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Monday, September 18, 2017

Comic Con Schedule + Why You Shouldn't Use Adverbs

Hey everyone! I'm busy getting ready for Salt Lake Comic Con happening this week. Also . . . I got pit tickets to see Muse and 30 Seconds to Mars 😍 . I'm pretty obsessed with Muse if you haven't noticed . . . here . . . or here. . . . It's gonna be amazing. The concert is Wednesday night and Comic Con starts on Thursday afternoon (so I should be able to get some sleep . . . if I'm not too excited.)

Here is my schedule in case anyone else is going to be there and would like to see me!

Harry Potter is My Bible: Fandom as Faith :: 251A
Thursday September 21, 2017 :: 3:00 pm to 4:00 pm

People turn to fandoms for more than just entertainment. We find comfort and inspiration, guidance and even spirituality, in the art we consume. Drawing on the example from the podcast "Harry Potter and the Sacred Text" this panel will discuss the deeper ways fandom can help us in life.

Harry Potter and the Cast of Unforgettable Characters :: 151D
Thursday September 21, 2017 :: 4:00 pm to 5:00 pm

Every book in the Harry Potter series may bear Harry’s name, but each fan knows that Harry is only the beginning when it comes to the series’ well-developed characters. Join us as we discuss who our favorites are, who we hated, who we most related to, who we wished were our best friends and family members, and more. We’ll also discuss what makes the cast of Harry Potter so rich, universal, and timeless

(For kids)

All Things Pokemon
Saturday September 23, 2017 3:00 pm to 3:30 pm
Kid Con - 155

We will be talking about everything Pokemon--games, shows, cards, whatever--and invited the kids there to do the same.

Searching for the Sorcerer's Stone: 20 Years of Harry Potter :: 151D
Saturday September 23, 2017 :: 6:00 pm to 7:00 pm

From the publication of the Sorcerer’s Stone in 1997 to the home release of Fantastic Beasts in 2017, the Harry Potter universe is now 20 years old. Join us as we discuss Harry Potter then and Harry Potter now, stroll down our favorite wizarding memories, and consider how Harry Potter has changed the world. Later we’ll open it up for you to share some of your own favorite moments with us. Will Harry Potter still be here in 20 more years? We certainly hope so!

I'm also excited to meet Elijah Wood, who played Frodo in Lord of the Rings. 😍

It's gonna be a good week.

Other than all this, I still need help with my Thunderclap campaign going on. If you missed last week's post, I'm launching a freelance editing website at, and I'd love to get some help spreading the word. If you aren't familiar with Thunderclap, it's a service where people vow to share a link on social media on a specific day (ours is Oct. 13). I need at least 100 people to vow to do this, and you need to do it through my Thunderclap.

Thanks to everyone who has already joined my Thunderclap.

And since I'd hate to leave you guys without a writing tip this week, I'm linking to my latest tip on Youtube, where I discuss the writing rule that you should not use adverbs and should only use adjectives sparingly.

In my follow-up video, I'll explain when and how to break this rule.

Monday, September 11, 2017

6 Things I've Learned as a Professional Editor

I usually talk about the writing process on my blog, but today I wanted to talk about the editing side of my life. I also have a little surprise at the bottom of this post, but if you feel like you can't read through my points to get there, I guess you can scroll down and come back.

I love editing because I love helping writers grow and take their stories to the next level. In middle school and high school, whenever we had to write down our career plans, my plan A was always writing, and my plan B was editing. For over five years, I've gotten to live both my plan A and my plan B every day. 😍

I thought it would be helpful for other writers to hear my thoughts as an editor and important points I've learned (or that have been validated to me) from that perspective.

1. It's Your Story, Not Mine

As you probably know, I work for a best-selling author, but he also teaches and does editing too. One of the things I've heard him say is that ultimately, it's the writer who puts in the real work. It's the writer who came up with the vision for the story. It's the writer who puts in the hours. It's the writer who put something on the page. Sure, everyone else in the process may hold a little claim to the development of the project, but it's small in comparison. A fraction. And while there are editors and other professionals in the industry who may request changes, ultimately it's the writer's story.

Your story should reflect your vision, not mine.

I work in freelance editing, not for a publishing company, so my perspective may be a little different than editors of New York, but in my case, I strongly believe that the suggestions I make on a manuscript are just that: editorial suggestions. They may be educated suggestions and experienced suggestions, but they are suggestions nonetheless. It's up to the writer to decide how he or she shapes the story. My job is to help them see how to make the story better. How to nail their vision for the story and the audience's experience of it.

But they should write true to themselves, not true to me.

It's your story. Not mine.

2. Writing can be Learned

If you peruse things other writers have said, especially older famous writers, you won't go far until you meet the concept that being a good writer is something innate and can't be learned, let alone taught. This is elitism at its finest. I've also seen quotes from writers who portray that no writer (or anyone for that matter) really knows what he or she is doing and why it works.

Both of these ideas are completely ridiculous.

People who say writing can't be learned, don't know how to teach it. People who say they don't know how to do what they do are people who don't know how to explain it--because for them it's subconscious and intuitive.

Both these concepts are thwarted daily--by people who do know how to teach writing and by writers, like Brandon Sanderson, who know exactly how to explain what they are doing.

Writing is a tricky topic to teach and a tricky talent to gain because almost everything about it is intangible. But writing can be learned just as anything else. If you want to write a better story, and you have the capacity to read and understand this post, you can become a better writer. Don't believe any other crap you hear.

3. Everyone Starts at the Beginning

Remember that concept that writers must be born, not made? I hope so, because it was just in the last section. One thing I have learned and know to be true, is that however "naturally" talented you are, we start at the beginning. Everyone needs to learn the basics. And while, I do believe some of us are more "natural" at things than others, even Michelangelo had to learn his colors.

However great of a writer you feel are destined to be, or however horrible you think you are at writing, everyone--everyone--starts at the beginning. And everyone can make progress. Sure, some people may pick up on things intuitively or faster than others, but we all start at the beginning.

If you aren't a natural, you can still learn how stories work, just as you learned how to do anything else that didn't come naturally to you. If you are a natural, you should still learn how stories work and function, so that you can write them more intentionally.

The difference between a "natural" and someone who is not, is that the former learns and picks up on things more subconsciously and intuitively while the other learns more consciously and intentionally. In the end, both need to learn and use the mechanics to reach their full potential.

