Convince readers to take a leap of faith, instead of a flying leap

image Welcome to Ned’s Nickel’s Worth on Writing, when I share writing wisdom gained through 15 years as a newspaper columnist — or as my editor calls it, “Reasons I have a cardiologist.”

But enough accolades!

As I’m sure all of you remember, the last NWOW was about the importance of honesty in all genres of writing…

Fine, no one remembers.

At least you’re honest.

In that post, I talked about how writing must ring true with readers for them to become emotionally invested. This is particularly important when it comes to fiction, where you are often asking readers to suspend their disbelief and buy into something — such as an eccentric character, over-the-top situation or random reference to the new iPad6® in hopes of getting a free one — that requires a leap of faith. I this case, your reader is making a “leap” over reality because they have faith that you, the writer, will keep them safely suspended until they land safely on the last page. Assuming, of course, your book doesn’t end with, “…Then there was a massive explosion and everybody died, including the basket of puppies.”

As with taking any kind of leap, you must first gain momentum through a series of confident and quickening footfalls along a solid foundation. This applies to your writing as much as it does, hypothetically speaking, to clearing the front fence of your home in order to beat your son to the restroom after a long car ride. Without the right amount of momentum, your reader could end up — again, hypothetically speaking — doing the splits on a picket fence.

The most effective way for a writer to build a reader’s momentum toward a solid jumping-off point is through writing that resonates with an underlying honesty. This doesn’t mean confessing how you re-named areas of Mrs. Flunkem’s 7th-grade world map with parts of the reproductive system. Although changing “Panama Canal” to “Fallopian Tube” is worth mentioning, hypothetically speaking of course. No, when it comes to honesty in fiction writing I’m referring to what I like to call the “Double-D” approach, and not for reasons you might think. In this case we’re referring to “dialogue” and “description” that ring true enough to establish believability — and lay the foundation of confidence your reader will need when asked to make that leap with you. This applies equally to completely fictional characters, real people written within a fictional context (such as my “interviews” with Kevin Spacey and Clay Aiken), and the persona we project on our blogs and social media sites.

Dialogue is used to convey many things, from mood to information, plot points to character profiles. Because writing dialogue is complex and deserves its own post, today I’m focusing specifically on ways to make your dialogue — whether character driven or as author narrative — ring true and build trust with your reader. In a later post, we’ll talk about the difference between “telling and showing,” avoiding too many “he said, she said” references and the common mistake of nonsensical “action” dialogue (“Then I’m LEAVING!” he yelled, slamming the door on her still-parted lips poised in reply…)

*rubs lips*

Also, for purposes of this NWOW, the subject of “description” will be limited to building believability in your character by effectively describing their actions. We’ll save descriptive passages like “The sun was setting in the canyon like a giant navel orange into God’s fruit bowl…” for another time.

Dialogue: It’s one of the fastest ways to earn — or lose — a reader’s trust. Whether it’s your voice as a blogger or words spoken by someone in a story, you are essentially having a conversation with your reader asking them to “believe.” And just like that guy at your office who is always talking about his nights of crazy sex when, in fact, you took your kids to the dollar theater Friday night and saw him sitting alone watching “Frozen,” you know he’s full of Whoppers. The same goes for your readers.

Unless they’re too busy singing “Let It Go.”

Assuming they aren’t, possibly because they have been shot, here are three tips to writing dialogue readers can believe in:

1) When writing narrative dialogue, don’t allow yourself to fall into “lecture” mode. We don’t like it from our parents, teachers, bosses, ex-wives, etc., and readers don’t either. Always keep your reader in mind. Pause every few paragraphs or minutes, depending on how fast you type (total elapsed time for this paragraph: three days) and ask yourself, “If I was having this conversation on the street with a stranger, what would they be thinking right now? Would they have questions? What feedback would they have? If someone drove by on a motor scooter, would they yank them off and steal the scooter just to get away?” You are building a relationship with your reader and, as with any good relationship, the other person needs to feel acknowledged. You can do this many ways, including throwing a question directly into your narrative.

See what I mean?

It’s a way to break out of the lecture mode and invite them into the conversation. Another approach is specifically stating the question they might have…

I know what you’re thinking: Is he always this verbose, or is it the coffee?

Narrative “dialogue” should be just that: Narrative that makes your reader feel included or acknowledged in the conversation, which builds trust.

