Monday, December 14, 2015

Sequencing action in a sentence with verbing

(I think I made the word "verbing" up.)

One task of revision is to make sure that sentences make sense. There's the semantic sense-- the reader understand easily what you mean. (Harder than it sounds, ain't it?) Then there's the sequence of action. I try to revise sentences to be coherent, that is, if there would be a pause between actions, then I try to put them in different clauses or different sentences.

This isn't a rule or anything, but there's some sense here. If you have a group of actions that take a couple minutes to perform-- getting the groceries out of the car, carrying them up the stairs and into the kitchen, unloading them and putting them away-- well, the reader isn't going to get much sense of the experience if you jam all that into one long sentence that takes two seconds to read. If you group the actions together (carrying upstairs and into kitchen could be a one-sentence group), then you'd have two or three sentences which would take a longer time to read, echoing the longer time it would take to do that sequence of actions. If this long sequence of action isn't important enough for three sentences (and the grocery sequence probably isn't), then consider skipping the earlier actions and use the latter one as a quick narrative bridge, relegated to a dependent element connected to a more meaningful main clause, like:
(The reader will assume she somehow got the groceries into the kitchen.)
Halfway through putting the groceries away, she found the wine underneath the 12-grain bread and sat down to get moodily drunk.

There's an interrupted action there, then a new action coming out of the initial action/interruption. I notice that I've got verbals (a verbal is a form of the verb which won't be a predicate, like "putting" and "to get") which refer to the things that don't happen right then-- the "putting" is interrupted, and she "sits down to get drunk"-- that is, we know she's going to get drunk, but within this 10 seconds or so, she just sits down TO GET drunk.

Is this important? Well, maybe not, but using verbals rather than actual verbs is a subtle way to indicate un-actions-- things that don't quite happen or don't fully happen. Would there be a difference if we stressed the actions that weren't completed in the original? I don't know. Let's see:

She put half the groceries away, then found the wine underneath the 12-grain bread and sat down and got moodily drunk.

In this case, the main clause action is putting half the groceries away (She put) rather than "she found" the wine as it had been in the previous version. Which is more important? For my purposes, what was more important was this almost accidental "finding" of the wine which leads to her quitting what she'd been doing (putting away the groceries) and embarking on a, shall we say, less productive plan.

What happens when the drunk part stops being a intended/prospective thing (to get drunk) and becomes a certain thing (got drunk)? My main problem with that is that getting drunk takes some time, while the earlier part of the sentence could be measured in a minute or so. So we'd have a sequence of actions that might take a minute (stopping the grocery putting away, finding the wine, (presumably opening it-- probably it's a screwtop :), sitting down), and then at the end of the sentence, an action (getting drunk) that would on its own take, well, even if she's very determined, ten minutes.

In contrast, "sat down to get drunk" -- that is, sitting down with the intention to get drunk-- would take only the amount of time it takes to sit down. (Intending, alas, takes no time at all.)

So... no rules here! But as you revise, look at a sentence or sequence of sentences where there is a group of actions. How can you give the reader the experience of this span of time and motion? What actually happens, what almost happens, what might still happen, what was meant to happen but never did? Is there some way to indicate which action falls into what category?
And what is the most important action? Should that be in the main clause?
Do you have too much for one sentence?

I am puzzling right now over a sentence where the man takes several actions in sequence. They're important in aggregate (he's coming forward to confess to a murder), but one isn't that much more important than another. 

Before she could answer, Winstead rose suddenly, pushing back his chair with a clatter, and stepped in front of his wife.   
Right away I see the problem that "she" (who couldn't answer in time) and "his wife" are the same person, so .... ugly....! And heck, why not dialogue it, huh?
"Don't answer that!" Winstead rose suddenly....
Hmm. Suddenly-- to convey that, I think I'll make it the harder-sounding word "abruptly" and put it first so that it's an interruption--
"Don't answer that!" Abruptly Winstead rose....

I have "rose" and "stepped in front" as equal in importance (both are verbs/predicates, which is fine), and pushing the chair back relegated to a participial phrase, so that's okay too, I think. The sequence wouldn't take long physically, so one sentence would be about right. I do notice that the rising and the pushing back are probably actually one motion-- or? Let me act it out. (One moment please. :) Well, you can push the chair back a bit by the act of rising, but you can't really push it very far, and I do mean this to be emphatic. 
Question for me: Look at the "and". Does the pushing back motion go better with the "rose" or better when the stepping in front?

"Don't answer!" Abruptly Winstead rose, pushing back his chair with a clatter, and stepped in front of his wife.


"Don't answer!" Abruptly Winstead rose, and pushing back his chair with a clatter, stepped in front of his wife.

I like the feel of the second, but I don't think it's entirely logical as the participle means that he's more or less simultaneously pushing and stepping.

I think I'll get rid of the pushing. :)

"Don't answer!" Abruptly Winstead rose and stepped in front of his wife.

Not much of a sequence of motion, but at least it's physically logical. 

You can see why it takes me so long to edit my books. I fret about this sort of stuff.

What are some motion-sequence sentences of yours? Can you make them more logical and coherent?


Little words and meaning

Came across this in writing a letter.

"Worse than just failing was trying and failing."

That "just" makes all the difference. It emphasizes the contrast between the two options (1 and 1+1), and implies that there is something worse than "nothing."