I've done editing for all different kinds of people--some with jaw-dropping professions. Trust me when I say we all must learn the basics to become better.

4. The Importance of Positive Feedback

Contrary to some popular beliefs, positive feedback isn't really a matter of self-esteem or ego-stroking. Can it do those things? Absolutely. But every writer needs positive feedback.

It is just as important for a writer to know what is working as it is to know what's not working.

Some of the things that are working well in the story may be things the writer did subconsciously. They could be things the author isn't even fully aware of. These things need to be pointed out so that the author can become aware of them and learn to gain conscious control over them, so they can intentionally use them in future stories, use them to better effect, and take them to the next level.

And even if the author did do them very intentionally, it's important that they know it had the effect they intended.

5. Rules are Really More Like Guidelines

Every once in a while (haha, who am I kidding? Every ten times in a while . . . ) you may come across someone who adheres to writing rules more than they adhere to the commandments of God.

There are a lot of great reasons to learn and adhere to the rules (remember how I said everyone starts with the basics?), but as an editor, I've seen times where adhering to rules actually hurt the story and writing rather than benefited it. Often the rules that get the ultimate devotion are rules that relate to style. Sorry, not sorry, but style is not the end-all and be-all, of storytelling. It has a place in storytelling, absolutely, but it is not the sum of a good story. It's only one element. You do not need to sacrifice all the other elements every time to it as if it were a god. You do not need to sacrifice tone in order to please the no-passive-voice rule. There are places where passive voice is exactly what you need.

Same thing can be true of content rules. Some stories really do need that character sitting and doing nothing but thinking for the opening pages (gasp!). Some stories actually do need that flashback desperately. Some stories do need that much telling. Some stories do need that vague passage.

95% of stories don't.

But some do.

This is why rules are really more like guidelines.

6. Not all Stories are Edited Equally

You would think that the more editing time a story requires the "worse" the submitted story is. And while the quality of the story is absolutely a main, if not leading, factor, this is not always the case.

Some stories are simply more complex than others. They may have a complex, intricate story structure. They may be full of meaningful subtext and undercurrents that need to be perfected. The author may have a grand vision for the story that requires stark precision and specificity to accomplish. Some stories inherently take longer to edit than others.

Likewise, I've done editing work for really amazing writers that take far longer than beginning writers--because what the former writers need to hear from me is much more advanced and therefore requires more specificity to explain and teach; it's not the sort of thing you are going to have pop up in a Google search with 1k results that lead you to everything you want to hear. Because it is advanced and intricate and sometimes personalized to that particular writer or story, I need to be more precise and exact in diagnosing and explaining it.

How long or short of an edit a story needs is not necessarily how "good" or "bad" a story or writer is. A complex story is not automatically better than a simple story. They are just different. They belong in different places. They have different needs and goals.

Not all stories are edited equally.

Fawkes Editing

For years I've occasionally been doing some editing for additional projects on the side of my regular work, but now I'm happy to say I have my own website specifically for my freelance editing services. 😍 And I'd love to get some help, if you are willing.

(It's so shiny!)

You can visit or link to my website at

But even if you are not interested in my editing, what I do need help with is spreading the word. I've put together this Thunderclap campaign, which, if you aren't familiar with Thunderclap, is a service where people vow to share a link on social media on a specific day.

In order for the campaign to work, I need at least 100 people to vow to share. Thunderclap releases the shares all on the same day (ours is Oct. 13th), like a big social media bomb. But if I don't get at least 100 people, Thunderclap will not release the shares.

You can also share the website any other time, but I need at least 100 people to help me through Thunderclap.

If everyone reading this post vowed to share, we'd be at the goal in a matter of hours, so please consider it.

Over the years I haven't asked for much, if really anything, from my followers. I don't even have products to sell on my website here at for you guys to patronize me ;) Everything I've done on this site, I've done for free, for almost five years. Actually, I even put some of my own money into it.

All in all, thank you for being a part of my writing and editing journey with me.

Monday, September 4, 2017

Hiding What the Main Character Knows from the Reader

I recently got a question from a follower about how to write a story where a very valuable piece of information about the protagonist is kept hidden from the reader until much later in the story, probably at the climax for a nice twist or reveal.

Surprisingly this sort of question comes up somewhat often (especially by new writers), which is why I decided to talk about it in its own post (and in order to do that, this post will be quite long). The writer may want to write a murder mystery where it turns out that the protagonist is the murderer. Or perhaps they go through the whole story believing that the protagonist is human, but then at the end, it's revealed he's another creature pertinent to the story. Or maybe at the end, it's revealed that he's actually dead.

I love those sorts of reveals. Some of my all-time favorite shows use them.

But they are extremely difficult, if not impossible to do in a written story.

In fact, many writers will tell you that they can't be done at all. In reading, the audience gets very close to the main character. Because we almost always are experiencing the story from their viewpoint, it's like we put on their mind and body. We are connected to their senses--what they see, smell, taste, touch, hear--because good writing (almost always) must appeal to the senses powerfully. Furthermore, if your protagonist is intentionally leaving something important out from the reader, the reader usually notices and feel cheated--like he's being played. Another problem is that it keeps the reader from identifying closely and bonding with the protagonist--another element usually needed to write a good story.

I, myself, have spent a good amount of time thinking about this question, as I've had it before too, have heard others ask it enough, and have witnessed other professionals address it.

Can you hide something important about your protagonist from the audience?

Many people will tell you that you cannot. You cannot do that and write a successful story. You cannot have your cake and eat it too.

Of course, I'm skeptical whenever someone in the writing world says something can never be done. "You can't teach writing." "Writers are born, and if you don't have IT, you can't become one." "You can't write anything that hasn't already been thought of." "You can't use passive voice." "You can't use alternative dialogue tags." "You can't use to-be verbs." "You can't use adverbs." "You can't apply point of view penetration to first-person." "You can't learn how to write humor."

I've said it before, and I'll say it again: Those who say something can't be done, don't know how to do it.

And the moment we believe something can't be done, we put a ceiling and a limitation on ourselves and the writing world at large.

Can you write a book where the protagonist keeps something important from the audience until much later? Yes.

Do people know how to do it successfully AND how to teach others to do it successfully?

No one that I know of.

But that doesn't mean it can't be done.

I'm going to take a stab on some of my own theories on the subject that I've been developing, but keep in mind, this is an ongoing thing I haven't completely nailed down yet. Here are some ways to deal with this, but first I'll address the answer I usually hear.

