Friday, May 8, 2015

How to Write Great Dialogue through Subtext

The son finally returns home. He's been away at war.
He opens the door. His father is at the breakfast table.

      Father: I thought you were dead.
          Son: I was in a POW camp.
      Father: Why didn't you escape?

Just three lines from the film Maria’s Lovers and we know the heart of this father-son relationship—that the son is never good enough.

Did the words say that? No.

But it’s clear anyway.

That’s subtext. That’s what makes a good dialogue even better.

·       A good story is never about what the story is about. Or let me say that differently: A good story is never about what it’s about on the surface.

In this film, Maria’s Lovers, a lesser writer might have used flashbacks to show the father was disappointed in the son for not measuring up—at a ballgame, when getting grades back, etc.  

But subtext said it better. In this case it laid their relationship bare in just three lines. Now the writer can get on with the plot—what’s going to happen in the story.

·       Subtext is like an iceberg. The reader sees only the “top” of what is said, but is made aware of the hidden mass below which isn’t said.
   John: I’m sending you something.
  Stella: Does it smell nice?
   John: No, but it’s sparkly.
  Stella: Does it come with a receipt? 

That’s from The Italian Job. Stella didn’t say—I know you’re a thief. You probably stole it? I don’t trust you. I’m exasperated with the work you do.  But we get the meaning anyway.

·       Subtext hints while straight-text tells. And because it hints, it engages the reader because the reader knows that something is hidden. The reader is let in on the secret. Have you heard this one?

“Not tonight, honey. I’m tired.”

Here are three famous lines that reach far beyond the words themselves.

“What if this is as good as it gets?”

“Go ahead, make my day.”

“I’ll make him an offer he can’t refuse.”

In the last line Vito Corleone is really saying that he’s in control and that he get what he wants. The reader feels the tension. His or her mind races forward to all sorts of possibilities. Bribe the guy? Maim him? Yikes, kill him? 

No, it’s worse. It’s going to be a dead horse in the guy’s bed. But the writer made us wait for it. And we knew it was going to be big. The subtext added tension. It added depth to the story and the character.

What happens when the CIA gets inside your mind?
·       People don’t say what they mean.

In some cases the subtext might not reveal its true meaning right away, but it will as the plot develops. Take, for example, a husband who is growing softer and fatter by the day. He’s gained 40 pounds. At dinner he asks for another helping of turkey and potatoes.

Wife: “Are you sure you want more?”

Lots of possible subtexts here: Maybe she’s unwilling to confront him for the sake of the marriage. Maybe she’s physically afraid of him. Maybe she’s really saying that she wants her attractive lover back. We’ll have to read further.

·       Subtext can also be through action, or inaction.

If a boy pulls a girls hair, does it mean he doesn’t like her?

If at a party, a man glances at a woman’s cleavage and then approaches her, what is he really saying?

·       Often the subtext depends on the context:

If Francis Underwood, the character in House of Cards, tells you, “Don’t worry, you can count on me,” it means something very different than if your mother says it.

And this:
-          Phil watched as the blond pulled up in a minivan.
-          Phil watched as the blond pulled up in a red BMW
-          Phil watched as the blond pulled up on a motorcycle.

There’s only one difference between the above sentences. And in each sentences we assume something different about the blond. That’s also subtext.

·       Subtext is understood

Does Vito Corleone ever say that he loves his family? That he’s looking out for them? That he’ll do anything for them?

No. It’s already in the subtext of each scene. For him to say actually “I’ll do anything for you,” would be redundant and even absurd. The audience might actually out loud. Besides, “I’ll do anything for you” or “I love you” would add nothing to the story or to what we already know about the character.

·       The plot is what happens in the story.

·       The subtext is what’s really happening.

 Mary: "Do you love me?"
             John opens the refrigerator door. 
 John: "Of course."

·       Subtext shows conflict and reveals character without saying it.

        Son: “Why can’t I go to college?”
    Father: “You think what I do isn’t good enough?”

        Wife: Where are we going on our vacation?
Husband: We went someplace last year.

Girlfriend: “Did you kiss Betty?”
Boyfriend: “What’s that supposed to mean?”

Employer: You catch up on your work?
Employee: I’m getting there?
Employer: I hope so.

Girlfriend: “You gonna take me to the prom?”
Boyfriend: “Why is that so important?”