One of our tasks in revision could be "just" this: To find places where one little word, not a big significant word like "forever" or "power", but one of those little words we use every day, will make a big difference.

After all, the reason we use "just" and "then" and "now" and "only" and "this" and "these" and "because" and "so" every single day is because they are so useful in underlining or undercutting or emphasizing our ideas. They also echo our spoken English, first because we use them in conversation, and second because they provide the emphasis in written English that tone of voice would provide when we speak.

Less is more, of course, or we'll end up with something unwieldy and poke-y (poking the reader with the constant emphasis, I mean). But this is why I read my sentences aloud, to hear when I would emphasize this phrase with a stronger tone-- and that might be where I need to insert an emphasis word.
Who is revising now? What's an example of where you've added or subtracted from a sentence or paragraph? And why?


Saturday, December 12, 2015

Want lots of free writing and publishing material?

Calling all writers! There are a lot of free resources here (just for a few days-- click now!), including some free courses in publishing basics. There's so much you can pick and choose. And free! If you click on my link here, supposedly I get some free $. smile emoticon And it really is free (for now). I got it for myself just now.


Commas to set off introductory elements-- rationale for the "always"

I've been working with students on the purpose behind punctuation, so that they can feel like they don't have to learn a bunch of arbitrary rules or else spend the rest of their life kind of randomly sticking commas here and there.

The purpose of punctuation, at bottom, is to tell the reader what goes with what. So in that last sentence, I set off "at bottom" by a comma before and after because the whole term goes together, and it's meant to interrupt the sentence in order to emphasize something about the subject (the purpose of punctuation).

While there are a lot of rules (and some dispute about them!), I do think it will help writing students to keep in mind there is a purpose-- this is not arbitrary-- and the purpose is grouping words and phrases that belong together in the sentence.

One of the most common "dropped comma" opportunities is the introductory element in a sentence. More and more, I'm seeing students (and other writers) discard what I think is often essential for the reader to get what goes with what-- what the real meaning is.

Punctuation's main purpose is to signal to the reader what parts of the sentence go together.  For example, in this sentence done without the comma (which is, cough, becoming all too common in magazine and web articles):
 After he completed the fields in the application document all the software apps he needed for regeneration were automatically downloaded to his brain.
 (Yes, I know, ugly sentence, but it's a close copy of an actual sentence I came across, and is a good illustration of my point. We'd all rewrite that, I know! But just for now, let's let it be there in all its ugly so I can use that introductory element.)

That long a sentence, really, I'd be looking for a place to punctuate (a GOOD place) even if there weren't an appropriate rule. That many nouns all in a line-- the reader will get lost. And the most important of those nouns (for our purpose here) is "document" (at the end of the introductory clause), and that can also be a verb, especially when followed by "software." ("One of my jobs at Compudesign was to document the software.") Hang on to that thought about nouns that can also be verbs, as that's a common problem with these sorts of sentences.

We don't want the reader to get lost! Fortunately, I don't have to invent an excuse to punctuate and slow down that cascade of nouns. I can figure out what the elements are in the sentence:
Introductory element supplying some condition or information: After he completed the fields in the application document
Main clause explaining the important action of the sentence: all the software apps he needed for regeneration were automatically downloaded to his brain.
... and add a comma in between to separate.
 After he completed the fields in the application document, all the software apps he needed for regeneration were automatically downloaded to his brain.
...the introductory clause After he completed the fields in the application document creates a different "unit of meaning" than the main clause beginning "all the software apps". If you separate those with a comma, the reader won't run the two together --  document all the software apps. Sometimes without the comma, when we let the last word of the intro element run into the first words of the main clause, the reader will get confused. It’s especially confusing when the word at the end of the intro element can be either a noun—a thing or name—or a verb—an action. "Document" would generally be assumed to be a noun... but not when it's right by "all the software," because "documenting software" is an actual task.

In English, there are many words that started as mere nouns and then became also verbs, and vice versa. Here are just a few that I've seen at the end of intro elements:
Can you think of more? I know that you can. :) Hey, "CAN" would apply also.
And we don't even want to get into adjectives that can also be past-tense verbs (because a past participle, which is often identical to the past tense, can be used as an adjective, like "brushed" and "enlightened" and "solicited). 
When a intro element ends with a word like “time” or “report” that could be either a noun or a verb, the reader might automatically connect it as a verb to the next word—time it, report that….)  

So if we don't routinely use the comma to separate intro from main, quite often the reader will rush past the end of the intro to the start of the main and stop. Confused. What? 
At that time the swimmers...
In the report your comings and goings...
When she read through the survey the new highway....
After I started to walk down the street was the store where...
Since I already had everything in order the children....

Eventually the reader will go back and pick out what goes with what, and, well, mentally insert the comma we left out. Because I deal with so many student papers, I see many such sentences, and every time, I -- a trained reader, teacher, editor, writer-- pause, regroup, re-read. If I'm confused even when I'm carefully reading, imagine how confused the skimming reader will be.

We want readers to pause over our brilliant insights, not our confusing syntax.  And even a moment where the readers are confused and have to re-read brings the danger of losing their attention, and, indeed, their trust in our ability to control our own meaning.. 

