NOTES ON CRAFT: HELPFUL TIPS ON WRITING DIALOGUE by Olakunle Ologunro

NOTES ON CRAFT: HELPFUL TIPS ON WRITING DIALOGUE by Olakunle Ologunro

Conversations

Notes on Craft: Helpful Tips on Writing Dialogue

by Olakunle Ologunro

Dear Writer,

It’s me again. I apologise for how long this has taken. Life happened. To be honest though, that’s the nature of life: to always happen. What matters is how we manage it, and frankly, I think I’m doing a poor job at it. But we move anyway, trying and failing until we arrive at perfection.

This letter is about one aspect of writing we must try and fail at, until we arrive at perfection. That aspect is dialogue. Dialogue plays an essential role in any form of writing you do, either fiction or nonfiction. A story cannot simply rely on narration alone. The stories will have characters, and it’s only natural for these characters to have conversations about what they are going through, the beauties of life, and perhaps something as mundane as what they had for breakfast, lunch, or dinner. Even if these characters have speech impediments and cannot verbally express their desires, they can communicate through sign language or other means, and this helps move the story forward.

Dialogue can be used to reveal things the readers (and even the characters) do not know. 

Dialogue can also show character. Through the way they speak, their choice of words, one can deduce their educational status, their philosophy of life, their dispositions. If they stammer, dialogue should be able to reveal it. If they are nervous, afraid, or flirty, dialogue should be able to reveal it.

Dialogue can also show age. A teenager can be portrayed to use ‘like’ in sentences. For example: “And I was like, oh my Gosh, you did not just say that. Like, can you imagine.”

Dialogue can be used (and should be used) to express emotions: anger, joy, disgust, surrender, etc. If the dialogue is effective, you do not have to rely on dialogue tags like: “You are mad!” Anuli shouted angrily. Because the actions preceding and the dialogue would have shown that to the readers. In fact, you should avoid using any other dialogue tag other than ‘said.’

So, what do you look out for when writing dialogue? What tips are helpful?

For starters, here’s what I do:

  1. I try to know who the characters are. Knowing them means I can understand the kind of things they would say, and how they would say it.
  2. I read the dialogue out loud. This way, I test it to know if it is something a real person would say.
  3. Sometimes, I don’t read it out loud. I turn it over and over, cut out parts that I consider unnecessary. How do I know parts that are unnecessary? Return to 1.
  4. I listen to people. Take not of how they speak, the words they use, the breaks between choosing the next word. And since fiction imitates life, well…

So, how does one get better? Practice. Practice. Read how writers use dialogue, and then practice some more. Here are more helpful tips:

  • Avoid unnecessarily long paragraphs of talk.
  • Ensure that each character has a unique voice or style of speaking.
  • Include details that may or may not have anything to do with speech. For example: 

“Good morning, Mama,” the girl said.

Mama sized her up with her eyes.
“What is good about the morning, Raluchi? Tell me, what is good about the morning when you are yet to pay me what you owe?”

“Squad” by Linda Musita is a story I like for how it uses dialogue. There are two characters in conversation, and Linda Musita depicts them perfectly such that we are able to tell distinctly who is who. What is more? Linda Musita eschews the dialogue tag ‘said’. This goes a long way to show you that there is no “one size fits all” approach to writing dialogue. Master the rules, then bend them the way you want.

See you soon.

-Kunle.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Olakunle Ologunro is a Nigerian writer. His work has been published in Brittle Paper, Agbowo, the Queer Africa anthology, and the Gerald Kraak anthology for work that provokes thought on the topics of gender, social justice and sexuality. He is an alumnus of the Farafina Trust Creative Writing Workshop and a finalist for the 2020 Adina Talve-Goodman Fellowship from One Story Magazine. He won the inaugural Kreative Diadem Prize for short fiction.

