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 December, 2001

Breathing Life into Dialogue

by Sandy Tritt


Have you ever read a court transcript? It accurately gives a word-by-word report of exactly what is said. But it is interesting?

Uh-uh. If we wrote verbatim the way we talk, our readers would execute us at dawn (or maybe earlier). So what do we do to create "natural" dialogue?

First, we must listen to the way people talk -- both the choice of words and the rhythm of those words. People rarely speak in long sentences or without pausing (except for my mother), so we must write dialogue in fragmented sentences and in short bursts.

Second, we must decide which of these spoken words are worthy of writing. For example, in real life, when we greet someone, we generally say, "hello," then ask how he is, maybe how his family is, and so forth. But this is boring stuff to a reader. The reader is smart enough to realize small talk occurs, and impatient enough to want to get immediately to the meat of the conversation. Therefore, we need to eliminate the "niceties" and get on to what the reader wants to read.

And third, we need to add body language and action to dialogue to convey its true meaning. For example, a character says, "You jerk." Without body language, we don't know what the emotional value of this statement is. Consider the following statements:

  • "You jerk," he said, his eyebrow cocked just enough so I'd know he was challenging me, that he was checking to see if I would back down or not.
  • "You jerk," he said, and the twinkle in his eye told me that I'd finally earned his respect.
  • "You jerk!" Carl slapped his knee and laughed from his belly until I feared he'd fall down.

As you can see, it is the action and body language that allows us to interpret the meaning of the words. Since the reader cannot see the character talking, it is our job to describe all the information the reader needs in order to interpret the words.

Adding action and body language to our prose also accomplishes another task: it slows the pacing. Now, there are times when rapid-fire dialogue is necessary, such as at high drama points when things are moving quickly, or after a long descriptive section to pick up the pace. Monologues usually do NOT need broken, as the story being told is the story holding (we hope!) the reader's attention, and to interrupt it to give tags or action would be distractive.

There are no precise rules to writing dialogue that I am aware of, but an ear for it is developed by reading aloud. Do you start drifting? You need action. Do you forget who's talking? You need a tag. Is the conversation moving too quickly? You need a break -- narrative or action -- to even out the pacing.

Here are some quick tips for writing dialogue:

  • Don't sound out sound effects. This is annoying. Simply state, "The gun shot echoed through the chapel," instead of "Bang! Bang! Bang!"
  • Take it easy on dialect. Sounding out words becomes distracting and time-consuming, and most readers tire of it quickly. Instead, use the grammar and rhythm of the character to insinuate the dialect, or tag it with, "she said, her Polish accent thick, the way it was when she was tired or sick."
  • Don't include "well," "uh," and other such nonsense unless it serves a very good purpose. (Such as a character whose only word is "uh," or a character whose main distinction is prefacing every statement with "well.")
  • Keep your tags invisible (see the previous tip sheet, "Avoid Creative Dialogue Tag Syndrome" for help with this).
  • Keep your tags either interspersed with action and description or at the end of the quote. A tag at the beginning (although occasionally okay) tends to make the writing more passive. Consider which of the following carries the most power:
  •  "Help me," he said. "I need help."
  •  He said, "Help me. I need help."
  • "Help me. I need help," he said.

Remember, we need to be able to visualize our characters as they talk -- do they roll their eyes, clench their teeth, smile -- any of the visual clues that help us interpret the intent of the words.

(c) copyright 1999 by Sandy Tritt. All rights reserved, except for those listed here. May be reproduced for educational purposes (such as for writer's workshops), as long as this copyright notice and the url: http://tritt.wirefire.com are distributed with the pages. For use in conferences or other uses not mentioned here, please contact Sandy Tritt at tritt@wvadventures.net for permission and additional resources at no or limited charge.

   Keep writing!

Sandy Tritt

Inspiration for Writers tritt@wvadventures.net

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Critiquing Special
  • First ten pages free, and, for a limited time, all additional pages at 50% off the regular rate of $2.00 per page.  Just mention Publishing New Writers  Newsletter (December, 2001).
  • Critiques by Sandy Tritt
  • Unlike most editors, I consider my role to be a mentor or a coach. Instead of just telling you what is wrong, I explain how to correct the problem, and I work with you to teach you how to write effective prose. More than 50% of my business is repeat business, and I relish establishing long-term relationships with other writers.
  • Treat you with respect and compassion. All criticism will be of the "constructive" sort. My purpose is to improve your writing, not to destroy your confidence.
  • Mark your manuscript, correcting grammatical and spelling errors and suggesting alternative wording where appropriate, line-by-line.
  • Highlight areas that are especially well-written, so you will know where your strengths are.
  • Where appropriate, offer suggestions for plot development, character development or other areas that could be strengthened.
  • Return a two-to-four page written analysis of your work. This will include evaluation of: plot, setting, characterization, dialogue, special effects (flash forwards, flashbacks, etc.), voice, point of view and any other areas particular to your work.
  • If appropriate, recommend reading or resources to strengthen your areas of weakness.
  • Answer any questions you may have via email.
  • Provide my telephone number for a personal follow-up, if you desire.

