Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Guest Charlotte Carter: Look Who's Talking!


I was absolutely exhausted the first time I finished a scene with 5 characters on stage at once, and I hadn’t lost a one. Working with multiple characters can be tricky. It’s easy to confuse the reader. You may have more he said/she said than you’d like. And the mother-in-law sleeping on the couch in the scene may vanish amid all the chatter.
.
Fortunately, there are a few ‘tricks’ you can use to make the scene work.
.
1. Characters do not necessarily speak in order. If you listen to a conversation around the dinner table, A doesn’t speak first followed by B and then C and D. It’s more likely that A speaks, then B, A again, C hops in and D may be too shy to speak at all. So vary the order of speech and make every bit of dialogue work to move the story forward.
.
2. Characters can move without talking. Shy character D (as seen by the Point of View [POV] character) may get up from the table to get a glass of water, answer the phone or walk out in a snit. Or when D sits down again, she may have something profound to say.
.
3. When a character does talk, the dialogue needs a tag or action to identify the speaker, often by name if there are several characters present. Here are some examples. I’ve included the proper punctuation because, yes, in contests I have seen the punctuation done incorrectly. Ack! Talk about a dead giveaway that the author is inexperienced.
.
Dialogue tag: “I’m going to the store (comma)” Mary said (comma)holding up her car keys.
.
Action:  “I’m going to the store (period)” Mary held up her car keys. “I won’t be gone long (period)”
.
Action first:  Mary grabbed her car keys and said (comma) “I’m going to the store (period)”
.
If you’re not sure of the punctuation, check any of your ‘keeper’ books.
.
.
4. The POV character can interpret what the characters are saying or thinking. He can see that ‘shy’ D may not be speaking but her face is growing redder by the moment because she is so angry. Meanwhile, he recognizes that Mr. B, her boyfriend, is totally oblivious to how his words are effecting D.

5. Last, but equally important, Don't lose the baby or the dog or the mother-in-law. The POV character may note that D glances at the sleeping baby to be sure she’s okay. Or the POV character may, in internal thought, be glad his mother-in-law is snoring away, or he may slip the dog a bite of meat under the table.
.
Another tip: Introducing a cast of thousands in the opening scene of your book is deadly. You may want to introduce all the major characters - brothers, sisters, cousins - but the reader does not need to meet them in the first ten pages. Start small. Give the reader a chance to get to know and care about one or two characters. Assorted relatives and friends can wait.
.
Homework: Try writing a short scene using action tags in the dialogue. Does the scene flow smoothly without the use of ‘said’? If you’d like to, post a snippet of the scene in Comments for feedback. Or ask for clarification.
.
Happy reading and writing....!
.
Char 
.
About Char: A multipublished author of more than fifty romances, cozy mysteries and inspirational titles, Charlotte Carter lives in Southern California with her husband of forty-nine years and their cat, Mittens. They have two married daughters and five grandchilderen. When she’s not writing, Charlotte does a little stand-up comedy, “G-rated Humor for Grownups,” and teaches workshops on the craft of writing.Char frequently visits Harlequin.com forums, so watch for her comments and writing tips! 
.
Home to Montana – Love Inspired March 2013 – Where the heart leads…Staying in one place was never Nick Carbini’s plan. When his troubled past leads him to Bear Lake, Montana, single mom Alisa Machak makes him consider putting down roots. Alisa doesn’t have a problem letting Nick work in her diner, but when he starts edging his way into her heart, she has to draw the line. He reminds her too much of her son’s father, another drifter who abandoned them both.  Nick wishes he could be there for them, but believes he’s not fit to be a husband. When his worst fears come true one night, it’s up to Alisa to show him the perfect recipe for a forever romance.

68 comments:

CatMom said...

Welcome Charlotte! Thank you so much for sharing these dialogue tips with us--I'll be adding this post to my Keeper Files. I know I need to work on adding more action tags rather than so many "saids" in my writing, so I really appreciate your suggestions. ~ Congratulations on your March release--I'll be looking for it in my Walmart! Blessings from Georgia, Patti Jo P.S. Was glad to read you have a cat, and I love the name Mittens--so cute!

