Following on from our previous article, Five tips on how to Punctuate your Dialogue, in this next workshop I’m going to show you three ways to weave action and dialogue into your writing using body language, action and internal thoughts.
Consider the following exchange:
‘Morning, Jane. Did you sleep well?’ He smiled at her.‘Yes, thank you, Mike. I slept well. Did you?’ She smiled back.‘Good,’ said Mike. ‘May I join you?’‘Yes, of course,’ replied Jane.He drew a chair out from the table, sat down and smiled at her.
This is what we mean by redundant dialogue, and it’s a big no-no. So, what should you do to make your story move forward?
The dialogue in this scene is stifling. Perhaps that’s what the meant to do. Perhaps it may be necessary to show the characters’ fraught relationship, but what does it add to story, what does it show about how the character’s feeling and how does it add to the plot?
As a writer looking for publication, these are the questions you have to ask yourself about your dialogue.
A better way of writing this dialogue may be:
‘Morning, Jane,’ he said. The words came out terse, much more than he intended. ‘Sleep well?’ He feigned a smile. She didn’t look up. ‘Yes, thank you, Mike. I slept very well.’ She turned the page of her newspaper. ‘Good,’ he said, looking around the little café. There didn’t seem to be any spare tables. ‘It’s busy isn’t it?’ He waited for a response, but none was forthcoming, so he gestured toward the empty seat opposite her. ‘Mind if I join you?’ ‘Be my guest,’ she replied, gritting her teeth. Good grief. Of all the cafés and all the tables, he had to be here at the same time as her. ‘You’re too kind.’ He scraped a chair from under the table and sat down.
It’s better than the first one, that’s for sure! Reading between the lines of this dialogue and taking into account the asides used, you can tell that relations between these two characters are frosty. This is a good technique if the relationship is crucial to the story. You see how a few tweaks can provide interesting clues as to what’s happening in the scene?
Using Dialogue and Body Language
'Sleep well?' He feigned a smile. ‘Let’s go,’ he said, pulling on his coat. ‘Not a chance.' Her eyes fierce. ‘Past that fence,’ he said, pointing into the distance. ‘Why not?’ she said, with a grin.
If you were to watch these scenes being played out on the stage or screen, you would probably not notice these gestures. But when you have only words and a blank page, sometimes, they need to be stated.
However, too much gesturing and the writing can sound stifled – as if the author has what I call ‘puppet’ characters. It’s the gestures that intensifies the message of the dialogue.
Dialogue and Action
By mixing action and dialogue in the same sequence of events, you give the impression of forward movement, which creates tension in your story.
‘You’re too kind.’ He scraped a chair from under the table and sat down. She ran, breathless along the dark streets. ‘This way,’ she called back to Neil, ‘we’re almost there.’ ‘What do you want do to that for?’ Gareth asked. He put his paper on the nearby coffee table and waited for the response. ‘Well? I’m waiting.’ ‘Watch out!’ yelled Harry. He pushed Jane away from the oncoming car and she rolled onto the grass. The car screeched to a halt just inches from him. ‘Just one more dance,’ she pleaded with Jake. ‘Please.’ He took her arm and led her from the dance floor. ‘Ow! You’re hurting me. Leave go!’
In these examples, the dialogue, combined with action provides clear direction — thus allowing the reader to follow what’s happening in the story. Action gives rise to tension, which in turn keeps the reader engaged. It stands to reason that dialogue and action should always be concerned with propelling the story forward.
Dialogue and Internal Thoughts
If action is all about external conflict, then internal thoughts is all about creating character depth. Note that you can only do this with your point of view character — no head hopping otherwise the reader will become dizzy! The good thing about providing internal thoughts is that you let the reader know more about your character.
‘Be my guest,’ she replied, gritting her teeth. Good grief. Of all the cafés and all the tables, he had to be here at the same time as her. ‘I don’t like that colour,’ she said to Roy. It was a lie, but she didn’t want to buy a dress that they couldn’t afford. ‘I love your hair,’ she said. Why couldn’t her hair ever turn out that colour. Judith always had perfect hair, perfect make-up, perfect nails, perfect marriage. It’s wasn’t fair. Why was she always the one to have everything. Well, she smiled. We’ll soon see about the last one. ‘You haven’t washed the dishes?’ Jane said. For heaven’s sake, it wasn’t as if she’d asked him to clean the whole house while she had been at work. It was simple really. ‘Mark. Are you home?’ No reply. Typical.
