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Jan's Writing Basics #6--More About Dialog

These lessons, by one of our most consistent FaithWriters' Challenge Champions, should not be missed. So we're making a permanent home for them here.

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Jan's Writing Basics #6--More About Dialog

Postby glorybee » Mon Feb 22, 2010 8:50 am

Happy Monday, class! Everyone ready for some writing?

First, about those exclamation points. I never intended for you to feel paranoid about using them in your casual writing. The EP police are not coming to kick down your door if you use exclamation points in your message board posts, Facebook updates, IMs, comments on entries, grocery lists, and notes to your spouses. Please, don’t apologize for those! See, I use them, too!

But if your writing is to be read by the general public, judged, evaluated, or published, leave them out (except in dialog, and only if absolutely necessary).

A brief review of the classes to date:
1. WORD CHOICE—it’s vital. Ordinary words stinketh.
2. ADJECTIVES AND ADVERBS—beware. Trim, if possible.
3. VERB TENSE—Stay consistent
4. EXCLAMATION POINTS—avoid ‘em.
5. DIALOG—make it sound natural

Here’s this week’s Quick Take:

Don’t use anxious when you mean eager. They don’t mean quite the same thing. Both words refer to anticipation of a future event, but anxious (like its close relative anxiety) indicates a feeling of worry, fear, unease.

On the other hand, eager implies that one is looking forward to the event with excitement or joy.

I’m eager to go to Disney World.
I’m anxious about riding the Tower of Terror.


Onward, then, to part two of the lesson on dialog.

When you were in junior high or high school and learning to write, did your teacher give you a list of words that can be used instead of “said” when writing dialog? It might have included words like

argued…confessed…insisted…stammered…jested

She gave you that list because she wanted you to use interesting words in your writing…but poor Mrs. Murgatroyd was misguided. The best place to use interesting words isn’t necessarily in your dialog tags. There’s nothing wrong with plain old said; use your interesting words in the actual dialog spoken by your character.

I read once somewhere (sorry, I don’t remember where) that studies have shown that most readers gloss over those fancy said substitutes, anyway. Readers are interested in eavesdropping on a fascinating conversation. So instead of writing…

“I’m not sure about that,” Joe argued.

…show your reader that Joe is feeling argumentative by putting the argument in his words.

“Only a clown would vote against the new widget factory,” said Joe.

[I take a break from my regular lesson to proclaim that I take no position whatsoever on widget factories, and that this sample sentence was meant only for entertainment purposes. No debate on the merits of widget factories will be entered into.]

As with all of my classes, this is NOT an absolute rule. There are times when nothing will do but a whispered, or a replied, or an asked. Or even one of the fancier words on Mrs. Murgatroyd’s list. I just suggest that before you use a substitute for said, you should ask yourself if there’s a way to make the character’s words show what you intend to say, rather than your description of his words. (Remember the writer’s motto: show, don’t tell.)

***

This goes double for any combination of substitute for said + adverb.

Sometimes I read something like this:

“Don’t wake the baby,” Sally whispered quietly. (Is there any other way to whisper? Don’t use the adverb when it’s implicit in the verb.)

“Look out behind you!” shouted Gloria excitedly. (While excitedly isn’t the only way to shout, it would be better to put the excitement in Gloria’s words, or to show her excitement by her actions or thoughts.)

If you find yourself frequently using this sort of construction, work on tightening up your dialog, and moving the “good stuff” from the dialog tags to the dialog itself or the characters’ actions.

Homework:

Write 50-100 words (no more than that, please) containing dialog. Keep last week’s lesson in mind, and be sure that your dialog sounds natural for your character. If you use any tags other than said, justify them.

NOTE: You don’t have to use dialog tags at all, but that’s next week’s lesson. Feel free to go beyond the parameters of this lesson, if you’d like.


If you do the homework, please either ask a question or make a comment. And if you don't feel like doing the homework, but want to ask a question or leave a comment that's fine, too. That’s what keeps this class so interesting!
Jan Ackerson

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Postby AnneRene' » Mon Feb 22, 2010 11:20 am

After examining my dog Alex, Dr. Keen said, “Well, I don’t see anything obvious that would indicate why she isn’t eating, so I would like to keep her overnight and run a few tests on her.” “Ok, I will check back with you, first thing in the morning.” Julie said.

At the very end (Julie said) just doesn't feel right. Seems like "replied" would work better?

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Postby glorybee » Mon Feb 22, 2010 11:45 am

AnneRene' wrote:After examining my dog Alex, Dr. Keen said, “Well, I don’t see anything obvious that would indicate why she isn’t eating, so I would like to keep her overnight and run a few tests on her.” “Ok, I will check back with you, first thing in the morning.” Julie said.