Photo Credits:

Photo by Miguel Á. Padriñán from Pexels

 

 

“We should always be looking to create opportunities” – Interview with Uchechi Princewill

“We should always be looking to create opportunities” – Interview with Uchechi Princewill

Anthony Okpunor

TABLE TALK

“We Should Always be Looking to Create Opportunities” – Interview with Uchechi Princewill

Uchechi Princewill is a fiction writer and medical student at the University of Benin. He is a founder and administrator of The Story Tree Challenge. His works have appeared in The Story Tree Challenge Maiden Anthology. He is also a winner of the 2017 Commonwealth Youth Council Unseen and Unspoken Poetry Competition.

In his recent interview with Kreative Diadem, Princewill takes us on his writing journey and offers a glimpse into his writing process.

Enjoy!

KD: Let’s meet you. Can you tell us about yourself?

Uchechi: I’ve always enjoyed reading and writing. I enjoy reading a little more, and I think that’s a good habit for a writer, that is, consuming more than you produce. I know that is some extremely inappropriate advice in any other context outside of art. But I really believe in it and it’s shaped my writing journey so far. Currently, I am a founder and administrator of The Story Tree Challenge, an online writing challenge I started with friends in March 2020 to give writers like myself a medium of expression and growth during the pandemic. It’s since blossomed to become more than that, and it’s still growing. I am also pursuing a bachelor’s degree in Medicine and Surgery at the University of Benin.

Anthony Okpunor

Uchechi Princewill

Winner of 2017 Commonwealth Youth Council Unseen and Unspoken Poetry Competition

KD: When did you start writing professionally, and can you tell us a bit about the early days?

Uchechi: I started writing seriously around 2015. Before then, I’d dabbled in some short fiction, poetry and essay writing. It goes without saying that most, if not all, of those early efforts were pretty bad. But they were necessary. I found my first serious commitment to writing when I joined Facebook and immediately joined as many writing groups as I could find. It was around this time that I discovered my affinity for fiction and promptly started focusing on that. I chose fiction because, frankly, you can still find some of my poetry around if you sleuth hard enough and let me be the first to tell you my poetry is rubbish. I have written three or four poems that I like, but beyond that, it’s an art form that eludes me. But fiction comes more naturally to me. In those early days, my two major influences were ‘Storried’ run by Andy Akhigbe and a Facebook group run by Brian Paone. They were what took a juvenile curiosity and gave me a path to focusing it. I’m still on that path, and it’s a marathon, not a sprint. 

KD: How would you describe your writing style?

Uchechi: That’s an interesting question. I’ve heard people describe it as clean, precise, functional, and even utilitarian. What I take away from that is that I don’t usually spend a lot of time describing things and while this is a good thing in that my stories can be read easily and keep a fast pace, it also can be a hindrance when writing particularly complex stories because I might not be providing the reader with enough information to create a meaningful mental image. This is what I ask my “beta” readers, actually. Did you think it was too confusing? Did the scenes come across how I intended? Is this paragraph too dense?
All in all, I like my writing style. It has taken influences from Nnedi Okorafor, N.K Jemisin, Brandon Sanderson, Patrick Rothfuss, Peter V. Brett, Joe Abercrombie, etc. (you can already tell I like sci-fi/fantasy a lot) and I think I would point to Kritika Pandey, winner of the Commonwealth Short Story Prize, if I wanted to show someone what I’m aiming for with my style. Her writing is a ten thousand times more mature version of my style, but with a flavour that’s distinctly hers. I’m enthralled by it. 

KD: Can you give a brief description of your writing process or routine? Do you have any helpful writing tips you’d like to share?

Uchechi: My writing process is quite simple, actually. I take out my laptop. I have Word open as well as my favorite dictionary—thesaurus. I also have my phone nearby just in case I need to Google something. Then I start writing. If I have a theme to follow, I like to put myself in the mood by imagining a cinematic soundtrack that evokes that sort of feel playing in my head. Hans Zimmer usually does the trick. I don’t write with music actually in the background, however. I find it distracting because I’m also a musician and I end up trying to analyze what I’m hearing instead of focusing on writing.
I also do not usually plot or plan. I rarely ever know what my story is going to be until I’m three-quarter of the way through writing it. It’s very satisfying when it turns out great, but sometimes I do wish I was more organized. But when I plot something, it usually ends up in my unfinished WIP (work in progress) folder.
In the way of tips, someone once gave me the advice to start with the action. Think up the high point of your story and start writing that. This was when I used to complain a lot about being stuck. It worked for me. Sometimes the story you want to tell is easier to de-escalate than to escalate, and writing back from the climax is a good way to skip the uninspiring setup phase. This advice also works if you want to tell a story backwards. That kind of nonlinear storytelling is beautiful when done right. Just try not to be too predictable. 