    Father: “How are your grades?”
                      Daughter: “Grades aren’t everything

 Nobody in the above instances answered the question. They said something else. And in saying that “something else” they revealed more about themselves than if they had answered directly.

·       Subtext is subtle. It points to a meaning without saying it.

          Art student: “Pretty cool oil painting I did, isn’t it?”
          Art teacher: “I really like the way you use red.”

The well-known writing teacher Robert McKee has said: “If your characters say what they mean, then your story is in deep sh**.”

·                 Subtext deepens our characters.

·                 Subtext deepens our stories.

The truth will sock youin the gut
But we already know subtext. We use it every day.
Yet when we sit down to write, it may escape us.

So, how do we learn to write in subtext? Simply listen carefully to what real people say. Maybe hang out at Starbucks, get a vente cappuccino or whatever and find a comfortable chair and eavesdrop on conversations. Or eavesdrop at the checkout stand. Or in your kitchen. Best of all, we should listen to how we ourselves speak.

Okay, but how do we write it!
Write down (or think about) what the character really means: “You really gonna to marry that slob?

Then say it like people really say it: “Are you sure about him?”

Here’s a familiar dialogue:

                                             What is said                      The Subtext
Guy: “Want to come up for a drink?”    “Let’s have sex.”

Girl: “Long day. I’m really tired.”           “I’m not sure.”

Guy: “You sure?”                       “I don’t care. I’m horny.”

Girl: “Maybe another time.”                  “Don’t push it.”

                                        I'll end with this one:
   Husband: Was it good for you too?
       Wife:  I’m speechless.
                     That's subtext.


"Yes, I know Madeleine's missing. But I can explain that. I can explain everything



Saturday, May 2, 2015

6 Tips to a Great First Sentence

“In retrospect I shouldn’t have freed the tiger.”

Jodi Picoult’s first line here, in Lone Wolf
has many of the traits of a great first sentence.

It is a surprise

It provides an image

It is humorous

It’s simple

It creates a mood

It teases

It may even encapsulate 

the entire story

A truth that will sock you
in the gut
We all know that an opening line is important. It won't make the story great, but it will immediately introduce your reader to a problem, or a question, or a sticky thought that your reader can’t shake.

It quickly moves the reader inside your story.

Take a look at the first line of the work you’re presently writing. Which of the above traits does it have? Count them out.

It would be great of a computer could spit out a great line for us. But what computer could spit out this first line? 

“Lolita, light of my fire, fire of my loins.”

Yes, it’s Vladimir Nabakov’s, Lolita. It’s a sensual tease. It makes us want more. Computers can’t reach into us like that. Count how many of the above traits can be found there. I count six.

We can’t force a good first line. If it doesn’t come—wait.

Wait with enough creative tension and it’ll come; perhaps you’ll be in the bathtub or on a long walk; maybe in the midst of furious writing or a furious writer’s block.

First lines sometimes simply appear like that.

A good first line may come to you as your writing the beginning part of your story, or the middle, or the even the end. We can’t always control when. Of course we can force a line out. But I’ll bet that a spontaneously derived line that surprises even the author will also surprise his or her readers.

What happens when the CIA
gets inside your mind?
 In some cases the first line might even come before any other word in the story has been written.  It may be a thought the author had, a sudden muse, some internal questioning that resulted in a single line that has the power to propel a story forward; perhaps even a story the author hadn’t planned at all.

Maybe that’s what happened to Alice Walker in the 
first line of her well-known novel, The Color Purple.

“You better not tell nobody but God.”

Here’s a first line that has stuck in my mind for years and I can’t even remember the name of the book or its author:

It was raining when they rolled me out of the back seat
of my Chrysler and into the alley; not a heavy rain, more like a light mist.

Surprising. Simple. Visual. Funny. The reader is immediately inside the story and ready for it to take off.

One of my favorite authors, Thomas H. Cook, 
has great first sentences to begin his dark novels.

“The circle of life is often a noose.” 
The Dancer in the Dust.

“My father had a favorite line.”
 The Chatham School Affair

“The question was never whether she would
live or die, for that had been decided long ago.” 
The Quest for Anna Klein

“This is the darkest story I ever heard.” 
Breakheart Hill

“When you remember those times,
they return to you in a series of photographs.
 Red Leaves.

“He’d seen shadows of his own.” 
The Evidence of Blood.

