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 June, 2005


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The Basics: 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, who 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.

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 interrupted by tags or action, as the story being told is the story holding (we hope!) the reader’s attention and to suspend it would be distracting.

There are no precise rules for 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 called “onomatopoeia”). 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 an explanation. Examples: Instead of writing: “I vill dough zit meself,” write: “I will do it myself,” she said, her Polish accent thick, the way it was when she was tired or sick. Likewise, instead of writing, “It doune make no differen’ ta me, I’m goin’ eenyway,” write: “It don’t make no difference to me, I’m going anyway.”
• 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 (more on this below).
• 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:
He said, “Help me. I need help.”
“Help me. I need help,” he said.
“Help me,” he said. “I need help.”

While we are talking about dialogue, we should also discuss how to tag it. A dialogue tag identifies who the speaker is and, sometimes, the manner in which he has spoken.

“Just be like that,” she pouted.
“Oh, come on,” he groaned. “Not this again.”
“You don’t love me,” she replied.
“Right,” he snarled. “That’s why I bought you an eight hundred dollar diamond.”
“Here,” she sobbed. “Just take it back. Take it.”

Okay, what’s wrong with our sample above (other than being melodramatic)? It’s an ailment I like to call “Creative Dialogue Tag Syndrome” —the writer relies on creative tags (pouted, groaned, replied, snarled, sobbed) so the reader will know how to interpret the dialogue. What’s wrong with this? Let me count the things:

• The reader must interpret the tag and evaluate if the dialogue agrees with the tag. At best, it disrupts the flow. At worst, the reader decides the two are contradictory and the writer loses credibility.
• It is telling the reader how the words are said instead of showing.
• If the dialogue is well written and the accompanying action is well chosen, it is redundant.
• It is annoying.

Consider, instead:
Shelly’s lower lip quivered. “Just be like that.”
Mike rolled his eyes. “Oh, come on,” he said. “Not this again.”
“You don’t love me.”
“Right,” he said. “That’s why I bought you an eight hundred dollar diamond.”
“Here.” She pulled off the ring and shoved it under his nose. “Just take it back,” she said, her voice breaking. “Take it.”

Okay, so nothing’s going to help our melodrama too much, but let’s still examine the techniques used. We scrapped every creative dialogue tag. Every one. We replaced each with one of four techniques:

• No tag at all. This allows the power of the words to stand alone. As long as we know who’s speaking, no law says we must use a tag.
• Action. “Shelly’s lower lip quivered” replaces “she pouted.” It’s more specific, it allows us to visualize Shelly, and it’s showing, not telling.
• The prosaic “said.” Yes, “said” is boring. It’s overused. In fact, it is so boring and overused that it’s invisible. Just like “the” and “a” and “his” and other parts of speech that are used several times on each page, “said” slides right past the reader and allows him to concentrate on what’s important: the action and the dialogue.
• A combination of “said” and action. This is particularly effective when interrupting dialogue, as in the last sentence of the “after” example above.

While we are on the topic of dialogue tags, let’s also talk about correct punctuation. If a tag is used (preferably “said,” but an occasional “asked” or “repeated” is permitted), a comma separates the dialogue from the tag (see examples in sentences 2 and 4 above). If action only (no tag at all, as in the first sentence in the example) is used, it is considered a separate and complete sentence and should be punctuated as such. If it is necessary to interrupt a dialogue sentence, as in the last sentence in the above example, use the tag and action, thus allowing a comma instead of a period.
Note: “I love you,” she smiled, is never correct. “Smiled” cannot be a tag; it is an action. Therefore, it can be written in one of two ways: “I love you,” she said and smiled. - or - “I love you.” She smiled.
If your dialogue contains a question, such as: “Who are you?” he asked, it is not necessary to punctuate with a question mark and use “asked” as a tag. This is personal choice and personally, I usually use the tag.
Dialogue is one of the most important tools a writer has to convey character and to build plot. Using it effectively means tagging it effectively. Read the before and after examples given here aloud. Hear the difference. Hear the redundancy. Hear the invisibility of the hardworking “said.”
It will be the best friend you ever had.

(See Section 6 for possible solutions)

1. Cut the extraneous dialogue:
“Hi,” Jan said.
“Hi,” Amber answered. “How have you been?”
“Just fine. How’s your Mom?”
“Good. Have you seen Justin Powers lately?”
Jan’s heart beat faster. “Why?”
“Just wondered. Uh, I’m thinking about asking him to the dance.”
“He’s already got a date,” Jan said, trying to keep the venom out of her voice.
“Yeah. You’re looking at her.”
Amber took a step back. “Well, what do you know.”
Jan looked at her watch. “My mom is waiting for me.”
“Okay, I’ll see you later.”
“Bye.” She turned and walked away.

2. Give life to the following dialogue:
“Sit down here, honey, and let Mommy see,” Jane cooed. She patted the kitchen chair.
Mikey whined, “It hurts.”
“I know,” Jane comforted. “Let me see it,” she soothed.
Mikey removed his hand from his skinned knee. “Ow!” he howled. Then he saw the blood and screamed, “Ouch!” He cried, “Waaahhhh.”
Jane calmed, “There, there. Mwoi!” She threw a kiss at his knee.
“WAAAHHHHHHH!!” Mikey sobbed.
Jane went to the freezer and took out a Popsicle. She handed it to Mikey, saying, “Here you go.”
Mikey wiped his eyes. “Orange?” he whimpered, taking the treat.
Jane smiled, “Of course.”
“Mmphf,” he mumbled, shoving it into his mouth.
Jane grabbed the first aid kit and went to work.

