Writing Hack #4 : Making your dialogue 3D using action and internal thought

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In last week’s blog post I talked about creating character depth, and the week before that about dialogue attributions. This week’s post combines a bit of both, developing dialogue further and at the same time bringing some subtle character depth. How do we do this? By having your characters active during dialogue, or in other words, have them multi-task.

“I see people in terms of dialogue and I believe that people are their talk.” Roddy Doyle

Life Vs Fiction

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In life, things rarely happen one thing at a time; you read the news on your phone while stirring your coffee whilst your stomach grumbles for your lunch. You doodle on a pad while talking on the phone. The contrivance of fiction is to actually tell things one at a time, word by word and sentence by sentence and for good reason. Imagine transcribing onto the page the full sensory experience of a single moment. How would you get across all the thoughts you have in a split second, what you’re hearing, seeing, smelling and touching? As a human you can experience all these things at once, but to accurately convey everything together in a sentence all at once? In the words of Macauley Culkin, ‘I don’t think so.’. 

Using action in dialogue

One way of imitating life and making your dialogue more three dimensional is to use action. Let’s look at an example. First, with no action – just flat dialogue with a bit of scene setting beforehand .

Dialogue, without action

Leah shuffled down onto the floor, took off her hair band and handed it to me. I stretched my hand through it so it ringed my wrist like a bracelet. I gathered up her hair in three bunches.

‘God it’s not fair, why isn’t my hair as nice as this. We use the same conditioner.’

‘Yours is longer,’ Leah said.

‘Maybe I should cut mine too.’

‘Please don’t. Can you imagine it at school, “Ooh look here comes the twins!” Urgh.’

‘Yeah.’ I said. 

‘What do you think about Jamie?”

‘Think about him? I don’t think anything about him.’

‘Well, he’s your friend. Don’t you think he’s handsome, come on you must have noticed?’

‘All done here.’

Dialogue with action.

Now let’s check it out with some action and internal thought, same intro. 

Leah shuffled down onto the floor, took off her hair band and handed it to me. I stretched my hand through it so it ringed my wrist like a bracelet. I gathered up her hair in three bunches.

‘God it’s not fair, why isn’t my hair as nice as this. We use the same conditioner.’ I ran my hands through it, letting her hair fall between my fingers, as light as sifting flour.

‘Yours is longer,’ Leah said, turning the page of a magazine in her lap.

‘Maybe I should cut mine too.’

Leah closed the magazine shut like a book. ‘Please don’t. Can you imagine it at school, “Ooh look here comes the twins!” Urgh.’

‘Yeah.’ I said and weaved her hair neatly through into another plait.

‘What do you think about Jamie?”

It came out of nowhere and for a second i just stopped what I was doing. ”Think about him? I don’t think anything about him.’ 

‘Well, he’s your friend. Don’t you think he’s handsome, come on you must have noticed?’

I gave her hair a tug, slightly too rough and wrapped the hair band around the bottom of the plait. ‘All done here.’

White ringed my wrist where the hairband had been to too tight. 

                                                              *

Notice the difference? We learn more about the characters, their personalities through some subtle, and maybe sometimes not so subtle action and internal thought. If we think back to dialogue attributions in writing hack #2, we can also just use action instead of an attribution. For example.

‘Now let me see,’ Danny scratched the back of his head with the blunt end of the pencil, ‘about two-hundred, maybe two fifty quid.’

Also, it’s important not to take one technique – like using action to animate dialogue – and apply it 100% of the time. Imagine reading a book where every conversation was animated with loads of action, it would feel a little laborious I think.  Interesting writing has a variety of techniques in it throughout. It’s the job and skill of the author to choose which technique and when to apply it. Using action in dialogue is just one weapon to have in your armoury.

Further reading: the wonderful science-fiction writer Nancy Kress has three books on writing and written fluently about this topic in particular. Check em out!

That’s us. Until next time.

CH


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