realized just before closing my laptop to get on the train, which I’m riding right now to New York City.

Either I can fix the scene as soon as I open the manuscript again, or I can fix it in revision, after I’ve got a completed first draft. If I decide to delay the repair, I’ll make a note at the top of the first page, along with a string of other instructions to self, to watch out for disembodied dialogue.

So the first step is self-awareness, which Nichole has mastered.

The second step is action. We look at our scene to see what’s missing and what we can use.

In the case of my WIP, my MC, Cima, is embroidering a pillow cushion when the duke approaches her. He’s much higher in rank than she is, but I forgot to make her put aside her embroidery, which she certainly would do–or be rude, which might be useful in a different situation from the one I’m writing. When I revise, I’ll do something with the embroidery.

And he’s a guest! But she doesn’t offer him food! Getting him food, or even starting to stand up if he doesn’t want any, would introduce action.

Let’s go back to Nichole’s quote from Ever. I haven’t looked at the context and I don’t remember what went before or after, but I noticed just now that I left out thoughts and emotions. If I remember right, this scene isn’t from Kezi’s POV, but the POV character would notice how much her family loves her. I hope his reaction came in at some point!

Thoughts and emotions can come only from the POV character or from an omniscient narrator, but there’s always one of those around. The charming thing about thoughts, if we love writing dialogue, is that thoughts are like speech, and yet they do break up the dialogue.

When we want to add description, we start by examining what we have, and we ask questions:

Where are the characters?

What are they doing?

What is the POV character thinking and feeling?

Let’s take the where. Say the characters are having a picnic. What’s the weather? If the wind is blowing, is it blowing away the napkins and paper plates? Do things have to be weighted down with other things? Is there an ant parade? Mosquitoes?  Natural beauty? Who else is around?

If it’s a picnic, eating is probably going on. Who’s a neat eater? Who has mustard on his chin? Who talks with her mouth full? Who serves everybody else?

All of our choices of detail will be guided by our plot and our characters and, especially when we’re near the beginning, what appeals to us.

Here are three prompts:

∙ An argument is great for trying this out. Mariel is furious with Christopher for giving away a secret. Christopher is angry, too. He had a good reason for breaking the confidence. Write the scene, breaking up the dialogue with description. Think about body language and how loud each one gets. Consider the props they can use, like a book slammed down on a desk. Think about where they are and how the environment can enter in.

∙ Two spies have to exchange secret information. Problem is, they’re at a castle ball. There’s no chance for privacy. They keep trying to communicate, but their conversation is broken into repeatedly. Write the scene.

∙ Write the picnic scene. Decide who’s there and what the occasion is. Bring in the elements I mention above and any others that come to you and sprinkle them in with the dialogue. For the fun of it, make something disastrous happen to end the picnic.

Have fun, and save what you write!

  1. Thanks for the blog post. I just found myself trying to write a council meeting… where four of the characters are only there telepathically. I’m going to have to have them talking while the main character is marching or something.

  2. Okay, question for everyone, and I’m more than willing to get completely different answers: What is the best editing process? What steps do you do in what order from beginning to end in the process? I feel like I’m lacking in this area.
    Also, how does one rewrite a part of the story without feeling like you’re not changing anything/the story has gone flat/wanting to pull your hair out?

    • After I finish the rough draft, I’ll put it aside for a month or two. Then I’ll read it over and make a list of all the scenes. I reorder them into chapters and figure out what scenes are still missing–for my current WIP, I’m using KM Weiland’s story structure to get the big picture character arcs, theme, and plot in the right places. Then I go through and get the manuscript to match the new outline. After that I’ll get feedback from beta readers, and go through it several more times checking for character dialogue, prose, grammar mistakes, etc. Then I’ll order a physical copy from staples and go over that to see what I missed.

      I definitely do feel that I am changing things–but in a good way. The rough draft helped me to discover the themes and overall feel of the story, and then my editing will help me bring to light what I’ve discovered. For instance, I was half-way through the rough draft when I realized that the relationship between two specific characters was going to be a major focus. In editing, I went back and changed the order and added scenes so that this relationship is a bigger part of the story. I figured out that one of the themes is the dangers of extremism verses the importance of communication, so I worked in two different antagonists, each representing opposite extremes.

