You’re in the thick of writing some characters’ conversations and it hits you: where do the commas go? Do you need one after an exclamation mark? How’s it supposed to look on the page?
We’ve broken down some dialogue into it’s simplest parts with our step-by-step, visual tutorial covering punctuation, dialogue tags, descriptors, and formatting.
“When you’re writing your work and submitting it to places, you’ll look a lot more professional and it’ll be less work for your editor to go back and fix up those nitty-gritty bits…”
Dialogue is something that you can easily get wrong with just one comma out of place. Check out the video in full by following this link:
What to Take Away From This Video:
- Punctuation should always be inside the quotation marks.
- The simple comma is your friend! Use it when tying up speech around dialogue tags (the old favourite, ‘s/he said’).
- Each line of dialogue should be on a new line; keep the formatting nice and clean.
A great exercise is to pick two or three books (ones that you love!) and find some examples of dialogue. Each book may be slightly different in their smaller details, but it’s handy to see the basics of punctuation in action.
The best way to learn, of course, is by writing some dialogue yourself. Don’t be afraid to make mistakes, because practice makes perfect!
Research is a given when writing non-fiction texts. Journalists and authors of non-fiction books are no strangers to researching a piece before they start writing – but what about fiction authors?
If you’re writing a novel and wondering whether you need to research it, the answer is generally yes. The same rules that apply to non-fiction writers don’t necessarily apply to novelists, but research is nevertheless an important step in planning to write a novel.
There are plenty of things you can do to ensure you’re writing the most authentic novel possible. Setting, characters, plot details, historical influences, even genre and craft – all these elements and more can be researched to strengthen your knowledge and flesh out your book.
So how exactly should you approach the research process?
Let’s take a look at seven top tips to get you started.
1. Establish a system to organise and store research
Before you start researching, it’s imperative to get organised. There’s no point collecting hundreds of bits of information only to create a disorganised mess that you won’t be able to navigate later!
Every writer works differently, so think about your own methods of organisation and what might work best for you when it comes to sorting and storing your research.
Here are a few organisation methods to consider:
- A physical folder or binder, divided into clearly labelled sections such as Setting, Characters etc., in which you can store hard-copy sheets of research and information.
- A digital Research folder on your hard drive, divided into sub-folders for each section of your research. If you choose this option, make sure to back up your files regularly to avoid losing data.
- A notebook full of handwritten notes, clippings and snippets of information.
- A set of research files in a novel-writing program such as Scrivener. These kinds of programs are great for storing information, and because your novel and your research are stored in the one place, it’s easy to access them simultaneously. (Again, as with any digital method, ensure you back up your files religiously.)
Whichever method of research storage you choose, ensure it’s easily navigable, accessible, and well-organised. Trust me – you’ll thank your past self when you’re in the midst of the writing process and know exactly where to refer to that specific piece of information!
2. Read, read, and read some more
As a writer, you’re probably a voracious reader already (and if not, you should be!). All reading helps to improve your craft, your knowledge and your story, but when you’re researching a novel, your reading will have to kick up a notch.
Whether it’s books, newspapers, online articles or any other source of written material, reading is going to be your primary method of attack when it comes to novel research. Let’s take a look at the different kinds of reading you’ll need to do in preparation for writing your book.
Read texts on your subject matter
Obviously, your chosen subject matter will be the first thing you start investigating.
Writing a crime novel? You’ll need to research things like murder weapons, forensics, and past criminal cases. Writing a romance novel set in modern-day Rome? You’ll need to pay Italy a virtual visit by reading as much as you can about its capital city. Writing historical fiction set in medieval Europe? Time to learn everything you can about that period in history.
‘But I’m a poor, struggling writer,’ you might be thinking. ‘How am I going to afford all these books I need for research?’ Well, two words will solve that problem, my friend…
If you’re not already a frequent visitor, it’s time to acquaint yourself with your local library. It’s free to become a member, and most libraries will have hundreds, if not thousands of books on every subject imaginable.