Mary Connealy said...

I am ALWAYS losing a baby. It's WEIRD. You know, they have to be somewhere!!!

Jenny Blake said...

Hi Char good to see you hear. I like your post and have read books where something which seems important has been mentioned only to never be mentioned again which can really annoy a reader.

Annie Rains said...

I'm ALWAYS losing the dog, Mary! :)

Thank you so much for today's post (comma) Char (period)

A punctuation refresher is always good (period) (smiley face)

Glynna Kaye said...

Welcome to Seekerville, Char! I've seen books start out with so many people in the opening scene that I can't "identify" any of them and sometimes I'm not even sure who the POV character is. And you're right--it's SO easy to 'lose' a character altogether when you have more than two in the scene. It's definitely an art to be learned because often we DO need more than two people in a scene!

ALL - IF YOU'D LIKE TO BE ENTERED IN A DRAWING FOR A COPY OF CHAR'S MARCH RELEASE, "HOME TO MONTANA," PLEASE MENTION IT IN YOUR COMMENTS! I belatedly rememembered I hadn't included that in her post when I scheduled it.

Cara Lynn James said...

Great tips, Charlotte! I've learned adding too many characters at the beginning of the story can confuse readers or crit partners. It can seem so clear to the author but not to anyone else.

Glynna Kaye said...

Char's on Pacific Time (currently 4:56 a.m.), so she'll be stopping by a bit later and throughout the day.

If you'd like to post some multiple character snippets for her to provide feedback on, feel free! Or if you have any questions about punctuation in a particular instance, now's a great time to get them answered!

Rose said...

Great advice, Charlotte!

Bridgett Henson said...

Wow! 50 books. I wonder how many characters that adds up to?

Enter me.

Melanie Dickerson said...

Hi, Charlotte! Great tips! I don't really like writing a scene with a whole bunch of characters, but sometimes it's necessary. Mary Connealy is great at this. ;-) Congrats on all the published books! You've used your time wisely. :-)

Sandra Leesmith said...

HI Char ad welcome to Seekerville, Like others have already said, 50 books is rather impressive. And it is fun to meet you. I love meeting authors. We are such a diverse group of people which makes it very interesting-Like a book full of characters. smile

Jackie said...

I'm writing a story with three dogs and an infant. I'll never do that again. Too much to keep track of.
But, it's provided some interesting scenes.

Thanks for sharing.

Jackie L.

Janet Dean said...

Welcome to Seekerville, Charlotte! Thanks for the excellent dialogue tips! I have been guilty of forgetting the baby. Takes a nudge from my cp to remind me that a mom would be aware of her child. Duh. You'd think this mom/grandmom would know that. :-) Which just shows writing isn't easy!

Janet

Ruth Logan Herne said...

I've lost a few characters in my time...

Mostly parents. OOPS. Sorry, Granny!!!

:)

And sometimes I just change their names mid-stride. Charlotte, what a credit-worthy career! Thank you so much for being with us today!

Orange muffins today, I think, in honor of Charlotte's west coast roots. Char, you had over 40 secular books out and you've re-started your career with your recent books from Love Inspired... Did the changing market inspire your change?

Ruth Tredway said...

Hi Charlotte,
Thank you for sharing from your experience. I especially like the examples of what to do with a shy character to keep them in the scene. Yes, enter my name in the drawing.
Blessings,

Marianne Barkman said...

Hi...i've been MIA, but i'm back. Nope, an author didn't lose me, i actually made it to Phoenix and Mom is doing super great. Actually, she's walking more than last year. This is so amazing! Anyhow, if there's a chance to win a book, i'm in. Mittens? i hope she shows up in the books! Thanks everyone for everything!

mitziUNDERSCOREwanhamATyahooDOTcom

Clari Dees said...

