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Reflections on Writing Dialogue

As I’ve transitioned from news writing to fiction writing over the past few years, I’ve learned that writing dialogue is much different than recording quotes.

I can’t tell you how many hours I spent transcribing interviews during my undergraduate degree in journalism. Every story I wrote for the school newspaper required at least two interviews, and despite my best efforts, most interviews were at least 20 minutes long — which meant 40 minutes or more of transcribing audio files at 50 percent speed.

When writing news, it’s important to make sure you copy quotes word-for-word, even if the speaker is rambling or jumbling their words or straying off topic. Don’t get me wrong — newspaper reporters do clean up quotes a little bit to remove filler words: the “ums” and “uhs” that frequent human speech. However, the quotes in news articles are just that — plain old human speech.

Imagine my surprise when I learned that writing dialogue in fiction isn’t just that. Rather, it is its own language with a specific purpose.

During our virtual Writing Fiction Master Class on Sept. 19 with author Joyce Moyer Hostetter, I learned that dialogue in fiction serves a few purposes, including:

  • Increasing tension (the primary purpose)
  • Showing interaction
  • Moving the story forward
  • Providing information

Her quick lesson on writing dialogue sparked my interest, and I continued to research this topic to see how dialogue differs from quotations — those words that I slaved over for years and shaped the way I write everything, not just news articles.

Prior to the master class, my dialogue was stiff and formal, much like my communication with coworkers or strangers. I wrote dialogue the way I would speak to a coworker or a university employee would answer my questions about an upcoming event — polite and scripted and often marked by those filler words we discussed earlier.

dialogue

Dialogue is much more casual than writing for an English class or writing quotes for a news article.

Dialogue is, as Sol Stein argues, “a highly crafted language with a grammar of its own. In dialogue, logic goes out the window, followed by grammar.”

Forget what you learned in English class, or, in my case, journalism class. When writing dialogue, you don’t need to avoid contractions or fragments. Dialogue can be short and snappy and incomplete. Characters can talk over each other or lose their train of thought.

Here are a few other thoughts on dialogue I gleaned from Sol Stein:

  • “Dialogue is at its best when it is confrontational and adversarial.”
  • “The aim of dialogue is to create an emotional effect in the reader.”
  • “Dialogue sounds artificial when it is coherent and logical. You want thoughts that are loose, words that tumble out.”
  • “In life, out-of-control conversation is annoying. In books, readers love nonsequiturs and dialogue that jumps around illogically and yet seems to follow.”

With a better understanding of the purpose of dialogue and how to write it, I’m looking forward to implementing some of these tips into my own fiction writing. I’ve been working on a young adult story that focuses on a young woman struggling to conform to her formal, ideological community. While I’ve toyed around with some dialogue for the story, it always felt a little flat to me, and now I know why.

Though the story world is formal and almost stiff — with lots of rules and customs that need to be followed — human speech is rarely grammatically correct, even among scholars and professionals. Like Stein said, “dialogue sounds artificial when it is coherent and logical.” I need to loosen up and allow my dialogue to just tumble out.

Do you struggle with writing dialogue? What challenges do you face? I’d love to hear about how you plan to improve your dialogue writing in the comments section.

Quotes from Sol Stein are from the book “How to Grow a Novel.”

Reading With My Mom

I’ve been working from home for 21 weeks. This prolonged period of isolation has given me time to reflect on happier times in life: adventures and excitement in college, friendships forged in high school, and time spent reading with my mom as a child.

Those were the good days — Mom reading to me and my brother as we snuggled up in my parents’ king-size bed, piled high with pillows and blankets.

Though we were capable of reading titles like Gertrude Chandler Warner’s The Boxcar Children and Carolyn Keene’s Nancy Drew, we preferred to have Mom read them to us. We’d go to the local used bookstore weekly to find new titles and were excited to find the numbers missing from our collection.

The Challenge of Interpreting Culture

Some stories — even if written during a different time — are applicable to every generation of teens because they help with interpreting culture.  

First published in 1967, The Outsiders, by S.E. Hinton, has inspired readers for more than 50 years. Hinton, just fifteen years old when she began writing the book, was inspired by her high school experience. 

“Looking back, I realize how important it was to me to have another life at that time. To be someone else,” Hinton wrote in the introduction to the novel’s platinum edition. “To deal with problems I had to face, and write my way to some sort of understanding and coping. … I desperately wanted something to read that dealt realistically with teenage life.”

As one of the first novels to be labeled a young adult novel, The Outsiders received (and continues to receive) backlash because of its reference to gang violence, underage drinking and smoking, strong language/slang, and portrayal of dysfunctional families. However, this novel proves to be a paradox, as it is simultaneously banned from school libraries and used in English classrooms across the country.

First edition of The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton

The Outsiders focuses on main character Ponyboy (Pony) Curtis, a fourteen-year-old orphan growing up as a “greaser” — named for their greasy hair — in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Throughout the book, Pony struggles to find his place in a world divided by class. As greasers, Pony, his brothers, and his friends struggle to make ends meet and often find themselves at war with Socs — wealthier teens from the other side of town.

