First off, very exciting! Here’s a link to the beginning of the audio version of Writer to Writer: At the end, it moves on to another excerpt from a different book. Of course, you can keep going or stop. Hope you enjoy!

On July 26, 2014, Angie wrote, I have a question that pertains both to dialogue and relationship development. I have two taciturn characters who have to spend quite a bit of time together, and are untrusting of each other for a while. The result is that they are both pretty tight-lipped, which makes the scenes feel boring to me. I am hoping to develop their relationship to the point where they want to confide in one another, but am struggling with making that leap, and with creating some natural, interesting dialogue in the meantime. How do you make characters talk when they simply aren’t inclined to do so?

Elisa weighed in with, Thoughtses, thoughtses, use thoughtses! Seriously though, when no one talks, make them THINK. I like it when people have these super sarcastic thoughts about each other without saying anything, its funny. And then one of them can accidentally say a super-sarcastic remark out-loud, and they start a bit of a fight, and then end up laughing (This happens to me and my sister ALL THE TIME!). That breaks the ice pretty well, at least, for me (and my sister).

I’m with Elisa. Thoughtses can wake up our scenes! Especially if our two characters think differently. Since we can never be in anyone else’s mind, we can’t know what’s really going on. Maybe we are all alike when it comes to thinking, but I doubt it.

Let’s start by naming these characters: Victoria and Wilson, and let’s imagine some ways of thinking. I’ll suggest three and you come up with three more:

• Digressive. Wilson starts thinking about how dark it’s getting in the forest and how loud Victoria’s footsteps are and segues to thoughts of night in his bedroom at home to memories of a Halloween sleepover to wondering what his friend who was at the sleepover is doing right now.

• Methodical. Victoria is planning where to sleep tonight and whether it will be better to lose Wilson or to camp together and how she’s going to feed herself and possibly him and how they can work together without ever talking and how she can protect herself in case he attacks in the middle of the night. And she’s coming up with solutions for all of these.

• Irrepressibly happy. Yes, they’re in the middle of a forest. Yes, the king’s evil prime minister is after them. But the air smells so fresh! And listen to the birdsong! Yes, Victoria doesn’t trust Wilson. But he’s a good talker when he talks, which she isn’t, and the gift of gab could come in handy, and the prime minister is the enemy of both of them. And besides, she’s always loved hiking.

Your turn.

Of course, if we’re going to be in the heads of both of them, our POV has to be third-person omniscient. If we’re writing in first person, we have just one mind to work from, which is okay, too. If Victoria is our MC, she can speculate about what Wilson is thinking and what he’s up to.

Each of them also needs to be differently taciturn. Wilson, for example, can be uncommunicative because he’s desperately shy. If we’re not in his mind we can make him blush easily. He can walk behind Victoria on the path, because he’s too unsure of himself to take the lead. But this manifestation of bashfulness can be misinterpreted by Victoria as sneakiness.

Victoria can be silent because she’s a collector of secrets, and she’s learned that she’s more likely to be confided in if she keeps her own conversation to a minimum. Her friends call her The Clam. She’s always been completely trustworthy–although that may change as this tale continues.

There’s opportunity for fun, as each misunderstands what the other is doing. Victoria, for example, can step into a patch of poison ivy simply because she doesn’t see it in the dusk, but Wilson’s interpretation is that she wants to show him how tough she is. If we can arrange matters so that their silence gets them in trouble, that’s even better. Boredom will be banished.

We might introduce another element to create this tension. Suppose the forest is the home of a band of elves, who have been lied to by people in the past. While Wilson is asleep, an elf joins Victoria, who’s guarding the campfire, and asks why she’s in the forest. Uncertain about whether the elves are allies of the evil prime minister, she says that she and Wilson are brother and sister on their way to visit their uncle. When Wilson’s turn to watch comes, Victoria thinks about telling him of the elf’s visit, but she decides the visit is over, so she doesn’t think she needs to and stays silent. The elf returns and talks to Wilson when he’s on watch duty, and he gives a different story. The angry elves capture the two of them and hold them for trial as spies. Each can blame the other, but they’re talking, and–also good–they’re in danger.

Or, Wilson can look up and see a tree tiger, which I just invented, about to pounce on Victoria. He shouts, “Run!” and runs, too. They both live and start talking and planning how they can avoid being taken by surprise.

What will get them talking depends, at least in part, on their characters. If Wilson is digressive in his thinking, he may get so carried away by his thoughts that he forgets where he is and starts thinking out loud. Victoria can say, “What the heck are you going on about?” Not friendly, but they’re talking.

