Trim out your filters to connect readers

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Some easy writing advice to follow, offered all the time, is show instead of tell. But it takes careful work to remove showing while you remove filter words from your writing. These are words that make a story less vivid and make the writer more obvious.


You don’t want the latter to happen. We tell stories, but we don’t want our readers to focus on us as storytellers. Write memoirs or essays if you want to be seen while you tell the story. Fiction has several key elements, and none of them give writers a reason to show themselves telling. Not even first person.

Make a list of these barrier words and post it next to your computer screen:

  • saw
  • looked
  • watched
  • noticed
  • smelled
  • heard
  • touched
  • felt
  • knew
  • realized
  • thought
  • remembered
  • reminded
  • decided
  • seemed

You rarely need these in fiction’s narrative writing. (In dialogue you can do almost anything—but the dialogue has to propel the plot, or reinforce character traits, or make extra conflict). At the hardest end of the filter cutting, thought and decided can be erased by first-person limited point of view.

He thought he could wrestle the gun from Steiner’s hand.


He could wrestle the gun from Steiner’s hand.

At the easiest,

Randolph saw the wagon sink in the mud


The wagon sank in the mud. We should know it’s Randolph doing the watching.

Let a reader observe the action itself in the writing. Visuals rarely need watched and saw. Sensations like smell (one of my favorites) should be unique or pungent enough to stand without the verb smelled. The fuzzy one is felt: it’s almost useful while you describe a texture. But the stubble on his chin felt rough can easily become The stubble on his chin was rough.

Go through and check your writing during revision. After awhile, you won’t even write first drafts using filters.



A Half-Dozen Things to Improve Dialogue

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Scenes are the center of all writing, and dialogue is the white-hot moment of a scene. Here’s six things to use to make your dialogue drive your storytelling.

1. Keep the commonplace out. Our conversations are full of lines line “Fine, and how are you?” or “Hello,” or “How ya doing?” A real slice of real life, but they don’t have enough energy to keep readers wondering what will happen next. Dialogue builds drama as its main mission.

2. Be sure to hear the silence. Good dialogue includes lines where nobody’s speaking, but you can see something happen. A strong statement from one person in the conversation, met by silence. “He listened to the bacon fat hardening in the pan,” would be an example.

3. Encourage conflict. People who agree don’t make for riveting subjects. You can move from disagreement to argument, and then to flat-out fighting. Not every patch of dialogue needs to be a battle, of course. But look for it, or allow the confrontation to flow out of character oppositions. Bonus: you can use an argument to give a small dose of exposition. Exposition is dialogue can become invisible, not calling attention to the necessary but energy-sapping backstory.

filmmaker4. Let the camera roll. Write longer in a scene than you believe you should. You will have the chance to trim it later on, but keep that lift of energy flowing. Take things the wrong way, and let your characters misunderstand each other. Go too far, let their energy rise.

5. Vary character voices. So many ways to do this: have characters drop words to speak in fragments. Use a verbal tic like “If you ask me…” or “Here’s the thing…” at the start of lines. Have a character be a chronic interrupter. Or uncertain, using “I don’t know.” Infer dialects with the way you build lines. “Is the talking finished right now?” suggests a non-English speaker.

6. Use beats within scenes, around your character tags. For example, when you use a character’s name as in “Henry said,” then add “pushing the broom in short stabs at the concrete.” A great way to use dialogue to convey emotion. Keep me ready to listen by keeping me inside the scene, watching as well as hearing.

Gestures, or not?

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I was surprised to learn today that Evan Marshall, a former agent who is now a writing coach, advises against using a lot of gesture in scenes.

Use Body Language Sparingly

New writers sprinkle their dialogue with a lot of gestures and mannerisms. Characters smile, grin, frown, shake their heads…

Most of the time the readers don’t really care, unless the gesture or mannerism is important for conveying meaning. Keep body language to a minimum in your dialogue. Many aren’t necessary because the words have already delivered the message.

Marshall, whose Marshall Plan for Novel Writing has a companion workbook, says that sometimes a gesture is useful to show us a pause.

“I couldn’t leave Belinda. not after all she’s done for me — medical school, raising our kids.” Frank looked down at his cigarette, studied it a moment, then gave Susan a frank look. “I love you more than anything in the world, but I can’t marry you.”

Notes on dialogue, Iowa-style

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One week ago today I enjoyed a long, fun day at the Summer Writing Festival. I read a short bit in an open mike session, reveled in an Elevenses lecture on metaphor. I also learned a good deal about dialogue that can improve my own novel, Viral Times.

Here’s just a few quick notes:

1. Dialogue should sound organic. Answers don’t necessarily follow questions, not directly, anyway. The answer can change the subject. The answer sometimes doesn’t reflect the question. This is one way to make dialogue surprising.

2. Dialogue doesn’t indicate emotion. It shows emotion. No “he exclaimed” or “he whimpered” to indicate. Search your imagination for dialogue whose words show exclamation or whimpering. Or use gestures that might match these feelings.

3. Dialogue should be motivated by both character and situation. Rent Pulp Fiction. Eaarly in the movie, you’ll notice how there’s very little of the explanation of the hit mens’ plans in their dialogue. Jules and Vincent (Samuel L. Jackson and John Travolta) say:

“We should have shotguns for this kind of deal.”
“How many up there?”
“Three or four.”
“Counting our guy?”
“I’m not sure.”
“So there could be up to five guys in there.”
“It’s possible.”
“We should have fuckin’ shotguns.”

These fellows stand in front of a car trunk while they talk this over, loading .45s. Their plan must to be kill someone, several people. Nary a word is said about the plan directly.

In dialogue, the central thing is not named, so it can gain power during the scene.

Oh, and the shorter the dialogue per character (total number of sentences), the better. People don’t speak in long sentences (most people, anyway). Too many sentences and you have a speech. Leave that for the sequel, the narrative writing that follows the scene.