Robb Grindstaff on The 3 D’s of Writing.

Maintaining a blog is one of those things that goes hand in hand with wanting to be a writer. On a busy day it can be a time waster. On a quiet day it can be guilty procrastination. Some day it’s a joy!

I’ve met some lovely people via blogs and Robb is one of those. Anyone who’s a regular visitor to my site would remember when PHILLIPA FIORETTI visited for a chat about her new release, THE BOOK OF LOVE. The blog went mad. Food became the hot topic and Sala, a friend of mine whose a talented creative foodie, kindly donated three jars of homemade chutney as prizes.

Robb was one of the lucky winners. Chutney probably doesn’t feature high on the American list of culinary delights, but after the USA detection dogs cleared the jar of unnamed substance Robb nibble his way through it and professed to enjoy it. The least I could do was ask him back to the blog.

As it turns out, he’s got some wonderful succinct insights into writing to share with us. His post came through the day I was tidying up Beyond the Borders before I sent it off to the publishers. I wished I’d read it early…

So without further ado here’s the first instalment.

Robb Grindstaff3-D Writing

A couple months ago, my wife and I went to see the movie Avatar in 3-D. I hadn’t seen a 3-D movie since I was a kid in some distant century. 3-D technology has come a long way, even though we still had to wear those silly glasses.

It was amazing. The characters, the scenery, tiny alien creatures seemed to float out of the screen and surround me. I felt as if I were a part of the movie rather than apart from it, merely watching on a screen. It added a sense of realism and believability to a movie set in the future, on a distant planet with very different life forms.

Afterwards, I wondered what it is that makes some writing feel flat, two-dimensional, like watching it on a screen, while other writing surrounds me and pulls me into the story and the characters, makes them more real and believable. What makes words on a page become 3-D?

When Helene graciously invited me to sit in as a guest blogger, I joked that I’d discuss the three Ds of writing: Dialog, Description and Despair.

The more I thought about it, the more I realized the best writers are those who can nail all three of these facets. The key in all cases is not too much or too little, but just enough so the reader forgets it’s fiction and lives inside your story for a few hours.

How much is just enough will be different for every writer and for every story. Each genre, style, and voice has different demands. There is no formula here – just some general observations. Learning to apply them takes practice. First up:

Dialog

Have you ever read a book with too much dialog? Or even a scene or chapter within an otherwise good book where the dialog goes on a bit too long? It feels like reading a screenplay with no stage direction. Talking heads, back and forth, and soon all you have are disembodied voices floating in space. Nothing is grounded in reality.

These passages are like when a child is playing with dolls. Holding a doll in each hand, the child provides the voices and the dialog. Ken and Barbie stand there, or are suspended in mid-air, talking back and forth. For hours.

You’re writing a scene with two people at a kitchen table, a restaurant or driving in a car. Your characters are talking and you, the writer, get wound up in the conversation. Nothing external happens for three pages. Yawn. Make your dolls do something.

How do the characters sound when they’re talking? What are they doing that’s interesting? Where are they? What’s going on around them? What are their facial expressions? And who the heck is talking? Have you ever lost track because of too much dialog, too few dialog tags, and no differentiation in the voices? Did you have to go back up and count down to keep track? ‘This is Bill, this is Susie, this is Bill, this is Susie.’

Too many dialog tags can be even worse, especially if the writer tried to get creative.

“This pail of water is too heavy,” Jill whined.

“You’re never happy,” Jack snapped.

“I hope you fall and break your crown,” Jill blurted out.

“Aaaahhh!” Jack screamed.

A page of that and I’d fling the book across the room. Good thing I don’t have a Kindle yet.

Do your characters have unique voices? Can the reader tell from the line of dialog who is speaking? If so, use as few dialog tags as you can reasonably get away with. And ‘said’ is still the most useful and invisible tag there is. If the reader can’t tell from the words in the dialog and the action beats how something was said, change the dialog or add some action that conveys the tone of voice and manner of speaking. Going for a cheesy dialog tag is the easy way out and doesn’t help the reader hear the voice.

If your characters’ voices are indistinguishable, go back and get inside each character’s head a little deeper. How she sound? What words would he use if he’s an attorney or a plumber? Real people don’t sound exactly alike even if they’re from the same geographic location and have similar backgrounds. Let their personalities come through in their voices.

Read the dialog out loud. Have a friend read it with you to get the sound of two people having a conversation. Read it like a script – no dialog tags or action. See where it falters, bogs down, sounds too similar, gets boring, or doesn’t sound realistic. Are you using dialog to dump info or back story? Don’t. Tighten it up by trimming the realistic but unnecessary bits of conversation, and pare it down to the essentials of what is needed for the story.