Hence the rule: Introductory phrases and clauses should be set off from the main sentence with a comma:

This is pretty easy to fix as you revise, once you get used to recognizing these introductory clauses and phrases. They'll be at the beginning of the sentence, but the main part of the sentence, the main subject and verb clause, will be after that. It's just a matter of finding where the intro phrase or clause is, and where the main clause begins, and putting a comma to separate them. Some examples (intro phrase or clause bolded):
Intro phrases:
Therefore, Napoleon's invasion of Russia led to his doom.
In 1815, Wellington won the battle of Waterloo.
Well, I don’t know about that.
After that, she went to the university to study biology.
Already knowing everything, my teenaged son won't listen to me.
Garish with red and blue stripes, his shirt clashed with everything.

Intro clauses:
Even after Jane drank the warm milk, she couldn't fall asleep.
When she was 16, her parents bought the house in Surrey.
When I asked, he couldn't explain.
Before it starts to rain, let's finish painting the garage door.

Recently, I've been seeing many writers discard this in most of their sentences. I really don't get the rationale of not using this comma routinely.  Running together your intro and your main clause will almost always create confusion, and most of the time you won't want to create confusion.

Then-- if you usually follow this rule-- when you choose NOT to use it, to energize the flow of the sentence to create more of a sense of action say, your choice will stand out as meaningful. There's no meaning in breaking a rule you never follow anyway... so if a writer wants the additional speed and flow of NOT using that comma, following the rule most of the time will make the occasional rule-break stand out as significant.

 To restate:
Breaking a rule you don't follow anyway provides no additional value or meaning.
Rebels need something to rebel against. :)
"Always and never" make the exception possible.

I would love some better examples of sentences that confuse, so if you come across some in your reading, can you let me know? Real examples are so much more... real... than the ones I make up.
Also, if you have examples of sentences where you've broken a rule (esp. this rule) for a particular effect, can you post that too and why you did it? I need good rule-break examples also, to show the contrast between accidental and intentional. Thanks, all!


Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Conflict questions, problems, ideas?

I am trying to flesh out my booklet on conflict, and wonder if you all could help? In the comments, can you post an idea about conflict-- something you've discovered or are wondering about or having a problem a problem with?

Conflict, plot conflict, scene conflict, romantic conflict, external conflict?


Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Nominate my book? No obligation, just a click.

Would you click this link and nominate my book?
I have just finished a new novel, and I’m trying something new, the Kindle Scout program. And I hope you’ll help me by clicking this link and “nominating” the book.
This is a program where Amazon Kindle chooses certain submissions for publication based partly on nominations from the public. Would you nominate my book? All it takes is following this link for my Regency-England mystery novel Tryst at the Brighton Inn and clicking the Nominate button (right under the description of the book).
There’s an excerpt from the book there on the campaign page. If the book gets chosen for publication, you’ll get a free e-copy.  Thanks! (And if you're willing, I'd appreciate it if you shared on your FB and Twitter and stuff! I'm not sure how much "social media reach" affects the outcome of this campaign, but it can't hurt. Thanks, all!)

And when this is over, I'll come back and give info about the Scout program, if I get in, that is. If not, I'll probably grouse and grumble.

Monday, December 7, 2015

Subjects, Verbs, and Zombies

 I was tasked to write about a grammar issue for a coming book using zombies to explore prose issues. So I chose Subject-verb agreement.

Subjects and verbs “agree” when they are both singular (one zombie growls), or both plural (two zombies growl).
Native speakers usually make the right choice automatically—that is, in normal simple sentences. The problem usually comes when there’s some distance between the subject and the verb, so you’ve kind of forgotten what “number” the subject is. Here’s an example:
Giles, in his treatises on the varieties of the undead, define zombies as the undead ones who lack brainpower and eat brains. THIS IS WRONG—SINGULAR SUBJECT (TRETORN), BUT A PLURAL VERB (DEFINE).
Why do we make that mistake? That’s because we’ve lost sight of what the true subject is because of the other nouns in between—treatises, varieties, undead—which are all plural. But who is doing the defining? Giles. And there’s only one Giles, so that’s singular, and should take a singular verb:
Giles, in his treatises on the varieties of the undead, defines zombies as the undead ones who lack brainpower and eat brains. THIS IS RIGHT—SINGULAR SUBJECT, SINGULAR VERB.

Another situation that commonly causes this mistake is when the subject is echoed by the pronouns “who or which”, both of which in their disconnected state lack number. (How many “who’s” are there?) Who and which take on the “number” (that is, singular or plural) of the noun they replace.
In the undead hierarchy, zombies have a low status compared to the vampires, who is/are? usually elegant, intelligent blood-drinkers.
That should be “are”--  “who” replaces the plural noun “vampires.”
In the undead hierarchy, zombies have a low status compared to the vampires, who are usually elegant, intelligent blood-drinkers.
Notice—just to complicate things further—this rule applies even when the noun isn’t the subject of the whole sentence. Here, “vampires” is just the subject of the “who are elegant, intelligent blood-drinkers.”

Looking for more complication? Okay! What if you have two subjects, one singular and one plural? Ready? (This is REALLY complicated.)
The zombie and the two vampires has/have been fighting over the frightened accountant.
In this case, it’s easy enough with that “and”—there are three undead ones, and they’re all fighting, so “three are”. With multiple subjects joined by “and”, you just add them up. More than one? Plural, so plural verb—are fighting.
The zombie and the two vampires have been fighting over the frightened accountant.

