Tuesday, 13 August 2019


The role of dialogue

Dialogue is important in all fiction. It sits with description, exposition, action and inner monologue in narrative balance. It can slow pace to real time. It helps to “show”.  (More about that next time.) It can convey character, plot or atmosphere. It’s even better if it can do all three at once. It should never be used for exposition.    


Setting out dialogue correctly

It’s really important to get this right. You can look very amateurish if you don’t get that right. It varies from language to language. Your best guide is a good book. Note the punctuation:  it is included in speech marks with a comma at end if followed by a tag. There are several examples below. Study them well.


Tagging dialogue        

         Use said, whispered, shouted and asked only but mainly “said”.
         You don’t need to tag much if only two people are speaking.
         You do need to tag if more than two are speaking, if it goes on for more than half a page, and for reluctant readers.
         Try tagging with actions where possible.      


Dialogue shouldn’t be too natural

·         Try writing down some natural dialogue you hear. How engaging is it to read?
·         Look at a few sample scripts. These are available from the BBC Writer’s Room. Note the stylisation.
·         We are used to stylisation.     


Dialogue should only say important things

Study this extract from Bryony Pearce: Angel’s Fury

“Well.” The Doctor stroked the edge of the table.  “It seems we’ve found your talent.”
I shook my head. “No.”
She nodded towards the gun, needing to add nothing more.
“Part of you has, and you’re beginning to access that knowledge.”
I thought of Zillah and a sob hiccupped from my closed lips.
“What’s the matter?”
“Seth gets to sculpt, Kyle’s a musician, Panda draws and what’s my special talent?”  The words exploded like water from a dam. “Putting together murder weapons.”
The doctor fondled the rifle. “I imagine there’s more to it than that. Your talent will extend a long way beyond just assembling a gun, so I’d better have a range built on the grounds.”
My hands tingled and I rubbed them on my thighs. “You want me to shoot?” (161)
         There is no small talk.
         Hints of subconscious awareness are beginning to emerge. 
         The question at the end implies shock.
         There are no direct tags.


Dialogue should differentiate the speakers’ voices

Study Judy Waite: Game Girls

Fern seems to manage to relax. “You didn’t finish telling me about the bloke with the shoes.”  
“Oh – right. We went up to the Love Nest – still with all those Shoe Express bags – and he wanted me to get out of my skirt and top.  So I did that – and then he opened the first box and produced some red patent stilettos. He asked me to put them on. It was all very polite, though. He was a real gentleman.”
“He wanted you to do it wearing shoes?”
“No, that’s just it. He didn’t want to “do it”.”
“He paid for you to sit there wearing his shoes?”
“It was a bit more than that. I had to walk about in them, while he watched. And then he opened another box – and another – and another.” 

We have clue that Fern speaks first. She is nervous, shows discomfort and seem incredulous. Alix is dismissive. This is a two person conversation so it’s easy to follow.  We’re guided too by subject matter. However, there is something of each girl in each of her lines. What would happen if we cut them up?  Would we still be able to tell which girl said what?   

Each speech must give some information

Study Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games (10-11) and see how every line of speech tells us something new.

“We could do it you know,” says Gale quietly.” Gale has an idea. That’s the sort of person he us. Yet he is a little unsure of himself as he says it quietly.
“What?” I ask.” Our protagonist has to ask. She is practical and straight forward.
 “Leave the district. Run off. Live in the woods. You and I, we could make it,” says Gale.” We see more of Gale’s feistiness here. We also see that he has faith in our protagonist. He believes they can both make it. That increases her ability also in the readers’ eyes.  Here we also learn something of the setting. We are quite near the beginning of the text. The “district” obviously has a hold as the notion of leaving it means that they would have to shelter in the woods.             
 “If we didn’t have so many kids,” he adds quickly.” This is intriguing. We know that Gale and Katniss are young adults so won’t have children of their own. We know then immediately from this that both of them are taking responsibility for other young people.  It’s also interesting that Gale adds this quickly. He anticipates how Katniss will respond.  He knows her well.
This short exchange is followed by some inner monologue and then followed by:
“I never want to have kids,” I say.” We might assume that the responsibility of what she is already doing weighs heavily on her.
“I might if I didn’t live here,” says Gayle.” We are given further information about his character here. He’s an open sort of person and likes people. The place they live in, however, is not friendly.
“But you do!” I say, irritated.” Katniss is the practical one and Gale’s tendency to ream irritates her.
“Forget it,” he snaps back.” 