On the other hand, have you ever read a book with too little dialog? The narrator describes what is going on. There might even be some action, maybe a spoken line thrown in here and there – the disembodied line. Who was she speaking to? Page after page of narrative, even well written, with no people speaking will drive a reader to fling a book across the room and find something else to do.

There is no formula that says for every 150 words of narrative, you should have 75 words of dialog. Or for every six lines of dialog, you should have one dialog tag.

Each genre, each book, each writer’s style has different requirements and expectations. You will have to find the right balance for your story and your characters. How do you know when you’ve got it right? Your readers will let you know.

Next on Wednesday 7th July: DESCRIPTION


Robb Grindstaff is the managing editor of an international English-language daily newspaper, currently living in the Washington, D.C., area. He is a thirty-year veteran of the daily newspaper business. His newspaper career has taken him from Arizona to North Carolina, Texas to D.C., with a five-year stint in Tokyo.

He fell in love with Australia on dive trip to North Queensland a few years back, and has vowed to return. So be forewarned.

With a career in writing, editing and marketing journalism, he has turned his experience toward fiction, and writes commercial and literary novels and short stories. Sample chapters of two of his novels are available at http://tiny.cc/CarryMeAway and http://tiny.cc/HannahsVoice. He also does free lance fiction editing. You can find him wasting time on Facebook at http://artist.to/robb.grindstaff.writer.

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31 thoughts on “Robb Grindstaff on The 3 D’s of Writing.

  1. Helene, I have a few “pet phrases” I need to cull from my work. I used to “guffaw” a lot *smirk* Now I smirk (oh, did I say that outloud? *hahahaha*)

    Then there’s the repeated word (2 or 3 times in a paragraph)–pick a word, any word. NO word is good when it’s repeated too often (unless you’re going for the appositive effect and personally, I’d rather pick a patter that doesn’t repeat ;-)) Man, I *WISH* I could write patter-song like W.S. Gilbert (of Gilbert & Sullivan) or Danny Elfman.

    Other than frowning and scowling, I don’t think I’ve ever fallen prey to any other truly annoying actions.

    There’s one that Nora Roberts does that not only drives me insane (in a bad way) trying to envision the character actually managing to do it, but it’s really an unpleasant sight once I manage to picture it. It’s the tongue between the teeth thing she apparently likes to do – I’m POSITIVE it’s her personal habit to do this and it has just come out in her characters. Given she’s the single-most PROLIFIC and in-print author in the Romance market (41% of all fiction in North America and she has 300 million copies of it right now) I’m thinking other people don’t mind her sticking her tongue between her teeth or running her tongue over her teeth or doing anything else with her tongue *smirk* There I go again! *heh*

    Great discussionsm, yeah. Thanks for having Robb guest-write for you.

  2. Anna, welcome! Sarah makes some good points about how you can use internal conversations/observations. You do need to be careful that it doesn’t become info dump, but used well it lets the reader get up close and personal.

    Love the discussions and look forward to Rob’s post tomorrow on description!

  3. Hi Jen, I’d love to think putting me and BW in your manuscript will help, but I think your own wonderful words will get you over the line! (And long before retirement villages are rearing their grey heads…) Sparkling dialogue will always be the major drawcard for me. PMITP is easily done at the editing stage.

    Sarah, I too love the action tags. I did find that my heroine had flicked her hair one too many times in an earlier manuscript and that was a very valuable lesson. It’s a balancing act between enough tags to keep the context without being too ‘busy’.

    Rob, I like the analogy of Michael Angelo chipping away at a block of marble. Something beautiful emerges from a cloud of chippings and dust 🙂 And I’ll be sure to use bribery on the next short-legged little mutt I meet…

  4. @Anna – there’s a trick to having dialog even when the person is alone and cannot speak (and why WOULD they if they are alone? Are they insane? *eek*)

    It depends, of course, on what voice you’re using to tell your story. If you’re in the third person limited, it’s super-easy to get in close, as they say, get inside the character’s head and — using their diction so it is THEM “speaking” to the reader — make them have a conversation, of sorts, with themself. They’re thinking but we all “talk” to ourselves at one time or another.

    It’s a trick that can backfire on you, if you make it too obviously a mechanism for inserting “pseudo dialog” forex, but done right, it can work for a long passage of expositive to break it up the way dialog would. AND it tells you something about a person to know what they say to themselves when no one else is listening. Does this person lie even to himself?

