Show, not Tell

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Archive for the ‘Dialogue’ Category

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

Lesson 10

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This lesson is about dialogue (I’m not sure when we started spelling it dialog), because it’s really important. Even Nathan Bransford thinks so in his recent article, “Seven Keys to Writing Good Dialogue.”

I, however, would like to propose an eighth addition to Mr. Bransford’s list.

8. Good dialogue reveals character relationships.

Often in real conversation, people, especially good friends, have a rhythm and cadence about what they’re saying that incorporate spoken word, unspoken word, gesture, and history. This is too hard to convey in books without creating a Giant Wall of Backstory or telling the readers everything, which is often a no-no.

While dialogue should not be expository in nature, it should be able to say what it means.

Alicia Ransley calls this “interlocking dialogue.” It’s some kind of writerly phenomenon where a normal conversation is given some context by adding in small verbal clues about what the speaker actually means without outright saying it. I’ll take Alicia’s wonderful example and show how it might sound in real life.

Jessica’s IRL version
John: What’s changed is the value of your love.
Mary: No, it hasn’t. It’s always been the same.
John: Then now I’m not regarding it as a trap.
Mary: A trap? My love is?
John: I didn’t say that. I meant not anymore.
Mary: But did you last month?
John: Yeah, I did.
Mary: That was just a month ago.

The point of Alicia’s original was, I’m assuming, to show that the characters really understood one another. The second version, which is what you might hear in real life, seems stilted. They seem to be missing each other’s points. Without context, some of it is missed. No one wants to read between the lines of your dialogue to get at what the apparent meaning should be–they look between the lines for the hidden meaning.

Alicia’s original
John: What’s changed is the value of your love.
Mary: That hasn’t changed. It’s got the same value as it always did.
John: Well, then, now I realize it. I’m not regarding it as a trap now.
Mary: A trap? My love is a trap?
John: I don’t mean it’s a trap. I mean I don’t think of it that way anymore.
Mary: But you did last month?
John: Last month. Yeah.
Mary: Just last month.

Alicia’s original is both somewhat expository, but also natural. It shows that these characters seem to really listen to one another, and understand. Although it still sounds like a fight, it no longer sounds like an attack or accusatory–just, perhaps, desperate to be on the same page. The dialogue reveals their relationship, that they understand each other, that they’re close, and that they’re probably still in love.

I think between characters, demonstrating their relationship by making sure the characters are picking up on the right words and using them to answer makes for good dialogue. Some characters may miscommunicate, maybe they don’t like this person so they don’t even care what they’re saying and it may even show in their conversation.

Does anyone else have any ideas about what good dialogue should accomplish?

Written by Jessica Lei

September 9, 2010 at 4:48 pm

Posted in Dialogue, Lessons, Writing