Most libraries should have an extensive catalogue of all their resources, so all it will take is a few keyword searches to discover a wealth of information relevant to your novel. You can borrow as many books as you need, taking down notes as you read and giving yourself a solid foundation on which to build your own story.
If you’re a university student, your uni library can be a great place to start your research. University libraries often have large research collections and access to exclusive online databases.
Here’s a fact that may horrify the most dedicated bibliophiles among us: all the information you need might not necessarily be found in books.
Shocking, I know! But never fear: there’s this new-fangled thing that’s perfect for writers researching their novels, and it’s called the internet.
Think of it as your personal, digital library, full of countless pieces of information and inspiration, all available from the comfort of your own desk or armchair. Everything from online encyclopaedias and databases to blogs and digital publications can be extremely helpful in your research process.
However, there’s a caveat that comes with using the internet to research your novel: you need to be extra careful about online resources and their validity.
The internet, being the enormous, free source of information it is, can unfortunately be subject to some pretty dodgy information at times. To avoid being misinformed, ensure you’re gathering information from reliable sources, and that any facts you uncover can be validated.
It’s easy to fall into the Wikipedia trap and believe that everything written online is true, but unfortunately that’s not necessarily the case, so you’ll have to be more discerning when researching on the internet.
Read other novels dealing with similar subject matter
Research doesn’t necessarily have to be restricted to reading non-fiction texts about your subject matter. You can also read other novels as a valid and useful form of research.
You can begin by reading novels that deal with a similar subject matter to your own. This will not only give you some extra information on your subject, but will also allow you to see how that subject has been covered before, and how you might approach it differently.
As well as novels with similar topics, it’s a good idea to read widely in your chosen genre. This method of research is especially helpful for writers in genres such as sci-fi and fantasy, who can’t necessarily visit the places or research the time periods featured in their entirely imagined stories. Reading other novels in your genre can help you see how other authors have tackled the process of building their own worlds. (More on researching genre and craft below.)
TIP: On Goodreads, you can often find user-generated lists of books about particular topics. Simply perform a Google search using the keywords ‘Goodreads’ and ‘novels about [insert topic]’.
For example, say your novel is about an artist. Googling ‘Goodreads novels about artists’ brings up several lists, including ‘Art & Artists in Fiction’, ‘Fiction Books Involving Art’, and ‘Books With Main Characters Who Are Artists’. These lists can give you a great place to start when deciding what novels to read as research for your own.
3. Delve into other forms of media
Books, newspapers, articles and online resources aren’t the only things that will help you with your research. While reading will likely be your primary method of gathering information, other forms of media can be extremely helpful as well.
Movies, documentaries and videos on YouTube can all be great sources of information and inspiration for writers. Whether you’re researching a place, a time period, a type of person or a particular culture, you’re sure to find some video sources that will help you understand your topic.
Sometimes, sensory sources such as video are even more helpful than written ones, as they can allow you to see, hear and virtually experience things you might not otherwise have access to. Try searching some relevant keywords on YouTube or Netflix and see what comes up.
TIP: Similarly to the Goodreads lists mentioned above, you can find movie recommendation lists online at websites like IMDb. These are also user-generated and can be found using a similar method: Google the keywords ‘IMDb’ and ‘movies about [topic]’.
After you’ve found a few movie options, it’s simply a matter of renting, purchasing, or downloading/streaming the movie (legally, of course) to provide some visual inspiration for your novel.
Images are the next-best thing to video when it comes to visual research for your novel. With millions of images available and easily accessible online, you’ll be able to get a much clearer mental picture of the things you’re writing about in your book.
Google Images and Wikipedia are great places to start – simply type in some keywords and start browsing their mammoth collections. Plenty of institutions have online image galleries, too; for example, if it’s historical images, maps or text excerpts you’re after, try something like the British Library’s online image gallery.
Google Maps is also a great tool for conducting research about locations and settings. We’ll talk more below about actually visiting real-world locations for research, but when that’s out of the question, using the Street View function of Google Maps is the next best thing.