Easy Out: Change Your Viewpoint Character (But it Changes the Story)

Often when I hear this question posed, I hear professional writers answer by having the person consider changing who their main character or viewpoint character is.

This doesn't tell you how to hide important info from the audience, but it does give you an alternative that is much easier to deal with.

Instead of writing about a main character keeping a secret, you can write about someone else who knows the person and then have them discover the secret. This probably means changing who your protagonist is to the character's friend, neighbor, love interest, coworker, or whatever.

However, sometimes you can simply change the viewpoint character. As I've mention before, the protagonist is not necessarily the viewpoint character, thought almost always they are the same person. Sherlock Holmes is perhaps the most famous example of this. Watson is the viewpoint characters. Holmes is the protagonist.

By changing your viewpoint character, you maneuver your way out of this problem.

Keep What's Hidden Away From the Main Focus and/or Main Plot

If you are trying to keep something hidden from the audiences, and that something is very relevant to the main plot or focus of the story, most likely your audience is going to notice and be annoyed. This is one of the most common problems I see with new writers trying to include a mystery. In the structure of their sentences and scene, they focus on what's being withheld, or the fact that something is being withheld. For example, there might be a whole paragraph about dads, with the protagonist thinking about her dad, and a sentence like "She never wanted to remember what her dad had done to her 15 years ago."

Now, the sentence itself might actually work in a different structure, but the problem is, since we spent a whole paragraph talking about dads and her dad, dads became the main focus of the story, so when information about what Dad did 15 years ago is withheld, it's annoying and noticeable.

 I talked about this in my post Please Don't Write this Sentence in Your Opening:

One of the problems . . . is that you are drawing attention to the fact that you are withholding important, possibly traumatic, information about your protagonist, and alerting to the reader that "Hey, this is going to be an important backstory that's kind of mysterious and I'm going to tell you about it later."

It feels a lot less mysterious when the writer is advertising the mystery.

The best mysteries are ones where the audience is a participator. And the audience notices themselves that there is something off, or strange, or mysterious in what is going on, not when the narrator advertises it to them.

This can be a problem with just about any mystery, but it tends to be an even more common problem if the protagonist is the one not divulging information.

To pull this sort of thing off, you need to make sure that whatever the protagonist is hiding is not the main focus of the story--that it stays on the sidelines until the perfect moment. It doesn't mean that the info isn't pertinent to the main plot. It's just that when the main focus is something else, this information can be passed over.

I recently edited a story where the writer handled this masterfully in the opening chapter. In fact, it was jaw-dropping. The protagonist manages to keep important information from the reader--and the reader even becomes aware that this is happening--for the whole first chapter, but to be honest, if the story was structured differently, it could have been kept from us until the climax.

How did this person do it? By making something else the focus of the story. And better yet, making something happening in the here and now that demands immediate attention, that demands focus. We notice we are missing important information, or that something is off, but the task at hand is so much more important and demands present action.

For example, say that your main character is a dragon, but the kind that can have a human form (if you've seen those in stories.) It can manifest itself and live as a human, but is really a dragon in disguise. Say we want to keep the fact the protagonist is a dragon hidden until later. The first chapter opens up with a fire in a building, and the protagonist is involved, maybe as a firefighter (beautiful irony to play with there and opportunity for character complexity and depth) or as a passing citizen, or a renter of the an apartment in the building. Maybe he is trying to rescue a child he knows personally trapped on an upper floor.

This is a set-up that demands present action--it demands the story's main focus.

So, we have this protagonist focused on trying to save this child--that's the surface of the story. However, in the process, because the protagonist is our viewpoint character, we notice that in passing he thinks a few unusual things about fire. Nothing way out there or that gives his true nature away, just something slightly unique or off. Maybe he thinks about a personal relationship he has with fire, but doesn't go on to explain what.

It's very important these thoughts are not bunched together. None of them make a full paragraph length. They are very brief and spread apart, sprinkled in here and there. When they are long and bunched together, they became a main focus, which we don't want.

Now, how you word those thoughts depends on what kind of effect you are going for. As I mentioned in my post The Mechanics of Rendering Mysteries and Undercurrent, you can have a conscious mystery, a subconscious mystery, or a full undercurrent ("I didn't see that coming"). If you want a conscious mystery, you make the fact that those thoughts seem slightly off, a tad more obvious. If you want a subconscious mystery, you make it less. If you want it as a full undercurrent, you word those thoughts in a way that gives them a double meaning--they make sense in the moment, but they'll have a double meaning and make more sense when we have the context that he is a dragon.

So in this dragon story, the fact he is a dragon may be pertinent, but it doesn't become a main focus until near the time you reveal he's actually a dragon. Then, if you want, you can let it become the main focus--having longer dragon-related thoughts, having more of those thoughts closer together. Or you can just reveal it and let those pieces fall in place in the reader's mind. Depends on your own story and how it's handled up to that point.

Make it Unimportant to the Story at Hand

This may seem similar to the last section, but it's different. See, in our dragon example, our protagonist was working with fire, so for a dragon, that's directly relevant to what we are hiding from the audience.

In this method, what is kept hidden does not seem relevant to the main story hardly at all. Therefore, the protagonist never naturally brings it up, or if she does (indirectly), it doesn't seem connected at all to what is happening in the story.

The reality is, we can't tell our readers every-thing about our protagonist--it's just not relevant to the story. For example, I don't know exactly what Harry Potter's 6th birthday was like, I don't know what Frodo's favorite color is, and I don't if Katniss aced a language arts exam in school. And I don't need to know, because it's not important.

So in this method, the information that the protagonist keeps hidden is simply kept hidden because it seemed irrelevant.

In college, I got this idea for a middle grade fantasy story I wanted to write, that played with the "Chosen One" trope. In it, a young boy is collected by a magical guardian and taken to a fantasy world, where in the story, it's revealed he's the "Chosen One." However, in that pivotal moment in the climax where the Chosen One does his amazing thing, it doesn't work. The guardian and another mentor character can't figure out why it's not working--they are retracing their steps and thought processes. They are saying it doesn't make sense because the protagonist is part of this special bloodline, and they tracked down his parents to find him, and so it should all work.

The protagonist reveals he's adopted.

The other two characters are shocked. Since he's not of that bloodline, he's not the Chosen One.