“There is no older story than the return of the native, and
I’d always believed that had Adam returned to Eden
 to walk in middle age the ruined garden once again,
he might have felt an old nostalgia for his fall.” 
Into the Web

Yes, I know Madeleine's missing. But I can explain that. I can explain everything.

There’s no magic bullet that will make that right title appear. But we can prepare the way.  Take a look at the first lines of novels you’ve enjoyed or haven’t enjoyed. Or use the book section of Amazon has a great feature called “Look Inside.” With it, you can go inside almost any novel and read the first pages. I recommend looking through first lines of novels at random.

See what works? See what doesn’t? See why and why not?

I’m a proponent of not forcing first lines. In fact, I’m a proponent of not forcing fiction writing at all; that is, not grinding it out. When we do that, we become calculative rather than creative.

We are not in charge of our creativity. We cannot press a button. We cannot make it do what we want, when we want. Creativity seems to have its own way. We simply have to make room in our day–at least a small and regular space–where inspiration may arrive, the imagination go free, and originality may begin to squeak through to us.

It's a ‘space’ where we let something happen.

That’s not being ‘clever.’ It’s being original. Meaning something that originates with us, with you or me.

Great first lines grow from that ‘space.’ As do all fine novels.

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

5 Mistakes Indie Authors Make

There is no reason an Indie novel cannot be as spectacular as a great, traditionally-published novel. 

No reason at all. But typically Indie novels are not so spectacular. Why not?

I’ve been published by both a major publisher and an Indie publisher. How they work is very different – not just in the publishing, but also in the preparation for the publishing. This article is about the important things that we Indie authors typically aren’t doing that major authors are doing.

Briefly, my story:
My experience selling my first book to a publisher is not typical. I contacted an agent on a Tuesday, she called back me on Wednesday, told me we could sign a contract on Thursday, and that she’d have the novel sold to a major publishing house by Monday. (And she did.)

Was I a great writer or just lucky? Probably the latter. But I got a publisher and a darn nice advance. I was a happy guy.

Will sock you in the gut.
I also had the chance to work with one of the best editors in the country. When I say “editor,” I don’t mean someone who puts the commas in the right places and reminds me that “i” goes before “e” except after “c.”  No, this was a story editor—someone who understands the concept of story telling; knows which things make a story work and which things don’t. In general the story editor improves the story. In this case it was my story.

I’ll back up a bit and add that before I signed with a publishing house I had a chance to interview two editors with different houses who wanted the story. Part of each interview went like this:

Publishing House ‘A’
Me: How can you help make my novel better?
Editor: Peter, you are the writer. You’re the artist. We don’t want to interfere.

Publishing House ‘B’
Me: How can you help make my novel better? 
Editor: Well, the first half of your story is stronger than the second. The potential is there, but we have to work on it.

Then the editor at Publishing house ‘B’ went on to make some suggestions that I immediately found helpful. Light bulbs were going off. I signed with that publisher, even though the advance was less. Why? Obviously I wanted to make the novel as good as possible. This guy could help.

Before I spoke to him I had no idea that my story needed work. I thought it was great. And I had an agent, didn’t I? And now someone was buying my novel, weren’t they? So what’s the problem?

Consider this: There are two kinds of things we don’t know.

-        There are things that we know we don’t know – for example, I know that I don’t know how to operate the space shuttle. That’s something I know I don’t know. Call it a “known unknown.”

          Thene there are things that we don’t know that we don’t know – for example…well, I can’t give an example. Since I don’t know that I don’t know something, how can I give you an example of what that something is?  Call it an “unknown unknown.”  Kapish?   

Yes, I know Madeleine is missing.
But I can explain that.I can explain everything.
Obviously every novel writer does the best that he or she can. But it’s not enough. There are things about writing a novel that we don’t know that we don’t know. Yes, our friends have told us that our story is fine, or even great. Mom said the same thing. Sister Sue liked it too. If we have beta readers (Google it), they’ve made their suggestions.

But we need to go outside the circle. In short – we need help.

Lesson #1: A good story editor can be of immense help to us. Find one. (Note: Story editors are not equal. That’s why I emphasize the word “good” above.) 

The advantage of a major publishing house is that they have accomplished story editors right there to work with authors. That’s what they get paid to do, and if they don’t do it well, and the books don’t sell, they are gone. The publishing house has invested in their author. They want to make money. They really want the story to be good.