Using Pinterest for fiction writing and novels sounds like a strange concept, but believe me – it can be super helpful! As a visual medium, Pinterest is full of all kinds of images that can be utilised for a writer’s research or inspiration.
You can browse Pinterest without becoming a member, but if you sign up for a free account, you can also create your own collages and collections using what are essentially digital ‘mood boards’.
This is a great way to organise and store images for different parts of your research. For example, you might have a Pinterest board full of images relevant to your setting, another for images of characters and clothing, and so on.
4. Talk to people.
We writers are generally a solitary bunch, but when it comes to researching a novel, sometimes it pays to step away from your desk and talk to some real people!
It might be an expert on the subject you’re writing on, a resident of the location in which your book is set, or a person who can relate to the situation one of your characters is in. It might be a friend-of-a-friend, a relative, or someone you’ve found by reaching out to your local community. Whoever you speak to, you’re likely to gain truly valuable first-hand information and insight that you just can’t get through a book or the internet.
For those who are shy about reaching out to strangers, remember that in today’s digital age, you don’t necessarily have to seek people out in person or by phone. Many internet communities exist in which you can communicate with others via online forums or messages.
Reddit is a great example. It has thousands and thousands of sections, or ‘subreddits’, dedicated to every topic imaginable. Once you’ve found your desired subject, you can search through the existing posts for information, or become a member and create your own call-out seeking answers or insight on a particular aspect of the topic.
TIP: Talking to people while researching may not only provide you with information, but also with inspiration when it comes to characters. Meeting and chatting with new people is a great way to gain insight into the way different people act and speak, and can inspire character traits or quirks in your own fiction.
5. Immerse yourself in some real-world research.
Just as it’s helpful to talk to real people in your research, it’s also extremely valuable to get out and visit some real-world places!
We spoke above about researching setting and place through various online methods. However, if at all possible, it’s always a good idea to visit the places you’re utilising in your fiction. Take some time to stroll through the location, taking in not only the sights but the sounds, smells, vibe and atmosphere of the place.
If you’re writing about a made-up setting, you can visit a similar location to inspire the place of your own invention. For example, if your novel is set in a fictional small beachside town, visit a few of these kinds of locations, and allow details from each to inspire and be woven throughout your novel’s unique setting.
TIP: Don’t assume you already know all there is to know about your setting – for example, if your novel is set in your own home town. Just because you’re already familiar with a place doesn’t mean you don’t need to conduct further research.
You don’t want to become complacent with your existing familiarity. It may mean you don’t end up truly doing your setting justice for readers who aren’t as familiar with it as you are.
6. Extend your research to craft as well as content.
When writers think of researching their novel, they usually think of investigating all the main content components we’ve covered above: setting, characters, plot elements, etc.
However, don’t just restrict your research to content alone. You should also research the craft of writing itself. This kind of research comes in two forms: style and genre.
Research on style involves learning about how to improve your skills as a writer. Whether you’re reading advice from other writers, completing writing exercises, or taking a course to further your skills and knowledge, researching the craft of writing is an essential step for any novelist.
As a writer, you should aim to constantly improve your skills and style over the course of your entire career. This means keeping up to date with advice, branching out and experimenting with your skills, and always striving to become better at your craft.
Research on genre involves learning everything you can about the genre in which you’re writing. You should be intensely familiar with your chosen genre, reading widely within it and learning from the works of other writers.
You should aim to discover where and how your own work will fit within the genre, and to think of ways you can introduce a fresh perspective.
7. Don’t get stuck on research and forget to start writing.
Phew! We’ve covered a lot of ground here. Hopefully you’re now feeling prepared and ready to get stuck into researching your novel. However, once you do start researching, it can be hard to know when to stop.
‘How long should I research for?’ is a common question asked by many writers. Unfortunately, there’s no easy answer – only you will know when you have enough material to begin the writing process itself. It’s usually better to have more research material than you’ll actually need, rather than not enough.
However, you must be careful not to fall into the trap of never-ending research as a means of putting off the actual writing of your novel.