Then the next installment would include them trying to find out if his parents had any other unknown children, and the protagonist (still deeply involved in other ways) would be looking for the real Chosen One.

So, the fact he is adopted is kept hidden through the whole story. The protagonist knew the whole time he was adopted, he just didn't bring it up because he didn't think it was relevant.

That's another way you can handle this sort of thing you can try.

Mess with Your Character's Memory

I know some people read that section heading and probably groaned, because they've seen this handled in poor ways or in cliche ways. But just keep reading. You'll learn something new probably.

Many a new writer will deal with this sort of thing by starting with a character who has some form of amnesia--she doesn't remember who she is, where she is, or what she did. Therefore, the reader can't know either. So as the protagonist works on getting this information, the audience is also part of the mystery. This opening is used so much, that people automatically think it's bad or disregard it. But the reality is, the concept can be handled in many ways, and you can deal with your character's memory in other ways than just amnesia.

One of the reasons this technique gets groaned at is because of the way it's often introduced in a story's opening. But it's entirely possible to start a story years after your character got his amnesia, have him established in a new life with new conflicts and focused on other things. You can reveal he has minor amnesia much later, maybe even in passing. You don't make the fact he has amnesia the central focus of the story, but keep it on the sidelines. A 90's show I grew up on Trigun, does this sort of thing (in addition to the first technique I outlined). We don't know until several episodes in that the protagonist doesn't remember anything that happened during an important event. To top it off, he's a character who struggles with facing legitimate problems directly, so he doesn't necessarily want to go digging to find out what happened. He just wants to live a new and obscure life.

But you can do more than play with legit amnesia. You can play with false memories, blocked memories, or inaccurate memories. The character may truly know these things, but she just doesn't remember them very well or very much or in the same way. And let's be honest, amnesia is a bit of an indirect way of answering this question--because you aren't hiding what the protagonist knows, but what the protagonist had known at some point.

So let's get to some of the other options. Season four of Sherlock is a good example of the alternatives. If you haven't watched it yet, skip the next paragraph.

Throughout the whole show, there have been references to Redbeard and also references to an East Wind.  Redbeard was a dog Sherlock had as a child, and East Wind is from a story Mycroft used to tell him. However, in season four, we discover that Redbeard wasn't actually a dog at all, but a pretend pirate name for Sherlock's best friend. And East Wind isn't the name of a destructive wind that destroys everything in its path, but what the name "Eurus" means, and Eurus is Sherlock's forgotten sister. And because of the tragic things that happened with these people, Sherlock developed inaccurate and false memories (with Mycroft's help of course; he worked to reprogram Sherlock's memories). So it's not so much that Sherlock has amnesia, it's just that his memories are wrong. He knows about Redbeard and the East Wind, but the way he remembers them is incorrect.

In the short story "The Armor Embrace" by Doug C. Souza, the protagonist is wired into a mech suit, and runs off from his military operation to see his daughter. This is so important to him, to see his daughter. But at the end of the story, we realize he isn't who we thinks he is. His memory has been captured or stored in the mech's computer, and the real him is actually dead.

So you can mess around with memories too, just be careful of not being too cliche.

Context Shifts

Similarly, you can also have a character who knows information pertaining to the big reveal, but just not in the right context.

In the short story "A Glamour in Black" by Sylvia Ann Hiven, the main character had to have a parasite put into her back years ago, in order to save her life. It's a parasite that gives her magical abilities. Her hope is to one day have enough money to safely have the parasite taken out again. However, after a few great plot twists and the parasite gets taken out, what our viewpoint character can see, hear, and experience (or the lack thereof) totally changes--it turns out, she was the parasite, and similar to "The Armor Embrace," she (or the real soul of the body) actually died in her accident, and the parasite has just been living in her body, having reanimated it.

While this example does relate to what I touched on in the last section, I'm convinced it can be pulled off on its own--the shift in context. The information itself the character knows and is a part of, but then something happens that puts it in a new perspective or context he didn't realize before.

For another example, I just finished a show that dealt with time travel and parallel worlds. The main character has the ability to detect when the timeline (a.k.a. world line) he's in shifts. He experienced it when ten years old, but he didn't have the context for what it was until he saw it through a certain perspective.

Now, in that example, the character experiences the context shift himself, but you could also do a context shift that only involves the reader, so that the viewpoint character always had the right context, but the reader didn't. This can overlap or relate with the next section in some ways.

The viewpoint character does not think she is hiding anything from the reader, isn't trying to hide anything intentionally (though maybe she is subconsciously), but information is relayed in a way that gives the reader inaccurate context, and therefore a slightly inaccurate conclusion or understanding about it.

Then, when the true context/info is revealed, it's not that the reader feels like it was fully hidden from him, but rather that he had misunderstood its meaning.

Finally, you can also play with context (or the lack thereof) in teasers. Usually this is done in a prologue, which I know people in the writing world hate, but I actually like them, and you can find them all over the bookshelves in stores today. Teasers work by giving us glimpses or flashes or snippets (for books, this is almost always a single scene, because it's much harder to do multiple scenes like this in the written word as opposed to visual storytelling), that make us feel a certain way or that make promises to us.

The thing that is always true about teasers though, is that they don't give us the full context. That's why they are teasers. We have to read the rest of the story or watch the movie to get the context of what we saw in it. It's possible to do a teaser that has the hidden information, but lacks the context for us to understand it. Then when we read the whole story, we can go back and realize we did have the information, or part of it, but we just didn't know what we were looking at.

In these cases, it's the context that's kept most hidden. When we finally have the full context for the content, we get the true meaning, the true information that was hidden.

Have the Viewpoint Character Think and Speak as If the Audience Already Knows the Secret

Another way to try to pull this off, is to have the story written in a way that the narrator has assumed that the reader already knows what's hidden. The novel I recently edited and mentioned earlier did this sort of thing. The viewpoint character kept bringing up something that happened in a fire, but never told us what exactly. But she referenced it and talked about it like it didn't need explaining.

Now, this is one of those approaches that can blow up in your face if you don't remember to present the clues as info or in passing, instead of something you are dangling in front of the reader, like a carrot on a stick. The way it's written should not try to draw attention to it. The writer just lets it be because it already naturally draws attention because it brings to mind questions, in the reader. It's just stated and the story moves on.

