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Jan's Writing Basics #5b--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 #5b--Dialog

Postby glorybee » Mon Feb 15, 2010 5:16 pm

Sorry I'm late with this class! Things should be back to normal in my household fairly soon.

Here's a quick review of the first four classes:

1. Use strong, interesting words--especially nouns and verbs
2. Get rid of unnecessary adjectives and adverbs
3. Choose the right tense for your piece, and stick to it
4. Don't use exclamation points. Well, use them rarely

This week's lesson will be Part One of two (or maybe three) on dialog. Well-written dialog can really bump up the quality of your short stories, so I'd like to deal with it quite thoroughly.

By the way, I won't be teaching the punctuation or mechanics of dialog. If you're not sure about those, check online or study published examples. Instead, I'll cover common dialog pitfalls of beginner and intermediate writers.

Tip #1: Disregard some of those grammar rules you've learned. Unlike Commander Data and Jeannie (Barbara Eden--remember her?), real people speak in sentence fragments and run-ons. They stammer, they don't complete their thoughts, they split infinitives and end sentences with prepositions. They use contractions--a lot. Eavesdrop on a conversation sometime this week; you'll hear how very irregular converstaion is, compared to writing. The rules really don't apply.

Tip #2: Make sure your dialog is true to your characters. Very frequently, I read stories where 6-year-olds, for example, speak with wisdom and vocabulary far beyond their years. Other common dialog errors: slang from the wrong era, failure to use the jargon and speech patterns associated with particular careers, or speech that is otherwise wrong for the character's age, economic status, geography, or other life situation. If you're not sure how your character would speak, find someone who's equivalent to that character and just listen for a while.

Tip #3: Use dialog--rather than description--to reveal character details. Rather than telling your readers that Zach is a 16-year-old nerd obsessed with role-playing games and collector cards, show them by having him say something like "Dude, you look just like the Jester of Crowns in my expansion pack." Show your reader that Hilda is a vinegary little old lady by having her say "Well, bless your soul, sweetheart, who would have imagined wearing an outfit like that to church?"

That's enough for now--I've got plenty of dialog tips for at least one more class. For now, I'll leave you with some...

HOMEWORK: Fix this. Feel free to do whatever it needs--add to it, develop it, be creative!

Jocelyn, a 14-year-old girl, was upset with her mother! "I can not believe that you will not let me go to see the movie called Spring Break Axe Murderer, with my best friends Ashley and Tiffani. All of the teenagers are going to the movie theater this evening."

Tina, a mother only in her early thirties because she had had Jocelyn when she was very young herself, was one of those mothers who tries to be a friend to her teenager. She thought for a while, and after seeing Jocelyn's great unhappiness, she decided to relent. "You may go to the movies with your young friends tonight. Be certain that you are cautious and careful, please." She is just like me, Tina thought to herself.


By the way--this is a hot mess, and not just the dialog. My favorite part of writing this class every week is writing these intentionally horrid samples for you to tear apart. Have at it!

If you do the homework, please add a question or comment about this week's lesson. If you don't feel like doing the homework--I'd still love to hear from you.
Jan Ackerson

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Postby Anja » Mon Feb 15, 2010 5:31 pm

By the way, I won't be teaching the punctuation or mechanics of dialog. If you're not sure about those, check online or study published examples.


I'll be covering this, so stayed posted. Several people have requested it, and it's on my list.
Ann Grover

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Re: Jan's Writing Basics #5b--Dialog

Postby violin4jesus » Mon Feb 15, 2010 10:15 pm

I glared. I fumed. Finally, I couldn't stand it any longer. "Mom, Ashley and Tiffani's parents have no problem with this movie. You're the only one making a big deal about it."

She muted her ridiculous soap opera and turned on the sofa to face me. "What movie?"

"I told you. Spring Break Axe Murderer. It's only PG-13. And I am fourteen, you know."

"Well...." I could see her rethinking the idea. This would be my only opportunity.

"Everyone is going tonight, Mom. I will definitely be considered 'uncool' if I miss it. Besides, I have my own money. I don't have to borrow yours." I crossed my fingers behind my back, praying she would remember what it's like to be a teenager. She had me at seventeen, which took away a lot of her fun - a fact I had only a slight tendency to exploit.

She gave me the most stern look she could muster. "You can go, then, but please be careful, Jocelyn. I want you to have fun with your friends, but you need to be cautious and careful."

"Thanks, Mom!" I jumped up and kissed her cheek. "You're the best."

"Okay, okay." She grabbed my hand before I walked away, smiling wistfully. "Geez, you're so much like me."

-------

Dialogue is usually what makes my entries shine. It's easy to set the tone of the story, characterize the different people, and move the action along.

I like to use actions of characters as tags, rather than the "he said, she said." You can see it in the above example fairly well.

Thanks for the momentary hiatus from wedding planning. :)

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Postby OldManRivers » Mon Feb 15, 2010 10:49 pm

I am a little out of my league with this mother daughter thing, being the father of two sons, but here it goes...