If you think this is happening to you, don’t worry – it’s completely understandable. Writing an entire book can be a daunting and overwhelming prospect, and writers want to feel as prepared as possible before they launch themselves into the drafting process.
However, there’s really no such thing as being completely prepared to write a novel. The truth is that even the most experienced writer often needs to jump in head-first and just see where the writing takes them!
Don’t spend months or years researching without writing a single word of your novel. Gather enough information and inspiration to form a solid foundation and starting point, then ease yourself into the writing. There’ll always be time for further research later on; right now, if you’ve got enough research behind you to begin, then begin.
TIP: One important final recommendation when it comes to research: not everything needs to end up on the page. This is the classic error new writers make: ‘info-dumping’ the product of their extensive research in its entirety, believing it will make for a better story.
The truth is that readers don’t want to be spoon-fed every single piece of information. They’re not reading a research report, after all; they’re reading a novel.
Weave details into your story sparingly, and allow your research to inform your writing as subtly as possible. When it’s clear you know what you’re talking about, your readers will, too. There’s no need to overload them with detail and information.
So, now we’ve come to the end of our Writer’s Blog Short Story Week, you may be thinking of composing a short story of your own. But how exactly do you go about doing so? To help you out, here is a basic ‘How To’ guide for anyone considering turning their talents to the wonderful genre of the short story.
1. Know what a short story is
Before diving into any genre, it is important to understand the basics of that genre. Most definitions of a short story focus on the following key points:
- A short story is a prose narrative
- Is shorter than a novel
- Deals with limited characters
- Aims to create a single effect
Other definitions, however, are more concerned with word count, stating that a short story may range anywhere between 1,000 – 30,000 words. Anything over 30,000 words, however, tends to be considered ‘too long’, and crosses into the classification of a novella.
But how important are word counts? Well, if you are looking to have your work published, the word count can be extremely important. For instance, most literary magazines prefer their short story entries to be kept brief, and even stipulate a limit for all their submissions. You should always check the submission guidelines of any magazine you wish to send your work to. These guidelines can generally be found on the magazine’s website.
It is also crucial that you never underestimate the importance of reading. Read the form you hope to write in. To see a list of Classic short stories you could check out yesterday’s post.
2. Develop an Idea
Once you know a bit about the genre, and what is expected from a short story, you can begin creating one of your own. As with any fiction writing, this all begins with an idea. But where does a writer find ideas? When faced with this, very question, Neil Gaiman stated:
“You get ideas from daydreaming… You get ideas from asking yourself simple questions. The most important of the questions is just, What if…?”
With this answer, Gaiman highlights the importance of the writer’s imagination in the process of developing a story. But what if your imagination needs a little prompting? Although daydreaming can be an excellent tool in crafting a story, sometimes our imaginations need a little external stimulus to help light the spark. So what sort of external stimulus can be helpful in sparking a good short story idea?
Polite society will tell us it is wrong to listen in on other people’s conversations, but a sly bit of eavesdropping every now and then can be quite invaluable for a writer.
The people in the world around us – whether they be on a train to the city, on the phone in the supermarket, or enjoying a family barbeque in the park – provide an exceptional case study of human character and behaviour. By acting as an observer of daily life, and fusing together what we see and hear with our own imaginations, we can come up with all sorts of story ideas we may otherwise have never considered.
An example of this practice can be seen in ‘Rest Stop’; a short story by Stephen King, published in his collection, ‘Just After Sunset’. This story follows the experience of a writer who stops at a service station to use the bathrooms, only to find himself witness to a case of domestic violence. The writer then faces the tough decision of whether to play hero and intervene, or whether to save himself from a possible beating of his own, hop back in his car, and drive away.