This sort of thing is done sometimes with what I'll call "Big Narrators"--these are the sorts of narrators that are loaded with personality. Lemony Snicket is a perfect example. Throughout the Series of Unfortunate Events, he makes reference to things that happened in the past with VFD, but not necessarily in a way that explains them, rather he talks as though the reader already knows about them, such as his references to the sugar bowl and the incident with it. Now, the series ended up shaping into something else, but if the writer had wanted to, the incident with the sugar bowl could have been a huge revelation pertinent to the plot.

You don't need to have a "Big Narrator" or colorful narrator to do this though. If you're clever, you can get away with it with a typical viewpoint character.

Use an Unreliable Narrator

If your narrator or viewpoint character is intentionally leaving things out from the reader, you're probably working with an unreliable narrator. These guys can be tricky sometimes, but if this hidden information is going to be really important to the story, you almost always want to establish that the narrator is unreliable from early on.

This is done by using subtext. It can be really hard and tricky, but the idea is to word things, and present ideas and conclusions that don't quite add up, or that seem a bit off to the reader. One thing I'd recommend if trying to craft an unreliable narrator is to get Ackerman and Puglisi's Emotion Thesaurus, which not only talks about how emotions are manifested, but also how suppressed emotions are manifested. Which is often essentially what you are dealing with. Your narrator is suppressing thoughts and emotions from the reader.

For this sort of set-up, this often means, that the narrator is suggesting (maybe subtly, maybe more strongly (but almost never heavy-handedly)) that the reader come to certain conclusions about things--what the narrator wants others/the audience to think about him or her and the events.

But again, there are some things that seem off or that don't quite add up to the reader, or maybe the reader picks up on the suppressed emotions.

Ready for it to get trickier?

The goal is to make the reader aware that the viewpoint character is somewhat unreliable, without giving away from the beginning exactly what the character is hiding. You can't have the audience be blindsided, having trusted the viewpoint character, and then feeling cheated they didn't know about this info, but you can't have it so obvious that they figure out the info long before the reveal.

Whew, no wonder this is so difficult.

Now, if the information is more in the background, and other things on the surface of the story demand present attention, then you can be vague.

But if the hidden information is more relevant to the story and what's at hand and close to the focus of the story, you need to be ambiguous--giving the reader multiple ways to interpret what's going on, until the reveal.

Have Readers Come to the Wrong Conclusion

This one relates both to context shifts and unreliable narrators in particular, and many other things as well, but I put it in its own category so that you can visualize it as its own thing, instead of one that must be attached to a specific method.

To do this method, you must have the clues and hints about the hidden information, but delve them out in the story in a way that leads the reader to misunderstand or misinterpret it and come to the wrong conclusion.

This is a significant method to include, because it's sometimes very much the route a certain story needs to take. Rather than have your audience wondering and wondering and wondering through a whole story, you let them come to a conclusion, and get a level of false closure, thinking they understand and have figured it out, when actually they don't.

When the true info and understanding is revealed, it still fits the clues and hints, but in a somewhat unforeseen way.

Closing Thoughts

Whew, that's a lot to think about and consider, and like I said, these are my thoughts and theories in progress. Regardless of them, I'm sure there are many people who will say that these things and methods are "cheating."

I loved in a podcast of Writing Excuses, where Brandon Sanderson admits to keeping information his viewpoint character, Kelsier, knows from the audience in his novel Mistborn, and says "I cheated."

What struck me in particular about this, is that Brandon Sanderson was aware that he'd done something other people considered "cheating," but he chose to do it anyway because he wanted to.

I'm going to do a post on that sort of thing someday in the future. In some cases, the pros of cheating just outweigh the cons, ultimately making a better story, if still an imperfect one.

And all in all, the reader's experience should take precedence over writers' "rules."

So can you write a story where something the main character knows is kept from the reader? Yes!

Can it be done well? Yes!

Does that mean it's easy? Definitely not.

This is super advanced craft and takes a lot of talent to pull off well. But let's stop teaching people it can't be done, so that we can actually get some great writers in the world who can do it.

Monday, August 28, 2017

"Everything has already been done before" -- Has it really?

You've probably heard the idea voiced in the writing world at some point that "Everything has already been done before." Is that true? Has everything really already been done before?

I'd argue no.

And I might even be a little passionate about arguing it.

Now, before I get further, I think it's important to acknowledge that there is a difference between saying "Everything has already been done before" and saying  "It's okay to do this again." Sometimes when I hear people say "Well, everything's already been done before," they're using it in a way to grant permission to do something again. But there is nothing wrong with doing something again, as long as you make it your own, bring something fresh to the table, and don't plagiarize (or base everything off the same source). Using the excuse that "Everything's already been done" though, causes a couple of problems.

For one, it's saying that in order for your work to have value, it must do something no one has even seen before. And that's just not true. Having something new in your story that people haven't seen before can definitely make your work stand out, but it is not the sum attribute of what makes a good story. Besides, you can have something fresh, new, and original that actually hurts your story or makes it worse . . . because it's not an appealing idea, it doesn't fit the story or genre, or it's too strange and bizarre for the intended audience.

The second problem is that when you use that logic, you limit yourself. When you say and believe "Everything's already been done before," you give yourself a ceiling, a limitation. If you don't believe there can be any new ideas in the world, then you can't really come up with new ideas, can you? And if you do, it will be by accident (which is very unlikely).

This reminds me of a conversation I had several years ago with someone. We'd gotten on the topic of spirituality or the spiritual realm and if it could ever be scientifically discovered. The person I talked to said, "But how can it be discovered if it can't be measured?" I replied, "How was anything ever discovered?" To which he replied, "You have a point."

Obviously my response was an exaggeration, but the point is, there have been things discovered in science that we previously thought could never be discovered. I mean, we can freaking tell the elements in star by looking at its light spectrum. We've discovered things that no human eye can see. We've "discovered" dark matter, which is still literally undetectable to us (we only see its effect on things). My point of this conversation is that, whether or not you believe a spiritual world or afterlife exists, when we accept the idea that if it did, it can never be discovered, we vastly limit our abilities of possibly discovering or measuring it.

But if you look at history, time and time again, new things were discovered--even crazy things that vastly changed human perspective, that led to persecution, to religions renouncing sciences, to powerful opinions and thinking, to shaming and banning--and we gained access to new sciences. Whenever we believe humankind has already discovered everything there is to discover, we largely curb our learning abilities.

Remember that once most of the human population believed the Earth was the center of the universe--and if anyone could say they could actually measure where and how it fit into the universe, they would have been laughed to scorn, and worse.

