Hillerman Convention: Day 1

Thursday is the Pre-Converence Conference. Today we learned The Anatomy of Engaging Stories (Bill O’Hanlon)



Elements of an Engaging Story:

  • Characters – must engage the reader; the reader must identify with the character in some way. Create a mental image of the character with names, appearance, gestures, dialogue, and what other characters say or think.
  • Specific sensory details about people, places or actions – use the five senses!
  • Action (Plot: beginnings, middles and ends) – the character must be frustrated or threatened or face conflict somehow, must feel called to act or thwarted in his action.
  • Scene setting – props and sets; think more Little Theater than Hollywood – go for minimal props and setting (place/time/social)
  • Dialogue – bring the reader into the moment
  • Vague enough to allow for imagination (let the reader “hallucinate” much of the description)
  • Repetition of sounds/theme/elements
  • Revisiting the beginning at the end (story arc)

Elmore Leonard used the term “hoppetedoodle” (HOP-tee-doo-dle) to mean too much descriptive detail in a story.

We also had a great lecture about “The Language of Liars,” which is going to be quite useful to me with Chance! Then, it was Tony Hillerman’s 90th birthday party (with cake!), and a chance to see the new educational portal UNM is working on, to take Tony’s legacy to schools and educate young writers.

5 Myths About Dialogue

Everybody knows what dialogue is. You read it all the time, in every fiction book you pick up. You hear it on TV and in the movies. It’s obvious … isn’t it?

Not really. Writing dialogue is more involved than most beginning writers think it is. It’s not just a matter of slapping down a few lines of speech. Here are five myths about dialogue — and the truth for each one.


1. Good dialogue uses plenty of synonyms for “he said.” Many writers believe that they need to come up with a unique dialogue tag for each line, such as “he exclaimed” or “she hissed.” The truth is, good dialogue seldom uses more than the occasional “he said” or “she asked” — and that’s only when clarification is absolutely needed. Readers skim over those familiar words, and read only the spoken lines. When they hit one of those oddball synonyms, they’re jarred right out of the story trying to figure out what the character was doing. Especially jolting are terms like “he smiled” or “she grimaced” — actions you don’t normally associate with speech at all. Just stick to the old stand-by and your readers will thank you.

2. You need a dialogue tag for every line of speech. Your readers are pretty clever people. They know that when two people are talking, they’ll typically take turns speaking, so every other line will be another person. The truth is, you almost never have to write “he said” or “she asked” at all. Start the ball rolling with the primary character doing something, then just slip in their dialogue. The reader will pick it up at that point and understand that the next line belongs to the second person. Show the action, and you can skip the tags. At most, you’ll just have to stick in the odd “Bob said” or “Sally replied” once in a while.

3. Just write the way the average person speaks. Nobody would read past the third line of dialogue if you did this! Dialogue is not just a transcription of normal speech. Most people do a lot of hemming and hawing, with plenty of “ums” and “ers” and “uhs” thrown in. People blather a bit as well, asking about your health and the family and talking about the weather. Nobody wants to read all that! Condense your dialogue to the main information and skip all the small talk.

4. Show dialect phonetically. This seems reasonable on the surface. After all, a character from Ireland will speak a different dialect than one from China. However, phonetic spelling is hard to read, and you end up jolting the reader out of the story again as they try to puzzle out what the character is saying. The best way to handle dialect is to show one — two at the most — examples of phonetic spelling to give the readers the idea. From that point, you need only phrase the speech in the proper manner to remind them. Throw in a few recognizable slang terms, for example, or show the stilted speech of a non-English speaker. Otherwise, use standard spelling and let the reader “translate” into dialect in their own head.

5. Give the whole dialogue. Many writers don’t seem to know when to describe and when to use dialogue. They include the small talk, the greetings and farewells, and all the little boring things people normally include in a conversation. The beauty of writing is that you can skip all the boring stuff and get right into the meat of a dialogue. Show the characters coming together — you don’t need the greetings, the remarks about the local sports team, or the catching-up on the family members. Start the dialogue when the meat of the conversation is reached, and stop as soon as the relevant information is conveyed. The readers can fill in the rest (if they even want to).


What are some of the worst examples of dialogue you’ve ever read?

The Writer’s Guide to Eavesdropping

Writers are incurable eavesdroppers — and we should be. It’s our job to create believable characters, and in order to create, you have to understand. Thus, we spend a great deal of time listening to real characters interact.


Never let an opportunity pass you by. Pay attention to those two old ladies behind you in the check-out line as they complain about their ungrateful grandchildren. Prick up your ears as the couple at the next table discusses their finances over dinner. Sit back in a corner of the mall and absorb.