But… but… what if the subjects are joined by “or”?
Soon, either the zombie or the vampires is/are going to notice that their prey has fainted dead away.
Addition doesn’t work here! In the end, either one or two will notice! What now? Weirdly, it depends on which of the two subjects is closest to the verb. (Really. It’s a sound thing.) So:
Soon, either the vampires or the zombie is going to notice soon that their prey has fainted dead away.
Soon, either the zombie or the vampires are going to notice soon that their prey has fainted dead away.

A Pondian Thing:
One more complication! This is a geographic difference—“a Pondian distinction,” as the linguists say (Pond = the Atlantic Ocean).
In British English, collective (group) nouns like “horde” and “coven” are plural. So you’d say:
The coven were meeting at the haunted grove.
But in American English, collective nouns are usually singular, so:
The coven was meeting at the haunted grove.
However… in American English, a collective is singular only when it’s “one”—all unified in this action, as the coven was in its meeting.
But a collective is plural when it is divided or in disagreement, like: The zombie horde were running around in all directions like zombie chickens.
As usual with English issues, there is a fairly simple rule, but there are also variations depending on usage.

Just to summarize:
General rule: If the subject/noun is singular, its verb should also be singular. One zombie->eats a brain.
 But if the subject/noun is plural, then its verb should also be plural. Three zombies->fight over the scraps.
Multiple subjects:
Joined by “and”, the subjects are plural and take the plural verb.  The witch, the vampire, and the zombie->walk into a bar.
Joined by “or”, the nearest subject to the verb determines the number:
The devil or maybe two of his demons àhave delivered this contract for your soul.
Either the angels or the lamb being led to slaughter-> is responsible for those tufts of white puff along the path.

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Do Your Characters Speak For You?

A commenter mentioned being annoyed that in a post about scenes, I spoke about my characters "male-bashing" (with words, not bludgeons :).  Wasn't that sexist? If it were reversed, and these were male characters trashing women as a group, would I be more sensitive?

That brought up an interesting issue! At what point does our portrayal of characters being offensive become offensive "from us"? If I have a character who insults a group or is otherwise objectionable, does that mean I am espousing those sentiments? What if there are several characters like that? (I don't mean just politically incorrect offensiveness, but maybe also violence or discrimination.) When does it stop being just offensive characters and become an offensive book by an offensive author?

But... it gets so complicated when we're working with fictional characters. Every character we create is within us, they say, so perhaps a reflection of us. Yet if we create only characters that reflect what is best about us, well, there won't be much conflict in our books! Not to mention, you can't always know ahead of time what will offend someone somewhere.
Recently I was teaching character point of view to college students, and this issue came up. Most of their "novels" are really sort of fictionalized memoirs, with (probably idealized) selves as narrators. There was some bafflement when we read "A Cask of Amontillado" where the first-person narrator is truly an evil guy. (One of the worst ever-- walls up a friend for committing "an insult" and leaves him to die). They weren't sure how Poe might write a bad narrator without being bad himself, and who knows? Can we create a character who is not within us? Or should we even try? (And Poe of all writers has probably suffered the most slings and arrows because his first-person narrators are so nasty... many readers and his first biographer succumbed to the belief that they were him.)

I often wonder if mystery writers or thriller writers are associated with the bad behavior of their characters. We think, oh, yes, it's just fiction, but deep within, we might wonder... well, if she created this plausible serial murderer, does she have a serial murderer within??? 

I bet we've all read books where the entire tone and plot seem to push some offensive button-- it's not just one character who hates Italians, it's all of them, and there are three scenes where someone gets food poisoning at an Italian restaurant, and then there are all those metaphors referring to the Mafia, and the only joke in the book has a punchline about the dirtiness of Venice canals, and.... Yeah, it's not just "subtext" that's screaming out there.
In my own writing, sometimes I'll notice I have a character will reflect some silly prejudice of my own, usually something like "only children" or  "people who bring potato chips to a potluck dinner" or "those annoying sorts who are cheerful at 6 am." And I do sense sometimes I just give it a bit too much emphasis to this Thing I Don't Like, you know, sliding into rant-territory.
There's probably a point where this stops being a story with a character or two who is offensive, and becomes an offensive story overall. But I don't know where that point is. What do you all think? Is it safer to avoid characters being offensive, or instead just impart all the potential offense to a villain character so it's clear I Disapprove Of Male-Bashing and Only Bad Guys Hate Spaghetti? Is it worth examining our own subtexts and tone to see if we're conveying some offense we don't want to convey? What do you do? Have you ever changed a story or character because you thought you'd gone too far?

My example:
One of my characters was "authentic" in a lot of ways, bristly and angry and sardonic, but at some point, it just went too far, and readers didn't like her or sympathize with her. Worst of all, they didn't want to spend time with her. I don't think we need to make characters "likeable" to keep readers interested, but there is a point where the character just gets tiresome. I didn't want to make her a wimp or trivialize her justifiable anger about the past. But I found several "offense-ticklers" and phased them out. Like she had a habit of endowing people with slightly mean nicknames. And she was always thinking if not saying defensive responses to other characters' conversations. Once I could isolate the "too much", I was able (I hope) to make her both herself and reader-involving.

I notice I keep saying, "There's a point where...." That indicates, I guess, that this is a matter of degree, that what's acceptable at 48% can become annoying at 55%.

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

I'm trying to (finally) re-start the website, so I thought maybe I'd start up the blog too. (Pause for cheers. Pause. Pause.... Cheers, please?)