    In my current WIP I have a character who was kidnapped and is being beaten while unconscious–when he wakes up, he finds he has new injuries. His self-examination and “thoughts” are a sort of self-dialog. His emotions are out there, raw, for the reader to feel, but he’s alone in a room and when someone else finally DOES come in and speak to him, he deliberately and forcibly PREVENTS himself from speaking to them–won’t give the captors the satisfaction, the stubborn little git that he is. That’s a mistake he’ll have to learn the hard way 😉

    You can add a lot of tension, humor, pacing/page-turning gripping stuff in those kinds of expositives without having to worry about tagging as much as injecting personality and voice into the character’s “self-dialog.” Try it. The more you write, the better you get at writing.

    -sry

  5. Anna – I can relate to that. My current novel-in-progress features a first-person narrator who doesn’t speak. As you said, the trials we set up for ourselves.

  6. Great post. I try to have a tag or two at least on every page if my dialogue goes that far. My problem however seems to lean toward the not enough dialog end of the stick, or at least that’s what everyone tells me. Then again, it’s difficult to have dialogue when there’s either no one to talk to or one of the people can’t or doesn’t talk. Ah well, the trials one sets for one’s self.

  7. @Sarah – that’s exactly what I was referring to in part: the little action beats that break up dialog, help not only make it clear who is speaking but tells something about the character and/or the way the words are spoken. And I should have caveated everything I said with, “None of this original – just regurgitating things others have taught me along the way.”

    @Bren – I’m the opposite. I find it easier to overwrite in first draft and then edit down to what is needed. Like a Michelangelo who started with a giant block of marble and then chipped away everything that didn’t look like David. And ‘barbie dolling it’ is a one of those terms I stole from another writer friend (who may very well have heard it from someone else, I’m not sure).

    @Helene – dachshunds are naturally mean unless you share your Tim Tams.

  8. How spookie is that.
    Now I know you’re all about to moan, “Oh yeah, sure!” BUt it’s true – I had a very similar light bulb moment two days ago when I got feedback on my ms. The wonderful Melissa James pointed out that I do great dialogue 🙂 but it reads like a screenplay – no setting. She says PMITP (put me in the picture). Not having seen Avatar (not my thing really) my thought of different layers was one of those pop-up kids’ story books (now that’s showing my age) or perhaps – in keeping with this blog – like the layers of a Tim Tam cross-section LOL.)
    I see the background as the base on which dialogue and internalisation are built – providing depth.
    Sorry for my long comment. Robb, I’m hoping great minds think alike and this is a good omen. And thx Helene (whose book “Border Watch” gets a mention – along with the author – in my ms!!!!) Don’t worry, I’ll send a note to your nursing home when I finally get it published. It will take that long LOL

  9. Interesting trio of concepts, Robb. My dialog style is a little different than most writer’s and I’m not sure why it’s turned out that way. I’ve always written dialog this way.

    I’ve been told that my writing style–primarily BECAUSE of the dialog style–is very visual, very easy to read and very “tactile.” Not sure what that last is supposed to mean but I’ve gotten that word as often as the second. The first, visual, is the most common, however.

    I do rely heavily on dialog to get to know my characters. Each has his/her own voice and the things they say–not merely the way in which they say them–tell me who they are.

    Haven’t we all met someone new and wondered about some of the things coming out of their mouths? Well, okay, I confess to be the one ABOUT WHOM people wonder that sort of thing *grin* but still…

    The things a person says–or leaves out, which works especially well when the Reader knows but the character deliberately doesn’t share the data when speaking–tell us something about a character’s motivations, history, etc.

    The thing I do with dialog tags that I call “different from most” is that I attach actions to dialog rather than using a traditional tag. Definitely, the #1 preferred tag is “said.” In fact, there are probably over a million hits on a Google search for “saidisms” discussing precisely what this article does–when to use a tag and when not to fall prey to saidisms.

    Here’s a so-so example of my “action” tags from my current WIP (Lacey / Rainey Story) between an adult male and a 5 yo female, scene is told from her POV:

    “It seems your brother, Mark, wasn’t with my dear departed Sally after all. The terrible accident that took her life apparently spared his.” He cleared his throat and added, “Somehow.”

    Now her head craned back to look up at him, eyes wide open and full of hope. “Mark? You found Mark? Is he okay, Uncle Roger? Where is he? Can I see him?”

    He shook her chin from side to side and chuckled. “There’s all your energy. I knew you were just pretending. […the sleazoid pedophile goes on to blackmail the little girl…]

    Hopefully, just for that short exchange, it’s obvious the guy is an ass and up to something and the girl is naive, if not innocent anymore. Without having to ever describe them in expositive (description), I let their dialog communicate their personalities. It’s more than just “a unique voice for each character.” It’s a descriptive voice for each character. Or at least, I try to do this for my characters.