But you’re not just collecting gossip when you eavesdrop. Here’s what you should be listening for:

  • Rhythm – people don’t deliver information in packets, like an encyclopedia or computer program. Conversation ebbs and flows, and you must pay attention to catch the rhythm of the speech. Rhythm can be a regional trait as well, so familiarize yourself with the cadence of local conversation as you listen. A New Yorker, for example, will speak in a more rapid, brusque manner when compared to a South Carolinian.
  • Tone 1 – the attitude or emotion of the speaker. This can be freely expressed or hidden, so you must pay attention to body language in addition to words. But that’s a subject for a later article.
  • Tone 2 – when conversation is emotionally charged, people speak in a higher tone of voice than when they are relaxed. Emotion tightens the vocal cords. Professional speakers utilize a lower, relaxing tone. Think Morgan Freeman.
  • Diction – word choice. This is unique to every speaker. Educated people use longer, more vivid words, while uneducated people use simpler words. Regional dialect plays a part as well, especially with the uneducated speaker.
  • Sentence Length – educated people usually use longer sentences than uneducated people. Shorter sentences can also signal tension or urgency. People also tend to shorten or abbreviate their sentences in informal situations.
  • Syntax – the way words are arranged within sentences. English typically uses a subject-verb-object order, for example. Non-English speakers often give themselves away with syntax as well as word choice.


The art of eavesdropping, you can see, is a bit more complicated than it seems. Or it is if you’re a writer looking for material.

What’s your best eavesdropping technique?

Advice from the Tony Hillerman Conference

I’ve spent a lovely three days hob-nobbing with other authors and attending writing panels. Here are some gems from the classes.

  • The day I stop learning about my characters is the day I become bored with them — Margaret Coel
  • Good beginnings and endings are like good art: I know it when I see it, but it’s awfully hard to define — Jamie McGrath Morris
  • One of the biggest dialogue mistakes I see is when all the characters sound alike — Craig Johnson
  • Write the kind of novel that, once the reader picks it up, he cannot bear to put it down; not the kind of novel that, once he puts it down, he cannot bear to pick it back up — Margaret Coel
  • Before you even sit down to write, know — in this order — what the ending is, and what the beginning will be — Kirk Ellis
  • Writing is not a profession, but a vocation. Think bigger than just a contract, a published book. Ask yourself ‘Is this worth one to three years of my life?’ before you begin that novel — David Morrell
  • Try this: gather a stack of award-winning novels and read the ending first. Then, read the book to see how the author gets from Point A to Point Z. Do that 500 times. Can you imagine how much you’ll learn about the art of plotting? — Steve Havill
  • Here’s a big secret: have someone read your dialogue back to you — Craig Johnson
  • ‘Let me tell you a story’ is a very powerful lure — Jamie McGrath Morris
  • It’s never as good as it could be. And ‘spoiler alert:’ it’s never going to be — Kirk Ellis
  • Become a student of human nature — Craig Johnson

What is the best advice you’ve ever heard from another writer?

5 Dialogue Tips

For some writers, dialogue flows easily onto the page; for others, it’s an agonizing battle to find just the right words. Here are some tips for writing convincing dialogue.

Writing With Pencil

  1. Know your characters. If you haven’t already filled out one of those character background charts, at least consider the educational level and basic history of each character. Know what sort of language they’d use. Are they well-educated, using longer words and sentences with correct grammar? Are they less-educated, with shorter words and sentences, and possibly with poor grammar? Do they use idioms and slang particular to a certain area? Are they talkative, or do they say only what’s necessary? Knowing your characters is the first step toward giving them convincing dialogue.
  2. Use individual voices. Each main character should have a unique speaking style based on their history and education. This should be plain enough that the reader could identify a speaker without any dialogue tags (“Tom said” or “Sally asked”). Once you’ve learned all about your characters, this will be much easier, and they’ll develop their own style of speaking.
  3. Avoid the thesaurus. Beginning writers often try to come up with variations on “he said” or “she asked.” Don’t. Words like “queried,” “hissed,” “exclaimed,” or even (OMG) “ejaculated” jerk the reader right out of the story (and perhaps off in search of a dictionary) and defeat your primary purpose as a writer. If you must use a tag, go with “said” or “asked.” The reader will skim over those words and keep reading, which is what you want.
  4. Keep the dialogue tags to a minimum. If you have only two speakers, you can skip the tags altogether and have a back-and-forth dialogue with only the occasional “Joe said” to remind the reader who’s speaking. If you’ve followed Step 2, even that will be unnecessary, as each character’s unique voice will make it obvious which one is speaking.
  5. Skip the tags entirely. One great way to indicate speaker without using tags is to use action. Show the characters moving and reacting instead of telling that they’re speaking. You don’t need “he said” if you start the paragraph with Jeff pounding a fist on the table in frustration, or split the dialogue to show Mary dabbing tears of laughter from her eyes.

What about you? Do you find dialogue easy or difficult? What are some tips you’ve learned?