Imagine people back then saying, "Everything has already been discovered," or "Every school of science has already been invented," or "Everything that can be measured has already been measured."

When we learn of these things and attitudes in history, we laugh. But honestly, today, people are no different.

But my point is, if we choose to believe that everything we could write has already been written before, we vastly limit our abilities.

And it's not true.

Look at time machine stories.

How many time machine stories do you think exist? Probably tens of thousands. Maybe hundreds of thousands.

But someone came up with the first one (The Clock that Went Backward by Edward Page Mitchell). Eventually someone came up with one that was so mind-blowing, it infiltrated far corners of the world. Now everyone knows what a time machine is, even if they don't exist.

If everything has already been done before, then how were genres like cyber punk and space opera started? And how are we able to trace back to their beginnings?

Sometimes such groundbreaking work does not happen on a huge scale. As a lot of you probably know, I'm a big fan of Christopher Nolan's movie Interstellar. When making the movie, they worked closely with physicist Kip Thorne, who gave them the most up-to-date information on black holes. No one had created a true black hole in television before. Not even Kip Thorne had seen a rendition of a true one, and he's spent his life in astrophysics. Interstellar was the first movie to accurately depict what a black hole would actually look like. Even Kip Thorne was stunned to see it.

It had never been done before.

Years ago I started reading Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy. I didn't have to get far into it to see why it was so popular and such a phenomenon. And while I've seen a few concepts that may overlap with it (and as I've mentioned before, some weirdly overlap with my own (and here I thought I'd been so clever)), it was vastly its own story--largely original. I'd never read anything like it before. And I've never read anything like it since. And it just wasn't in a few aspects here and there, it was all over. And it was clever. Philip Pullman created something that hadn't been done before.

There are many other examples I could go on about. Of course, there is Harry Potter and there is Lord of the Rings and there is Star Wars and there are many more.

Guys. Everything has NOT already been done before!

Some stories have completely new concepts--and yes, those are very rare--while other stories do something that's never been done, like Interstellar. Still, there are other stories that take something already done, and carry it out in a way that's never been done.

You can crisscross concepts in ways that haven't been done. You can play with tropes and outcomes to make something no one has seen before. You can push the limits and twist ideas into something that has never graced the bookshelves.

When Indiana Jones was still in its very early stages, during a brainstorming session, the filmmakers were talking about a chase scene. Chase scenes have been done a million times. But during the brainstorming, they come up with the idea of using a camel in the chase scene. They'd never seen a chase scene done with a camel. Horses, cars, and on foot--yes. But a camel? Never.

They took a common scene and tried to think of a way to put their stamp on it, to make it different. (Unfortunately I don't think that particular chase scene ended up in the film, but you get my point.)

You are different than other people in the world. You have different experiences, and a different perspective.

You can do something that has never been done before.

Is it difficult? Yes, it can be very difficult. But honestly, it can also be a skill developed like any other. You can work on it the same way you work on learning punctuation, style, plotting, or character. The problem is, we never teach how to do it, or try to do it, because,

"Everything has already been done before."

The. Ceiling.

The ceiling we've placed on others. The ceiling we place on ourselves.

Doomed to be borrowers and copycats.

Now, as I said at the beginning, stories don't have to be "new" to be good. And not everyone wants to write something completely revolutionary. That's 100% acceptable. Say, "It's okay to do this again." Don't say, "Well, everything has already been done before."

Whichever writer you want to be, though, I do recommend leaving something of yourself in every scene. We don't want to be complete copycats and plagiarizers. I also don't recommend repeatedly borrowing from the same sources--unless you are a writing hobbyist or fanfiction writer who is doing that intentionally for the sake of doing it (i.e. "What would it be like if my character went to Hogwarts when Harry did?")

But please, be good to yourself. And remember what I've said in posts past: People who teach that something can't be done, don't know how to do it.

Don't put ceilings on yourself. It's perhaps one of the most successful ways to sabotage yourself and keep yourself from reaching your potential.

If you truly want to learn how to create something that hasn't been done, you can. Learn to develop an eye for when others do it in books or movies . . . and when they don't. Go over to and study hundreds of story tropes--you usually need to know what's out there and how it works in order to make new combinations, alternatives, and concepts.

Here are some of my past posts that overlap and relate and may help too (particularly the first one):

Flipping Story Stuff
Writing Micro-concepts
Ramping up Try/Fail Cycles
Honestly, a lot of my Interstellar posts may help
Why Rowling Rocked the Briefcase Mix-up and How You can Rock Your Own Tired Tropes
Tips on Creating Your Own Fantastic Beasts
Leaving Your Stamp on a Scene
Starting a Scene: Two Important Questions
Playing with Foils
The Real Key to Brainstorming: Restrictions

Monday, August 21, 2017

How Seriously Should You Take Writing?

Every once in a while I get to thinking about all the writing stuff out there.

There is so much stuff.

There are so many opinions.

So much advice.

And sometimes I wonder what percentage of people who want to write really need all of them.

The title of this post is "How Seriously Should You Take Writing?" Do you know what the answer is?

However seriously you want.

There is so much stuff out there for writers.

There are conferences where you can learn about writing and meet authors, agents, editors.

There are writing retreats where you can get together with other writers, socialize, and write.

There are hundreds of books on writing you can read about and learn from.

There are blogs, youtube channels, podcasts, Twitter handles, Facebook pages for writers.

There are writing workshops where you can do hands-on learning and get critiques and feedback of your work.

There are open mic nights where you can read your work.

There are community events for writers.

There are writing groups where you meet with other writers and share work.

There are writing luncheons and dinners.

If you know where to find it, there is writing stuff everywhere.

If you really want to write, it can sometimes be hard not to get sucked into trying to do everything--everything mentioned above, including actually writing, and editing, and public appearances, and social media, and blogging, and contests, and . . .  the list goes on.

But everyone can be a writer. It doesn't require any of the things in that list above. The definition of a writer is someone who writes.

It doesn't have qualifiers.

How seriously should you take writing?

However seriously you want.

I've meet writers who simply post chapters of their stories on Tumblr. There are fanfiction writers. There are blog writers. There are people who write stories in notebooks that they want no one to read. There are closet writers.

There are casual writers--writers who write when they feel like it. There are social writers--writers who like to write, but also like writing because of the writing community. They like to take part in all the social connections and gatherings and conferences and workshops and they like to read at open mics.