“I think there are never enough opportunities. I think that we should always be looking to create opportunities, as well as take the ones that are available to us.”

Anthony Okpunor

Uchechi Princewill

Founder of The Story Challenge

KD: What are some of the challenges you face as a writer? What steps do you take to overcome them?

Uchechi: I briefly touched on this in the discussion of my writing style. I have something called Aphantasia – the inability to conjure a mental image. You can find more information online and I’m working on an article about it for my Medium, but basically what this means is: Picture a red apple in your mind’s eye. If you can do that, if you can produce a detailed image of something that’s not in front of you, then you do not have Aphantasia. I can’t do that. Never have been able to. It was recently I actually discovered that “picturing things” was a real thing people did and not just a metaphor. This explained many things about myself I had taken for granted. It also exposed why I didn’t really put a lot of descriptions in my writing. I rarely give a detailed physical description of a character—black hair, blue eyes, ruddy complexion— because all these things mean very little to me. It’s not usually a problem, but discovering it has made me a little more intentional about adding these descriptions for the many other people who do appreciate these visual cues. 

KD: What was it like completing and publishing your first book?

Uchechi: It was an illuminating experience, I’ll tell you that. There was so much work to be done, especially for an essentially three-man army, because we did the editing, compilation, preparing all the ebook versions, promotion, and one of us, Mustapha Enesi, exclusively did all the graphic design work. It was a lot of work. Self-publishing is not easy. Add to that having to go back and forth on individual stories (because The Story Tree Challenge Maiden Anthology is a collection of flash fiction from seven different authors), deciding to drop some at the last minute and add some, edits and rewrites—add all these things and it’s suddenly a huge deal that we were able to complete all of this in the one-week deadline we gave ourselves. Most of the work was split three ways between Raheem Omeiza, Mustapha Enesi and myself.
For the sequel anthology, we’re slowing down a lot, because that one week of barely sleeping, constantly working, was very eye-opening.
However, the sense of fulfillment we got when we were done, and when we were able to get quite the number of downloads that first week, was amazing. I loved every second of it. But if I had to do it again, and I will, I’d slow down and spread that process over a month at the very least.

KD: Rate the influence of the Nigerian education system on literary arts.

Uchechi: I’d rate it how I’d rate the entire Nigerian Education system. ‘Painfully lacking’. I mean, we have the material. Books are not our problem, although availability and cost can be a limiting factor and our libraries are grossly out of date; that’s not the major issue. The teaching of literature and grammar can be painfully boring, pedantic, and outdated across both secondary and tertiary institutions.
I’d rather attribute the raising of good quality to the efforts of Nigerian giants like Chinua Achebe, Wole Soyinka, and honestly, more recently and relevantly, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Nnedi Okorafor, who is ‘Naijamerican,’ and great writers on the African continent as a whole, of which they are many. Many who write specifically short fiction. It’d be difficult to name all of them. Great writers are inspiring new great writers, and everyone is taking their education into their own hands, because school here doesn’t cut it for creative writing, if we’re being honest. As to the specifics of that, we’ll have to ask my colleagues who are pursuing degrees in the literary arts. Most of the writers I know personally don’t come from writing degree backgrounds.

KD: Who are some literary figures that inspire you/you look up to?

Uchechi: I think I’ve mentioned a few of them so far. Brandon Sanderson, for the expansive world building and his fantastic handle on magic systems. Nnedi Okorafor, for her masterful command of African futurism. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, for making us feel and making that feel very African. N.K Jemisin’s Broken Earth trilogy was mind-blowing when I read it and it had an impact on my style. Many others.

KD: Do your short stories have a unifying theme or you simply write on matters of the heart or what inspires you?

