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Jan's Writing Basics #7--Final lesson on 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 #7--Final lesson on dialog

Postby glorybee » Mon Mar 01, 2010 8:40 am

Welcome to the last of three lessons on dialog! I’m really pleased with the responses in the first two lessons; I think you’re all experimenting with new ways to write dialog so that it sounds more natural, helps to enhance characterization, and establishes a good pace for your writing.

Before we start the final lesson, here’s this week’s

Quick Take: the abbreviation “vs.” stands for the word “versus”, not “verses” or “verse”. It means “against”.

This is a very common mistake, and it doesn’t help any that even television sportscasters get it wrong. More than once during the Olympics, I heard a commentator say “the United States verse Canada” or some such statement.

When I taught high school, it was very common to hear students ask each other “Who do we verse in the basketball game tonight?” As much as I like to imagine basketball players reciting poetry at each other, the usage is still wrong.


Okay, back to dialog.

I really don’t want to take away from Ann’s instruction on the punctuation and mechanics of dialog-writing (coming soon), so I’ll encourage you to look at the placement of the commas and periods in the following examples, and also at the capital and lower case letters. There are also several websites you can access with instruction on this tricky skill. So on this week’s homework submissions, I’m just going to comment on the content, and if there are problems with punctuation or capitalization, I’ll just note that and encourage you to give it a final polish.

I’ve already covered a few dialog pointers:

1. Be sure your dialog sounds natural—like the speech of real people
2. Be sure that it’s true to your character’s age, sex, status in life, and geography
3. Use dialog to develop your characters
4. Don’t overuse fancy verbs in your dialog tags—you can use said most times (although there are certainly some times when you’ll want to use a different verb).
5. Think twice before using a verb + adverb in a dialog tag. Then think again.

The bulk of this lesson is largely a repeat of last year's lesson on dialog, so if you were a follower of last year’s classes, you’re permitted to pass on this one.

A writer has many choices about how to write any given snippet of dialog.

1. Put the dialog tag first.

Jan said, “My granddaughter loves to nibble on her own chubby toes.”

This is a perfectly fine way to write dialog. It’s not used as often as #2 below, but if you have a story with a lot of dialog—especially an extended back-and-forth conversation—putting the tag first will give it a bit of variety.

Of course, you can also use a verb other than said in this construction. Do so intentionally—ask yourself if you need the verb in the tag, or if you can tweak the speech to show that action.

A rare usage:

Said Jan, “My granddaughter loves to nibble on her own chubby toes.”

Putting said first is more often seen in poetry or in prose from an earlier century.

2. Put the dialog tag at the end.

“I love how Piper nibbles her tootsies,” said Jan.

This is probably the most common, all-purpose construction. As with #1, you can vary this by using a verb other than said (with the same cautions). You could also write it thus:

“I love how Piper nibbles her tootsies,” Jan said.

3. Put the dialog tag in the middle.

“In any comparison of grandbabies,” said Jan, “my own would certainly come out on top.”

This is another good way to vary the rhythm of your dialog sentences, and in my opinion, it’s underused. If you do this, be sure to break up the speech in a natural place. For example, the following sentence just feels wrong:

“In any comparison of grandbabies, my own would,” said Jan, “certainly come out on top.”

As with #1 or #2, substitute for said when absolutely necessary.

4. Don’t use a dialog tag at all.

“Have you seen Piper’s adorable blonde fluff?”

“Jan, you're just a teensy bit obnoxious about that baby.”


Tagless dialog will move your story right along, and will save you precious words. If you do this, be sure that your reader can keep track of each speaker by

a. giving each one a distinctive voice
b. having them address each other by name every now and then
c. referring occasionally to other identifying events or characteristics
d. adding tags every so often

NOTE: if you find that your story consists almost entirely of dialog, consider writing it in the form of a play or a skit. Or italicize one voice. All-dialog stories are very difficult to write well, but can be very effective when they are.

5. Use a sentence describing the speakers’ actions either just before or just after the speech.

Jan bounced her granddaughter on her lap. “How’s my little Pippie today?”

“Phew, that diaper is ripe!” Jan held Piper out at arms’ length.


This is a very effective way to write dialog. In fact, it’s so effective that some writers use it as their only dialog-writing technique. I don’t have much of a problem with that…if you’re going to use only one of these five techniques, this is the one to use. But I also like to see some variety in dialogue, so that’s what I’ll assign for your

HOMEWORK: Write a little story (be merciful—less than 300 words, please), using a variety of dialogue techniques.

If you choose to do the homework, please make a comment or ask a question.

Of course, you may make a comment or ask a question regardless of whether you do the homework.


EXTRA CREDIT: Flip through the pages of your favorite novelist and observe how he or she writes dialog. How does that affect his or her work? For example, Lisa Samson writes almost entirely tagless dialog, and her novels are very briskly paced.
Last edited by glorybee on Mon Mar 01, 2010 7:34 pm, edited 3 times in total.
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Postby glorybee » Mon Mar 01, 2010 9:28 am

oops, forgot to 'sticky' this again...