In the notes provided by Stephen King in the back of the book, he admits to this idea sparking from an experience of his own, in which he stopped at a rest stop and overheard a couple engaged in a very heated argument. King writes:
“They both sounded tight and on the verge of getting physical. I wondered what in the world I’d do if that happened…”
In other words, King started with an overheard conversation (or, in this case, argument), then used his imagination to ask himself ‘What if…?’ – ‘What if the argument developed into a physical fight? What would a writer, much like myself, do in this situation?’. ‘Rest Stop’ is therefore an excellent example of how the odd bit of eavesdropping can help fuel our imaginations, and allow us to create an engaging short story.
Hint: Use a memory/experience of your own
‘Rest Stop’ is also a good example of how we can use our own experiences/memories as a starting point for a short story. Possibly the greatest advantage of this technique is the degree of tangibility it lends to our work.
For example, in ‘Rest Stop’, King is able to create a detailed description of the setting by providing a strong vision of the missing children posters, tacked up all over the walls. This attention to finer detail, pulled from King’s own memory, allows the reader to feel as though they are seeing the service station for themselves. It is more realistic, more tangible, more believable.
Of course, any fictional setting/event can be made to feel this way with the inclusion of finer detail, but starting with a memory is great practice. Once you can describe how something looked, felt, smelt, sounded or tasted in your own experience, the better you will be able to describe the fictional experiences of your characters. Try searching your mind for a very clear memory of your own. What did you see? What did you feel? What did you smell? Now use this memory to construct a short story by throwing in the ‘What if?’ question. For example, ‘What if this character had a similar experience?’
Hint: Read the daily papers
They say fact is stranger than fiction, and in no place is this more evident than in the daily news. Like eavesdropping, newspapers and news reports can also provide writers with an interesting case study of real life. Try collecting some news clippings of extraordinary stories, and imagine a character of your own witnessing these events. How does it affect them? How are they involved? Does their experience challenge what was reported in the clipping? Perhaps experiment with different points of view – try writing the story from the varying perspectives of those involved.
Hint: Make a playlist
Another excellent prompt for the imagination is music. For example, try listening to a random song on your ipod. What mood does the song create? What images come to mind? What story do the lyrics tell? Now try writing a story around one or more of these elements.
Hint: General writing prompts
If none of these techniques seem appealing to you, the Internet is full of writing prompts that may ignite your creativity. For example, a list of writing prompts may be found at Writer’s Digest, and Creative Writing Now.
Sometimes just playing around with ideas can actually lead to some of our best work. Before writing your story, try composing a few ‘test’ paragraphs. Use these paragraphs to trial a number of different voices, styles and points of view (POV). Try writing in first person, then try writing in third person, or possibly even second person (although be wary that second person narratives are rare, and difficult to do well). Experiment with different tenses. Change things around and try to find the style, voice, POV, and so on, best suited for the story you wish to create. For more on finding the right tense/POV/etc for your story, try here.
Another great way to experiment is to try free-writing. Free-writing, much like stream of consciousness, is high speed, continuous writing, free from planning or self-editing/censorship. This type of writing can unlock phrases and ideas, hidden away in our subconscious, that may otherwise prove elusive due to our tendency to over-think.
Despite the previous point about overthinking, there is also something to be said about the benefits of planning. Once you have a solid idea for your work, it is a good idea to plan your story. Although some writers work better with plans than others, mapping out and structuring your ideas can be a highly beneficial process. American novelist, John Gardner once wrote:
“Writing a novel is like heading out over the open sea in a small boat. If you have a plan and a course laid out, that’s helpful.”
Although short stories may not seem as epic an expedition as a novel, the overall structure of the genres are not so different. Like the novel, a short story is a form of prose narrative, expected to contain a beginning, middle and end. Thus, just as it is helpful to plan a novel, it is also helpful to plan a short story.
Essentially, what a plan does is provide us with a ‘print preview’ of our work. It allows us to see clearly any kinks or problems we may need to smooth over before we commit our story to its final form. (For more on the benefits of planning, read this Writer’s Edit’s article on How To Plan Your Book.) You can plan in whatever way is most helpful to you – whether this be mind-mapping, jotting down your key plot points, writing character profiles, or mapping out the order of events. You may also want to try planning your story using Freytag’s Five Stage Story Structure as a guide.