    • My process usually goes like this:
      1. After finishing the first draft, I let it sit for a while (at least 1 month) so that when I look at it again I can see it with fresh eyes.
      2. An initial read-through without actively editing (except for things like typos/grammar issues which are easy, quick fixes and will bug me otherwise.) In this read, I read the book to get an overall impression of the story as well as any big, obvious problems that need to be fixed. However, I only note the problem (as if I’m beta reading for someone else) and don’t try to fix them. I usually come up with a list that I combine with the problems I’ve noted during the drafting process. (When I’m drafting, I don’t like to edit, so I usually make a note to myself if I see a problem (plot holes, continuity issues, getting the general feeling that a scene sucks and needs to be rewritten, etc) and go back to it during editing instead of trying to fix the problem right then and there.)
      3. Editing outline. I’m a plotter, so even during the editing process I like to use outlines. This usually takes 2 forms: a list of edits (scenes I want to add/change, specific plot elements that need to be modified, etc) and a revised story synopsis and beat sheet to help me with pacing (because I usually have pacing issues in my first draft.)
      3.5 This is only for my current book and probably won’t apply to many people, but line-editing for wordcount. I tend to overwrite in general, but in my current WIP my wordcount got to crazy levels (180k for a MG book). Once I fixed all the big picture problems I could find, my first priority was to cut down my wordcount because I couldn’t even send my book to critique partners in this state. The trimming was done a bit on the large scale wih the beat sheet (I created a new outline for my book based on the three act structure and allocated a set amount of words for each section) and line editing, which is a long, tedious, and extremely time-consuming process in which I copy and paste each scene into a new document and trim it down by an average of 40%.
      4. Send off to critique partners and get feedback. Usually their feedback will help me plan the biggest/deepest revisions, since while I’m good at fixing plot-holes/story problems and bad writing on a scene-level, I usually need people to help me see the deeper problems with things like characterization, setting, overall develpment, etc. In other words, the undercurrent of the entire story, not just surface-level potholes. Usually I’ll wait a few weeks to let the comments sink in before I start editing, and then I’ll go back to step 3 and create an edit outline, edit, and repeat until I think my story is the best shape I can get it.

      As to how to edit without wanting to pull your hair out, I’m still looking for a perfect solution myself. The things that help me make editing slightly less painful are breaking it into manageable chunks (for example, cutting 80k out of my story is a lot easier scene-by-scene instead of trying to work with the whole manuscript), having a specific plan (for example, instead of saying “I need to improve my characterization of the MC”, make a list of specific things to change in the story that will show characterization.), and tracking your progress. (I use a spreadsheet to track the date, length of time edited, and since I’m currently editing for wordcount, words cut from a scene.) Editing can feel like such a big, daunting task, but if you have manageable goals and records of meeting those goals, it always helps to look back once in a while and see exactly what you did.

      If you’re asking about rewriting in particular, I’d say start from scratch and rewrite, instead of trying to edit. Sometimes, you need to change a scene on such a deep level that it’s better to get a clean fresh start without being influenced by the old scene.

      Hope this helps!

  3. I’m having trouble with MC flaws. Looking back, none of my MCs really have a lovable flaw, which makes them hard to love. They all are perfect in every way, and that gets boring. What do you suggest? How can I make them have believable flaws without being so bad you can’t stand it?

    • What is your MC trying to do? And what flaw would get in their way of doing it?

      My main characters lately have one of my flaws, but exaggerated. Mira is super independent and therefore struggles to be willing to help solve the world”s problem. Kenna doesn’t like living in reality and would rather live in dreams. Norma tries to live all her dreams at once but bites off more than she can chew. Walker can’t forgive himself, so he thinks that he exists only to serve a family he admires. In all four cases, the flaws could be positive in moderation. Also, each character has a relatable reason for their flaw. For instance, Kenna lost her mother as a young child and escaped inside of dreams.

      • Also, they all improve over the story. Mira learns to work with and for others. Kenna makes real-life relationships. Norma lets go of some of her tasks and becomes able to handle the rest. Walker learns self-worth.

    • I think Christie V Powell’s advice is really good. What are the their positive traits? Any positive trait can also be turned into a negative one in the right circumstances. Like, being a trusting person is a good thing, but if you trust the wrong people, that’s bad. Being smart is great, but could it lead one to being a bit of a know-it-all? I think just consider your character’s good traits and how you can twist them into traits that will get in their way, like Christie said.

      • Her positive traits include being prepared and keeping a cool head, except for when she is in a situation when she is impatient.
        Twisting her positive things into negative things is a great idea that will definitely help. Thank you!