Jocelyn, a 14-year-old girl, was upset with her mother! "I can not believe that you will not let me go to see the movie called Spring Break Axe Murderer, with my best friends Ashley and Tiffani. All of the teenagers are going to the movie theater this evening."

Tina, a mother only in her early thirties because she had had Jocelyn when she was very young herself, was one of those mothers who tries to be a friend to her teenager. She thought for a while, and after seeing Jocelyn's great unhappiness, she decided to relent. "You may go to the movies with your young friends tonight. Be certain that you are cautious and careful, please." She is just like me, Tina thought to herself.


The fourteen year old Jocelyn, upset with her mother, said, “I can’t believe you won’t let me go to the movies. Ashley and Tiffani are going. Everybody else’s parents are letting them go. Just because it’s called Spring Break Axe Murderer, you freak out.”

Tina was very young when she had Jocelyn, possibly explaining Tina’s need to always wanting to be her daughter’s friend. After some second thoughts on making her daughter so unhappy, Tina relented. “Alright. You can go. But please, please, be careful.” And as she spoke these words, Tina fretted, “She’s just like me.”
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Postby glorybee » Tue Feb 16, 2010 8:53 am

Leah, you're definitely good at dialog, I agree.

You've perked up Jocelyn's and Tina's leaden dialog quite a bit. In my mind, they still don't sound exactly like real teens and mothers speak, which is generally far more confrontational...and is that a POV switch in the last paragraph I see?

I love your taglessness; it's the way I most like to write dialog, too. Christian wirter Lisa Samson is absolutely fantastic at that.
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Postby glorybee » Tue Feb 16, 2010 8:58 am

Jim, I love what you've done with Jocelyn--having her say things like "freak out." I wonder if it's necessary to include her age? Her dialog implies it.

To my eye, there's still a lot of "telling" with Tina's character. Can you indicate that Tina's a young, immature mother, possibly not totally in control of her wayward daughter--without giving the backstory--mostly in her dialog?

Yeah, I purposefully made it challenging.

I like your use of "fretted" in place of my "she thought to herself". Who else could one think to?
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Postby OldManRivers » Tue Feb 16, 2010 9:29 am

Jocelyn snapped back to her mother, “I can’t believe you won’t let me go to the movies. Ashley and Tiffani are going. Everybody else’s parents are letting them go. Just because it’s called Spring Break Axe Murderer, you freak out.”

Tina, having second thoughts, relented. “Alright. You can go. But please, please, be careful.” And as she spoke these words, Tina fretted, “She’s just like me.”
May God's gentle grace be with you.

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Postby glorybee » Tue Feb 16, 2010 11:07 am

Better, Jim...you're not "telling".

What about having Tina use some teen lingo herself, to show her own immaturity and lack of parental control? Or, if you want her to be a more capable parent than that--how about infusing her words with some personality quirk, some idiom, some wit or sarcasm?

(I'm waiting to write my own example--still waiting for more students to weigh in before I do that...)

I appreciate your trying to get into the "teenage girl/mom" mode! Would you consider a variation of the same scene with a teenage boy and his dad?
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Postby Cajunluvie » Tue Feb 16, 2010 12:53 pm

You'd think over my Mardi Gras weekend, I wouldn't have (aaaaahhhh) homework! LOL. Just kidding, Jan. 8)

HOMEWORK: Fix this. Feel free to do whatever it needs--add to it, develop it, be creative!

Jocelyn, a 14-year-old girl, was upset with her mother! "I can not believe that you will not let me go to see the movie called Spring Break Axe Murderer, with my best friends Ashley and Tiffani. All of the teenagers are going to the movie theater this evening."

Tina, a mother only in her early thirties because she had had Jocelyn when she was very young herself, was one of those mothers who tries to be a friend to her teenager. She thought for a while, and after seeing Jocelyn's great unhappiness, she decided to relent. "You may go to the movies with your young friends tonight. Be certain that you are cautious and careful, please." She is just like me, Tina thought to herself.


Jocelyn parked her lithe body front of Tina's path, blocking the t.v. from her view.

"Mo-ooom!" Jocelyn whined as her hands went wild in a flurry of gestures punctuating her words. "I'm going to be laughed out at Ryder High."

Tina sighed at her daughter's histrionics.

"Mom, are you deaf? I swear you just don't listen to me. It's JUST a movie. Who cares?"

Typical Jocelyn. Tina wished these days that she could roll time back to when Jocelyn was 5 years old who loved her mother and followed her every move. Not anymore. She wasn't ready for the change she was seeing in Jocelyn these past few months.

"I just-" Tina rubbed her forehead hesitatingly. Jocelyn interrupted, "Mom, it is almost 4 now. I gotta get ready for Ash and Tiffani. They're coming over soon."

"I told you already, Jocelyn Rose. No. Bad idea." Tina shook her head.

Jocelyn rolled her eyes and crossed her arms. "Arrrrrgh. Moth--er. I'm 14 now. I can handle a stupid movie like 'Axe Murderer'," she pleaded, "All the cool kids are seeing it. I don't wanna be a dork! I'm gonna die if I don't get to see it. Please. Please. Please."