At the very end (Julie said) just doesn't feel right. Seems like "replied" would work better?


AnneRene, this is a place where 'replied' would work. Or you could do it this way:

After examining my dog Alex, Dr. Keen said, “Well, I don’t see anything obvious that would indicate why she isn’t eating, so I'd like to keep her overnight and run a few tests on her.”

“Okay," Julie said. "I'll check back with you first thing in the morning.”


I put the dialog tag in the middle (to improve the flow) and I changed 'I would' and 'I will' to the more natural-sounding 'I'd and 'I'll'. I also put a space between the two speakers' paragraphs.

Your thoughts?
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Postby AnneRene' » Mon Feb 22, 2010 11:49 am

Much smoother, didn't sound rehearsed.
Should I always spell out Okay?
And I guess it's proper to start a new paragraph even though the setting didn't change?

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Postby glorybee » Mon Feb 22, 2010 11:52 am

OK (two capital letters) is fine for casual writing, but otherwise should be written out. "Ok" is never right.

Yes, you always start a new paragraph for each speaker, even if the setting doesn't change. Great question!
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Postby AnneRene' » Mon Feb 22, 2010 11:59 am

Thank you soooo much. I just battled with that issue (starting a new paragraph) in my Shhh article.

And OK has haunted me for, forever. So feeling reeeally good about knowing. It's like discovering a new kind of freedom. :)

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Postby Cajunluvie » Mon Feb 22, 2010 3:14 pm

"You kidding me?" Rose scoffed at her husband, Tim. "She's coming here? Here? Of all places she could have gone, she picks our house?"

"Ma wanted to see the kids. So, I told her she could. No harm done." Tim replied.

Rose rolled her eyes and turned her face away from him.

"Sure, just the kids." she chopped the zucchini with a burst of angry energy, nearly missing her index finger by an inch with the knife. "I bet she wants some juicy stuff on how bad a mom I am with her precious grandchildren."

"You're making a big deal out of nothing. Jeez."

"Oh. I'm the trouble-maker? Everything that goes wrong in this house, she thinks it is my fault!"

"I'm not going over this with you, Rose." her husband shook his head and walked toward the hallway door then his shoulders shifted in her direction. "You guys work it out. I'm out of it."

"Tim!"

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Postby violin4jesus » Mon Feb 22, 2010 3:19 pm

"Can we get someone in here who knows what they're doing?" Dr. X said, his face red with irritation.

"I have never had to find that particular instrument before," I said.

Beneath the calm demeanor, however, words not normally a part of my vocabulary brewed, as my own anger rose at his challenge of my competence.

"Well, it shouldn't be this hard to find!" Gesturing toward the outer door, he said, "Try the cart outside the OR."

My patient eyed me sympathetically as I pushed my way out the door. "Jerkface," I grumbled, as I surveyed the massive cart. "How in the heck am I supposed to find it in thirty seconds when I don't even know what it looks like?"

---------

Sorry, a bit over 100 words. I justify "grumbled" because I'm definitely not going to express my name-calling loud enough to be heard. :roll:

Hopefully I'll get to sleep here soon. Still trying to wind down. Not easy when you get riled up.

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Dialog Trouble

Postby flyingcross » Mon Feb 22, 2010 3:25 pm

“Help! I’m soooo lost, and I can’t find ‘said’ anywhere. Please help me.”

“Oh my, you are a sad case for lost and found. I did say to try to move the ‘good stuff’ into the dialog. Maybe I should clarify, ‘said’ is rather bland, not really good stuff, so put it back,” said Jan.

“No, no, I can’t. I can’t find ‘said’ anywhere. I’ve looked. How can I put it back if I haven’t found it?”

“Alright, tighten it up a bit, and remove the excess, and ‘said’ is in there four times,” Jan said,” okay five.”



I eagerly and anxiously await your reply.
Cindy

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Postby glorybee » Mon Feb 22, 2010 3:31 pm

Cajunluvie, this is definitely over 100 words! Have mercy!

You've really skipped into next week's lesson on tagless dialog--which is absolutely fine. So the only thing I'll do is to correct in red a few punctuation/capitalization errors. You're an over-achiever!

Cajunluvie wrote:"You kidding me?" Rose scoffed at her husband, Tim. "She's coming here? Here? Of all places she could have gone, she picks our house?"

"Ma wanted to see the kids. So, I told her she could. No harm done," Tim replied.

Rose rolled her eyes and turned her face away from him.

"Sure, just the kids." She chopped the zucchini with a burst of angry energy, nearly missing her index finger by an inch with the knife. "I bet she wants some juicy stuff on how bad a mom I am with her precious grandchildren."