    • Whenever I need to add character traits such as flaws, I always find it helpful to draw examples from real life. A lot of my characters share some of my flaws, though usually exaggerated to a greater degree. The Meyers Briggs test also gives a TON of examples for personality strengths and weaknesses based on the 16 personalities (my favorite reference site is http://www.16personalities.com), so you can poke around for some inspiration, even if you don’t match up the flaws to the exact personality types of your characters.

      One thing I’ve noticed from the examples on that site is that many flaws are simply virtues taken too far. For example, high self-confidence is good, but can cross the line into arrogance. Idealism can become naivite. And I think what people percieve as flaws vary greatly based on personality and personal values. In Percy Jackson and the Olympians, Percy is told by the gods that his fatal flaw is personal loyalty. His loyalty and relationships with his friends is actually one of his greatest strengths, but to the gods (who kinda like to use him to their own ends on a big-picture scale), that makes him a liability since he would be willing to sacrifice the world to save a friend. And even though Percy acknowledges that it’s his fatal flaw, most of the time he doesn’t really think/act like it’s a flaw.

      Also, I feel like whatever flaw you choose, it should be relevant to the story and provide conflict/character growth. The character should either suffer the consequences of them or struggle to overcome them.

    • Someone might have mentioned this already, but as previously discussed on this blog, our characters often share many aspects of our own character. And often, we humans are great at excusing our own flaws. While this is a problem in real life, if we’re conscious of how we’re going about it, we can use that to our advantage in character-writing. For example, I know that at times I can be lacking in empathy. I remember, with shame, a time when I was insensitive to someone having a panic attack because I didn’t understand it. My excuse at the time was that the person was “dramatic,” and that my sympathy would feed their need for attention. Not cool. I recently wrote a character whom I really loved and identified with in many ways, but one of her main flaws was short-sighted impatience with her friend’s anxiety. It wasn’t a major part of the plot, but by the end, she realized her unkindness and saw her friend’s true worth. Because that flaw came from my own experience, I was able to fold it in sort of sneakily and then reap a layered character from it. Also, it was cathartic and eye-opening!

  4. In the part I’m writing, my MC Rose is having a group of princes over at her castle. One is very picky and she is preparing for him because he could make or break their kingdom’s reputation. I’m only in the beginning stages of my WIP but I’m already getting frustrated and bored with her. She seems like a perfect little princess, and that’s boring. One of my thoughts is to make her a worrier, which makes her a little shy, but I don’t know how to make her overcome that. Or maybe I’ll make her impatient. Or fidgety. The last two are things that I work on so it would be easy to write.
    I don’t know how to make that important to the story, but one of the things I love about Fairest, The Two Princesses of Bamarre, The Lost Kingdom of Bamarre, etc. is that their flaws add to the story. I honestly don’t know how those flaws I’m thinking of would add to the story.

    • I think maybe being impatient would get in her way. It would be a trial for her because in the story she needs to be patient. And her being fidgety is just something that would be fun to write.

      • Being fidgety would be really fun. It could be a symptom of a flaw (such as impatience).

        I feel like I’ve been quoting her a lot, but I like KM Weiland’s system. Each character has a Lie they believe about the world, and their flaws are all symptoms of that Lie. I think Ella’s Lie is that she needs others to save her. When she runs away from finishing school, she encounters the Truth, but it takes her the rest of the book to fully realize that she has the power to save herself. My Kenna’s Lie is that dreams are better than reality. Her flaws are symptoms: she escapes reality as often as possible, especially when life gets difficult. She ignores people, forgets things, and has trouble concentrating. In the middle she realizes that she can’t have what she really needs, a community, if she’s always running away. And at the end she learns balance.
        If you want to read KM Weiland’s blog (all of her information is free on the blog, but there are ads to her physical books which are not), here’s her first article about the Lie: https://www.helpingwritersbecomeauthors.com/character-arcs-2/

  5. That One Writer says:

    I thought I was going to write 3 different POVs in my story, each in first person, but I’m looking it over, and I think it’d make more sense for three of them to be in third person. My problem is that one character is a baron, so his speech and thoughts are way more formal, and his bearing comes across better in first person.

    Any advice on how I write both first-person and third person in the same story? Do I write their names before each chapter? Also, any advice in writing third-person POV in general?

    • Third-person limited still has the character’s voice mixed into it, even though you’re not using I and me. So if you were using all three, you could definitely have one more formal than the others. “Salt to the Sea” by Ruta Sepetys is a great example of multiple point-of-views, all in third, with voices that feel very different.