As you can see, this shows the reader the true intentions of the character. Character motives are an integral part of the story. The reader needs to understand character motives to keep up with what’s happening in the story. This is why internal thoughts are an effective means of showing internal conflicts in a character and create tension between the character’s internal and external world.
You’ll also notice we’ve managed to incorporate all three in the second example of dialogue near the beginning of this article. There are other ways to move your story forward, but for dialogue, the main tools available to the writer are: gestures, action, internal thoughts.
Thanks for reading
In this article we’ve demonstrated how the careful use of gestures can intensify the message in dialogue. We’ve shown how internal thoughts in conjunction with dialogue can add depth to a character. We’ve also shown how having action in dialogue allows the author the opportunity to move the story forward. With these three tools, you can now write effective dialogue.
If you have any questions about writing dialogue, you can find me in our forums. our site is free to join and to take part in. We have a free dialogue workshop in our forums called — ‘Let’s write Dialogue’. There are many exercises you can have a go at and receive feedback — learning the craft is a two way process!
I hope you’ve enjoyed reading this article.
You can take part in the dialogue workshop by signing up to our friendly forums here.
In this handy introduction I’m going to demonstrate the only five tips you’ll ever need for using punctuation in dialogue. If you’ve found this page, you’re probably a new(ish) writer looking for some hints on how to improve your writing. As we go through these tips, you’ll discover how easy it is to get the basics right.
Comma Placement Within Dialogue
- Wrong: ‘I want to write a book’, said David.
- Right: ‘I want to write a book,’ said David.
In the instances above, the comma being placed inside the quotation marks is right. This rule holds true whichever punctuation mark you use — , . ! ?
Using Ellipses and Dashes Within Your Dialogue Punctuation
Many beginner writers think ellipses and dashes are interchangeable, but they’re not. Both serve a different purpose in your story. Ellipses are three dots placed thus … They indicate that speech has faltered.
- ‘I dreamed I wrote a book, and it sold many copies…’ David stared off into the middle distance.
- ‘I dreamed I wrote a book, and it sold many copies—’
‘I’m sure you did,’ said Susan.
In the first example, David’s speech tails off as he goes into his own daydream. In the second one, he is interrupted by Susan. Both of these give a different impression on what is happening in the story.
Capitalising Your Dialogue Tags
- ‘I want to write a book,’ said David.
In the example above, you’ll notice I’ve used a comma and a small letter for said. “But,” you ask, “shouldn’t it be a capital letter?”
The rule for this is no – not if you tag your dialogue. If you use ‘said Mary,’ or ‘he said,’ or ‘she replied,’ and ‘they asked,’ etc. Using tags like these require a comma and a small letter.
Punctuate Your Dialogue With Action
Another way of writing dialogue is to provide an action with the words.
- ‘I want to write a book.’ David sat down at his desk and picked up his pen.
- ‘I want to write a book,’ he said, sitting down on his chair and drinking his coffee.
Now, although both of these are technically correct, example #1 is a better way of putting dialogue and action together. This is because sitting and drinking both imply a continuous action and we don’t usually do both at the same time. Talking, sitting and drinking coffee – we do one after the other.
Single or Double Quotations?
If you read mostly British authors, you will be used to seeing single quotations marks for dialogue i.e., ‘These are single quotes.’ American styles will use double quotes. “These are double quotes used for dialogue.”
Time Saver – Future Edits
Although you may write either single or double quotes depending on which way you have been schooled. If you use double quotes in your manuscript, you can always use the “search and replace” function to change the style if you have to. This doesn’t work the other way around because search and replace will change all of your apostrophes too.
Thanks for Reading This Primer on Dialogue!