Or methodical Victoria can reach a point in her planning where she needs to share her ideas with Wilson or they won’t work. She’s uneasy, but she speaks.

Here are four prompts:

• The elves put them on trial and appoint a lawyer, who has a very hard time with two uncooperative defendants. Write the scene or scenes. Part of the fun may be inventing the elves’ judicial system.

• Both Victoria and Wilson are starving. Both are excellent archers, but they’re sure, if they pull out their arrows, the action will be misunderstood. Write this scene.

• One of them, you pick which, is actually an agent of the evil prime minister. He or she is quiet, waiting for the other one to say something revealing or to make a fatal mistake. Write the forest crossing.

• The two are destined to fall in love. Write their gradual evolution from suspicion to infatuation.

Have fun, and save what you write!

  1. I find it easier to suspend disbelief that we're in one character's head at a time–maybe in his head during the scene, her memories of that scene in the next scene…but some writers do pull off the omniscient-in-one-scene trick.

  2. I have a question unrelated to this post (which was very entertaining and informative, by the way!).

    In my fantasy WIP, two teens from Earth end up traveling to another world called Alewar. The human population of that world are descendants of people who came from Earth (way back in the Middle Ages). My problem is the language barrier. It was recently pointed out to me that everyone seems to speak English, which doesn't make sense. Even though the original humans in Alewar started off speaking Middle English, the language will have evolved far differently for them than it did for us; the influences in both worlds are vastly different. So by this time, it's pretty much a whole new language that my MC's shouldn't be able to understand.

    My plot doesn't leave room for a language barrier, and there's no time for the teens to learn a whole new tongue. They need to be able to communicate with people right away, but I'm not sure how. Any ideas? It is fantasy, so feel free to offer wild suggestions. 😉 (And sorry for the long explanation!)

    • I had an editor point out the same thing once. I gave the crew translator devices to wear. It was fantasy handwavium. but the story became my second pro sale, and it got some good reviews, so I guess it worked! And thank you for making me think of that story, because I found some reviews I hadn't known about, and they gave me a much-needed boost.

      (This is the Tangent review. No complaints about the translator! :): "Hirasol" by Melissa Mead is the story of Dr. Sanchez and her assistant, Branson, who have come to a distant world seeking a cure for a pandemic on Earth. The planet is inhabited by the Herd, a group of beings who are part horse and part humanoid like earth's mythical centaurs. When Dr. Sanchez and Branson find a young member of the Herd who has broken his front legs, Dr. Sanchez has to perform a drastic operation on him in order to save his life. The young centaur, who Dr. Sanchez names Hirasol, struggles to accept a new life very different from the one he was born to lead.

      Mead makes the young centaur Hirasol very sympathetic while conveying to us that he's an alien and doesn't view his situation the way a human might. Some hard science fiction fans may find the story too sweet, but I enjoyed it very much.)

    • Have an interpreter character? Or one of the MC's could be learned in Middle English and figure things out as they go along? That's kinda how I am with Latin, Greek and Spanish, I can sorta guess what a word means based on suffixes and prefixes I already know the meaning of, so I generally end up getting my words right. (Plus, my mom majored in English, so I have good help from her, because she also learned lots of Latin and my dad studies both Hebrew and Greek. Maybe one of your character's could have a parent that majored in English/Middle English?)

    • Thanks for the suggestions, both of you! Unfortunately, translator devices don't fit into the story. Earth technology isn't advanced enough for that, and Alewar is a pseudo-medieval world. An interpreter *might* work, but what with all the battles and such, I'd worry that it would slow things down too much… Not to shoot down your ideas at all! They were good ideas! It's getting me thinking on the right track. 🙂 There's a special object that transformed the teens into dragons, so maybe it could've granted them the ability to understand/speak the language?

      By the way, carpelibris, your book sounds great! I like the original twist on a pandemic and another world.

      And Elisa, my goodness, that's so cool that you can understand Latin, Greek, and Spanish!

    • What if they could magically understand the language because it closely resembled one of our long lost ancient languages that they just happened to be studying?

      Or they could be gifted language from a magic something… You decide. Since they turn into dragons, the head dragon can gift them with the talent of understanding tongues.
      Or… They could have the spirits of dragons that they turn into in their minds, like in the Red Pyramid Series by Rick Riordan.
      Or… They could be legendary dragon rider descendants that managed to escape Arewel before all of the riders were destroyed (sans Eragon). Therefore, their minds are already hardwired for the language (sans Percy Jackson).

      And…. That's all I've got. I hope that this helps!