*bump*
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Postby AnneRene' » Mon Mar 01, 2010 1:23 pm

Rushing through the front door, out of breath, John said “You aren’t going to believe what just happened. “Man, there’s a helicopter, three fire trucks and two ambulances down at the river.”

Jumping up from her reading chair, Cathy asked, “Do you know what happened?”

“A rafter flew out of the raft at Troublemaker rapid and they still can’t find her.” John said.

“Do you know how long ago and if it’s a local?”

“It wasn’t anyone we know. Ken’s down there and told me it happened about forty-five minutes ago. Said he was there when the girl fell out and nobody’s seen her since.”

Sadly, Cathy asked, “Do you know the victim’s age or if she was rafting with her family?”

“I heard someone say she just graduated from High School and her parents brought her up here from the Bay Area for her graduation present. Man, what a total drag.”

“This is the third time this year; someone has died in those rapids.” Cathy said. “I’m going down there and see if I can help in any way.”

As Cathy was leaving, she said a silent prayer, Lord; I pray that this young girl knew you, had received her salvation and is now resting in your perfect peace. Let her parents have their salvation too and comfort them through this tragedy with your Holy Love that surpasses all understanding. In Jesus name, I pray, Amen.”

QUESTION: Don't know correct way to capitalize "Bay Area" in 7th paragraph.

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Postby AnneRene' » Mon Mar 01, 2010 1:26 pm

What does sticky actually mean? Just a last minute note?

And what does *bump* mean? :oops:

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Postby glorybee » Mon Mar 01, 2010 2:37 pm

AnneRene' wrote:What does sticky actually mean? Just a last minute note?

And what does *bump* mean? :oops:


AnneRene, a "sticky" post is one that a moderator can "stick" to the top of its forum, so that it stays near the top of the list (non-stickied posts will appear beneath the stickied ones). You can tell the difference between sticky and non-sticky posts by their icons on the forums page--the sticky icon is made to resemble a glob of glue.

You bump a post to the top of the list by replying to it. In this case, I bumped it because it had fallen onto page two of my Writing Forum, and I was afraid people wouldn't find it. Then once I got it back to the top of the page, I stickied it so it would stay at the top.

Anyone can bump, but only moderators or administrators can sticky.

Hope that made sense to you--now I'll take a look at your homework! Let me know if you have any more questions; I'm always glad to answer.
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Postby glorybee » Mon Mar 01, 2010 2:53 pm

AnneRene' wrote:Rushing through the front door, out of breath, John said “You aren’t going to believe what just happened. “Man, there’s a helicopter, three fire trucks and two ambulances down at the river.”

Jumping up from her reading chair, Cathy asked, “Do you know what happened?”

“A rafter flew out of the raft at Troublemaker rapid and they still can’t find her.” John said.

“Do you know how long ago and if it’s a local?”

“It wasn’t anyone we know. Ken’s down there and told me it happened about forty-five minutes ago. Said he was there when the girl fell out and nobody’s seen her since.”

Sadly, Cathy asked, “Do you know the victim’s age or if she was rafting with her family?”

“I heard someone say she just graduated from High School and her parents brought her up here from the Bay Area for her graduation present. Man, what a total drag.”

“This is the third time this year; someone has died in those rapids.” Cathy said. “I’m going down there and see if I can help in any way.”

As Cathy was leaving, she said a silent prayer, Lord; I pray that this young girl knew you, had received her salvation and is now resting in your perfect peace. Let her parents have their salvation too and comfort them through this tragedy with your Holy Love that surpasses all understanding. In Jesus name, I pray, Amen.”

QUESTION: Don't know correct way to capitalize "Bay Area" in 7th paragraph.


AnneRene, your capitalization of "Bay Area" was correct.

This mini-story has good pacing and a nice mix of types of dialog. I don't see any of #5 in my lesson (using sentences describing action). Your 2nd paragraph is close--maybe something like this would work:

Cathy jumped up from her reading chair. "Do you know the victim's age or if she was rafting with her family?"

The difference is that in a #5 type of dialog, there's no said or said substitute. The action being described is NOT the speech, but some other action happening at the same time (or nearly the same time).

I'd put the prayer in italics.

As I mentioned in the lesson, I'm not going to speicifically correct punctuation or capitalization of the dialog. You have some comma/period errors to fix; look at paragraphs 1, 3, and 8.

It's a great set-up for a longer story--lots of conflict and tension to be resolved. I hope you write this some day!

Any follow-up questions? Fire 'em this way!
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Postby AnneRene' » Mon Mar 01, 2010 5:23 pm

I'm not sure if you wanted to see the corrections or not. Decided to play it safe, and do them. If not, I'll realize that, if you don't respond. :)

Corrections in red

Okay, got it about the action not being the speech, so don’t use said or said substitute.


#1
Rushing through the front door, out of breath, John said, “You aren’t going to believe what just happened, man there’s a helicopter, three fire trucks and two ambulances down at the river.”

Using man is now throwing me for a loop with the punctuation
happened, man,
happened man, (starting to think this is the correct use?)