"I guess why not... You'll just do it anyway if I said no or yes."

Gilmore Girls was coming on and she didn't want to miss her favorite show. If Jocelyn wanted to go to a movie with her buddies, who was she to say no to her. She knew how it felt to be so young and ready to act all grown-up.

"Wait, before you get all excited-" Tina held up her hand. "Be careful. Call me. You hear me? Call me when the movie's over. I mean it."

"Whatever, yeah." Jocelyn ran to her mother and pecked a fleeting kiss on Tina's cheek.

Tina sighed again and turned her face back to the t.v., engrossed once again with a 'Gilmore Girls' rerun.

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Postby CatLin » Tue Feb 16, 2010 1:06 pm

“Come on, Mom.” Jocelyn stomped her foot. ‘Spring Break Axe Murder’ is rated PG-13. I’m plenty old enough to see it. And Ashley’s mom said she’d drive her and me and Tiffani’s, and, like, the whole school is going to be there. You’re ruining my life. Why do you hate me so much?”

“I remember saying that very thing to my mom when I was 14. I don’t hate you any more than she hated me.” She’s so young, so beautiful, so innocent. So naive. Like I was. “I just don’t want you to make the same mistakes I did.” Tina rubbed her temple. And I don’t want to make the same mistakes my mother did. “Ok, since Ashley’s mom is driving you, and if you promise to be home by 10:30, you can go.”

Jocelyn threw her arms around her mom, almost knocking her to the kitchen floor. “I love you so much! Thank you - you won’t be sorry, I promise. I gotta go call Ashley and Tiff.”



If I'd read the other homework before I submitted, I might have chickened out. Mine isn't nearly as good. And I see I couldn't help myself - I threw in an exclamation point.

I like writing dialog - I listen to the characters talk in my head before I write their words. Doing "Southern" is easiest for me - all I have to do is hear my husband. :D This time I was interrupted by so many things. Started this last night and... well, I can come up with more excuses for it's badness if you want me to. ;)
Last edited by CatLin on Tue Feb 16, 2010 1:13 pm, edited 1 time in total.
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Postby glorybee » Tue Feb 16, 2010 1:12 pm

Okay, I'll comment specifically on some of these later. Just a general observation:

I'm an old fogey.

I really thought there'd be more objection to the content of the movie! It's called "Spring Break Ax Murderer!"

I'm just kidding (mostly)

It seems that the most challenging part of this is giving Tina (the mother) a specific voice. She might be only 30 years old or so...can you make her sound young, hard, jaded?

Be back in a bit--got some chores to do...
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Postby Green Leaves » Tue Feb 16, 2010 1:27 pm

All I have read so far is your lesson, not other's entries.

I just want to say first off, THIS IS WAY BEYOND MY SKILL LEVEL. Like I said, I don't write fiction. I have a difficult enough time writing prose. But I want to try this assignment anyway. Gotta learn sometime, right? I just can't do it right now. But I'll be back, okay?

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Postby PamDavis » Tue Feb 16, 2010 2:06 pm

Like most young girls, Jocelyn felt like her mother must be clueless to her generation. In a heated disagreement about her choice of a night time movie, she defiantly stood her ground.
“How can you be so mean to me? All the other parents are letting their kids go! I’ll just die if Ashley and Tiffani go without me! The movie isn’t really about an axe murder! They just called it Spring Break Axe Murderer to sell more tickets.”

Tina liked to think of herself as lenient. She read the latest parenting articles in an effort to keep up to date with the teens of today. Surely things could not have changed that much since she grew up in the 1980’s. She stretched the boundaries wanting to keep peace, and a close mother-daughter relationship. Some issues left no room for compromise.

“Jocelyn, you know the rules. You are never allowed to see R rated violent movies! Call your friends and pick out another movie. If it’s OK, I’ll let you go out tonight. If not, you’ll stay home and clean your room! End of discussion!”

It is not always easy to write on the level of younger people, but so nice when things really fit...

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Postby Cajunluvie » Tue Feb 16, 2010 2:23 pm

I am not sure, Jan. I was fairly young at 20 when I had my kid. I know few girls I grew up who had theirs even younger. I was thinking of how worn-down the mother would be raising a child that young and by the time she hits 30 or up when her kid is already a teen-... she's more likely to give in easier if she wants to be "buddy-buddy" with her daughter. At that age as a mother of a teen- she probably would not object so strong about the movie than a more mature mother later in life?

What ya think? :mrgreen:

I think this story could go different directions, maybe.

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Postby glorybee » Tue Feb 16, 2010 2:51 pm

Cajunluvie, I think you did an excellent job capturing the personalities of both these gals. I only question this line:

"I'm going to be laughed out at Ryder High."

I'm pretty sure Tina knows where her daughter goes to school, and I just can't picture a 9th grader saying that. I'd be like me saying to my hubby "Hon, I really loved the service this morning at Three Oaks Free Methodist." More likely:

"They'll laugh at me!" Kids just don't string together long sentences, generally.

What do you think?
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