Uchechi: There’s no unifying theme that I’m aware of, though something may have leaked in subconsciously. I write what comes to me or what I come up with. In The Story Tree Challenge, we’ve been playing with the idea of writing stories connected to each other by characters that travel between them. That is, one universe with characters playing out stories in different corners of that universe and running into one another. It’s a very fun concept and we’ve explored it in the maiden anthology, and are exploring it in the sequel as well. But that is as unified as my stories get. This may change. I still have, hopefully, decades to go as a writer. Maybe I’ll be thinking about this when I write now. Maybe I’ll explore having a unifying theme.

KD: What are some of your long term goals as a writer?

Uchechi: My long term goal is to publish a novel-length work of fiction, maybe a series of books as intricate as Brandon Sanderson’s Cosmere. I’m not rushing this. I see people rushing to put out books here and there and I’m working on flash fiction anthologies and generally just improving my craft. I’ve been asked when I’ll publish a novel of my own and my answer is always “when I’m ready”. As much as I think writers should write, I also want my novel debut to be special and as good as it possibly can be. And I have a very strong idea of what that time will feel like so I’m not just procrastinating.
Oh, and I want to write a film. No details on that one yet.

KD: Are you currently working on any book(s) at the moment?

Uchechi: Yes. The sequel to The Story Tree Challenge Maiden Anthology is currently being written. It’s a very special process that involves as many writers as contact us indicating interest. We’re just there to grow, experiment, write and compete. The anthology is just a bonus because we look at some of the stories we’ve written at the end of the day and go “Damn! That should be in a book.”

KD: Do you think there are enough opportunities for young writers in Nigeria?

Uchechi: I think there are never enough opportunities. I think that we should always be looking to create opportunities, as well as take the ones that are available to us.

KD: What advice would you give to young writers like yourself, especially in Nigeria?

Uchechi: I’d give them the same advice I received when I told Andy Akhigbe, founder of ‘Storried,’ that I wanted to write a book; that was over four years ago. He said to go read five hundred books and come back. I’ve passed that number and stopped counting a long time ago, and I’m still reading. My writing’s improved, and my vocabulary. And more importantly, I am aware of my limitations and can see an almost quantifiable difference between where I am as a writer and where I want to be. I can see my weaknesses and I’m now able to target them and improve my strengths. My writing’s transformed radically in those four years.
Never stop reading. That’s the only advice I feel qualified to give because it’s the best one I ever received.

KD: Any final words?

Uchechi: I’ve said a lot already. Final words should be short. Keep writing! And thank you to Kreative Diadem for this opportunity to share.

Isolation

Our third issue ever, "Isolation" is out. We had thought-provoking conversations with Alexis Teyie and Tobi Nifesi. It's a collection of works from some of the finest minds out there -- poetry, short stories, interviews, and creative essays.

Do you love our published works?

You can add your literary work to an endless list of poems, short stories, flash fiction, and essays.

NOTES ON CRAFT: 15 REASONS WHY YOUR STORY IS BEING REJECTED by Olakunle Ologunro

NOTES ON CRAFT: 15 REASONS WHY YOUR STORY IS BEING REJECTED by Olakunle Ologunro

trash can

Notes on Craft: 15 Reasons Why Your Story is Being Rejected

by Olakunle Ologunro

Dear Writer,

Here’s a story from my life

In 2016, a few months after I graduated from the Farafina Trust Creative Writing Workshop, I decided to apply for a writing fellowship that was open at the time: the emerging writers’ fellowship by A Public Space magazine. I had no doubts that my piece would be accepted. I had just come from a workshop taught by the Chimamanda Adichie. Who/what could stand in my way?

So, I sent in my story. Three months later, I was slapped with a rejection. I thought, “Are these people okay? Do they not see the literary gold I sent in?” The next year when it opened, I applied again. I had been working on a ‘fantasy’ story I cooked up in my head and showed to a friend who told me it was the best thing since Lesley Arimah’s “Who Will Greet You At Home.” I had never written fantasy, but I was sure of that story’s creativity. I was sure that the readers would see my piece, read the first line and fall to their knees in awe. So, I sent it in. Again, another rejection. I looked at the email — polite, yet firm in its resolve to tell me that my piece was unwanted — and thought, “Nah, you people just don’t like me.”