    Robb, the bane of my existence is expositive. I hate it. I’m told I don’t do enough of it–if if you can believe that one, ME not writing enough words!–so I can’t wait to see what you have to say about it. I’ve heard just about every bit of advice on the subject of writing do’s & don’t’s (including, alas, your advice here on dialog but you seemed to hit all of the usually-quoted points so kudos for not missing any).

    Hopefully, your editorial experience will add something new to the article.

    -sry
    Sarah, The Webbiegrrl Writer

  10. Suzanne, Robb’s a clever chappie isn’t he? He even managed to sneak in another example of over tagging in his response 🙂
    Thanks for dropping by and I love your trailer for Heat in the Outback!

    Now, Sandy and Phillipa, can you girls behave or I’ll bring a packet of Tim Tams to conference and we’ll have to experiment!! Personally, dark chocolate and grand marnier will be the winner – of course I haven’t tried port….

  11. Steve, welcome. ‘Said’ is such a useful little word!

    MacDibble, a dachshunds has the honour of being the only dog to ever take a chunk out of me (and I’m a dog nut). If I were to write a piece on writing Dachshund style it would be about brutal editing! Thanks for dropping by. You make a very good point about getting the story down first!

  12. Yes, Helene, Tim Tams are now in chilli, and by the way – ‘to be a real connoisseur one must nibble off each end of one’s Tim Tam and gently sip one’s port through it’, she said with genteel condescenion. 🙂

  13. Hi Helene and Rob,
    Very interesting post. I will certainly check out your stories, Rob. Watch those adverbs. lol profusely, inquisitively.

    Suzanne 🙂

  14. Nice post, Robb. Very useful advice.
    I purposely barbie doll (great term you’ve coined) the first draft of short stories, working on the theory that less is more and adding is easier than subtracting and finishing a story is the first thing that has to be done before you know if it is worth editing.
    Does it have to be 3Ds? What about Deadlines, Deadends, Diction, Double Entendres, Dead Metaphors, Diets and Dachshunds?

  15. Hi Robb, good post. I do read my work aloud and it makes a huge difference. You pick up immediately if a character is out of their zone.

    Amazing how ‘said’ can be slipped in and almost becomes invisible.

    Look forward to description.

  16. And hold those razor blades, Phillipa! It’s much more uplifting than that!

    Robb, Tim Tams go with anything – unlike Vegemite they are not an acquired taste 🙂

  17. Hmm, I’ve certainly drunk my coffee through a Tim Tam but I haven’t tried tea, Phillipa… Tim Tams now come in a chilli flavour as well – apparently??

    Pete, I’m glad to hear Aussies aren’t the only one’s indulging in chutney.

    As to tags, my sister (who’s my unofficial editor) identified some passages in my latest manuscript where I didn’t have enough tags. What I realised was rather than missing tags, my characters’ voices weren’t strong enough so, with some tightening of their words, it flowed much more freely. I like the idea, Pete, that Tags are notes.

  18. Me too. I’ll have the razor blades and vodka on standby.

    And the Tim Tams – excellent depair dispellers

  19. Hey! I thought chutney was peculiarly American – especially in the south. I’m sorry I missed a discussion about food. I approach dialogue tags like a game of Name That Tune, tags being the notes.

    And although I do use beats to break up the back and forth, if the dialogue is hot and pacy, I won’t break it up just because. I’ll let it run free.

    Can’t wait for the despair!

  20. Hi Helene and Robb

    Robb, Tim Tams are a chocolate biscuit and are at the summit of chocolate biscuit eating experiences. I have a friend who drinks her tea through them. Yes, folks, her tea. A trick learned as a teenager has stayed with her for twenty five years.
    I overdo tags and delete wherever I can. I also overuse characters names – as in characters always naming the person they are speaking to. But it doesn’t happen like that in real life and can lead to nasty echo problems.

  21. Ha, what I good idea, Sandy. I should have loaded some TimTams in as well 🙂

    Robb makes a good point about less tags or just using the very basic – he/she said. It can unclutter a manuscript in an instant and let the story flow.

  22. Hi Helene and Rob,
    Thank you for those insights. I’ve been attempting the ‘less diaglogue tags’ approach to writing. Hopefully any readers I garner will understand my characters’ dispositions from their actions and so infer a tone of voice. (Fingers crossed).
    HD and I have been lucky enough to spend our fair share of time at the reef – being Far North Queenslanders born and bred.
    Rob, did Sala smuggle any Tim Tams into that care package of chutney she sent you?
    Happy Writing 🙂

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