Good Morning, Charlotte.
I'm grinning not only because I love this post, but my current heroine is named Charlotte. ☺

I love using action tags, but I haven't attempted move than four people talking in a scene so far that I can remember. And it's very easy to loose that pesky dog. Unlike people, the little terrier won't stand still!

I can't imagine trying to write out the dialog that happens around the supper table when all my siblings are home. Eight people and four or more different conversational threads. OoooEeee! ...then again...if I could capture my youngest sister's quick-witted humor, it would be a hilarious scene. If I could keep all the characters straight.

Ruth Logan Herne said...

Marianne, I'm thrilled to hear that! Happy dancing in upstate!!!! YEEEEEHAAAAWWWW!!!!!!

Clari, I've had to separate family factions in fictional dinners.... It gets crazy.

Sometimes I'll do the guys outside, talking, the women doing something else, then the hero or heroine involved in yet another spot. It's hard to do big families in shorter books, but I think some really clever placement helps... an idea which I stole from Holly Jacobs, Karen White and Nora Roberts, of course!

Jeanne T said...

I loved this post. :) Losing the baby (or dog, or MIL) in a story would be baaadd. :) I appreciate your tips on dialogue. As I prepare to begin a new book, I'm going to be referring back to this--especially since I think my main characters will have a dog!

Julie Lessman said...

CHARLOTTE ... WELCOME TO SEEKERVILLE!!

Realllly enjoyed your blog this morning and I plead guilty to the too many characters on stage at a time. My Daughters of Boston and Winds of Change series is about a family of eight and by the sixth book, the family has grown to 15 main characters. About drove my editor crazy when one of my books in this continuing saga began with a wedding and I was introducing parents, kids, brothers-in-law, cousins, parish priest, friends from work, the plumber, you name it!! ;) "Cut it back, Julie," she told me, and of course I complied.

And don't even get me started on the family dinners or holidays ...

Your points are excellent, several of which I have learned the hard way, so I wish I'd read your blog sooner ... :)

Hugs,
Julie

The Grammar Queen said...

Charlotte, my dear! I am beyond grateful for this unequivocal instruction on proper punctuation of dialogue! Kudos from GQ!

Myra Johnson said...

Welcome, Charlotte! Dinner table scenes are a real challenge for me--trying to hold all those characters in my head and imagine what each one might be doing or saying . . . and making sure what I actually include is relevant to plot and character development.

Thanks for the great tips!

Mary Connealy said...

ANNIE RAINS!!! Oh My Gosh, I have a dog in my current story and I keep FORGETTING WHERE THAT MUTT WENT! A dog seemed like such a charming idea. sigh

Missy Tippens said...

Char, this is a great lesson on the basics of writing dialogue and tags! Thanks so much for sharing with us today.

I love trying to use action tags to keep from having to use "she said" so often. But you're right about keeping a cast of thousands straight. It's better to go ahead and add those "he said, she said's" than to confuse readers.

Missy Tippens said...

Marianne, glad to see you back!

Missy Tippens said...

I lost a dog in one of my books--A House Full of Hope--while writing it. Then my cp called me one day, furious at her dog for eating a loaf of bread off the counter! I told her THANK YOU! That's what I'll write in my scene right this minute.

And I did. So you need to read the book to find it. LOL

Debby Giusti said...

Char, so thrilled to see you in Seekerville today. Thanks, Glynna, for inviting Char to join us.

Great tips on writing multiple characters in one scene. Someone once told me to move the "other" characters to the side and let the two "main" characters discuss their problems. Then let those characters do something quiet while the others chat. Not sure I'm doing a good job explaining my point, but it seems to work for me.

Although I like your mention of feeding the dog under the table! I'm so guilty! Can't resist a hungry pooch! :)

Debby Giusti said...

Waving to the Grammar Queen. You and Char should "do" lunch.

Or high tea!

Debby Giusti said...

Missy, I'm LOL about your missing dog.

Speaking of dogs, wonder how May is doing. KC?