Have recently been interested in looking for ways to braid the internal or interactional plots into the external plot (or reverse).
Plot (an important sequence of events and changes that starts very early in the story and ends late in the story, that is, not a subplot, which will start later and probably resolve earlier and be less than central).
Most common main types of plots:
  1. Internal plot (how the main character changes or confronts some emotional/psychological/life issue during the story)
  2. Interactional plot (how the main character's relationship- including possibly romance- with another character or group-- like family-- changes in the course of the story)
  3. External plot (how the main character-s confront and resolve or fail to resolve some external problem in the course of the story)

Not all stories have all three of these plots, and some stories will relegate one or two of them to "subplot status (like when the protagonist frees the hostages, and along the way, decides he will go ahead and attend the family Thanksgiving after all).

But if we have two of these or all three, we generally "braid" them in some way so that the reader can experience them together, if not in every scene, then in most scenes. In that way, the events of one plot affect the next event of another plot. Example: She's about to leave for the airport when her mom calls and begs her to come home for Thanksgiving, that Dad promises to behave and not bring up the past this time. She is upset by this and misses her plane, and when it leaves without her, she realizes that her luggage is on it, including the jewelry she was supposed to deliver to Mr. Big.

Etc. That is, each plot affects the other in some way-- not just once, but over and over in the story. This should be not like parallel train tracks, but more like a braid, then.

The plots don't run parallel to each other, but are braided, intersecting in almost every scene.

An example I just saw was in Granite Flats, an absurdly fun mystery series set in 1962, where three pre-teens solve mysteries (including big international spy dramas) while negotiating early adolescence.

Both of the boys are sort of in pre-teen love with the girl Madeline. But she finds herself liking Tim. In one scene, for mystery-plot reasons, she and Tim trick the bank into giving them access to a safe-deposit box (where they find something significant-- you can tell which plot intrigues me the most, as I recall every glance between them, but not the point of the external mystery).
Their parents find out about this deception, and (correctly) assume neither would have done this alone-- that it's the pairing of the two kids which lead them into bank robbery.
So in the next scene, the parents ban them from seeing each other (much misery ensues, including Romeo and Juliet references-- they're studying that in English class).

So the external event of finding the clue in the safe deposit box leads to an interactional consequence -- their incipient romance is stifled (though of course, in the way of teen romance everywhere, restriction only makes the love more intense... so good!).
The cause-and-effect keeps going on-- because they aren't allowed to speak, their little detective agency goes defunct (and all of this has an effect on Arthur, the other member of their trio). So they cannot pursue the implications of this clue they just found.

What are some more examples of scenes or scene sequences where two (or three) of the plots intersect and cause changes in both? This is such a good technique for making your plot individual (it's not just another mystery, but also a love story), and also for pulling the reader along.


Tuesday, February 10, 2015


How a person speaks is a reflection of who that person is. But speech is not just a means of display, like a peacock's plumage. We don't just speak at each other to prove how articulate or forceful or clever we are. We speak to each other.
Dialogue is what we get when we engage in that singularly human exercise of speaking to each other. It's dialogue that allows us to have the most complex interactions and relationships— and the most agonizing misunderstandings. Language is, of course, meant to communicate, and no matter how often we misinterpret each other, we keep on trying to connect through words.
But language provides more than connections. It also powers action. Anyone who has tried to find an address in a foreign city knows how essential conversation is to getting something done. So let's go beyond individual voice and speak of voices: arguing, agreeing, jawing, joking— making conversation that matters.
You might rent some videos with snappy dialogue, like the screwball comedies of the 30s, or David Mamet's films. Listen for the reaction pauses in those lightning-quick exchanges, and see if you can use for rhythm and balance in your own witty repartee. You'll probably also notice the repetition that links one line to the next like a drumbeat:
"So I say, baby, let the good times roll!"
"Right. Let 'em roll. I know how that works. You let those good times roll right over you, and tomorrow I'll find you plastered on the sidewalk."
Consider some purposes of conversations in your book (the purposes to the conversants, not just to your story), e.g., persuasion, intimidation, comfort, seduction, alliance-building, information exchange, time-passing, boasting....
Just keep focused on the results of this dialogue; what this conversation can do to these characters. Here are some effects that can come right from conversation, without any further action.
• A conspiracy to do something.
• A breakup.
• An alliance.
• A change in vote or position.
• A discovery of the key to a puzzle.
• A deepening mystery.
• A misinterpretation.
• A revelation of a secret.
• A change in attitude.
• A change in behavior.
• A flirtation.
• A deception.
• A surrender.