Keep in mind that Hinton wrote this book in an effort to “write (her) way to some sort of understanding and coping” with what was happening in her own life. Published when she was just seventeen, The Outsiders is not an adult’s interpretation of teen life in the ‘60s — it is one teen’s attempt to make sense of the world around her.

I first read Hinton’s book when I was a teenager, around fifteen or sixteen. Up to that point, I’d mostly read Christian fiction, books assigned to me in school, and dystopian fiction (a popular genre in the early 2010s). The Outsiders impacted me in a different way than anything I’d ever read before because it was honest; Hinton didn’t shy away from difficult topics like domestic abuse and classism. 

Hinton’s rawness and ability to face difficult topics head-on inspired much of my writing as a teen; writing about my world helped me cope, just as writing The Outsiders helped Hinton. 

I’ve been thinking about this book for the past decade, wondering why it impacted me the way it did, and I think it boils down to culture. 

“While it is not strictly true to say that fundamentalist (Christians) ‘condemned culture,’ full stop, perhaps it is fair to say that their attitude toward culture — their basic posture — was one of suspicion and condemnation toward any human activity not explicitly justified on biblical grounds and engaged in by fully converted Christians,” Andy Crouch wrote in his book Culture Making: Recovering Our Creative Calling.

This statement, along with an entire chapter examining fundamentalist Christianity’s posture toward culture, made me realize something: many fundamentalist Christians are quick to condemn anything not mentioned as holy in scripture — myself included.

Culture, for many Christians, is viewed as something that you can remove yourself from. Derived from a passage from John 17, the belief that Christians should be in the world, but not of the world is often interpreted as meaning Christians should not engage with culture. Later in John 17, Jesus prays, “I do not ask that you take them out of the world, but that you keep them from the evil one.”

Executive Editor of desiringGod.org David Mathis suggests that this phrase should be interpreted as Christians being sent into the world with a mission rather than “being mainly on a mission to disassociate from this world.”

We cannot hide from culture — it is all around us, whether we choose to actively participate in certain activities or not. Hinton didn’t participate in gang fights or underage drinking and smoking as a teen; she was dismayed by her observations of culture. Writing The Outsiders was her way of making sense of the world around her. 

It is worth noting that while The Outsiders does include the unsavory parts of teen culture in 1960s Oklahoma, it also includes positive elements of redemption, friendship, and sacrifice. It interprets, not condones, culture.  

So what does this mean for us as Christian writers of children’s and young adult literature? It means that we should write truthfully about what is happening in the world. As Christians, we are on a mission to share the good news of Jesus Christ with those who have not heard it. The gospel helps us make sense of the world, but it does not take us away from the world — not until eternity. It gives us something to hope for and values to live by. 

Every generation of teens will face different cultural trends that they need to make sense of. Right now, we’re seeing protests against police brutality, calls for racial equality and LGBTQ rights, a receding economy, and fear from the global COVID-19 pandemic, all during a tumultuous election year. How can you help your children, teenagers, or readers interpret current events?

As a writer, you have the challenge of interpreting culture through the lens of the gospel for your readers. Don’t shy away from the messy parts of life — teens experience a lot of things that they need help interpreting. Reading your work may be what they need to understand and cope with their worlds. 

What are your thoughts? I’d love to hear what you think in the comments below.

The Power of Repetition

I hadn’t been to church since February, and I was starting to feel disconnected from God. During my first week back in a sanctuary, God spoke to me through a literary device — repetition. 

My church stopped hosting in-person services at the beginning of March because of COVID-19, and I’d missed a few weeks before then because of a bronchitis diagnosis.

Last week, I was visiting my parents in Upstate, South Carolina, and had the opportunity to attend church with them. The crowd was sparse, and each family unit was spaced 6 feet apart, but it was communal worship — something I hadn’t experienced in more than 12 weeks. 

I’d seen my parents cry in the church from time to time, but I’d never really had a strong emotional response during a service.

The band began playing a song by Elevation Worship called “The Blessing,” which is straight from scripture. It shares a blessing from Numbers 6:24–26:

The Lord bless you 

and keep you; 

the Lord make his face shine on you 

and be gracious to you; 

the Lord turn his face toward you 

and give you peace.

I didn’t feel blessed that weekend, despite my safe travels to South Carolina from Central Virginia. I didn’t feel blessed because I was (and still am) working from home with no idea of when I’d be back in the office. I didn’t feel blessed because my husband, a police officer, was working the night shift during a weekend filled with violent protests.

But when the song climaxed, one of the worship leaders began repeating the words “He is for you” over and over again — and something happened. 

Repetition is a powerful literary device that can be used in poetry and prose.

As a writer, I know that repetition is a powerful way to make a point. As a person who has attended counseling for anxiety, I know that repeatedly speaking truth to yourself is a powerful way to change your thought process. 