A mistake many Indie authors make is to not use a good story editor. A good story editor can make the difference between an average story becoming a good one, or a good one becoming really good or even great.

If you’re taking writing classes or seminars (and I hope you are), ask the instructor who they’ve used for a story editor, or who they recommend. You have to start somewhere.

Maybe you are thinking, “But I don’t need a story editor.” Then please see above about not knowing what we don’t know.

In my case, I worked hard with my story editor. He had a fresh eye on my story and was very experienced. I learned to expand my writing ability because of him. He made my book much better.

For example, at one point he said, “Peter, if you lose pages 9 through 11, only one person in the world will miss them.” He meant me, of course. I looked at the pages. They were well written, even clever, and flowed nicely. I liked those pages. I was proud of them. But I could now see that they weren’t necessary. They didn’t advance the story or develop its characters. Result: The pages were gone.

I could give a ton more examples. In some instances my editor made suggestions that I simply didn’t agree with. I fought him on it. And often I won. But now as I look back with more experience in writing, I see that in almost every instance he was right.

Lesson #2: Listen to your story editor.

I’m not saying change everything according to your editor’s wishes. Just listen carefully. Unless your
What happens when the CIA
gets inside your mind 
last name is Steinbeck or Hemingway, you still have a lot to learn. Just like I do. Use the story editor’s suggestions as a way of examining your story from top to bottom and more deeply so that you can grow in your writing ability.

You can be sure that John Grisham, Lee Child, and Toni Morrison are listening to their story editors. You should too.

Lesson #3: Don’t fall in love with your words.

You’ll hear this from every good writing teacher. It’s good advice so I’m saying it again. Get out the red marker. On every page ask: Do I need this? Can this scene go in a different direction? What opportunities am I missing here to make the character deeper, the scene more compelling, the action more interesting; in short, how can I make my story better?

My editor and I worked on the story for a year. (Yes, a year!) We went back and forth and the story got better, stronger, more interesting. Better written. Then it took another 6 months for it to come out.

That’s a year and a half! Of course I was chomping at the bit, eager to get my story into print. It’s a great story! I’ll be famous and rich! Get that baby out there now for the world to see!

If I had been going Indie then, and without a good story editor, I likely would have brought my story out too soon. It wouldn’t have been as good. Trust me. I’ll say it again – It wouldn’t have been as good.

Lesson #4: Don’t bring your novel out too soon.

Even if you don’t get a story editor (which I think is a mistake), sit on your story for a while. Go on to other things, whether it’s your next book or your day job. Take a month or a six month break from your story. Try not to be antsy. Then come back fresh and look at it anew. Be critical – by which I mean, look closely at each line as well as the overall story.  See how it advances. Can you strengthen a scene? Would this character really talk like that? Do you have enough backstory on this character to explain his or her actions? 

Lesson 5: If you don’t make significant changes after sitting on your novel for a time, then you’re not trying hard enough.

There’s a saying among poets: They never finish a poem. They finally abandon it.
It should be the same with us. Our stories can get better and better and better. And yes, even better. They can probably get better forever. So if after I spend months away from my story I still can’t see ways to make it stronger, maybe it’s because I don’t yet understand story telling well enough. 

Yes, the problem may be me. And it’s time for me to get busy learning.

I’m going to add one thing. While I’ve been addressing story editors here, don’t forget the important line editors, or copy editors. These are the people who check spelling, correct grammar, find not be your own copy editor. I’ll say that again: You should not be your own copy editor. You are too close. Too familiar. And no, your best friend might not be right either.
misplaced tenses, and correct a hundred thousand other little things that may already be in your story. You need this done right. You should

One complaint I see over and over by Amazon reviewers is: “Didn’t anyone edit this?”  The answer is that a number of people probably did edit it. But not an accomplished editor.

You can be sure that if someone doesn’t catch your inadvertent mistakes, your readers will. Probably every one of your readers will. Nothing distracts a reader more from a story than an error in print. It will jerk the reader away from your story. Now he or she is thinking about you, and how you didn’t do your job.

So, get a good copy editor. That doesn’t necessarily mean use the copy editor at the Indie publisher. They may charge $300 to $500 or so, but there may be better ones out there for more or less money, and there probably are.

"A shocking suspense novel"
To wrap up, I’ll repeat that there is no reason an Indie novel cannot be as spectacular as a great, traditionally-published one. No reason at all. But typically Indie novels are not so spectacular.
Yours can be, though. However, making it really good will probably be harder than you first thought; will take more time than you first thought; and you’ll need more advice than you first thought.