5. Know the Specifics
If you are composing your short story with the hope of publishing, it is important to take care of the finer details. For instance, who are you writing for? Some writers set out to write a short story with a particular magazine or publication already in mind. However, it is often best not to write this way, unless you have already been commissioned to do so. Writing with a sole publication in mind could not only restrict/limit your story, but could also be potentially devastating if the publication in question decides not to publish. Instead, it is often far better to write the story that feels right for you, then search for magazines that suit the tone/feel of your work, rather than the other way around. In other words, be true to yourself, write what you’re passionate about, and eventually, you and your story will find the right home.
Nevertheless, it is important to demonstrate to any magazine you submit to that you are familiar with their publication, and their style. Before you submit anywhere, ensure you subscribe to the publication, or at least thoroughly read a number of past editions. Make sure that your story suits the publication, and be ready to convince the editors exactly why your story would be suited to their magazine.
But knowing who you’re writing for is about more than knowing the magazines you approach. It is also about knowing your audience. What genre does your story fall under? What themes/issues does it deal with? Once you know who your story will appeal to, you will be better equipped to find that ‘home’ your story is looking for. For example, if your protagonist is a teenager, and your story explores issues of coming of age/crossing the threshold into adulthood, chances are your story falls under ‘young adult fiction’. You should therefore direct your story to a magazine with a largely young adult readership. If, however, your young protagonist happens to be a skilled wizard/dragon-rider, fighting a war against evil goblins, your story’s ultimate genre is likely fantasy, and you may be better off researching which publications appeal most to fantasy readers.
Identifying your target audience, and finding ways to direct your work towards them will provide your story with the ideal environment and conditions to flourish, so always try to keep them in mind.
6. Write it!
Once you have your idea, you’ve played around with different ways of writing, and you have a clear plan for your plot/structure, you can begin to write. Often getting started is the hardest step, so try not to put this off for too long. If you need help, refer to your plan or use some of your experiments as a starting point. Remember, you can always redraft and/or edit later if you are not happy with anything you put down. The most important thing is to get started, and the rest will follow.
7. Don’t Rush
One of the biggest mistakes writers can make is to become so focussed on the end game of getting published, that they don’t take the time to perfect what they’re writing. Often the result of this is an obvious sloppiness to the work, possible plot-holes, contradictions, inconsistences, and an overall rushed feeling that doesn’t do justice to the story being told. So take your time. Don’t rush. If you want to get your story out there, create yourself a writing habit.
Set aside time each day that is purely for writing. To maximise your productivity, limit your distractions during this time. Shut off Facebook, find a room with no television (or a quiet spot outdoors), switch your phone to silent, and just get as much writing done as you possibly can. By making this a regular habit, you can afford your writing the time and focus it deserves.
Once you have a completely finished draft on your hands, you can begin to edit. Editing is an extremely crucial process that allows us to mould our work into its best, possible shape. It is through editing that we ensure our writing is as effective as possible. For any writer, the first step to editing is to edit your own work, however, when editing your work, it is also important to consider the feedback of others. Try taking your story along to a writing group. Writing groups are a great place to seek constructive feedback from other writers. This feedback, along with the workshop nature of these groups, can prove absolutely invaluable when revising your work. During the editing process, it is also highly beneficial to consult the advice of a beta reader. A beta reader can serve as a proof-reader, check the story for effectiveness, plot-holes, consistency, believability, and so on. If you do not already know an ideal beta reader, writing groups are a great place to meet them, so get out there!
Once you have edited, re-edited, and edited some more, you should finally find your story is in a form you are happy to call ‘finished’. Now you’re ready to try submitting your work to the magazines/publications you have properly researched as suitable for your story. This can be a daunting task, and you may well face a number of knock-backs, but if you persevere, you will eventually find that you have a published copy of your short story, right there in front of you, and for all to see.
Writing a novel is no easy feat, least of all while writers juggle various commitments like day jobs, family and social lives. Which is why we’ve put together the ultimate guide on how to write a novel in 30 minutes per day.