1)       Consider some purposes of conversations in your book (the purposes to the conversants, not just to your story), e.g., persuasion, intimidation, comfort, seduction, alliance-building, information exchange, time-passing, boasting....
Choose one purpose and craft a conversation in which the purpose is not fulfilled-- but which still advances the plot in some way.
2)      List ways your characters might interact in conversation, e.g., fight, deceive-doubt, interrogate-resist, sweettalk-resist, sweettalk­-succumb, comfort-accept, mutual flattery. Choose one and craft a conversation that shows the relationship changing in some way because of the interaction.
For example, John is trying to confide in his mother. He confesses his big secret-- that he got a tattoo on his buttocks a few months ago, and he thinks something went wrong.
"Mom, do you know anything about, well, hepatitis?"
"Hepatitis? I know it's a disease drug ad-- I mean, I know it's a disease. Why? Are you, umm, maybe doing a report for school?"
"What is it, sweetie? Come on, tell me. You know you can tell me anything. I might get mad, but you know it never lasts. I'm your mother. I love you no matter what, remember? And if you need help, well, I'll get it for you."
"I know. I know. Okay, I'll tell you. Just promise not to get mad, okay? I mean, you can get mad if you have to, but don't get too mad. I-- I don't know what to do!"
Mom can sense, probably from her son's tone of voice, that this is serious. So she stops herself from saying something inflammatory about drug addicts, and reminds him instead of her unwavering love. This keeps him from pulling away defensively, and makes him realize that he can trust her to help him out of the trouble his secrecy has gotten him into. Their relationship will be strengthened by this, because they are both being reminded of what that essential parent-child bond means.
3) Revise to make the change in relationship more clear. Dialogue, just like narrative, can cause things to happen in the story-- and SHOULD. :) A conversation, an overheard whisper, a ringing declaration, can make the plot go into a new direction. Striving for this can just about instantly vitalize your dialogue by making it more than just clever conversation. It will be... ACTION.
You can probably come up with other ways dialogue can cause change. But the important thing is--make the dialogue you have serve that purpose.
Look at the passages, especially the long ones, and see how they can affect the plot either now or later. (That lie she tells in chapter 2 sure better come back to haunt her in chapter 10 or so!)
 One other thought-- make the characters work at it. The key to effective dialogue, I think, is that the speakers have to spark a bit off each other to get to the change-point. Otherwise you could just summarize it in narrative: -- She told him about the paper hidden in the Bible.--  But if you're going to have dialogue, make the tension in it lead to the change, propel them towards change. "Give me that back! You can't just rifle through my Bible that way!"

Remember John Barnes's definition? He's a theater historian, so he's used to plays, where dialogue is all-important. ACTION is any irreversible event that changes the course of events course of events of the story.
So Jack speaks his confession into a recorder, then instead of hitting playback, he rewinds and records over it: No go. That's not action because it's reversible.
But if Sally is hiding under the bed. and hears him dictating, he can rewind all he likes, but she still knows the truth, and will now be able to act on it. That's irreversible dialogue. Anything spoken aloud and heard by someone else is irreversible. But that does mean anything he says just to himself doesn't count. Introspection is well and good, but he can always take it back. His thoughts have to be heard to be irreversible. He can speak them aloud, or act on them… only then does a thought become irreversible.
 Harder still is making sure that dialogue has an effect, that it changes something not just in the plot, but in the relationship. How can you accomplish that? First, start by deciding that you're not going to have long stretches of dialogue that just displays how funny this guy is, or shows how well they get along, or passes on to the reader some necessary information. All that is fine, but think how the conversation will crackle when the reader realizes that this moment of conversation is going to change something.
  What sort of change can a conversation bring?
Especially in a comedy, making information exchange a conversation of
conflict can provide a bit of humor. Here's an example from a historical novel: 
"Jane, do let me put my bonnet up. I have been out all day looking for
your bir–" Lucy stopped and clapped her hand over her wayward mouth.
 "My bir– my birthday gift? Oh, Aunt Lucy! What? What did you get me?"
 "Your birthday isn't for three days."
 "Oh, tell me now! Tell me!" Jane put her little hands to her heart. "I
promise to be good!"

How long does Lucy hold out before she tells what the gift is? Now there's bound to be an information exchange, but it isn't just a quick spill– there's conflict, and character revelation, and lots of whining before she imparts the important fact.
 What's important is that the story changes somehow because one character has passed on some information to the other. So make something happen as a result of this exchange. The niece insists on going to the stable to see the birthday horse, and there she meets the young Mr. Ferguson, nephew of the best friend of Lucy's late husband. Eventually this "seed" conversation can lead to a change in their relationship, where the younger lady becomes more adventurous than her aunt.
Using that same story progression, here are some common events that happen because of the action and interaction in dialogue.

Discovery is another form of information exchange, but instead of just passing on what one already knows, it results in a revelation of something neither speaker knew. Talking together helps them put together pieces of a puzzle.  
"The stablemaster writes to say Jane didn't attend her riding lesson today," Lucy said, staring at the note as trepidation filled her.
 Captain Ferguson frowned. "You know, that must have been your Jane I saw in my nephew's curricle! I thought it looked like her, but I assumed you had her well-chaperoned."
"They are courting!"
Discovery requires that both contribute some essential fact, and the sum is a new piece of information. The conversation is active because, without this particular sharing of facts, the truth would never come out. This use of dialogue is especially good when you want both to participate in the discovery of some event or clue. It gives them a way to cooperate, to produce something together, and in a romance can subtly show how well
they're suited.

A conversation can also result in an alliance of interests. It's most fun if the conversation leads them to realize they need to work together, especially if that's a frightening prospect.
 "I don't care what you say, Captain Ferguson." Lucy looked implacably at him. "My sister sent Jane to me so that her daughter can marry well. And I regret to say that a penniless young lieutenant isn't going to suit."
 "You think I want my nephew shackling himself to some twittery little snob?"
 "My niece is not–" Lucy stopped and listened to the echo of his words.  Then, slowly, she said, "You don't want this marriage either?"

It's best that they start out somewhat at odds, so the conversation brings them to alliance. Thus, in the course of the dialogue scene, they move from adversaries to reluctant allies.

