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

phone-old-year-built-1955-bakelite-163007

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

coffee-cup-spoon-cappuccino

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


Writing Hack #2: Dialogue attributions.

butlerAttributions should be like butlers, they’re there if you need them, but the best ones go unnoticed.

Here’s the thing. At school you may have been told to avoid repetition, and to use synonyms. While that is sound advice when trying to build a vocabulary, you can ruin good dialogue by following that rule. Let’s take a closer look.

Attributions

Attributions are where you want to ‘attribute’ a line of speech to a particular character. Like: 

‘Let’s go and see that movie,’ said Bill.

‘So you can just sit there and stare at pretty actresses all night? I don’t think so,’ said Carol.

When writing a novel, dialogue aerates the prose so you will end up writing a lot of it. The temptation to jazz it up comes to us all. Can I really just say he said, she said all the time? If you don’t, you might end up writing lines like this.

‘What!’ spat Bill.

‘You heard me and you needn’t look so bloody angry. I’ve seen you looking, don’t think i haven’t,’ Carol retorted. 

What’s happening now is, the argument is hotting up, it’s getting interesting, but i’m drawing a little attention away from it with a technical detail. I’m distracting you with flowery attributions. The interesting thing is the argument, its content and development and NOT the synonyms for ‘said’.

In a simple two way conversation like this between Bill and Carol, it’s actually better to not attribute at all once you’ve established the rhythm of who’s talking. If a new character enters, or there are more than two, you’ll find you need to use attributions more often.

‘When have I been looking? At who?’

‘When we’re watching the telly. When we’re out. All the bloody time. You’re staring at the pretty newscasters. You’re staring at the waitress at Orsini’s. At that trussed up–’

‘Guys?’ Samantha was at the door, holding her headphones, ‘I heard raised voices, is everything all right?’

‘Fine.’ Bill said. ‘Your mother and I were just arguing about what film to watch. Come on now Carol, grab your coat or we’ll miss the trailers.’

 Now you’re more focussed on the dialogue, rather than the attributions. And that’s how it should be. I’ll talk more about dialogue in other posts, like using action sometimes instead of attributions, but for now let’s do a quick re-cap;

  • Keep attributions simple and unobtrusive. He said/she said is fine, and a few variations (she replied/he yelled/she whispered etc. where appropriate.) Remember, attributions are like a butler – the best ones go unnoticed!
  • If you know intuitively who is saying the line of dialogue, either through their speech style or verbal tells, or simply because it’s their turn to speak, then you don’t need an attribution. It’s cleaner without.
  • The job of attributions is to make clear who is saying the line of speech. The reader shouldn’t need to work to figure out who’s talking.  The more people present in a scene, the more attributions you are likely to need. 

‘–