After retiring from over twenty years in education, I discovered that I’ve been writing dialogue incorrectly. Not only have I been writing it wrong, I taught it wrong. In my defense, I would not WANT elementary students to know some of these secrets.
- To write great dialogue EVERYBODY fights – Yikes! As a teacher, I mediated fights all day. I hate fighting, but as an author, if characters don’t fight or at least disagree, it’s hard to tell them apart. Intensity can vary from teasing to screaming. I tried it.
Tani enjoys arts and crafts, home decorating, and shopping. Vanessa suffers from depression over losing her home to a fire, and starting over again.
“You need pictures.” Tani declared.
“I had pictures.”
They’re gone, Ness. Your place has no personality. Let’s go shopping.”
This wasn’t a huge fight, but it helped to set the scene, and made it a little more interesting than just saying. Vanessa had no pictures on her wall, and needed to go shopping.
From The Fault in our Stars by John Green, sixteen year old Green Hazel has terminal cancer, and her mother is trying to help her through depression.
“I refuse to attend Support Group.
“One of the symptoms of depression is disinterest in activities.”
“Please just let me watch America’s Next Top Model. It’s an activity.”
“Television is a passivity.”
“Ugh, Mom, please.”
“Hazel, you’re a teenager. You’re not a little kid anymore. You need to make friends, get out of the house, and live your life.”
“If you want me to be a teenager, don’t send me to Support Group. Buy me a fake ID so I can go to clubs, drink vodka, and take pot.
“You don’t take pot, for starters… You’re going to Support Group.”
- Cut out words especially off the beginning of dialogue. Teachers have to pull words out of elementary students to get efforts like. “I have a cat. My cat is gray.” We struggle to teach them to add adjectives, adverbs and connecting words to make their writing more interesting. Then teacher becomes a writer, and the word on the street is, “Less is more.” I tried this with my character, Sarah, who is always in a hurry. Even Vanessa improved with a few cuts to her tendency to wordiness.
“So, I thought it was just a gimmick at first,” she had told Sarah during their daily phone call the next day.
“Well, did you even check up on their credentials?” Vanessa had visualized Sarah with one hand on her hip and her eyes rolling.
“Of course, I looked them up online. I think they’re legitimate.” Vanessa played Spider Sol while they talked.
“Never mind, don’t worry about it. I’ll take care of it tomorrow. I’ve got a call. I’ll talk to you later.”
According to James Scott Bell, shorter sentences speeds up action. What do you think?
- Use dialogue to reveal the unknown not the known. Dialogue is not an excuse to be redundant. Eliminate repetitive information. On the other hand, elementary teachers spend all day diverting disaster by repeating known information. I changed from teaching fourth to first grade. I was not ready for all the repetition I needed in my dialogue.
“Put your pencils at the top of your paper so I will know when you’re done.” Without this reminder, pencils might work as a drumstick, baton, or a sword.
“Put your pencils, down.” You think they learned it the first time, but looking around, you see papers with extra drawings, drawings on someone else’s paper, and in worst cases, drawings on the desk.
This is not the case for authors. They must not show something that either the readers or the characters already know. I crossed out “duh” words in my next attempt at dialogue.
Fred, four years Trixie’s junior, could move quickly when necessary, but not fast enough to avoid eight ounces of water that sprayed him from the waist down, when Trixie got mad during her birthday party.
The party’s chatter died suddenly to see how Fred would handle his soaking trousers. He stood up and undid his belt and unbuttoned his top button.
“Trixie, you got Fred’s pants all wet,” Fred’s girlfriend Edith said.
“Guess I’d better take these wet pants off!”
The crowd gasped in unison.
These seem like minor adjustments, but as I read over my manuscript, I found almost every conversation sounded better when I followed these spicy tips: provoke characters into fighting, cut their words short, and don’t use dialogue to repeat information everyone already knows.
Thank you Google for all these pictures.
If you liked these tips, you’ll love the book by James Scott Bell, How to Write Dazzling Dialogue: The Fastest Way to Improve Any Manuscript.
Thanks to my new friends, Catherine and Irene who “liked” me on TC History Gal Productions. Hope others will join me as well even though there are no prizes that I know of besides getting better acquainted. 🙂