No matter how much we write and how well we know our craft, there is always an area or two which lag behind in either quality or ease, and which we want to improve. Some writers are great with dialog but can’t put up a decent description to save their lives. Others have a narrative voice that hypnotizes even the toughest readers, but when they write fast-paced action scenes their voice gets clunky and frustrated.
Each writer has his own special talent, and his own major weakness, and these vary greatly. But despite the differences between the symptoms and problematic areas, the common ground in each case is that the writer has a problem area that requires attention. The solutions are often individual and custom-fit, and successful writers who talk about the problems they had (or still have) rarely give in detail advice on how to improve. Well, other than “read a lot”, “study the one who made it”, “practice in that area” and so on. Quite vague, despite the best intentions.
And you know what happens to vague advice? The brain can’t put it into practice, and wrongly believes that any actions who come close to said advice are actually fulfilling it. Reading doesn’t help much without analysis, studying theoretical advice doesn’t help much without practice, and practice without scrutiny of one’s progress doesn’t do much more than increase wordcount.
So. What to do? Here’s my two cents, coming not from a life-time of writing, but from a logical point of view and my obsessive drive to constantly outdo myself. I believe the best procedure to improving your craft in a specific area, is the following:
- Identify the problem area
- Set a clear goal
- Inventory your resources
- Get to work and practice
- Scrutinize, repeat
Now let’s see what each of these steps means concretely, on an example.
1. Identify the problem area
Dialog is a huge part of writing, and one of the most—if not the most—potent storytelling device. It’s complex, caries a lot of meaning in very little space, and is the best tool for characterization and sharpening of conflict. It’s not easy to master, and even those writers who are naturally good at writing dialog still have to practice a lot before they write multi-layered dialog, with subtext that carries the whole story and etches itself in the reader’s mind.
Saying “I have trouble writing dialog” is too vague. If your beta-readers (or writer buddies, and perhaps even you yourself) have noticed it’s an area where you need to improve, you must identify which type of dialog it is that you’re having trouble with. Find out what kind of dialog you intend to write, what does your story need, and then narrow it down some more.
This way you’ll find out, for example, that you’re having trouble writing dialog between two (or more) characters who are in conflict with each other. Not an open fight with yelling and crying, but a subtle tug of war between two characters with opposite goals. This is much more specific, so now you can focus your efforts on something you can clearly see and measure, and not on something hazy. This is the first important step toward improvement.
2. Set a clear goal
Now that you know what type of dialog you want to improve, you must clarify what it is exactly that you want to achieve. You’re certainly aware that a conversation can have multiple outcomes. If you want those characters to make out after the fight, your work with that dialog will look very different than if you want those characters to start a war against each other after their quarrel. Also, if you’re looking to just spice up your story differs greatly from trying to write one of your story’s bridgeheads (the inciting incident or the climax). Figure out what outcome you want that scene to have, and what the impact on your story will be, so you know in which direction you need to go with the improvement.
It’s also helpful to know if you’re having issues with making the dialog seem natural, or with making it carry undertones and implied threats. In the first case you need to work on your word-choice and the characters’ voices, in the second case you need to focus on psychology and the characters’ motivations and goals, two connected but very distinct areas of characterization.
3. Inventory your resources
So you want to improve on dialog between characters who have conflicting goals, and who must become (or remain) enemies as a result. And you’re having trouble infusing their conversation with the necessary amount of subtext and covert aggression. What do you have at your disposal in matter of studying material or means to improve in this area?
Figure out your arsenal:
- writing advice books that focus specifically on dialog (like How To Write Dialog With Subtext by Holly Lisle, The Art Of Subtext by Charles Baxter, or Writing Dialog by Tom Chiarella, and many more);
- internet resources that offer quality advice that tackles exactly your problem. In case of writing dialog, the best advice you’ll ever find online is not directed at novel but at screenplay writers, like Writing Dialog: Subtext Speaks from Filmmaker.com, or Subtext in Your Screenplay from Unknown Screenwriter;
- if you have the possibility and money, check if there are any classes you can take — but again, if you want to improve your dialog don’t go for creative writing but for screenwriting classes;
- and, of course, there’s always your good old brain—use your spirit of observation to study the real life, or examples thereof, like recorded political discussions or debates, for example, which are ripe with hidden aggression.
4. Get to work and practice
You can read as much as you want about your problem area, but unless you put it into practice and actually do all those exercises and try out the advice, you’re only going to fine-tune your spirit of observation, not your writing. Get to work and write, write, write, and when you think you’ve finally got where you wanted to—
5. Scrutinize, repeat
Get someone else’s opinion on your perceived improvement, and then write some more. After you’ve put your recently learned lessons into practice, to really drive them home into your mind and gut, get a second opinion.
But also, know when to say when. There will come a point when any extra you want to add will be clutter and damage, not improvement, and you should instinctively know when that moment comes, but just in case, ask your writing buddy or critique partner for an honest opinion. Besides, if you get jaded from working on that one specific area of your writing, leave it alone and move to the next. There’s always a next.
So, to wrap things up, I believe the best way to really get the most out of your writing and squeeze your brain-lemon as hard as you can, is to zero in on your problem areas one at the time, understand where you want to take them, and use every bit of resource you can find to improve in those areas. It’s really curcial to remember that you won’t get very far unless you’re specific in what you want to do, because our minds love to play tricks on us and if we’re vague. We’ll believe we’re done long before we even break the surface of the problem, unless we know exactly what we’re working on.
If you’re really serious about this writing thing, if it’s truly more than a hobby to you, then you treat it like a serious profession and do everything that’s in your power to be the best you can be at it, at any given time. The fact that you’re passionate about fiction is a bonus, a secret weapon you can use and a well of energy you can draw upon when times get tough, but it alone won’t make you a writer. Work and constant improvement, on the other hand, will.
Look at your writing and envision all its potential. See where it lags behind and start working on that. Sooner than you think, you’ll push yourself to higher grounds and get a step closer to your dream. There really isn’t anything to lose in this. Now get to work and write with hunger!