    • I only have a very rough understanding of Greek, I can't really speak it, but I can read it (sorta) and recognize the letters, understand the meanings (again, only sorta, but I recognize the words from their English equivalents) etc. I am only passable with Latin, and I can only speak a little Spanish, but I can understand it fairly well, if spoken slowly, or when I read it. I can pick out meanings and implications, but I can't SPEAK any of it. Not really. It's mostly just that I know enough Latin to give me a better understanding of English, enough English to understand Latin, and enough Latin to understand Spanish. Greek is the one I am most interested in and am least knowledgeable of, but I'm working on that. It's the old form of Greek, not the sort spoken in Greece today.

    • Another thought: If they are dragons, maybe you can work with that. In my stories, dragons can understand and speak all the tongues of men, though it is spoken with an excessively thick accent (dragon mouths and tongues are not set up for speaking human languages you see).

    • Thank you all! You've been most helpful! I think I may be able to use the descendants idea and/or the dragons-understanding-languages idea. My brain is picking bits and pieces out of your suggestions and I think I've got an answer taking shape.

      Again, thanks so much for brainstorming with me! 😀

  3. I'm so excited for writer to writer because
    at the moment I am struggling with getting my first fully constructed story out of my head and on to paper. I like how it looks in my head but when I write it down it looks utterly different and seems to scream at me, that it looks small, tiny and wrong.
    Anywhoo, Writing Magic is one of the writing books which helps me and coaches me, rather than talking down.

  4. I need some opinions on tenses; I've been working on a story where the main character narrates everything in the present tense. I love writing it, but I don't know how well it goes over being read? I tried writing it in past tense, but I really didn't enjoy it. What are your opinions?

    • I can't write anything but present tense when I do first person. Whenever I try, the verbs start slipping after a few paragraphs. It's my favorite to read but most of my friends prefer past tense.

  5. Depends on the story. Since most people are used to past tense, present can be distracting sometimes. Is there a story-related reason for it? Everything that distracts the reader from the story itself should be compensated for. Ex, present can be handy if you want the reader to be unsure if the POV character survives or not.

  6. I chose it originally to experiment with different tenses, and then discovered that it really fit the character's voice, and added suspense when the character goes on several life-threatening adventures. I also liked it because the MC really develops a lot in the story, and I thought it was easier to show in present tense, because then the reader is seeing the development with the character herself. I'm just wondering if maybe it's awkward to read? Here's a small snippet from a scene:

    An animal-like shriek echoes so suddenly that Sabrina screams in answer.
    “Shut up!” I hiss. “Do you WANT it to find us?”
    She trembles ankle-deep in murky swamp water. I swat four insistent mosquitoes away from my face and they’re back in less than a second.
    The animal shriek pierces the air again, louder and closer. Sabrina eeps and looks about ready to faint. Any other time, I’d love to see a snotty princess covered head to toe in swamp muck, but right now is NOT the time. “Keep moving!”
    “What is it?” she whispers, trailing along behind me. She keeps checking over her shoulder.
    “Probably the worst creature I’ve ever met. Go faster before it finds us!”
    “Is it dangerous? How do we escape it?”
    I snort. “Escape it? I wish! It’ll catch up with us sooner or later—I would just REALLY prefer it to be later.”

    • Yes, I like it! Which is nice, because I usually don't care for present tense at all, but it seems perfect for this instance, it helps keep up tension (which is doubly heightened because when a book is written in past tense, you can tell that the MC is fine[ish] and made it out of the story alive because s/he is telling it, you can't get that from present tense, which is good if you can do it right, and I think you are, personally). A book that you might find helpful for you present tense writing is "Almost Home" by Joan Bauer. I REALLY don't like present tense (at least most of the time. When it's done right it's wonderful, but I've read too many books in which it was done wrong and is terribly distracting) but the author pulled it off. The story interested me enough that I was half-way through the book before I realized it was in present tense! That was an enjoyable surprise. I can't wait to read your story! It sounds like lots of fun.

    • I'm liking it too! Reading a book in present tense might throw me off just a little at the beginning, but if it's done well, in a couple pages I won't even notice it anymore. I think you're doing a great job! 🙂

    • Personally, I don't mind present tense, as long as it's in first person. A good example of this is The Scorpio Races by Maggie Stiefvater. I've been going back and forth on whether to use present tense or not in my current WIP, in fact – I think I'm going with it, but who knows. Yours sounds great in the tense it's in, though! Good luck!

  7. I replied to Michelle Dyck's comment about needing to translate her language -and then I read the rest of the comments and realized what I'd said no longer made sense. (Oops.) 🙂

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