In 2019, I was cleaning my tiny off-campus apartment when I found the manuscript for the fantasy story (I print out my stories to enable better editing). I thought, “My literary gold. Let me read this again and feel good.” Dear friend, I did not feel good at all. As I read, the only thing I could think of was, “Kunle, what exactly were you high on when you sent this thing? What level of idiotic courage made you think the judges would say yes to this?”

To start with, it was ridden with grammatical blunders: the syntax was in disarray, and in some places, I misspelled some words. What was worse, the characters felt absurd. Forget that it was meant to be fantasy — there was nothing fantastic about the characters. The entire story didn’t add up. And while there might have been a hint of creativity in some places (the hibiscus flowers that glowed in the dark, the character’s mother who stiffened to the point of immobility, the uncle who scrubbed fish scales from his face), it was misapplied creativity, almost like icing a cake with cement mix. I closed the manuscript and said, “No wonder they rejected you.”

Long story, but you get the idea: sometimes, rejection comes because you sent in a piece that has not been thoroughly worked on. You simply did not do your best. 

Critiquing a piece to be accepted is done using objective criteria, and a bit of subjectivity. The objective criteria, finely broken down by David K. Slay who writes for Craft Magazine, is what I’ll share here. To make this easier, pick out a rejected piece of yours and as you read, try to identify areas you think your piece faults. Be honest.

  1. DEPTH:

Does this story have depth? Is it superficial? That is, does it simply scrape the surface of things when it ought to probe deeper? Do the characters have ‘interiority’: are they highly motivated to pursue something central to their development? Do they have agency or are they simply forgettable? Are they stereotypical?

  1. STRUCTURE

Here, you look at the narration of the story. Is it unclear, inconsistent, lacking a definite structure (linear, circular where it ends at the same place it begins, etc)? Is the structure too apparent that it seems to drive the characters rather than have the characters move naturally? Are there inconsistencies in the story being told? Is the story itself illogical, wildly unreasonable?

  1. PACE:

The pace of a story tells you how to read it. I believe it is possible to know a fast-paced story and a story that takes its time. A balance must be achieved. Ask yourself: is this story too fast or too slow? Is the pacing irregular?

  1. BEGINNING/ENDING:

How does it begin? How does it end? I treat the opening of a story as a hook to sink into the reader’s mind, one that wouldn’t let them go until they get to the end. In a short story, you don’t have the liberty of time and space to dawdle or miss a proper first impression with your opening. 

How does it end? Is the ending weak? Is it something you contrived to simply wrap up the story? Does it feel like you tried to summarise? Is the ending memorable enough?

  1. ORIENTATION:

This deals with confusing time and or tenses, or a story where the reader is not grounded in the time and place the story is set.

writing
  1. IMPACT:

How engaging is the story? How remarkable is it? Here, David K. Slay points out things to look out for: Little at stake, lacks tension, impact is unearned, the writer attempts to use surprise endings, melodrama, gratuitous violence, sex, profanity. 

  1. CREATIVITY:

How creative is the story? Is the theme too familiar? Is the plot or story simply unimaginative? Is there an overreliance on adverbs, adjectives, cliches and stereotypes? I wrote in one of my last letters about defamiliarisation where a seemingly familiar story is made new. You should read it here.

  1. LANGUAGE/ PROSE:

Does your story contain irregular or unnecessarily complicated syntax? Does it show a limited vocabulary? Is the rhythm disjointed? In Nigerian-speak, does the story flow?

  1. EXPOSITION:

Does the story tell more than it shows? Is it too explanatory? Does it use a fancy style when it should be lucid? Does the story suggest things it ought to make clear?

  1. VOICE:

How does the story’s voice sound? Does it fit the kind of story being told? For example, I do not expect a story being told by a 5-year-old to read like something a 32-year-old would tell. I do not expect a story told from an illiterate’s point of view to sound boujee, like something a Harvard graduate would pen. How consistent is the voice? Does it carry to the end or constantly fluctuates between coherence and incoherence?