Fr. David Bryant said...

Great tips, Char!

I'm working on a book right now with a big family and it is definitely challenging to keep everyone sorted out!

Especially in a scene where there's a party and all the neighbors are there, too! Hopefully my cp's will let me know if it gets too confusing.

Cheers,
Sue
sbmason at sympatico dot ca

Susan Anne Mason said...

Oops - I shouldn't comment when at work!

It's me above, not Fr. David!

Sue

Tina Radcliffe said...

Welcome, Char. Great to have you in Seekerville and great examples.

One of the things that bothers me with multiple cast scenes is when I get pulled out of the scene by things like TO MANY HERS OR HIS which make me pause to try to figure out whom they are referring to.

Makes me cranky. I shouldn't have to work that hard.

Char.... said...

Wow, I wake up here on the west coast to a wonderful warm welcome from so many folks. Thank you...
I'll try to respond as best I can.
Char.....

Char.... said...

Annie (comma) sorry about losing the dog (period) LOL
Char....

Char.... said...

Cara Lynn, it's great when you have a critique partner who can spot those problems early on.
Char.....

Char.... said...

Bridgett, it's actually 57 books right now - and hopefully more to come. But please don't ask me the names of all the h/h. I'd have to go look 'em up.
Char.....

Char.... said...

Jackie L, I feel your pain with 3 dogs. Bet they tend to wander off, don't they?
Char.......

Char.... said...

Clari, with Charlotte as the heroine, I'm sure your story will be wonderful!

Ruth, I'd never try a scene with 8 characters unless half of them were at the bottom of the pool or something. Way complicated.

Grammar Queen, thanks for your vote of approval. I promise I won't be doing a blog on proper use of commas outside of dialogue. I leave that to you and my copy editors.

DebH said...

oh, this is a good post. i try to keep no more than four people in a scene. haven't forgotten anyone...yet. haven't had the courage to add pets or infants. i guess that goes to my film school days where they say to avoid working with children and animals if you don't want to go crazy. *heh*

I'm very impressed with the book count. Do you have a favorite out of all your "babies", so to speak? Just curious...

Digging for Pearls said...

Great ideas Char. Welcome to Seekerville.

Blessings,
Jodie Wolfe

DebH said...

oh, and Mary...

if you lost the dog, are you sure it didn't get hit from a stray bullet from your "when in doubt shoot someone" advice? *heh*

Char.... said...

Wow, look at the LI authors pop up.
Glad to find Missy and Debby hanging out at Seekerville.

Debby I think sending some of the characters off to watch the barbecue is a perfect way to narrow the focus.

Sue, in your party scene I'd summarize with something like 'in addition to their next door neighbors, more than thirty friends had shown up.' If the neighbors don't have a big role in the plot, you don't have to name them all. References to noise and laughter can fill in the blanks.
Char....

Chill N said...

Thank you, thank you! Not only for such a clear, concise, helpful post but for that side-note about dialogue punctuation. Commas where periods should be and periods where they have no business being are so distracting in contest judging. I can only imagine how a potential agent or editor might react.

Oh, and special thanks for the tip about handling a character who may not be participating in the dialogue of the moment but is present in the scene. I have several places in my current WIP where that will come in handy.

Nancy C

Char.... said...

Someone asked, which I now can't find, how I began writing inspirationals. I was writing Harl. Americans. When they moved editorial to Canada I got dropped. I kept on writing and sometime later my editor, who had also been dropped, popped up at Guideposts Books. She contacted agents, including mine, looking to build up the quality of her author group. It was too good a chance to pass up, so I auditioned for one of the cozy mystery series. After about a dozen GP books, my current agent - Pam Strickler - suggested I target LI. So I did....

DebH asked if I have a favorite 'baby' I have a couple of old Har Amer I dearly loved, light paranormal including a 'ghost and Mrs Muir' story.

Of my LIs, I think the one that's most emotional so far is Montana Love Letter about a hero who is ashamed he can't read.