I also want to suggest that you’ll probably be a better writer this time next year than you are now. Why? Because you are growing in your writing abilities. Hopefully we’re all still growing, usually by baby steps. But at least we’re growing; and we need to keep those baby steps up.

 Now go do it.  And if you like, let me know how it’s going.

Happy writing and best wishes     --- Peter.

You can say hello to me at

Monday, April 27, 2015

The Dark Side of Writing

"Everyone has a moon. Everyone has a 
dark side which he never shows to anybody."
--Mark Twain

Darkness is a universal theme in writing. Why? Because a good writer knows about the dark and the light places in their own hearts. 

That’s what writing is all about. Not making money. Most of us never make much, at least not at first. We write about hearts. Our own hearts and the hearts of others. Money may come. Or not. But writing is a relief to us. Writing a novel is like keeping a journal. It’s how we stretch ourselves from the inside. We examine the conflicts within ourselves. We place these conflicts in our characters and watch how they play out. 

People say, “love makes the world go round.” But that's not so. It's conflict and darkness that makes the world go round. Someone might argue – “But look at all those romance stories out there!”  Yes, and yet those romance stories are about adultery, lies, betrayal, uncontrolled passions, unrequited love, or some other conflict. There is no story without conflict; and the very best stories are well-written ones about conflicts within the darker regions of the heart.  


What happens when the CIA
gets inside your mind?
What novel isn't about darkness? Isn’t this darkness what draws us when we read? Captivates us? We want tension. We seek conflict followed by a revelation within the human heart. And we crave a resolution. 

Not just Mark Twain, but psychologists and theologians too tell us that darkness is a universal theme. Equally as universal is that we hide our darkness from others and even ourselves. Still, it silently haunts us. Freud was honest with himself and vulnerable with his readers to even admit he had sexual feelings toward his mother. He didn't hide. 

Or, in Faulkner's words, "Unless you are ashamed of yourself now and then, you aren't honest."

As readers, when we pick up a well-written book we sometimes are transported into that dark place we've been avoiding. It is often the protagonist himself or herself who has a dark place. He or she is perhaps a mystery even to themselves. It absolutely deepens the story. Makes the character more interesting and more real. As readers, we squirm because the good guy has a problem. Perhaps a big one. And if we, as readers, like a particular story, it’s because we have discovered ourselves inside that story. 

That’s what makes a revealing read. That's why we buy a book in the first place. 

I’ll give an example: In Stephen Jay Schwartz’s fine story Boulevard, his protagonist is a police officer who is also a (recovering?) sex addict going to twelve-step meetings. And who has the insights to help solve sex crimes in that city? You guessed it.

Not just the readers, but the writer too is present in his or her novels. We are the adulterer who can’t help himself. We are the soldier who is afraid, the spouse contemplating murder, the politician who is divided between personal gain and social good. Good writers know this and don’t hide from it. Good writers know that they are in their own story, maybe many of the characters. There’s no escaping it.

Kafka said - "Don't edit your soul down to a fashion. Rather, follow your most intense obsessions mercilessly." 

You’ve read that we should all “get in touch with our feelings.” But the better writers dig deeper. He or she gets in touch with places the “feelings people” don’t dare go; places whether others won’t look at all. The writer is alone there, because he or she has been honest there. 

As Salman Rushdie puts it, "Masks beneath masks, until suddenly the bare bloodless skull."  

The truth will sock you in the gut. 
As a result of this digging deeper, the novels by these writers are not just another version of Law and Order or read like a rerun of The Real Housewives of New Jersey. They are so much more.

And yet, not surprisingly, when we write our books from those darker places, and write them well, we find that our audience is waiting for us. The audience too knows those dark places, and has been waiting all along. 

Email Peter:
Peter is the author of Operation Fantasy Plan, a spy novel published by William Morrow.
Peter has now gone "Indie" with upcoming Madeleine's Kiss and The Whole Truth.  

You can see his Blog at:  
He can be contacted at:
Peter is a former university and college instructor, intelligence officer, ombudsman, counselor, truck drive, bartender and short order cook. He has been in jail only once.

Peter is an accomplished speaker in many areas, and has appeared on radio, TV, and Webinars across the country.
Yes, I know Madeleine is missing. But I can explain that.
 I can explain everything.