There is not always total harmony between the two friends. Often small talk is avoided. Each line of speech tells us something new.
  • Katniss practical and straightforward.
  • Gale is feisty. 
  • Responsabilty weighs heavily on Katniss.
  • Gale is an open person and likes people. 


Dialogue should convey mood, character and reaction

Study Sara Grant: Dark Parties

I almost believe it’s possible. “Ok,” I say. Think slogan.
“Open with care.”
“Grand reopening.”
“Open and closed.”
I’m not sure that makes sense. “Don’t we need to make sure people understand we’re talking about the Protectosphere?” I ask.
“Yeah, right.” She mashes and bangs a little more. She dips her finger in the bucket. Her hand is red and looks like it’s dripping congealed blood. Congealed blood with bits in it. She rubs the red between her fingers. “I think it’s about done.”      
“But we don’t know what we’re going to write!” I smooth a curl behind my ear and think of my grandma.
“We better figure it out. Once this stuff sets, we can’t use it.” She drops the bat in the tub. A spray splatters the yellowing tiles. She grunts as she hefts the bucket out of the tub. She closes the shower curtain and turns on the water.
“No Protect Us Fear,” I say as the slogan pops up in our head. 

We detect the excitement. Note the body language. There is also caution. An atmosphere of secrecy is hinted at. 

Your checklist for dialogue

  • Is it set out correctly?
  • Is your tagging right?
  • Is it too natural?
  • Does it only say important things?
  • Does it differentiate speakers’ voices?
  • Does it convey mood, character and reaction?
  • Does each speech give information?
  • Does it multitask?      


Dialogue exercise

Study the following text.  Can you set the dialogue out correctly? The answers are supplied below.
In there.  He nodded his head towards the top drawer. Close the door will you? I don’t want anyone else to know. Barney opened the drawer. He took the sketch book out and the small tin of water colours. Get the water commanded Nick. Barney pushed Nick up to his desk. He spread the plastic sheet out for him and arranged the latest picture so that Nick could get to it easily. He unscrewed the tube of white and then opened the lid of the tin. Hurry up with that water, man! Nick’s face was going red. That always happened when he got frustrated.  Barney hurried over to the sink with the jar. He had just filled it and carried it back, when there was a knock on the door. Barney covered the picture with a sheet of kitchen paper. He opened the door. Mrs Fletcher was standing there with a tray of drinks and biscuits. Thank you, Barney, she said. Nick sighed. Mum. Do you mind? Barney and I have got things to do.  You need to drink, love Mrs Fletcher replied, quietly. Barney, do you think … Yes, it’s all right, Mrs Fletcher. Really. Mrs Fletcher nodded and smiled. Nick pulled a face. I grew out of baby cups a long time ago. He pointed to the invalid cup.  Barney walked over to the tray and took the cup. Don't let it get to you he said. Nick didn’t resist as Barney held the cup up to his lips. He even managed to lift his hand up so that it looked as if he was actually holding the cup. Barney tipped a little of the fluid into Nick’s mouth and then straightened the cup up as he waited to hear Nick’s laboured swallow. At last it came. Then he was able to tip a little more into Nick’s mouth. Slowly, slowly, the cup emptied. Barney took a few sips of his own drink to keep Nick company.