Char.... said...

Of course, Home to Montana, (plug) is pretty emotional too. The hero has PTSD.
Char.....going to get dressed now; I'll check back later

Kav said...

I had to laugh at the losing the dog comments because I'm a crazy dog lover and I actually notice when the dog goes missing in a book. It happens more then you think. :-)

Since we've been invited to ask punctuation questions. Here's one for you -- when you end a sentence with a bracketed comment (like this)...um well, do you put the period inside the last bracket or outside? (like this.) or (like this).

Lyndee H said...

Really great tips, Char. I've learned so much from reading my keeper books. They really do improve my writing. My dh often comments about how long I take to read LIs, but that's because I read them like I would a text book. I call it study-read, because I study the sentences, the structure, punctuation, variations, scene changes, etc. It really interests me.

And I'm like Kav. I keep track of dogs and the weird behaviors that authors sometimes give dogs.

May the K9 Spy (and KC Frantzen) said...

May the K9 Spy here, /waving to Mittens/

Miss Char, thank you for an excellent lesson including not losing the dog. BOL!

Mom was pleased you included the correct punctuation too.

Hope all in Seekerville are having a PAWSOMELY terrific day!

May the K9 Spy (and KC Frantzen) said...

and yes, please enter Mom for a copy of your latest book! There's a lovely person and 2 humans on the cover!

May the K9 Spy (and KC Frantzen) said...

Gosh.

AND, I'm happy to know so many Seekers and Friends are including dogs in your stories.

I'm pasted up to Mom right now, to keep her warm and focused. It's what we do. Just remember that everypawdy. Kitties too...

Okay. Mom is glaring. Better let her have the keyboard again.

Jan Drexler said...

Hi Char, and thanks for coming by today!

In my last WIP, I made a secondary character from a previous book into the hero. The problem? In the previous book he had ten children. I kept them all. It was a fun challenge to have all those children running around, and once I hear back from my editor I'll find out if it worked or not!

I didn't add in a dog though. A couple horses and a cow or three, but they usually stay out of conversations.

Thanks for your tips! And I'd love to be in the drawing :)

Tina Radcliffe said...

TEN KIDS. WOWZA, Jan!!

Tina Radcliffe said...

Interesting bit of serendipity on the former editor becoming your editor again, Char.

Pam Hillman said...

Great tips, Char! And I love the cover and the blurb of Home to Montana.

I built up expectations of a colt being born in Claiming Mariah, then had the big delivery scene where the men are helping the mare deliver the colt, and Mariah is praying to beat sixty for the mare and the baby...

Then...nothing else about the colt. One of my cp's kept saying "Where's the colt???" lol

So, I added a few snippets of dialogue, little Jim naming the colt, etc. If you add a baby, kitten, puppy, calf, or colt to the book, please don't lose it...

And, yes, Mary Connealy, this goes for you too!

PS...I'm in the middle of being Swept Away by Luciano and Rosie, aka Luke and Ruthy.

Pam Hillman said...

Clari, that would be a good exercise to write the scene with all 8 around the table.

I picture The Walton's while they're all at the table, all talking, then the camera zooms in to just two of them and the rest fades away while they talk about something important, then when they're done, someone else says something to the entire group, and the camera zooms out and they're all talking and laughing again.

Vince said...

Hi Char:

What a coincidence! Today’s topic is “Look Who Is Talking” and I just happen to be reading an excellent example of this. The scene involves a four-way conversation with a phone call and waiter added in. It takes place in a very nice restaurant. It runs for three chapters! (It’s a little like “My Dinner with Andre”. )

The most moving part is when the hero is talking about his dead wife. First his friend Carl speaks about the wife.


“She was beautiful, very beautiful. I remember when you first brought her home from college.” Carl said quickly into the silence at the table. “ No, she wasn’t,” Ransom said.

