Show, not Tell

There are 3 rules for writing the novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are.

Thanksgiving Exercise 1

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Devin and I think writing outside of your story really helps improve your writing. We thought we’d change up the routine this week for Thanksgiving and show our thanks to our readers by offering short exercises to improve your craft.



Today’s Thanksgiving Exercise is on dialogue. A lot of people think they do it well, a lot of people think they can’t do it at all. There’s tons of information out there that outlines what dialogue is supposed to do, which always comes down to one fact: dialogue must do more than one thing.

So, how do you practice dialogue besides just writing? A lot of people will tell you to listen, but real-life dialogue doesn’t hold a candle to written dialogue. Written dialogue is the epitome of what we want to say, not what we actually say.

Here’s the exercise:

1. Read the excerpts up on Gregory Mcdonald’s website. He’s an amazing mystery author who knows how to write good dialogue that reveals more than it says. Notice what you know about the situation his characters are in and what kind of people his characters are–without ever being told. This will inform how you write the dialogue of this exercise.

2. Come up with a scene in a story with two or more people. One person must be engaged in some sort of action that is interesting or engaging;  the scene must have a believable action or sequence of actions that will put your readers in the story. These characters must have some sort of relationship. Brainstorm what you want to happen. (Don’t use characters and a situation from stories you’ve already developed. Create something new!)

If you’re having a difficult time coming up with a situation, why not use Thanksgiving? Put some characters in the kitchen together making food for dinner or put them at the dinner table.

Here’s the writing part:

3. Write only the dialogue of the conversation. The only thing outside of the dialogue you may include are dialogue tags. And even then, you can only use “said” or “asked.”

The challenge of only writing dialogue is that you’re going to be tempted to do a lot of unneeded exposition. Something like this:

“Dan, we’re here at the laundromat. It’s so loud!”

“I know, Jane. Everyone has their clothes going. There’s only one left! We will have to share.”

“That’s okay with me,” said Dan. “I’m going to put my clothes in. Put yours in now, too.”

“I’m putting mine in now,” said Jane. “You put in the soap. I’ll press start.”

This is all exposition. In reality, Jane knows they’re in a laundromat and that it’s loud. Dan would be able to see there’s only one left. This is unauthentic and readers will know that the dialogue is off. Dialogue is not sportscasting. Dialogue is a way to show characterization, situation, and ideas.

Feel free to post your exercises on your blogs or in the comments! I’d love to read what you come up with 🙂


Written by Jessica Lei

November 22, 2010 at 6:00 am

Posted in Dialogue, Exercises

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