      One of my WIPs has two POVs in third-person and one in first, but I have a reason: the first-person ones are all in journal entries. I use scene breaks instead of chapter breaks, so they don’t have their names when I switch, but the journal entries all start with the date, so that’s obvious, and for the other two I try to use their name in the first sentence.

      Personally I struggle with first person. I’m okay with these short journal entries, but I haven’t been able to get more than a couple chapters in a full first-person story. I get the voice down, and then the character keeps gabbing on and on and won’t get to the story! Third-limited gives me back some of the control, and I feel like I know my character well enough that I can show you how she would experience the story, not just how she would describe it. If I gave Keita control, she would skip anything emotional out of embarrassment. Mira would get bored and run away.

      • That One Writer says:

        Thanks for the suggestions! I’ve considered doing journal entries. While you struggle with action in first person, I struggle with thoughts and reactions in third. 🙂

    • The Heroes of Olympus series by Rick Riordan is a really good example of multiple POVs in third person. He has three POVs, all in third person, for the first two books, then seven POVs, all in third person, in the next coulpe of books. It makes it really interesting to read. Instead of chapter names each chapter starts with the name of the person whose POV you are reading from.

  6. Kamikazelyssa says:

    Just want to say that I read Writer to Writer and a Tale of Two Castles. I can definitely see everything Gail pointed out, and even more so because she did.

    Another mentioning-I’ve been on online chatrooms before. Does anyone notice that unlike other online chats, EVERYONE here has perfect grammar and punctuation? Writer’s thing, ha ha.

  7. What do you guys do when you have multiple stories with similar elements? I write a lot of retellings, and often do retellings of the same stories multiple times. The overall tone/plot/feel of the stories are significantly different, but often they have specific elements that are similar. For example, I have two Snow White retellings: one is high Fantasy like THRONE OF GLASS, one is urban Fantasy like SUICIDE SQUAD and a combination of multiple fairy tales. The two stories are very different in terms of setting and premise, but both stories have a very similar character dynamic between Snow White and her stepmother: a young Snow White tries to usurp her stepmother through political machinations, fails, and eventually dies and is magically brought back to life. The characters themselves are pretty different and the stories themselves are different on a macro and micro level, but on a medium level, parts of the story can be described in a really similar way. Other examples of elements I have repeated across my works are a magical, Night-Circus-like festival (what actually happens at those festivals is different), and a city divided between humans and monsters who come out at night (one involves vampires, the other involves creepy shadow monsters like dementors). The stories are similar enough that if one was written by a different author I would be able to use it as a comp title, but different enough that I can’t combine them without losing important parts of each. Does anyone have suggestions for dealing with this inbetween range of similarity?

    • I think that if the stories are different enough it shouldn’t matter if they are a little similar. A lot of my story ideas have some of the same things in them. For example, looking at my stories I realize that most of them have some sort of connection to royalty. Either they are royalty or they know royalty.
      I think that if you like the books too much to change the similarities, then maybe if you think that it’s too similar you could change the things that are similar just enough that they aren’t very different from what they used to be but aren’t really similar. If both are your stories are Snow White-based, but they are really different, I don’t think it would matter.
      Does that all make sense?

      • Lol I know how you feel about making them into a collection. I often joke with my friends that my goal is to recreate the entire Disney Princess lineup but with all the princesses as murderers.

  8. Gail, I’ve been given a wonderful opportunity to answer writing questions from a 10th grade class. (They read “Silenced” and liked it!) The last one asks for general writing advice. May I share your “Save what you write” advice, and tell them where I got it?

  9. StorytellerLizzie says:

    How do you know when you’re over using magic or some other type of power? In my current WIP I have a character who can see the future, and sometimes it foreshadows a plot point. I’m trying to use it sparingly, and sort bait the hook to keep readers interested; but how do you know if you’re overdoing it? So far I have maybe five instances where his visions are plot relevant, but I’m wondering if maybe that’s even too much. Any advice would be appreciated!

    • If he has visions all the time, and not just when it’s plot relevant, it might not matter. In Ella Enchanted, she uses the magic book all the time and a couple of those times it helps with the plot, but it doesn’t get old to me.
      If you really feel like it’s too much you could try changing the visions to something else that does the same thing his visions are doing. One common example that’s is used a lot is eavesdropping.

    • If your character’s using their magic to solve every problem and make things easy for themselves, instead of being clever or brave or whatever or if the author’s using it as a quick fix for a thorny writing issue instead of thinking it through, that’s probably overusing it.