Dialogue exercise answers

“In there.” He nodded his head towards the top drawer. “Close the door, will you? I don’t want anyone else to know.”
Barney opened the drawer. He took the sketch book out and the small tin of water colours.
“Get the water,” commanded Nick.
Barney pushed Nick up to his desk. He spread the plastic sheet out for him and arranged the latest picture so that Nick could get to it easily. He unscrewed the tube of white and then opened the lid of the tin.
“Hurry up with that water, man!” Nick’s face was going red. That always happened when he got frustrated.
Barney hurried over to the sink with the jar. He had just filled it and carried it back, when there was a knock on the door. Barney covered the picture with a sheet of kitchen paper. He opened the door.
Mrs Fletcher was standing there with a tray of drinks and biscuits. “Thank you, Barney,” she said.
Nick sighed. “Mum. Do you mind? Barney and I have got things to do.”
“You need to drink, love,” Mrs Fletcher replied, quietly. “Barney, do you think …?”
“Yes, it’s all right, Mrs Fletcher. Really.”
Mrs Fletcher nodded and smiled.
Nick pulled a face. “I grew out of baby cups a long time ago.” He pointed to the invalid cup.
Barney walked over to the tray and took the cup. “Don't let it get to you,” he said.
Nick didn’t resist as Barney held the cup up to his lips. He even managed to lift his hand up so that it looked as if he was actually holding the cup. Barney tipped a little of the fluid into Nick’s mouth and then straightened the cup up as he waited to hear Nick’s laboured swallow. At last it came. Then he was able to tip a little more into Nick’s mouth. Slowly, slowly, the cup emptied.
Barney took a few sips of his own drink to keep Nick company.

Some Notes on Setting out Dialogue[GJ1] 

“Do you know what? I get really stuck on setting out dialogue[GJ2] ,” said the Creative Writing student.
“It’s not really all that difficult,” replied[GJ3]  the teacher. “Do remember to start a new paragraph when a new person speaks[GJ4] .”
“Oh, is that when you start a new paragraph in the middle of a conversation?” The[GJ5]  student looked as if a light bulb had gone off in her head. “And what are the rules about where the speech marks go?”
“They always go around the speech[GJ6] , with the normal punctuation marks inside it[GJ7] ,” said the teacher[GJ8] , “although you use a comma instead of a full stop at the end, if you are assigning the speech. And if you put the assignation in the middle of the sentence, you don’t start the second bit with a capital letter and you put another comma in front of it.”
Pardon[GJ9] ?”
“Look. Like this.” The[GJ10]  teacher showed the student this document. 
“It’s actually a good idea to have this in front of you when you’re working on a dialogue in a piece of fiction.”  Now it was the teacher’s turn to grow a light bulb[GJ11] . “Or, even, have a well written book open as you work. You can see the pattern. It’s easier than trying to remember[GJ12] .”
“How often should you put “said”?”
“As little as possible. But actually you must use it if otherwise the reader wouldn’t know who was saying what – for example if the conversation goes on for a long time or more than two people are speaking[GJ13] .”
“Okay. But doesn’t it get a bit boring for the reader?”
“Actually they tend not to notice[GJ14] .”
“What about other words – like expostulated, screamed and so on?”
The teacher shook her head. “Best not to. They draw attention to themselves. “Whisper”, “shout” and sometimes “reply” are all right.”
“Okay. Thank you for your help.”
“My pleasure. That’s what we’re here for.”              

Further work

Check the dialogue in your novel to date. Are you obeying all of these “rules”?  As you read, pause and look at how the dialogue is used and formed

 [GJ1]Note: the whole text is double-spaced. This is what  publishers expect. 

 [GJ2]Note: normal punctuation within the speech marks EXCEPT comma instead of full stop. 

 [GJ3]“replied” is just about all right for assigning speech.

 [GJ4]And of course, there is no new paragraph here because the teacher is still talking.

 [GJ5]We have used no word to assign.  We have reconfirmed that this is the student speaking by telling you something else about her.

 [GJ6]See, a normal punctuation mark.

 [GJ7]But a comma here and note that it is inside the speech marks.

 [GJ8]The teacher has not finished her sentence so we have a comma here and no capital letter at the beginning of the remaining speech.  

 [GJ9]We don’t need “said” here because it’s clear it is the student speaking.  

 [GJ10]We know it is the teacher speaking because we see her do something else.

 [GJ11]And here we know that it is the teacher.

 [GJ12]This really works.  Try it.

 [GJ13]This is all true.