Sometimes when two people realize they have a common interest, they end up conspiring together. This involves agreeing tacitly or openly to work together more or less in secret. So the concerned aunt and uncle above might agree to work to stop the wedding. They're creating a shared goal and a plan to achieve it. Take the conversation further if you can. A plan requires action, so as they're arguing and negotiating the steps involved in stopping the wedding, you'll be showing them learning to work together– and where they're in conflict.  
"I remember when I was nineteen," Captain Ferguson observed, as if it was a century ago and not just a decade. "I would never have let a relative tell me whom I could court."
 Lucy sighed. "Jane is just that way. She thrives on opposition. A very dear girl, but..." She glanced over and could see that Captain Ferguson was struggling manfully not to say that this must be a family trait. She said, "They are counting on us to object, aren't they? So why don't we ... surprise them?"
 "You mean, pretend that we are in favor of the match?" Captain Ferguson frowned in thought. "Well, I can't think of anything more likely to make Joseph think twice, than me telling him that Jane is a perfect wife."
 Lucy said decisively, "Let's then. Let's take every opportunity to throw them together."
 "Do you attend the Haversham musicale tomorrow night? We can insist they sit together. With both of us nearby, of course, so as not to excite
their suspicions."
Conspiracies lead to joint action. Use this conversation to set up regular meetings between them, for example, where they have to act together to further their shared goal. Secrecy only adds to the fun of their meetings.

Maybe your characters are getting along way too well, especially if they're conspiring. Well, bring on a conversation that leads to greater conflict. But don't make it trivial. Oh, the surface-level topic might be trivial, but see if you can make their
responses reflect some internal conflicts. 
Lucy declared, "Everyone in my family gets married at St. George's."
 "Since we plan that they won't actually get wedded, what difference does it make? It will be easier to set the wedding outside London– easier to cancel it, that is, with the least fanfare."
 "Jane will think I disapprove if I set the ceremony anywhere but St. George's."
 He regarded her with narrowed eyes. "Your wedding was in St. George's, I seem to recall." He added, "It rained. All day."
 "This is England, Captain Ferguson," she said coldly. "It frequently rains here, and not just outside of St. George's. If you hadn't left in the middle of the ceremony, you would have seen that we made a game of it, leaving the church under our umbrellas."
 "A game. Yes. I've observed that you considered marriage itself a game, Mrs. Endicott."
 She gasped, but he was going on as if he cared not that he had just impugned her virtue. "No St. George's. I will not hear of it. I will not have my nephew even consider marrying in the place where you married my poor dead fool of a best friend!"

Again, aim for some change in their relationship. They start out thinking they can clear this little problem up, but find that actually, the more they talk, the more at odds they are– and it will be especially interesting if it reveals why they are really in conflict.

Conflict is the fuel that powers the plot, but you can't have them always fighting, or the reader will start to suspect these two have no reason to ally. If they have been at odds, then a conversation can lead to some kind of truce, reluctant or not. Again, there must be change from the state in the beginning of the conversation to another state at
the end.
 "Gretna Green?" Lucy whispered. "They've eloped?"
 "Damnation. They've got a two-hour head start on me."
 Lucy grabbed up her bonnet. "I'm going too."
 "Nonsense," he said. He couldn't imagine even a few hours alone with Lucy. They would do nothing but argue, and every angry word would put new scars in his heart.
 "Let me go along," she said. "It might spare Jane's reputation if I'm there to bring her home."
 He stood irresolute, his hand on the door. Finally he muttered, "We will do them no good if we show up fighting like Napoleon's artillery against Wellington's cavalry."
 She smiled suddenly, sadly. "I promise to be civil to you. If you promise to be civil back."
 "Oh, all right."
 "Let's take your phaeton. It will be faster."
 A treaty should lead to some shared decision– taking his phaeton, for example– to show that their cooperation is not just talk.

Remember that the act of lying is, in itself, irreversible. That is, once it's done, it's very hard to take back, and the resulting mess of admitting to the lie or being caught in it can be extreme. So if one character is deceiving the other, see if you can make him lie directly in conversation.
 Speaking it aloud makes him commit more to the deception because he cannot take it back now. But make sure the deception has an effect on the plot. For example, she relies on what he has told her to make a decision or take an action, or, alternatively, she recognizes it as a lie, and his deception destroys her trust in him. Or she challenges him and forces him to tell her the truth. 
"You never told me about when John died." She looked grimly at the road ahead. "I should know. I am his widow."
 Captain Ferguson's fists closed more tightly on the reins. "You saw the commendation. He died a hero."
 "Yes. That's what the commendation said. That he died saving someone. But you were there. Whom did he save?"
 He recalled John protecting his Portuguese mistress with his body as the grenade exploded nearby. "He saved me."
 "That is very gallant, Captain. Untrue, but gallant." Lucy turned her merciless gaze on him. "Tell me why you are lying."

 Just keep in mind that a lie will almost always be revealed as a lie, sooner or later. As President Nixon said (and boy, did he know!), it's not the crime but the cover-up that gets you in trouble. The very fact that one character lied to the other, even with the best of motives, should create conflict – within the liar while it's still secret, and within the relationship when it's revealed. The revelation of the lie will manifest issues with trust and honor that might have been buried for years. So if there's a lie, have it revealed early enough that there is time for them to work through its consequences.

