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“Say What?”—A Series About Dialogue

Originally published September–October 2008

Say What?

    Since 99% of writers are readers, we all know when dialogue “works” and when it doesn’t when we read it. We just may not be able to put our fingers on exactly what it is that makes it work or not. Well, that’s what we’re going to try to figure out in this series.

hello“Say What?” How Do You Say Hello?

    When you speak, the words you choose, the inflection you use, your body language, the rhythm of how you speak, and the accent which shapes what your words sound like are a reflection of who you are. Without even realizing it, you have certain idioms and metaphors you use all the time in your speech.

“Say What?”—Uh, Um, Well, So, Wow, Great, Yeah, Really?

    If you were to read a dialogue exchange between two people talking off the tops of their heads, you would begin to feel overwhelmed by the number of times “uh” shows up—because it’s the filler we use when we have to give our brains a moment to catch up with our mouths to supply us with the proper words or thoughts.

“Say What?”–Transcribed Dialogue Assignment

    Okay, today is the day for us to compare our transcribed conversations with actual scripted dialogue to mark some differences.

“Say What?”–Where Do I Put the Quotation Marks?

    Where quotation marks come in relationship to other punctuation can be rather tricky, especially if you’re like me and you read not just American-published stuff, but British and Australian as well. If you’re outside of the U.S. reading this, please understand that the rules I will refer to apply to standards of American publishing. Also, this will focus on the use of quotation marks in fiction/prose writing.

“Say What?”–A Delicate Balancing Act

    Remember back at the beginning of the series when I posted the scoring guidelines for several different contests? Most of them required a “balance” between narrative and dialogue as the mark of good writing. But what is this balance, and how do we know when we’ve achieved it?

“Say What?”–What Direction Is Your Dialogue Going?

    If you don’t take away anything else from this series, one of the most important things we have to learn about dialogue is that in a novel, dialogue must impact the story and the story must impact the dialogue. The plot(s) and conflicts of the story are what should drive the dialogue so that what your characters say pushes the story forward.

Fun Friday–Favorite Movies/TV for Dialogue

    While these may not be some that are considered the “best” when it comes to dialogue (I’ve always heard that Woody Allen’s movies are great for this, but I’ve never been able to watch one all the way through), when I start thinking about movie/TV lines that get stuck in my head, these are the top ones…

“Say What?”–Is It Dialogue-Worthy?

    “How do you know if a moment should be translated into dialogue or not?” Last week, I started to answer this when I said, “Don’t write the small stuff.” In “Dialogue: The Lifeblood of the Mystery Story” (The Writer, October 2008, pp. 30–33), William G. Tapply puts it this way: “Don’t be afraid to summarize any hunk of dialogue that you think readers may be tempted to skip.” . . . Here are some guidelines to apply to your scenes to try to figure out if something needs to be summarized or if it needs to be shown through dialogue.

“Say what?” she intoned incredulously.

    Yes, that’s right. Today’s topic is on dialogue tags.

“Say What?”–Subtexting

    The basic definition of subtexting when it comes to dialogue is that the character is saying one thing and thinking something totally different.

“Say What?”–Character Quirks & Non-Verbal Dialogue

    I . . . wanted to wrap up the series with a look at how dialogue can make our characters unique and how we can use unspoken “dialogue” to deepen our characterization, tension, and plot.

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