2) Dialogue from a real person within a fictional context is simultaneously easy and extremely difficult. I say this because, on one hand, you have the nuances of their dialogue pattern already established in television and magazine interviews; it’s simply a matter of studying the way they speak and incorporating it into the dialogue you are creating for them. On the other hand, if you get it wrong, every reader will know it immediately.

I’m not buying it. Angelina Jolie would never refer to her children as “My little sucklings.”

In this case, you have to think of your dialogue as a caricature, making sure to include specific details of the person’s speech pattern — choice of words, cadence, vocabulary — that are recognizable as theirs. Just like how a caricature artists relies on key physical traits that distinguishes one individual from another, you must do the same when sketching out dialogue representing a famous person. Even if you don’t regularly “interview” famous people like I do, at least until there’s an injunction, it’s a great writing exercise that forces you to analyze all the nuances of dialogue.

Or as Angelina Jolie would say, “Go ahead — Make my day.”

3) Writing character dialogue that rings true and earns a reader’s trust really comes down to one basic principle: Consistency. I purposely placed this after “famous person dialogue” because many of the same rules apply. Though you’re writing about a fictional person, readers will recognize when you’re not being “true” to the character. When we meet new people, we instinctively study them to determine how far the relationship will extend. Acquaintance? Confidante? If there are inconsistencies in their behavior, such as explaining how they own a Porsche dealership yet leave the bar driving a 1987 Ford Fiesta, we tend to question their honesty. The same goes for character dialogue. Readers study it and quickly form an opinion. If the character’s vocabulary isn’t consistent, or they speak in bullet points one minute then in long Shakespearian soliloquies the next, you’ll lose your reader’s trust.

‘Tis truth I speak.

So take time to determine the nuances of your character’s speech pattern in the same way you would with their physical appearance and backstory. Or backside. Or whatever.

This is officially the longest Nickel’s Worth in NWOW history. If you’ve made it this far, I thank you for taking this leap of faith with me. If you didn’t make it this far, then I can call you a big jerk and you’ll never know.

Next week, we’ll continue with “Description,” and tips on how it can enhance dialogue and build trust with your readers that will make them want to take a leap of faith — instead of a flying leap.

(Ned Hickson is a syndicated columnist with News Media Corporation. His first book, Humor at the Speed of Life, is available from Port Hole Publications, or Barnes & Noble.)

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Ned's Blog

I was a journalist, humor columnist, writer and editor at Siuslaw News for 23 years. The next chapter in my own writer’s journey is helping other writers prepare their manuscript for the road ahead. I'm married to the perfect woman, have four great kids, and a tenuous grip on my sanity...

46 thoughts on “Convince readers to take a leap of faith, instead of a flying leap”

  1. LOL, good one. I’ve never taken a flying leap, but I have hurled a few books at the wall. Even if I do it myself, nothing makes me crazier then being jarred back to reality by some bit of incongruity that just screams “wrong, false!” On the internet, you can actually scream those words at someone literally, but if you’re reading them in a book all you can do is hurl the thing at a wall.

  2. 1st I loved the dead puppies reference; 2nd I will have to print this post because I kept thinking about dead puppies which meant I couldn’t concentrate on the rest of the post. 3rdly I’m not the sentimental type so ending with dead puppies would work for me as long as there were no pictures because then I would be balling my eyes out and my tears would drip down my cheeks, neck and we’ll we know what comes after.

      1. This is all I could think of after the basket of puppies comment. I am not sure how to do this, but here is a link to the song I remember from listening to Dr Demento on the radio.

  3. This was a big leap of faith to read 1300+ words, especially with blurry vision. It wasn’t a gaping timesuck, though, because it did remind me of how, last year, I was sick of reading books with curse words bc for some reason, as I age, I don’t care for them as I once did. 2014 Kerbey probably wouldn’t laugh at Eddie Murphy “Raw” like I did in 1987. Where am I going with this? Oh, dialogue!

    So I went to a Christian book store and picked up some novels (hard to find ones without Amish or bonneted people). The problem then is depicting a modern-day character’s fury without using modern-day words. Once you’ve said he had his wallet stolen and screamed, “Oh, fudge! I’m darn-tootin’ mad!”, the suspension of belief is gone, and the reader has no choice but to throw the book at the wall to hear it thud. Because at least the thud is authentic.

