Saturday, October 8, 2011

Guest Author Nancy Holzner on Starting a Scene with Dialogue

I'm very excited to welcome author Nancy Holzner, who's celebrating a new release (Bloodstone) and sharing some great writing craft advice today. 

Don't miss her giveaway!

So, take it away, Nancy...

When you write a novel, you wrestle, over and over again, with beginnings—it seems like you always have to be starting something. (Wasn't there a Michael Jackson song like that?) There’s the act of sitting down each day to write each day, of course, but that’s not what I’m talking about here. Every scene, every chapter—the novel itself—requires a beginning. When you’ve finished a scene, you have to figure out how to start the next one. The constant need to start something new can be one of the hardest things about writing a novel.

My favorite way to get started on a new scene is to sketch out the characters’ dialogue. I bring together two or more characters who appear in the scene and see what they have to say to each other. Often, the first time through, I just write down their words, noting who’s speaking if necessary. This bare-bones dialogue looks kind of like a script.

Here’s an example from a scene in Bloodstone, the third novel in my Deadtown urban fantasy series. When I drafted this scene for the first time, I already knew the context in which the conversation takes place: Vicky, my protagonist, is at a late-night dinner party at her sister Gwen’s house. The evening has been a disaster, and Vicky escapes to the kitchen to get away from the conflict in the dining room. In the kitchen she finds her eleven-year-old niece, Maria. Here’s the start of their conversation, as I wrote it the first time through:

“Hi, Aunt Vicky.”

“Aren’t you supposed to be in bed?”


“I think I hear a “but” coming.”

“But I couldn’t sleep.” Qqq “I’m scared to.”

“Bad dreams, huh?”

“Not bad. Some of them are good. But they’re weird.”

“Weird how?”

“It’s like I’m not me anymore. Qqq Mom said I should tell her if I have dreams like that.”

“Have you?”

“What will she do if she finds out?”

In case you’re wondering, qqq is my shorthand for “something’s needed here.” I use qqq because it’s easy to search for. Here, I stuck in a couple of qqq’s because there’s a pause in the dialogue where something happens—an action, a thought, a shift in the tone of voice—but right now I’m focused on the what the characters are saying.

After I’ve sketched out some dialogue, I read back through the conversation and think about fleshing out the scene. Where are they? I know they’re in Gwen’s kitchen, but what are their positions? Is Maria’s throat-clearing “hi” necessary to open the conversation? How do the characters look and act as they speak? How do they feel about the situation? During the second pass, I think about these questions and start layering in the answers.

So my next time through the excerpt might look something like this:

Balancing the stack of plates, I shouldered open the swinging door into the kitchen. Maria, wearing blue flannel PJs, stared at the doorway with wide eyes. She’d half-risen from her seat and looked ready to bolt. When she saw it was me, she slumped back in her chair.

I slid the plates onto Gwen’s spotless counter. “Aren’t you supposed to be in bed?”


“I think I hear a “but” coming.”

“But . . .” A faint smile curled her lips, then disappeared. “I couldn’t sleep.” She murmured her next words so softly I almost missed them. “I’m scared to.”

I turned on the water at the sink. “How about you rinse, and I’ll load the dishwasher?”

“Okay.” She padded over to where I stood. Her bare feet looked cold on the tile floor. We worked for a minute or two in silence, Maria squinting seriously at each plate.

“Bad dreams, huh?” I asked.

She gave half a nod, then shook her head. “Not bad. Some of them are good. But they’re weird.”

“Weird how?”

“It’s like I’m not me anymore.” Worry clouded her face as she handed me a plate. “Mom said I should tell her if I have dreams like that.”

“Have you? Told her, I mean.”

Her wet hand gripped my wrist. “What will she do if she finds out?”

You can see, I’m sure, what I’m trying to do in the second pass: Show Maria’s worry and ambivalence about her dreams and Vicky’s attempt to get her niece to speak freely. Loading the dishwasher gives them something to do as they talk, and Vicky uses it as a way to make Maria feel more normal.

I’ll go through a scene like this at least a couple more times before I move on—adding and subtracting, looking for places that need action or clarification or a hint about what the characters are feeling. Getting a sense of what they have to say to each other is the first step. Once I can hear the dialogue, I can begin to picture what the characters are doing and thinking and feeling as they speak. It never fails me as a scene starter.

Bloodstone, the third novel in Nancy Holzner's Deadtown series, is now available. Besides urban fantasy, Nancy also writes mystery; the first book in her Bo Forrester mystery series is titled Peace, Love, and Murder. For information on Nancy and her books, visit her website. You can also find Nancy on Facebook and Twitter, and blogging with other fantasy authors at Dark Central Station.

Follow here for more information on Bewitching Book Tours.
Boston’s diverse South End is known for its architecture and great restaurants, not its body count. So when mutilated human corpses begin turning up in the area, the entire city takes notice. The killer—dubbed the South End Reaper—uses a curved blade for his grisly work. And even though there’s no real evidence pointing to a paranormal culprit, the deaths are straining the already-tense relations between Boston’s human and inhuman residents.

As the bodies pile up, Vicky, her formidable aunt Mab, and her werewolf boyfriend Kane investigate, only to find that the creature behind the carnage is after something much more than blood…
Nancy is offering a tour-wide giveaway - readers can enter at each stop by clicking on this link.

Nancy is offering 5 book giveaways - 5 winners.

Each of five winners gets his/her choice of a signed copy of Deadtown, Hellforged, or Bloodstone.

This giveaway is open to US only.

Thanks for reading! Now, leave Nancy some comment love and enter to win!


nancyholzner said...

Thanks, Laura, for inviting me to stop by. I've been working on a scene this morning and using exactly the technique I describe here. I hope your readers will find it helpful. Happy Saturday, everyone!

Laura Kaye said...

Thanks for being here, Nancy! I LOVE this technique, and appreciate your sharing it!

Jennifer said...

Nancy, I love your books and I'm looking forward to reading Bloodstone.


Laura Kaye said...

Thanks for commenting, Jennifer!

Jennifer Lane said...

I like the idea of something like "qqq" to remind yourself to add text later. Great scene!