      • Gail Carson Levine says:

        Depends on how long your WIP is. If it’s a full-length novel, the number doesn’t seem too great to me. If it’s a short story, five may be two or three too many. It’s an interesting question. Just once or twice may seem convenient. I suppose over using it is possible. You may be able to tell in revision.

    • I would say the rule of thumb is whether the magic is solving more problems then the protagonists are themselves. I don’t know if there’s a specific number, but you might want to go back later and ask yourself if there’s absolutely no other way to solve a particular problem besides magic.

  10. StorytellerLizzie says:

    I mean the way I have that character’s powers working is that he SEES things, but he doesn’t necessarily see them CLEARLY; they also come very sporadically. Like out of the blue with no warning, he can see the location a person will get hurt at, but he can’t see who is hurt or how it happened; so he sometimes gets a little paranoid. It’s a novel-length story, at least at the moment.

    • It sounds like if he has multiple, out-of-the-blue visions that aren’t specific and gets paranoid from them it would’t be a problem. At least not to me.

      • You could also add to the tension by having the magic be unreliable or unpredictable- and fail the MC at the climax, or whenever he needs it most.

  11. Writeforfun says:

    Hi Gail, thanks for answering my question last post! I’m honored! And it was very helpful. 🙂

    I have a new question now, anyone who has any sort of ideas – I’m desperate! How do you come up with new book ideas?

    I accidentally killed my computer four weeks ago and lost all of my files…and hadn’t backed them up for the past two years (yes, I know, you’re supposed to back your computer up way more often than that, but I’m a chronic procrastinator, so I never got around to it). I lost everything I’ve written for the past two years, which includes two novels I had halfway finished and the two previous novels that I was working on revising. I can’t stand the thought of starting over on that stuff, at least not for a good long while, but I’m dying to start writing again.

    I’m trying to think of a fresh new idea to move onto, but coming up with an idea that I can really get into is proving impossible. I have dozens and dozens of story ideas that I’ve come up with over time, but only a few have piqued my interest in just the right ways to get me obsessed enough with them to write them (that’s pretty much the only way I can write something – if it intrigues me in just the right way that I can’t stop thinking about it and I crave a chances to sit down and write more of it!).

    Right now I have one idea that has really sparked my interest, but, alas, it is a fanfiction, spawned off a backstory that an author never wrote; I love it, but I can’t stand writing fanfiction and I can’t figure out a way to convert it into something original – I’m afraid it wouldn’t work in any other world.

    Sorry, I’m rambling, aren’t I! Losing my files is making me feel a little hopeless – but at the same time, it’s making me seriously crave writing (it’s like I’m having withdrawal – I really miss getting lost in my own fantasy!).

    Anyway, I was just wondering if anyone has any ideas for how to come up with…ideas?

    • One of the ways I come up with ideas is to go for a walk, nature inspires me and when I walk I let my mind wander.

      Another way is to look at everyday objects and go what if…? (‘What if’ solves many of my lack of idea problems)

  12. Song4myKing says:

    Make a list! Start thinking of what it is that intrigues you when you get an idea you like. And what is it that intrigues you when you choose a book to read? For me it’s escapes, hiding, fake identity, uncovering history, troubled kids finding someone who cares, family ties, bridging gaps between generations or cultures, and so on.The most interesting seed ideas to me include some of those elements. Other ideas can be made more appealing if I work some of my favorite things into the story.

    You can add some favorite places to the list, too. Do you ever get a random urge to write when you are away from home? Maybe I’m weird, but sometimes I imagine I’m seeing a place through the eyes of a character, name and story unknown, and I know she’s thinking something important, but I can’t quite figure it out. If I can remember some of those places, I can work them into a story when I find one that fits. It’s those things that give a story richness and enough of a pull to keep me writing.

    Weather sometimes inspires me. Like storms. Most times weather won’t actually be your seed idea, but it might water the seed.

    And there’s theme. Theme often develops for me as I go. But it almost always stems from my own real life. And it makes me write. Or at least it makes me spin the scenes in my head that I later will write. When I was slogging through the heaviest worries I’ve faced, my new work in progress became a story about letting go and trusting. I’ve had a lot of issues with the plot of that story, but I connected with it, and I think that pull is tenacious enough now to keep me from forgetting about it.

    With losing your computer, maybe you could infuse a theme about loss into one of your ideas?

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