(c) copyright 2002 by Sandy Tritt. All rights reserved, except for those listed here. June 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







Writers Beware!!!

Which publisher do I choose?

Winona Rasheed

Managing Editor


Now that you have finished adding the final touches to your manuscript and it is in tip top shape; ready to meet that publisher’s eye, you may be overwhelmed to see the listings of publishers that you, the writer will have to sort through.

After spending weeks, months, or perhaps even years on your manuscript, fine tuning it to create a well written, finished product; you now have to make the big decision of where to send it. As writers, we also have to pay close attention and do the research in finding a publisher for our work.

There are many publishers out there, especially on the web, which are seeking manuscripts from new writers. There are Publishers which will tell you that they can and will publish your work, but for a small fee, guaranteeing that you will become a “published author.” As a writer myself, I can truly say that it sounds good, after all, that’s our goal, to become published, turning our manuscripts into books that sell.

But, WRITERS BEWARE, because you don’t have to pay a publisher upfront to publish your work. They pay you!!!

My personal experience had led me to a publisher that was interested in my work, only to find out that in order for me to have my work published I would have to pay a third-party. The third-party consisted of an editor and an illustrator that I had to pay for; immediately, a red flag popped up, warning me.

WRITERS BEWARE, because the publishers that you are looking for do not charge for these services. It’s part of the package deal when you receive your acceptance letter. Publishers have their own in-house editors and illustrators. If you present to them a well polished manuscript that they are interested in, they will pay you to publish it, taking your work through the entire publishing process without charging you a fee.

Do your research when you are looking for a publisher, read their editorial guidelines.

A very good reference book that every writer should have on their shelf, especially if they are trying to publish their work, is the “Writer’s Market,” a detailed catalog listings of book and magazine editors who “buy what you write.”

Yes, getting your story published is a long, hard road to travel, but if you are patient and steadfast you will succeed. Just beware of those publishers who tell you, “We can publish your story for a small fee.

Critiquing Special

  • Limited time special, one cent per word.  Just mention Publishing New Writers  Newsletter (June, 2005).

    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  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 - above.)








5 Years Writing “Sleeping with Dragons”

by Leslie J. Weddell

'Sleeping With Dragons' is my first proper book. I've written a few manuscripts over the years, mainly for the amusement of my children, now all grown up. But I enjoyed writing so much that I began an idea for a Novel five years ago, after watching so many rubbish films that were supposed to be 'great'! All seemed to contain the 'F' word.

I firmly believe there are millions of decent folks out there in this big World who enjoy films and books, without profanity included, to make a good storyline.

I thought I could do as good, if not better. Searching all the websites about writing filmscripts, it soon became clear to me that if I wanted _expression of freedom I would have to start from scratch and write my own book.

Not knowing how to do this, I decided the best way was to read. And read. And read. All the books that I could, until I found the kind of story I really liked, and then think about it some more. I decided Thriller action books did it for me.

Ian Fleming (All the Bond Books he created) Ken Follett, Dick Francis, etc. all egged me on when I had finished reading their books, and eventually I sat down over a few months and thought about my long life on this Earth, and where I had been. My experiences, the bad times, and the good times. The little things that meant so much at a certain age, and marriage and children. Where was I going? What was my direction in life?

The list was a revelation. I did not know how much I had actually achieved in my 66 years (when I began thinking about this novel) until I had written it all down on paper over several months.

Then I knew what I had to do. I drew up (yet another) sheet of ideas. Worked on it on a daily basis, never crossing anything out. I eventually bought a digital recorder to help me remember important points, and the Novel started to take on form. I drew up a plan for my book. I was not going to rush it. Plot. Plot. 'Plod'. Gradually I got rid of the 'plod' and started building the plot. Making it up as I went along. That's why it took me five years!

Now I know that this is not the best way to go! But back then, I knew no difference. Anyway, after a couple of years of continually erasing stuff I had written, I eventually was approaching the end of the book. (Now I don't throw ANYTHING! My advice is, SAVE it on a floppy disk. No matter how crazy the idea may be, you might want to come back and build on that idea later!)

Anyway, what you read in the printed book version of 'Sleeping With Dragons' is what you get. I have since discovered 12 mistakes, only little ones, mind you, but they are there. The reader will probably not spot them, but I can, as the Author. Some my own, due to inexperience as a self publisher, some by the production team who did not notice them.

Very annoying.

My advice is to new writers is to check your manuscript many, many, many times. Leave it for a few weeks, read it over again. Take a marker pen and highlight those 'typos' as you read. Don't leave it to 'Oh, I'll sort that later.' It never happens because you forget.

There are hundreds of pages in your book, and you cannot possibly remember the exact page and line were the mistake is, later.

You can find my book at the following address; www.authorhouse.com or www.authorthouse.co.uk When you get there, just click on 'bookstore'.
Type in 'Sleeping With Dragons' and all the details of the book will come up in front of you.

I have tried very hard not to use profanity in my book- for a I detest it. The Master writers of the last 200 hundred years did not use profanity, so I see no reason why I should. The skill and talent of the author should be able to hold the reader on the edge of his/her seat with the book without swearing. That's my opinion, mind you.

If any readers want to contact me, please do so via Bruce. He has my go ahead to give my email address to you.

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Publishing New Writers,

June, 2005 (no. 606)


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

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