You can't take back telling the truth either. So a conversation where a long-hidden truth is revealed will lead to real change. Just remember to set this up earlier, whether it involves alluding to a secret or posing a question, such as why Captain Ferguson stalked out of his best friend's wedding. 
They gazed at the sign welcoming them to Gretna Green, Scotland's most famous site. "So Jane and Charlie now hate each other and refuse to speak, much less marry."
 Lucy sighed. "I almost started believing in love at first sight again, imagining them wed. But–"
 "But now, you are made a cynic all over again." He smiled down at her. "And we still have that damnable church reserved." Suddenly he took her in his arms. "What do you say, Mrs. Endicott? Shall we make use of the reservation ourselves?"
 Lucy opened her mouth, then closed it again. Finally she pressed her cheek against his chest and whispered, "A wedding? You? And I?"
 "I haven't been, I suppose, entirely honest with you."
 "I know about John's mistress," she said.
 "I don't mean that. I mean– oh, hang it all, Lucy. I love you. I've loved you all along. I walked out of St. George's that day because I couldn't bear to see you marrying anyone else, especially my best friend."
 "Oh." She took a deep breath as she felt his heartbeat beneath her cheek. "You know, I don't truly like St. George's Church."
 "You don't?"
 "It always rains there."
 "Yes, I've noticed that."
 "Look." Lucy pulled away long enough to gesture at the sky. "The sun is shining now. And I hear they know how to give weddings here in Gretna –"

The truth can't be taken back. It's possible for the listener to misinterpret, but even then, the conversation should always have some effect, should change the characters and their actions. The moment one or both speaks openly about a secret (love, or the trauma in the past, or the conflict between them)– well, that's the truth the reader's been waiting for. Take your time with this conversation. Think of the revelation as the irrevocable and dangerous telling of a secret truth, with potentially dire consequences. And leave a little time to show the actually wonderful consequences awaiting the character brave enough to tell the truth.
 Dialogue takes up a lot of space in a book, and is particularly appealing to readers, as it reveals character in so many ways. So don't waste the space. Look at dialogue passages, especially the long ones, and see how they can affect the plot either now or later. (That lie she tells in chapter 2 sure better come back to haunt her in chapter 10 or so!)
 One final thought-- make the characters work at it. The key to effective dialogue is that the speakers have to spark a bit off each other to get to the change-point. Without conflict in the conversation, you might just as well summarize it in narrative: She told him about the paper hidden in the Bible.
 If you're going to have dialogue between two characters, make the tension in it lead to the change, or propel them towards change.


The people we talk to the most are the ones we have the most trouble understanding, right? That's because we tend to hear all sorts of echoes from the past. We also have more than one purpose in talking to a loved one— we might want information and reassurance. We might even want to fight a little.
These are some ways people interact in conversation:
fight-flight                  fight-fight
deceive-doubt              deceive-believe
interrogate-resist         interrogate-answer
sweettalk-resist           sweettalk-succumb
comfort-accept            comfort-reject
mutual flattery                                    mutual insult
A married couple, for example, has had this conversation a dozen times before. They even finish each other's sentences.
"Colbert's on."
"Want to stay up and watch it?"
"Yeah, sure. Just flip off the light--"
"So you can rest your eyes. I know, I know. I just want to hear the Top Ten list."
Try to establish the familiarity then throw some wrench into it--change it so it's no Ionger a rote conversation but actually becomes an interaction fraught with potential action:
"So who's Colbert interviewing tonight?"
"Let's see what it says in the TV Guide. Hmm. That new action star, Tim Gordon--"
"Tim Gordon? You know, I went on a blind date with him once. My brush with fame, I guess. He wanted to go out again, but I turned him down because you and I had gotten back together."
"You never told me that."
"It didn't matter, did it, when he was a nobody. I never knew he'd end up being a star."
"So what you're saying is-- you wish you'd gone with him that night instead of me?"
Now it's not so familiar, is it? You can have one overreact because of something out of their shared past-- that will hint at an unresolved conflict.
Take pains to avoid the clichéd exchange of insults. That gets old fast, and seldom results in either the true deepening or the true resolving of conflicts. Instead, make this conversation cause some change in the relationship.
For example, one speaker can finally break an old pattern by responding to an old provocation in a new way-- asking a question, or walking out, or sympathizing. Think CHANGE.

Choose a scene from your story that involves two people in some conflict with each other.
1)      Think of this relationship at this point in the story. How will their conversation reflect their current feelings about each other, and their reasons for being together?
2)      Is this encounter cooperative or confrontational? Are they working together or against each other? How can you show their reluctant alliance, or their hostility, or their friendly competition in their dialogue?
3)      Are both equally open and forthcoming, or is one keeping secrets? If there's a secret being kept, can you indicate that in the dialogue? No, don't let the other character in on it, but can you have the secretive one start to say something, then abruptly change the subject, indicating to the reader that there's something hidden there?
4)      What emotion or attitude is each character trying to convey? Trying to hide? Is that coming out in their speech?
5)      How well do they know each other? How does this affect their verbal interaction? If they know each other well, what can you do to make this an unique conversation? If they don't know each other, do you show in their dialogue openness or distrust or wariness or excitement or something that means this encounter has great meaning?
6)      Do you show the relationship changing at least a little because of this encounter? At the end, for example, does she feel trusting enough now to confide in him? Or maybe he's figured out she must be the thief because she's spoken so familiarly of the layout of the museum? Does the way they talk shift because of this change in the relationship?