#3
“A rafter flew out of the raft at Troublemaker Rapid, and they still can’t find her.” John said.

#8
“This is the third time this year; someone has died in those rapids.” Cathy said, “I’m going down there and see if I can help in any way.”

After reading paragraph 8, think it may have been better to use, going down there to see if I can help in any way?


As Cathy was leaving, she said a silent prayer, Lord; I pray that this young girl knew you, had received her salvation and is now resting in your perfect peace. Let her parents have their salvation too and comfort them through this tragedy with your Holy Love that surpasses all understanding. In Jesus name, I pray, Amen.”

Should I have just used a comma after Lord?

Thanks for the idea to use this as a larger story. I will work on it.

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Postby AnneRene' » Mon Mar 01, 2010 5:25 pm

Oh and thank you for clearing up the "sticky" notes and the bump issue. Totally understand now :)

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Postby glorybee » Mon Mar 01, 2010 5:43 pm

AnnRene', I've sent you a PM. Check your inbox!

I'd love to see a 2nd try (or the extra credit), since so far it's just you and me on this lesson. Care to give it another go?
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Postby OldManRivers » Mon Mar 01, 2010 6:23 pm

Jan, here is a clip out of one of my Ian MacKenzie novels. The scene is a local diner, one of MacKenzie's favorite haunts.

"Morning, Shirley. Hey, Mary."

My usual stool, the second one, was taken. The stool had vanished into the rear of a phone company worker who you could easily classify as on the Jumbo size. So I settled for the fifth stool, close to where Mary usually set herself, yet far enough away from the sweaty mouth-breather.

Before Mary could take my order, Shirley took it through the window. "Mac, you want the Sunrise?" I gave her the OK sign and she followed with, "You like 'em scrambled, don't you?"

I gave her a nod. Mary soon came over with the coffee and poured it into one of those off-white coffee mugs with the Maxwell House label printed on them. They were a recent addition to the diner's decor. A Maxwell House coffee salesman probably sold a ton of over-priced coffee by throwing in those mugs for free. Big Shirley was always easy pickings for deals like that.

As she poured, Mary asked, "Hey, what brings you in so early today?"

"Oh, I got an early call. Some nuns found the body of the Archbishop dead and gone to heaven this morning. Right there at the Church."

"You mean Saint Francis Church?"

"Yep. Right there in that little garden that's next to Tremont."

"Lordy be, Mac. I sometimes go to Mass at that church."

"You go to Mass?"

"Sometimes," she said with an air of offense taken. "Well, what happened to His Eminence?"

"Oh, probably just keeled over from a heart attack. The old guy had to have been getting up there."

Shirley's voice jumped in, "Mary. MacKenzie's Sunrise is ready."

One issue, Jan, is that highlighted "Sometimes" interjection. I can't decide if the tone needs to be explained or not.
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Postby glorybee » Mon Mar 01, 2010 6:43 pm

Jim, I like that highlighted passage. It's got a certain meter to it, and flows more pleasingly than, say:

"Sometimes," she said defensively.

This is a perfect illustration of the art of writing--there are exceptions to every writing 'rule', and masterful writers can feel when to use them. This passage is a wonderful example of dialog done well.

(In the very last sentence, I'd have put a period after jumped in. MacKenzie's editor missed that.)
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Postby AnneRene' » Mon Mar 01, 2010 6:46 pm

EXTRA CREDIT

Currently reading the Mitford Series by, Jan Karon

Pretty interesting now that I know what I know. Truth is, sometimes I find myself getting bored when she narrates too much. (I am pretty ignorant in the correct terminology for POV's) ie...MC. I only know that to mean, Master of Ceremonies. :)

Anyway, I find myself perking up the most while reading these books when she uses tagless dialogue . Yes, I need those breaks of he said, she said, sometimes, but too many of those, puts knots in my stomach.

I have several books by, Frank Peretti and was on the edge of my seat almost the entire time I read his books. After looking through This Present Darkness, didn't find many he said/she said's.

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Postby AnneRene' » Mon Mar 01, 2010 6:56 pm

OldManRivers wrote:
Shirley's voice jumped in, "Mary. MacKenzie's Sunrise is ready."


Maybe I am just burnt out today, but can either of you tell me why you would use a period after Mary instead of a comma?

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Postby glorybee » Mon Mar 01, 2010 6:57 pm

MC=Main Character

Thanks for doing the extra credit! I've loved Jan Karon's books, and although I haven't read any Peretti since his first two or three, I remember his work well. It's very interesting to know how different authors deal with dialog.

One of a writer's most valuable exercises is reading like a writer. Sometimes I just want to read a book for pure pleasure, but other times, I read and analyze what I just read. Why did he pick that phrase? Why did he write from that POV? Why is that paragraph so long? Why does that character talk that way?

It's amazing what we can learn that way.
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Postby AnneRene' » Mon Mar 01, 2010 7:04 pm

MC=Main Character...I think I'm gonna be stuck being a Newbie for quite some time. LOL

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