"You're making a big deal out of nothing. Jeez."

"Oh. I'm the trouble-maker? Everything that goes wrong in this house, she thinks it is my fault!"

"I'm not going over this with you, Rose." Her husband shook his head and walked toward the hallway door then his shoulders shifted in her direction. "You guys work it out. I'm out of it."

"Tim!"


Make sure you see that I changed a period to a comma in the second paragraph.

I look forward to what you submit next week!
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Postby glorybee » Mon Feb 22, 2010 3:36 pm

Leah, yours is fine--even your use of the word 'grumbled.'

Hope you get un-riled up soon. Chocolate helps, I've heard.
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Re: Dialog Trouble

Postby glorybee » Mon Feb 22, 2010 3:42 pm

Cindy, you get this week's gold star, for your use of 'eagerly' and anxiously'. Thanks for the grin.

With your little example--I'd add a name to the first bit of dialog, to orient the reader. Note the corrections in punctuation and capitalization.

flyingcross wrote:“Help! I’m soooo lost, and I can’t find ‘said’ anywhere," said Cindy. "Please help me.”

“Oh my, you are a sad case for lost and found. I did say to try to move the ‘good stuff’ into the dialog. Maybe I should clarify. ‘Said’ is rather bland, not really good stuff, so put it back,” said Jan.

“No, no, I can’t. I can’t find ‘said’ anywhere. I’ve looked. How can I put it back if I haven’t found it?”

“All right, tighten it up a bit, and remove the excess, and ‘said’ is in there four times,” Jan said. "Okay, five.”
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Postby Cajunluvie » Mon Feb 22, 2010 3:56 pm

glorybee wrote:Cajunluvie, this is definitely over 100 words! Have mercy!

You've really skipped into next week's lesson on tagless dialog--which is absolutely fine. So the only thing I'll do is to correct in red a few punctuation/capitalization errors. You're an over-achiever!

Cajunluvie wrote:"You kidding me?" Rose scoffed at her husband, Tim. "She's coming here? Here? Of all places she could have gone, she picks our house?"

"Ma wanted to see the kids. So, I told her she could. No harm done," Tim replied.

Rose rolled her eyes and turned her face away from him.

"Sure, just the kids." She chopped the zucchini with a burst of angry energy, nearly missing her index finger by an inch with the knife. "I bet she wants some juicy stuff on how bad a mom I am with her precious grandchildren."

"You're making a big deal out of nothing. Jeez."

"Oh. I'm the trouble-maker? Everything that goes wrong in this house, she thinks it is my fault!"

"I'm not going over this with you, Rose." Her husband shook his head and walked toward the hallway door then his shoulders shifted in her direction. "You guys work it out. I'm out of it."

"Tim!"


Make sure you see that I changed a period to a comma in the second paragraph.

I look forward to what you submit next week!


Ooooops! I didn't check the word count. I apologize. :oops:

I have a question. In my CWG course (I think that is where I was told), I was told to lowercase the letter of the first word between dialog parts. When is it appropriate to do that or capitalize the first word between dialog? I hope I am making sense here.

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Re: Dialog Trouble

Postby Cajunluvie » Mon Feb 22, 2010 3:57 pm

flyingcross wrote:“Help! I’m soooo lost, and I can’t find ‘said’ anywhere. Please help me.”

“Oh my, you are a sad case for lost and found. I did say to try to move the ‘good stuff’ into the dialog. Maybe I should clarify, ‘said’ is rather bland, not really good stuff, so put it back,” said Jan.

“No, no, I can’t. I can’t find ‘said’ anywhere. I’ve looked. How can I put it back if I haven’t found it?”

“Alright, tighten it up a bit, and remove the excess, and ‘said’ is in there four times,” Jan said,” okay five.”



I eagerly and anxiously await your reply.
Cindy


This is so clever, Cindy. Too cute.

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Postby glorybee » Mon Feb 22, 2010 4:08 pm

Cajunluvie, I'll answer you question with a few examples.

"George, I just don't understand," said Jan, "why you always shrink my sweaters."

In the above example, the dialog tag interrupts a sentence, so the 'w' in 'why' does not get capitalized.

"George, I just don't understand you," said Jan. "Why do you always shrink my sweaters?"

In this example, there are complete sentences on either side of the dialog tag. So the 'W' in 'Why' gets a capital letter.

Jan shook her head in dismay. "George, I just don't understand you." She held up a shrunken sweater, formerly size twelve.

That paragraph consists of three complete, separate sentences. They all get capital letters.

Did I cover all of the circumstances that puzzle you?
Jan Ackerson

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