Tuesday, 30 July 2019

Time and Space Versus Fast Pace and Tension

Creating a good sense of time and place slows the text down.  The young adult has a need for fast pace. How can this dilemma be solved?

Some useful texts:

1.      Filmic qualities / real-time / mind-reading in: 

1.      John Marsden: When the War began

2.       Bryony Pearce: Angel’s Fury.

3.       Susan Price: A Sterkarm Kiss

4.       Philip Pullman: The Amber Spyglass

5.       Philip Pullman: The Tiger in the Well

2.      Tension, Pace and High Stakes in:

1.       Melvin Burgess:  The Hit

2.       Teri Terry: Slated

3.       Sara Grant: Dark Parties

4.      Suzanne Collins: The Hunger Games  


Film qualities, real-time and mind-reading

We have a lot of “real time” in YA novels.  The reader is taken right into the middle of the story. We become very close to the protagonist and their friends. This is harder to do in films. This slows the narrative down.
What about the “car chase” and the excitement between the crisis and the resolution? And the need for pace?  
How can we satisfy both needs at once?


John Marsden: Tomorrow, When the War Began.

“As with the radio, so with the Land Rover. I revved it so hard and dropped the clutch so roughly that Kevin, who was now sitting down, hit his head and hurt it, nearly dropping Millie, whom he was still nursing. The Landie kangaroo-hopped a few metres and stalled. I could hear Grandma’s voice saying ‘More haste less speed’. I took a deep breath and tried again, more calmly.  This time was better. We went out the gate and down the road with me saying to Homer, ‘I forgot to check the chooks.’
‘OK Ellie,” he said, “it’ll be cool. We’ll work it out.” But he didn’t look at me, just sat forward on the seat, peering anxiously through the windscreen. (58)  

Both the premise and the theme are HUGE.  Real time is used. We are in Ellie’s head. We have movement – they are going on a journey – hinting at a car chase.  The tension is high.

Bryony Pearce: Angel’s Fury.

“’You’re here to get better.’  Her voice was exasperated.
            ‘You need to focus on your health, not on boys.’
I dug my toes into wet gravel.  I know.’
Mum touched my chin. ‘I know you know, pumpkin, but please be careful.  That lad is older than you. You haven’t had much experience with that sport of thing and now isn’t the time. When you’re well you’ll meet someone.’
I ducked away. ‘He’s hardly spoken to me, Mum. And he wouldn’t be interested anyway.’ Angrily I gestured, taking in my cheap clothes, lazy hair and pallid complexion.
Mum shook her head again, slowly, and her mouth turned down. ‘I don’t want you to get hurt.’
I moved to follow Dad. ‘No one’s going to get hurt.’”  (79)

Again, both the premise and the theme are huge. The dialogue is in real time. We understand Carrie’s emotional state as we see her dig her toes into wet gravel. The tension between Cassie and her parents drive the scene. We sense a potential love interest which adds to tension.  

Susan Price A Sterkarm Kiss

“Windsor came through the crowd, gesturing to Per to follow him. Per looked about, collected his cousins and parents, and followed Windsor. They pushed their way through the crowds of gaping Sterkarms and Grannams, towards the further end of the Elf-Palace. There was the altar, with splendid shields displaying family badges- made of more flowers! And there, waiting, was Grannam who called himself “Lord Brackenhill”, with women and soldiers gathered around him. And a priest.
Perhaps it was the sight of the priest – a rare sight in border lands- that made Per, for the first time that day, feel alarm. Wed! Why was he getting wed?
He calmed himself by reflecting that it was only a wedding. He and his wife might get on, even though she was a Grannam, once she was away from her family. Who knew? And if they didn’t, well there was plenty of other company at the tower. Get a couple of sons on her, and, after that, he wouldn’t have to see her much.
A girl stood before the altar. That would be his bride. His pulse quickened as he walked towards his first sight of her. Would he be bedded that night with a beauty or-?
He stepped into his place beside her. She didn’t look up- indeed she lowered her head still further in a properly modest way. That wasn’t promising.” (57)

Note, this is one fifth of the book in. There is no dialogue here. There is a filmic introduction – can you follow what the camera sees? Then we are inside Per’s head. He muses about the forthcoming wedding. The author deliberately stops us seeing the girl he is to marry. There are high stakes for protagonist; she is in love with Per.     