This is the first in a series of articles about how to make your dialogue shine. You’ve learned when to use ellipsis and dashes and where to place your commas. You’ve learned how to tag your characters’ words and how to attribute dialogue to your characters without tags. You’ve even had a quick and dirty tip on how to use quotations that can be adapted for publishers both sides of the Atlantic Ocean.
Next time we’ll be looking at tags and actions in more depth. Visit our “Let’s Write Dialogue” forum for some exercises. Post your completed exercise back into our “Let’s Write Dialogue” forum for some staff and peer feedback. If you haven’t joined us yet, it’s totally free and you can sign up here.
We look forward to welcoming you in our forums.
I started and I didn’t want to admit it. I would lie in bed instead of getting up to write, my usual routine. I would distract myself with books or television, hoping to jump start something that would make me want to write, but it wasn’t working. Eventually, I had to admit it to myself, when I took out my pen and notebook after reading a line in China Miéville’s The Scar that almost inspired me, but the minute my book opened, I couldn’t get a single word down. I had writer’s block.
I tried a few things. I told myself it wasn’t real. Nevertheless, I needed a holiday. I had heard a few of my more eclectic friends talking about Croatia as somewhere to go, so I had a look online. It looked amazing. On the coast; lots of sands, sea and sun. It would either relax me, inspire me, and failing that at least I would get a good tan. I research some Croatian writers to read while I was there, to really get my head in the mood. I took The Ministry of Pain by Dubravka Ugresic as my holiday read. Airport books are generally rubbish.
Croatia was everything I thought it would be and more. I stayed at the phenomenal Hotel Croatia at Cavtat. With the beautiful town on Cavtat on my left and the bright blue Adriatic on my right, I felt so relaxed. I stopped worrying about what I was going to write, and went out to explore.
Cavtat is like a dream destination, and not in the must do holiday sense. It’s like walking through a painting of what a holiday should look like. Terracotta roofs and cobbled streets wander down to the water’s edge, where fishing boats and yachts jostle for your attention. The food is wonderful, every bite like a never tried flavour, even vegetables tasted like ambrosia. I checked out the artwork of celebrated painter Vlaho Bukovac. I wandered the old town, the harbour, taking in the amazing sights and sounds. The Church of Our Lady of the Snow and the Church of St Nicholas were beautiful hideaways to get pen to paper.
There’s so much to see and do to be inspired by. I researched the siege of Dubrovnik while I was there, visited some of the places that were bombed in 1991. The harrowing history of the area, juxtaposed with the beauty of the town I stayed in. It was impossible not to pick up my pen and start writing again.
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Our warm and friendly community invites you to post your short stories and poetry, take part in writing activities, or generally hang out with a bunch of like minded individuals all pursuing that (more often than not) elusive literal excellence.
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I don’t know about comprehension rates, but I look forward to learning.
Comprehension rate – no idea, but looks as though it’s related to the sort of ‘reading ages’ of, for example, newspaper articles.
Okay, the definition of the term “comprehension rate” that I’m about to share with you, is an excellent measure that you stay mindful of when you are writing. (70%.) I’ve just performed a Google search for the definition of comprehension rate and I’ve discovered a curious thing. (82%.) Predominantly, the results from the search tend to mention “speed reading.” (89%.) This is not the definition that I am looking for! (90%.)
The comprehension rate that I’m referring to, is the percentage of people who comprehend a sentence after reading it just once. (78%.)
You have probably noticed the various percentages that I’ve scattered through the text above? (86%.) And the one just now? (95%.) I’ll stop dispensing them now. (95%.) Okay now. (98%.) Erm … Now? (99%) Grrr!
The percentages represent rough calculations of the number of people out of one hundred who comprehend a sentence after they have read it just once. Those who didn’t comprehend it the first time, well they’re the people who have to reread it. Just to make sure that you are with me: if 75% of people comprehend a sentence after reading it the first time, the other 25% didn’t.
Out of those 25% who didn’t comprehend the sentence, how many of them didn’t bother to go back and read it again? I don’t know, but from what I know of human nature, I’d say quite a few. This is even more true when the culprits are reading off of a computer screen, though who really is the culprit of this crime?
Well, let’s just say that it is up to the writer to try to keep the average comprehension rate of sentences higher rather than lower.