For Sandy's success stories, see http://tritt.wirefire.com/Manuscript_Critique.html

Write Sandy at tritt@wvadventures.net

(See Sandy's article in the left column.)

Writerly Websites...


This is Dianne Ochiltree's site for children, parents, teachers and writers for young readers. Dianne is an author of books for young readers (birth to teenage)

and she is also a children's book reviewer. She's been writing professionally for over 25 years---about 18 years in public relations/advertising/marketing and the last 7 years as a children's writer. Dianne has two books published to date, with Scholastic and with Simon & Schuster.

http://tritt.wirefire.com The Inspiration for Writers website offers help and encouragement to writers of all levels. Tips and Techniques give practical advice about frequent writing blunders. The Writer's Prayer, inspirational quotes, and essays about the writing life add insight and inspiration. The Fiction Showcase offers short stories for the reader's enjoyment. And, for those serious about improving their writing skills, manuscript critiques and coaching services are available. Visit http://tritt.wirefire.com today!


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Observation and Visualization

by Jack R. Noel

How many times have you heard expressions like, "I can see your point," and "If you can see it, you can write it?"   For a writer, it quickly becomes clear that we need to learn how to write so that readers can see our characters and their surroundings.  We also accept that listening, touching and tasting are as much a part of observation as seeing.  But how do we teach ourselves to use our powers of observation and visualization?

 This turns out to be a fundamental difference between writers and the rest of the population.  Our civilization has done a great job of making it relatively safe and easy to just cruise through our days without noticing anything but our own thoughts, feelings and goals.  I think that's what's meant by the expression,  "La civilization nous rend stupides.

 (translation; Civilization makes us stupid.  -- It always sounds better in French.)

 I was reminded of the need for using our ability to observe when President Bush instructed everyone to be alert to anything unusual as they went about their daily lives.  Certainly, using our power of observation when there may be a real threat to our lives would seem an easy assignment.  But in the days and weeks following the President's speech about the terrorist threat, I began to see that most people were not any more alert than before.  That observation led me to think that I must be different than most folks and the most probable reason was that I'm a writer.  Writers do learn to be more alert to what's going on around them because our writing demands it.

 I've had years of practice, so I have many examples of how developing my writer's senses benefit us.  But the operative word is practice; one must start by consciously commanding the brain to remain open and alert to surroundings.

 One day, I was walking down the street in Ann Arbor and there were a number of other pedestrians ahead of and behind me.  It was a windy day and there was some stirring of litter on the sidewalks.  People ahead of me were walking along with these scraps of paper swirling around their feet.   I looked closely and realized that the scraps of paper were actually US currency!  I stopped and chased them around, snatching them up. The people who'd been behind me caught up and passed with no more than a glance  as I scurried, bent at the waist, chasing after singles, fives and twenties.  I ended up with a fist full of cash.

 I stood looking around, expecting someone to come hurrying up to claim their lost money.  But after five minutes I realized that people were still not looking at me!   I went about my own errands, but I then checked the newspapers the following week for any notice about this lost money.  Nothing -- the amount was not great and I suppose whoever lost it must have simply given up hope of getting it back.

And here's where visualization comes in.   I began speculating about what it must be like to lose money of that amount.  Visions of disappointed paperboys (or girls) came to mind; this might have been someone's fund for a new bicycle or pet or other much desired thing.  This could be a good story!  But I went further and visualized a much higher amount of money and the kind of scenes we've seen in major motion pictures... possibly the material for a screenplay!

 Another thing we often hear about from accomplished writers is serendipity.  One thing leads to the other and coincidences abound when we have our eyes open and imaginations running smoothly.  Not long after my find on Main Street, I read an article in the paper describing a lawsuit brought by a drug dealer against a hunter who'd found this criminal's stash of $83,000 buried in a briefcase.  Now there's a premise for story or screenplay, in fact it's one that's been used successfully several times.

 The mind reels at the amount of material coming out of such events, but this couldn't be if not for one writer's habit of using his senses to see what everyone else is missing every day, and using his imagination to pose a few "story questions."

Stephen King has remarked more than once that he thinks of the process of story creation as like the finding and unearthing of a fossil.  Not a bad metaphor, since paleontologists have to use their eyes and imaginations constantly.  It also takes persistence and focus to unearth the whole fossil and preserve it.  It can be laborious but that's part of King's point; this is where a writer goes to work with the tools of the Imagination and begins writing down the images of visualized reality to create an original story.  Use what you've got to rework what comes your way!  It's what sets you apart from the rest of the working world.

Publishing New Writers,

December, 2001 (no.211)

Editor Bruce L. Cook, P.O. Box 451, Dundee, IL 60118.  Fax (847) 428-8974.

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