In contrast, I've edited work for phenomenal, talented writers who have next to no online presence or writing community involvement.

There are writers who dream of being a leading name in the industry. But there are writers who only ever desire to share their work on Wattpad.

If you want to take your writing seriously, you can. You can study up, work, practice, hone, write, edit, put in your 10,000 hours. If you want to take your writing less seriously, you can.

Don't ever let anyone (whether it's intended or not) make you feel like you aren't serious enough to write. Don't let the pressure of the industry rob you of doing what you love and loving what you do.

Of course, this doesn't mean you get to choose all the outcomes.

As best-selling author Kevin J. Anderson says, "The harder I work, the luckier I get."

If you are serious about making it on the New York Times bestselling list, you're going to have to work. Hard. You can't expect to put in 100 hours and be there. You've got to do the work. You've got to be more serious and intense.

How seriously should you take your writing?

Well, that depends largely on where you want to go.

There are always some factors out of our control. We can't control the writing universe, unfortunately. But that's one reason why Kevin J. Anderson says, "The harder I work, the luckier I get."

The more work you put in, the more opportunities open up. Maybe it's just probability. Maybe it's because other people see how hard you are working, and they reach out. Maybe it's simply because hard work pays off. But it's true. When you work harder and work smarter, that work yields bigger and better results.

But if you only want to write for fun, because you enjoy it and it makes you happy, that's a good enough reason to write, even if it's just a few minutes a day, a week, a month, or whatever. There may be gates or gatekeepers that have a say on who gets to be considered a bestseller, an author, a professional writer, but there are no restrictions on who gets to write.

If you follow my blog because you like to and find it interesting and just want to write for fun, great.

If you follow my blog because you are intense (or obsessive ;) about writing and want to hit #1 on the best-seller list, great.

In the writing universe, there is room for anyone, however seriously or casual they want to take their writing.

Monday, August 14, 2017

5 Most Common Mistakes with Dialogue

As an editor, I've been thinking about how I need to do a post on some of the most common mistakes I see in dialogue. Many are a matter of fine-tuning, moving from a great writer, to a professional one.

Dialogue Tags Don't Match the Dialogue

As I've mentioned before, I'm not wholly against alternative dialogue tags ("groaned," "cried," "yelled," "lamented," etc.), and I think they can be particularly effective when the dialogue and the context of the story can't portray the way that it's said. For example:

"That's great," Melody groaned

But sometimes the dialogue tag honestly doesn't fit the way it's said. It's hard to give an example of this in a blog post, because often whether or not the tag fits the dialogue depends on the context of the story. But look at this:

"Elephants use their skin folds to crush mosquitoes," Milo whined

The direct dialogue doesn't sound like whining. The content doesn't sound like something to whine about, and the structure doesn't sound like whining. But that is the chosen dialogue tag. It doesn't fit.

"Elephants use their skin folds to crush mosquitoes," Milo said matter-of-factly.

But sometimes you get weird combos like this:

"Elephants use their skin folds to crush mosquitoes," Milo whined matter-of-factly.

I don't know about you, but "whined matter-of-factly" sounds like something that's pretty difficult to pull off.

Here are some more examples:

"I need to lose weight," Taz wondered.

"Can I check into my hotel room now?" Kelly raged.

"Want to pick up the groceries?" Katie exclaimed.

Sure, grammatically, they are fine, but other than very rare occasions, the tags aren't appropriate for the direct dialogue. Make sure what you write matches.

Modifiers Don't Match the Dialogue

Some people really love using modifying phrases (participial phrases) with their dialogue tags. Again, I'm not against this, but like anything, it can be overused, and more than that, it needs to make sense. A modifying phrase after a dialogue tag is adding information to the dialogue tag.  It works as an adjective. Here is a fine example.

"Do you ever sunburn?" Manny asked, squeezing sunscreen into his palm

"Squeezing sunscreen into his palm" is a modifying phrase--it adds information to "Manny asked." Because it functions similar to an adjective, it's also saying that Manny squeezed the sunscreen into his palm at the same time he asked "Do you ever sunburn." Not after. The same time.

Here is a problem example:

"Grab the gun!" I yelled, holding my breath as a cloud of smoke came our way.

You cannot yell and hold your breath at the same time. So this is a problem. But you can easily fix it:

"Grab the gun!" I yelled, then held my breath as a cloud of smoke came our way.


"Grab the gun!" I yelled. I held my breath as a cloud of smoke came our way.


 "Grab the gun!" I yelled, and I held my breath as a cloud of smoke came our way.


"Grab the gun!" I yelled, holding my breath as a cloud of smoke came our way.

Other times, the participial phrase doesn't match because it doesn't fit with the dialogue (usually it doesn't logically match in length).

 "Yes," she said, putting her dress, socks, and pajamas in a suitcase and then the luggage on the floor.

You can't tell me she put her dress, socks, AND pajamas in a suitcase AND then put the luggage on the floor the same time she said "Yes."  Unless she's Quicksilver from X-Men, it's not possible to do all those things during a one-syllable word.

You can fix it like this:

 "Yes," she said, putting her dress in the suitcase. She added her socks and pajamas, and then placed the luggage on the floor.

Some writers say you should try to leave out participial phrases like this altogether, since cognitively it is difficult for the reader to imagine both things happening at once. I'm personally okay with it and don't think it's a big deal. They just need to make sense.

Improper Punctuation

I think probably every writer struggles at some point with figuring out how to punctuate dialogue. Let's be honest, to a beginner, it's not that clear-cut, and if you don't know the rules, it might seem somewhat random. For example, all of these sentences are punctuated properly:

"All I was wondering," Jill said, "was if you would like to go to the movies."

"I caught a fish once," Heber said. "It was a big fat trout."

"I can't believe this!" Arnie said. "You wrecked my car?"

"I can't believe this!" Arnie said, "You wrecked my car?"

"Was it a squirrel?" Daisy asked. "I do love squirrels."

Here are the same sentences handled improperly:

"All I was wondering," Jill said. "Was if you would like to go to the movies."

"I caught a fish once," Heber said, "it was a big fat trout."

"I can't believe this," Arnie said! "You wrecked my car?"

"I can't believe this!" Arnie said, "you wrecked my car?"

"I do love squirrels," Daisy asked, "was it a squirrel?"

For a complete rundown of how to punctuate dialogue, you can follow this link. But here are a few things to keep in mind.

