Best Books On Writing Well

ppp_prd_087_3d_people-cooperationOne of my workshop students recently asked me to recommend some books to him to help nurture his writing craft.  These are the ones I suggested: William Zinsser’s ON WRITING WELL; Strunk’s THE ELEMENTS OF STYLE; and Stephen King’s ON WRITING.  I don’t think any writer needs any other writing reference book.  And as much as these books will help (and they will), the most important thing toward developing your craft, of course, is to write every day.  Getting yourself into an excellent writing workshop environment is also invaluable — as with any field, having a mentor to help you along accelerates your development in whatever your chosen field.

Prefacing Dialogue With Thoughts

I often encourage writers to improve their passages of dialogue, whether in fiction or memoir, through the judicious use of a character’s internal thoughts or environmental descriptions.  Often these brief asides that precede a quote add contrast to what’s said, advance characterization, or simply break up long chunks of dialogue.  However, you can also overdo this.  Constant references to either internal thoughts or environmental descriptions that precede almost every line of dialogue are distracting.  I’m a big fan of the well-considered use of such references – in fact, they’re an essential ingredient to masterful writing – but you also should take care to not diminish the immediacy of the dialogue by interrupting too much to share such references.

How Much Is Too Much Dialogue?

There’s nothing wrong with too much dialogue in a novel, per se, but, if not well written, at times it causes the flow of the story to lag.  When employing long sections of dialogue, it’s important to be sure not to be repetitive or to include chitchat.  Try to avoid the sorts of banal conversations that are realistic in life but not necessarily scintillating in literature.  Good writer effectively sets off important comments by preceding them with expository paragraphs or internal thoughts.  For example, if a character says that it “would have been a nicer visit if my niece and nephew were here,” have him muse for a bit about them, or about their mother.  Perhaps there’s a contradiction in his character that can be exposed in this way?  Here’s the right way and wrong way to do it:

  • Jill wished she could see Jack.  “It would have been a nicer visit if my niece and nephew were here.”  OR –
  • Uncomfortable?  No, Jill thought, it’s you who’s uncomfortable.  It’s not so much that she was dying to see Jack and Sally, it’s more that she was dying — period.  And she was pissed that Michael couldn’t deal with it.   “It would have been a nicer visit if my niece and nephew were here.”

The first example is what not to do – you don’t want to be repetitive and have the sentiment in the expository writing or the internal thought to be repeated in the quote.  Rather, as in the second example, use the opportunity to (1) break up a longish string dialogue and thus keep the reader focused; and (2) add complexity to the character by highlighting contradictions.