Show Us, Don’t Tell Us: Writing Dialogue

Standard

quotation-marks

Dialogue Exchange #1

“Leave me alone!” Jodie screamed loudly.

“Fine!” yelled Manny.

“Whatever! I hate you!” Jodie hissed.

“Good!”  Manny bellowed intensely.

Dialogue Exchange #2

“Leave me alone!”  Jodie said as she grabbed her keys from the end table and yanked her purse over her shoulder.  She was sure Mrs. Lenitsky could hear them through the walls and she wondered if there would be another note in their mailbox.

Manny’s face flushed as he crossed his arms over his chest and anchored himself in the recliner. “Fine!”  Their cat twitched her ears and opened her eyes as her nap was interrupted again by another fight. 

“Whatever! I hate you!”  Jodie’s voice was a hiss.  She heard her brother say “Good!” as she slammed the front door.

***

Many teachers use Exchange #1 – screamed, yelled. hissed, bellowed.   I teach middle school and start teaching dialogue by instructing  my students to use attributes like that when writing dialogue. They’re beginning writers, so that’s OK.  I’m thrilled they know what verbs are in the first place, to be honest.

Strong verb attributions are a good place to start, but then it’s time to extend that skill.  I’m a fan of Exchange #2.

I try to always use said as an attribute.  In her fabulous guide to the craft of writing called HOW I WRITE: SECRETS OF A BEST-SELLING AUTHOR Janet Evanovich writes, “Said is preferable to words like remarkeduttereddeclaredarticulatedmurmured, or chortled. Descriptive words such as these can stop the flow of a sentence. Don’t be concerned that there will be too many saids in your book. Readers never really notice it. ”

The information supporting a piece of dialogue is called a tag or a beat.  This is where you should get creative.  So what can you do?  Like Exchange #2, paint a picture of what’s going on while the characters are speaking. SHOW instead of tell:

  • What does the person look like? (“Manny’s face flushed…”)
  • What is the person doing? (“She grabbed her keys from the end table and yanked her purse over her shoulder”)
  • How does another character respond? (“Their cat twitched her ears and opened her eyes as her nap was interrupted again by another fight.”)
  • Gestures? (“…he crossed his arms over his chest and anchored himself in the recliner.”)
  • Reactions? (“She heard her brother say “Good!” as she slammed the front door.”)

The combination of these elements show anger and discord rather than simply telling it.  Don’t slow your writing by using all of these all of the time; this was just to show you the gist.

Finally,  there are scenes that will require fast dialogue.  Roddy Doyle is an example of a writer who can pack a punch with using just pure dialogue with out a single attribution or tag. He’s one of my all-time favorite writers and instilled in me a love of using conversations to create characters and conflict. Don’t get caught up in showing and telling when the pace of the scene matters more.

So, take a piece of your writing, change those flowery attributions to said and try some showing instead of telling.  Please post your before and after below, because sharing is caring.

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