It felt like God was speaking to me through that song, trying to get a point across, to reshape my thinking. He was telling me that He is for me, that His blessings aren’t always extravagant. More often than not, they will be quiet reminders of His presence. How fitting it is that God, the author of all things, spoke to me, a writer, through a literary device.

The song continued:

May His presence go before you

And behind you, and beside you

All around you, and within you

He is with you, He is with you

In the morning, in the evening

In your coming, and your going

In your weeping, and rejoicing

He is for you, He is for you

The repetition continued, with the singer repeating the word “you” throughout the bridge, reminding me that I am a recipient of God’s blessings. My impression of blessings has always been that they are an extravagant act from God. Yet in scripture, we learn that blessings are small acts of love from God — from the gift of a child to the provision of food and safety. 

This song challenged me to look at God’s blessings in a new way. God blessed me that weekend by giving me the opportunity to worship with other Christians, and he blessed me by protecting me from harm during my travels from Central Virginia to South Carolina.

God’s blessings aren’t always extravagant. They are often displayed through friendships, safety, and provision.

He protected my husband who served on the frontline of a riot on May 31 and brought him home safe to me the next morning. And he blessed me with the companionship of my sweet sister-in-law the night I had to send my husband back to work, despite continuing protests in our city. 

God spoke to me through a literary device, which is a powerful writing tool. While this instance of repetition was used in poetry (a song), repetition can be a particularly useful tool for writing children’s literature. 

Take this passage from Dr. Seuss’ One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish  for example:

One fish, Two fish, Red fish, Blue fish,

Black fish, Blue fish, Old fish, New fish.

This one has a little car.

This one has a little star. 

Say! What a lot of fish there are.

 

Yes, some are red, and some are blue.

Some are old and some are new.

Some are sad, and some are glad,

And are very, very bad.

 

Dr. Seuss is well known for his whimsical, rhythmic writing. He uses a combination of rhyming and repetition in his work to create memorable writing that delights children of all ages. 

Repetition is also used in literature, such as Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two of Cities, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness…” Dickens adds stress and emphasis to the positives and negatives, bringing attention to the polarity present in his time. 

God used the repetition in “The Blessing” to touch my heart and draw me back to him. I believe he can use your writing to touch others, and repetition is just one way you can emphasize your message of hope through Jesus Christ.

Emily is a member of the Write2Ignite planning team and works full time as a promotional writer for Liberty University Marketing. Learn more about Emily here.

Get Organized! Helpful Tools for Writers

organizationOne of the most difficult parts of any writing project is keeping your ideas, writings, and sources organized. Here a few tips and resources to help you organize your next project.

Outlines

Forget about the Roman-numeral-heavy outlines from grade school and think in lists, paragraphs, images, or phrases — whatever helps you organize your thoughts. 

Outlines are best used for organizing information chronologically, which is great for larger projects like books. However, your outline isn’t limited to words. If you have photos that inspire certain scenes in your story, feel free to paste those into your outline as well. 

Personally, I like using a basic outline written in complete sentences that defines my story from start to finish. However, outlines can be customized to fit your writing style.

Timelines

Similar to an outline, a timeline lays out your story chronologically, giving you a big-picture view of what’s happening in your plot. If you’re a visual person, creating a physical timeline with a roll of craft paper on an empty wall in your home works well. 

When I was 16, I created a giant timeline of a manuscript I wrote so that I could see when everything was happening in the story. I wrote basic plot points on the timeline directly and used sticky notes for smaller events so that I could rearrange them. This helped me understand where the plot was lacking and helped me fill in some holes. (This story is still under construction.)

Planning Softwarewriting organization

There are a ton of free resources available online that can help you plot your story and organize your thoughts and ideas. While there are some paid programs designed specifically for writers, I’ve found that basic project management programs can be easily adapted to fit the needs of a writer. Here are three of my favorites.

Google Drive

Perhaps the simplest and easiest to use, Google Drive is an online storage facility for all of your big ideas. I love creating project folders for my stories because I can have a folder for each piece of the planning process, whether it be inspirational photos, drafts, or brainstorm documents. 

Trello

Trello is an interesting project management platform that allows you to create boards, lists, and cards. I’ve found this site to be particularly helpful when I’m in the early stages of planning a project because you can break your project out into sections via the boards and then assign specific plot points to cards, which can be infinitely rearranged. It’s basically like using index cards, except you can’t spill coffee on them.

Bear

If you prefer something that is really simple and easy to organize, I suggest using Bear. This desktop and mobile app offers both word processing and easy organization. Just use hashtags to categorize your documents. When you need to find something, you can search hashtags to find the document you need. This loose form of organization works great if you are still in the early stages of plotting and aren’t sure exactly how you want to structure your work.

How do you currently organize your writing? I’ve used all of these methods in the past, but right now, Trello and Bear are my two favorites. Once I get through the conceptual stage on my current project, I’ll probably start using a traditional outline.

Happy writing!

Find out more about Emily here.

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