  1. ECONOMY:

How long is the story? Yes, sometimes long can be too long and you need to cut down, especially if some words are superfluous and repeated to no consequence. More importantly, you do not want a story that rambles.

  1. INTENTION:

Are there signs of author contamination? Let me explain: imagine a homophobic writer writing a story with gay people in it. Imagine a misogynistic writer telling a story about women. Characters should be allowed the full range of their humanity, not you, the writer, forcing them to speak or act in ways that are unnatural, more suitable to your interest than to their story. So, check. Does your story consciously or unconsciously promote an agenda?

  1. DIALOGUE:

Do your characters speak like real people? Or, is the dialogue lifeless and unnatural, lacking human touch? Does it contain unnecessary details or convey information the speaker or character would already know? 

  1. POLISH:

How refined is the story? Here, you look at the edits. Does the story look rushed? Is it carelessly presented? You’ll probably find it funny, but some people send in stories without titling them. I once sent a story to a reputable magazine only to discover after that the pdf converter I used had a glitch that blanked one whole page of the entire story. Of course, I got a rejection.

  1. GUIDELINES:

Did you send them what they called for? Imagine sending fantasy to a magazine that needs realist fiction. Did you follow the submission instructions? Right font, formatting rules, titling, and others. 

Now grade yourself. What did you score?

See you soon.

-Kunle

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Olakunle Ologunro is a Nigerian writer. His work has been published in Brittle Paper, Agbowo, the Queer Africa anthology, and the Gerald Kraak anthology for work that provokes thought on the topics of gender, social justice and sexuality. He is an alumnus of the Farafina Trust Creative Writing Workshop and a finalist for the 2020 Adina Talve-Goodman Fellowship from One Story Magazine. He won the inaugural Kreative Diadem Prize for short fiction.

Resources:

What We Talk About When We Read Submissions

Photo Credits:

Photo by Steve Johnson from Pexels

 

A MEDALLION IS A SMALL THING by Oluwadare Popoola

A MEDALLION IS A SMALL THING by Oluwadare Popoola

woman wearing white sleeveless lace shirt

A medallion is a small thing

by Oluwadare Popoola

For Michael Olajumoke

 

Joys come in measured orders,

and when you arrived from the desert,

I saw the geysers of a stream

in your eye,

carrying a desolation.

 

Your body is the utopia for a measure of desolation,

because you, a woman

is the lush of a countryside

built from the war.

 

Your body, an epigram

points in the direction of love

like the torn legs of a war-struck thing

still picking an abode in disarmament.

 

And in your songs,

if joy were a small thing,

it would be stuck between your sadness.

 

Source: From the Isolation Issue (September 2020)

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

OLÚWÁDÁRE PÓPÓỌLA is a poet or so he thinks, a student of Microbiology and a Sportswriter for a media company. He writes from a city by the rocks and longs to see the world without discrimination of any form. He is learning how images are made from words and his poems are up/forthcoming on Mineral Lit. Magazine, Headline Poetry & Press, Feral: A Journal of Poetry & Art and ang(st)zine.

RELIC OF GRIEF by Oluwadare Popoola

RELIC OF GRIEF by Oluwadare Popoola

sad bald man

Relic of Grief

by Oluwadare Popoola

a coloured thing,

black coloured as a friday wake-keep,

arch heir of death,

skin lurking as a memory site for the revolt of a republican,

dulling a memory refilled with what he could have been,

becoming a clam to escape its own silence,

where it is exactly hidden

between the stop of mother

before she picks up the next prayer for the government.

but silence is innuendo alright

and she still gives consent[

with her mouth twiddling into a rosary bead,

a relic of grief

searching for the creator’s numen

and then the panther sleeps on an ocean again

in desolation.

Source: From the Isolation Issue (September 2020)

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

OLÚWÁDÁRE PÓPÓỌLA is a poet or so he thinks, a student of Microbiology and a Sportswriter for a media company. He writes from a city by the rocks and longs to see the world without discrimination of any form. He is learning how images are made from words and his poems are up/forthcoming on Mineral Lit. Magazine, Headline Poetry & Press, Feral: A Journal of Poetry & Art and ang(st)zine.

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