    1. If you haven’t seen it already, and have Netflix on your TV, I suggest watching a reality show called Amish Mafia. Only one season was made, back in 2012, but since watching it I haven’t been able to get the idea of writing a book based on the show. These guys don’t say “fudge…”

      That said, you’ve probably noticed I don’t use foul language much in my posts or comments. Like you, unless it’s used as a punctuation mark of sorts, and not just “color,” it gets old really fast. I’m not a prude by any stretch, but I think it takes more skill to be funny without resorting to using language as a high-hat/snare drum riff to add punch to jokes.

      Plus, I’m Amish… 😉

      1. Yes, you really have that Amish aura about you. From what I’ve seen on that show, they had more of what I would refer to as an Appalachian/coalmining look about them. And they did use some words, as you say. Oops–I’m thinking of Breakish Amish, another show entirely. And it’s not breaking Amish furniture because we all know their furniture is unbreakable. I cuss too much for my own good, but I try to keep it at bay here. It does take more skill with clean words.

        1. I don’t k now why I found that show so hypnotic. Must’ve been the women. Oh wait, that was the Real Housewives of Intercourse, Penn.

          (I’m assuming you saw the town’s name…?)

    1. DAMN YOU, RANDY! Always stealing my thunder!
      At least I hope that’s thunder I hear rumbling…

      On my way to read your piece and learn a thing or two before bemoaning your preemptiveness…

  4. Hi Ned!
    I’m afraid that I don’t have a single witty or wise thing to say this morning…only because I’m entrenched and grateful for the lessons you teach here. I’ve shared before that dialogue and fiction in general is my biggest hang-up.
    I’ve been practicing! I’m going to print this post (not because of the dead puppies) and look at editing some of what I’ve written so far.
    I did have a piece finish second in a little flash fiction contest and know it’s because I stayed true to both characters and let their voice take over while covering up mine. So weird though, one of the characters had a foul mouth and it bugged me…to no end! I’ve never had a potty mouth and it was so uncomfortable to let this character have one. But, it worked. It wouldn’t have worked any other way and now I know why.
    Thank you for writing this…I truly appreciate all that you do!

    1. I’m so glad this was helpful, Michelle, especially since it was your email a while back that inspired it. And that’s terrific news about the flash-fiction contest! Given your sensitivity and talent for description that grounds the reader in the moment, I’m not surprised that you can hone in on dialogue that does the same. The fact that you recognize the need to pull yourself out of the character so that they can develop — even if it’s uncomfortable — is huge. A lot of people write dialogue for characters that all sound similar because they ARE all similar; they are all The Writer instead of a 3-D character with their own identity.

      Congrats, Michelle 😉

      1. Thank you so much, Ned! You are too kind. I’m working on another piece for submission and it’s so strange/fun/liberating to see where the characters take you and how they turn out. Sometimes, it doesn’t even feel like I have control over them. Kinda like a bunch of teenagers on the first day of summer break…I don’t know what they are thinking or where they will go. Thanks for taking the time out to help–I really appreciate it!

        1. You’re so welcome, Michelle 🙂

          I think you hit the nail on the head with the teenager analogy, and how it applies to good character development; like teenagers, good characters will accept some of your guidance but ultimately lead a life of their own. When that’s happening, just like as a parent, all you can do is sit back and enjoy watching them get on with their lives and become their won people. When that happens, you’ve done your job well — as a writer and a parent 😉

          Cheers to that, and to you!

  5. I struggled with dialogue for years because of the voices in my head. I really could have used this advice before I wrote my great American novel: The Lost Emerson Lectures on Hygiene.

  6. Great post, Ned. Dialogue is also my gauge for how well I know my own character. If his speech is stilted or won’t ring true, I obviously don’t know the character well enough to give him an authentic voice. If he doesn’t sound real to me, a reader won’t buy him either 🙂

    1. So true, Traci. And what makes it writing dialogue especially difficult is that, while you need to be a good writer to do dialogue well, you don’t necessarily have to be a “good” reader to spot bad dialogue. Dialogue that doesn’t ring true seems to be something everyone can detect.

  7. Wow – you actually sounded like you knew what you were talking about! Hahahahaha! Dialogue is very hard, especially for me because I want everyone to talk in proper sentences, using adverbs & verbs correctly, etc. It’s something I have to watch for when I’m editing my work!

    1. Having characters all sound the same, or be clones of your own speech pattern, is common among writers because hey: Who sounds better than we do, right? The fact you recognize and look for it in your characters is a huge step toward changing that and exploring exciting new characters.

      Then again, that makes me sound like I know what I’m talking about 😉

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