“Every woman in this room is more beautiful than Lili was. She had a space between her front teeth, her eyes were too close together and her hair always frizzed up in the humidity. She carried about fifteen extra pounds for her height and for that matter, she preferred to eat food so sweet it could choke a horse.” He took a bite, eyes crinkled with laughter. “But she was beautiful to me. Funny, too. She mocked me to my face and I couldn’t help but laugh. Her impressions of our friends and family were dead on. Tasha cleared her throat as if to speak but Ransom went on. “But she wasn’t cruel. When she recognized your weakness, she would do anything she could to ease your way, to protect you.”


Chapters 22,23, and 24 of “Pride, Prejudice, and Cheese Grits”, Mary Jane Hathaway.

I believe these three chapters have all the good features you mentioned in your post today. I’d just love to change the title to “Pride & Prejudice: An Academic Affair of the Heart” because it centers around the lives of college professors.

Vince

Yes, I’d like to win a copy of "HOME TO MONTANA," -- Kindle, if possible.

Walt Mussell said...

In my current WIP, I have scenes of four people in several places. Keeping all of the tags straight is a challenge, particularly if I'm in the heroine's perspective (who views these people as family) vs. the hero's perspective (where they have distant, respectable titles).

It's only in first (really rough) draft at the moment. The edits are going to be interesting.

Debra E. Marvin said...

I am auditioning as Mary Jane Hathaway's publicist. Thank you Vince! WE appreciate your inclusion of Mary Jane's writing.
I agree that was a perfect scene with four people interacting and talking with no confusion as to who was doing/saying yet.

I admit to finding lost dogs in other people's stories. And too many children that are rarely seen and hardly ever heard. NOW how realistic is that? Don't they always stick like ticks when mom is trying to do anything important?

Oh, I get it. Readers want a break from reality and clingy kids won't help at all...

It's lovely to meet you Char. Excellent points. I really have to look at how often I do scenes with multiple people (it might be rare as even the thought of it makes this introvert tired).

Mary Preston said...

I've read books where people disappear. I thought I must have missed something.

I would love to read HOME TO MONTANA thank you.

marypres(AT)gmail(DOT)com

DebH said...

thanks for letting us know about your favorite books. i forgot to mention that I'd love to be in the mix for a copy of Home to Montana.

great post and comments today

Ginger Solomon said...

Thanks for the advice. While what you said is not new, it's a good reminder to shake things up once in a while.

I'd love to a larger example of your advice in action, by reading your book. :)

Ginger

Natalie Monk said...

Great dialogue tips! And I love how you include characters (MIL, dog, "shy" D) without them having to say a word.

Thanks, Charlotte!

Char.... said...

First, let me apologize for vanishing - sort of like the dog vanishes from a scene. I had a doctor's appointment and he shipped me directly to the hospital. No big deal; just a persistent bronchitis thing. So I spent 2 lovely nights at the hospital. I really need to get a laptop!

But I'm back home now so I'll drop in to see if there are any late questions.

Ah, the surprises that life brings us.

Char.....

Char.... said...

Kav, I do have an answer to your question about how to punctuate when you end a sentence with a thought (like this). The period goes after the parenthesis (which I can't spell). I get confused with things like quotes within quotes. That's what copy editors are for!
Char.......

Tina Radcliffe said...

Hope you're feeling better, Char!!! Goodness gracious.

Glynna Kaye said...

So glad you're home now, Char! I'm sure the doc was afraid bronchitis would slide into pneumonia. We've been praying for you!

Char.... said...

Thanks for the welcome home, prayers and good wishes. Yes, I was getting nervous about pneumonia but I appear to have avoided that pit. I must say, the hospital breakfasts were great, the rest...hm, not so much.
My roommate was a Japanese-American woman who will 100 in May! Her two delightful daughters stayed with her all day to answer doc questions and keep her eating.
The eldest daughter was math teacher; she and her parents were in interment camp during WWII. Younger daughter was post WWII baby. I loved visiting with them. Glad to be back to my own bed, however
Char......

Veronica Sternberg said...

This looks like a really cute book! I'd love to win.