"All I was wondering," [part of a sentence] Jill said, [dialogue tag] "was if you would like to go to the movies. [rest of the sentence]"

- When the dialogue tag interrupts a sentences, separate it by commas.

"I caught a fish once, [complete sentence]" Heber said. [dialogue tag] "It was a big fat trout." [a separate complete sentence]

- When the dialogue tag comes at the end of a complete sentence, use a comma inside the end quotes and then a period after the tag. If there is more dialogue, capitalize the next letter as you would the start of a sentence.

"I can't believe this!" Arnie said. "You wrecked my car?"

- When the dialogue tag follows an exclamation point or question mark, you simply add the dialogue tag with a period. You don't need an extra comma ("I can't believe this!," Arnie said--no)

"I can't believe this!" Arnie said, "You wrecked my car?"

- In this example, the dialogue tag is technically preceding the dialogue "You wrecked my car?" so you can put a comma.

Notice how these actually read differently:

"I can't believe this!" Arnie said. / "You wrecked my car?"


"I can't believe this!" / Arnie said, "You wrecked my car?"

The slash denotes that extra bit of silence. The way the dialogue tag is placed and punctuated tells us how the beat goes.

Now, some people say you should never start with a dialogue tag: Arnie said, "You wrecked my car?" I'd argue that it's the best choice in some scenarios. Also, some say you should never flip the speaker and tag: "You wrecked my car?" said Arnie.

I personally don't have a problem with it as long as it's used sparingly and not the go-to choice. When you are describing who is speaking, because we don't know the name, it's often a great choice: "You wrecked my car?" said a man with a long beard and a silver umbrella.

"Was it a squirrel?" Daisy asked. "I do love squirrels."

- Same explanation as my exclamation point one. If you end on a question, put the question mark before the end quotes, add the dialogue tag, and put a period. Notice how this example is wrong:

"Was it a squirrel?" Daisy asked, "I do love squirrels."


"Was it a squirrel?" / Daisy asked, "I do love squirrels."

Daisy is not asking "I do love squirrels." So again, the tag does not match the dialogue.

Making Actions into Dialogue Tags

I could have probably put this in the last section, but it happens so much that it really needs its own category.

Sometimes writers make the dialogue tag a physical action:

"Let's go to the store," Amy smiled.

"I do love pudding," Luna scooped some pudding on her plate, "When is the next match?"

"The last thing I need," Mom yanked the car into reverse, "is for you to back talk me!"

Dialogue is something audible. You can't smile audible language. You can smile while you say it, but you can't smile it.

"Let's go to the store," Amy said, smiling.


"Let's go to the store." Amy smiled.

In the second example, it is implied that Amy is the speaker, simply because of the structure of the line/paragraph. You can absolutely imply who is speaking. But notice that "Amy smiled" is not punctuated as a dialogue tag.

Here is how to fix the pudding one:

"I do love pudding." Luna scooped some pudding on her plate. "When is the next match?"

Keep the action separate from the dialogue--its own sentence.

The third wrong example is tricky. But is here is how you handle it:

"The last thing I need"--Mom yanked her car into reverse--"is for you to back talk me!"

Now, in some cases, I'm guilty of just doing the commas to set off the action, because I feel it suits the tone more than the dashes. If dashes don't suit the moment, you can also play around with the dialogue and find (correct) alternatives. Now, is it wrong if I stylistically choose to use commas? I'll leave that to my editor. ;)

Maid-and-Butler Dialogue

Sometimes an author is trying to get information to the reader through dialogue. And it's obvious. And feels contrived. Maid-and-butler dialogue is a term that originates from stories where the maid and butler would tell each other things they already both know. For example:

"Voldemort was a very dark wizard who killed Harry's parents," Dumbledore said to Snape.
"Voldemort was one of the most powerful wizards in history, as you know, and he went to school here, at Hogwarts," Snape replied.

Dumbledore and Snape both know these things probably better than anyone, but they're talking this way solely for the benefit of the audience. The reality is, as a writer, you often do need to convey information to the reader through dialogue. One way this is handled is by having a character speaking to another character who doesn't know this information.

" 'Arry, I dunno how t' tell ya this," Hagrid said, then paused. "Yer mum and dad didn' die in a car crash. It was a dark wizard who done it. You-Know-Who--one o' the darkest wizards in history."

(Yeah, I know, I can't get Hagrid's dialogue quite right without the book in front of me.)

But in this example, we have someone who knows telling someone who doesn't.

Sometimes though, you just can't work that into your story. In that case, the info itself should not be the sum of the dialogue, but often the subtext.

Here is a great example that would have worked fine (although, it of course works better in where it is actually placed)

(Major spoiler alert--since I know some of my followers haven't read or seen all of Harry Potter yet and they want to)

"You said you would keep her safe," Snape said.
"Lily and James put their faith in the wrong person, Severus, rather like you," Dumbledore said. "The boy survives."
"He doesn't need protection. The dark lord is gone!"
"The dark lord will return. And when he does, the boy will be in terrible danger," Dumbledore said. "He has her eyes."

And then as the scene goes on, you could subtly fill in more info the reader needs.

Straightforward Dialogue

Often the most powerful dialogue is indirect. In the spoilery example above, one of the many reasons it was so powerful was because of all that it implies--it's indirect. It has subtext. Notice how a very straightforward version takes out some of the power:

(Still spoilery )

"You said you would keep her safe," Snape said.
"I did my best to keep them safe. Voldemort killed Lily and James when they trusted Peter Pettigrew as their Secret Keeper. Their son survived Voldemort's attack. He will need protection."
"He doesn't need protection. The dark lord is gone!"
"The dark lord will return. And when he does, he'll want to kill the boy," Dumbledore said. "I know how much you loved Lily, so you must do all you can to keep the boy safe."

Sure, the dialogue is okay, but it's lost some of its power.

Other times, the straightforward is not so lucky:

"Jennifer, I love you! I love you so much! I love you more than the moon and the sun," Cole said.
"I didn't like you at first, but I guess over time I came to like you too," Jennifer said. "Maybe we can be friends for now though."

Straightforward dialogue releases tension. It has a place in storytelling for sure (like when it's time for the tension to be released). But most of your dialogue should not be so straightforward. In life, people often speak indirectly about things, and their words reveal more than what they are actually saying. Good dialogue does too. It says more than what's on the page.

For more on dialogue, check out my other tips: