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
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
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,
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This Just In – From Paul the Apostle
By Kurt Schuller
inspired work recreating
by Jack R. Noel
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?
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.
Civilization makes us stupid. -- It always sounds better in French.)
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.
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
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.
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.
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!
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.
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."
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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