Philip Pullman’s The Amber Spyglass

“She looked back to remind him of it now. She was Roger’s Lyra, full of grace and daring; she didn’t need to creep along like an insect.
But the little boy’s whispering voice said, “Lyra, be careful – remember you en’t dead like us –“
And it seemed to happen so slowly, but there was nothing she could do; her weight shifted, the stones moved under her feet, and helplessly she began to slide. In the first moment it was annoying, and then it was comic: she thought how silly! But she utterly failed to hold on to anything, as the stones rumbled and tumbled beneath her, as she slid down towards the edge, gathering speed, the horror of it slammed into her. She was going to fall. There was nothing to stop her. It was already too late.”  (378)

Tension is caused as Lyra and Will are in the land of the dead and they have had to leave their daemons behind. We are inside Lyra’s head at the beginning. We see her emotional bond with Roger.  Roger is believable. See some indications of age and class. Then the scene becomes filmic as Lyra starts tumbling. It all happens in real time. More drama also in their predicament: they are in a frightening place and are also challenging a corrupt authority.    

Philip Pullman’s The Tiger in the Well

“’Yes,’ said Sally. ‘What can I do for you?’
‘I am under instruction to give this into your hands, miss.’
He held out the envelope. Sally saw a red legal seal on it. Automatically she took it from him. It’s very hard not to take things people hand you; politeness is an easy thing to take advantage of.
The man doffed his hat again, and turned to go.
‘Wait, please,’ she said. ‘Who are you and what’s this?’
‘It’s fully explained inside,’ he said. ‘As for me, I’m a process-server, miss. I’ve done my duty, and I must be on my way, else I shall miss my train. Beautiful weather for the time of year …’
With a nervous little smile, he turned and set off back up the garden. Ellie, after a troubled glance at Sally, hastened after him.
Harriet, disappointed in the visitor’s poor taste, turned back to Bruin and the honey. Sally sat down. She was conscious that she might have made a mistake in accepting the envelope so tamely: couldn’t you refuse to accept a summons, or something?  
She tore open the thick paper and pulled out a long, carefully folded document. The Royal Arms was embossed at the top, and paragraph after paragraph of legal copperplate stretched out below.” (6)

The story is gripping throughout. Sally has her identity stolen, not cloned which is what we normally mean by identity being stolen. She has her identity taken away from her. There is a short scene full of tension here. We watch Sally have the conversation with the caller. We also watch the reaction of the two other people. We watch her open the document. The scene reveals that she is being sued for divorce form a marriage that never was. A very high concept shown in real time.      

Tension, Pace and High Stakes  

Scenes with pace, tension and high stakes can combine with scenes set in real time that also show a character’s inner thoughts. We can have both emotional closeness and fast pace. Some texts make a particular feature of this. We call them “High Concept”. Many describe a “near future” tending towards a dystopia. High Concepts can be in individual scenes and / or part of the whole plot.    

Melvin Burgess’ The Hit

‘Death’ is a euthanasia drug, offering one week of high quality life followed by death. There is no antidote. The story starts ‘media res’ with a great deal of tension – has rock star Jimmy Earle taken ‘Death’? The protagonist also takes the drug. There are lots of twists and turns and also real pictures of Manchester. A close third person narrative is used so we are often in Adam’s head.   

Teri Terry’s Slated

There is a high concept here; young offenders’ brains are wiped. They are not allowed to feel discontented. However Kyla begins to remember snippets she shouldn’t be able to. At the beginning, she leaves the unit where she was rehabilitated and goes through several crises.  Terry builds her world with plenty of attention to detail. The stakes get higher as Kyla gradually finds out more.     

Sara Grant’s Dark Parties

Here we have a near future concept: people live under the protectosphere as the world beyond it is supposed to be dangerous. Despite the setting, the adolescents behave as those we meet today. The mystery about Neva’s grandmother drives the tension. The pace quickens as she escapes from the protectosphere. The car chase is in exactly the right place.     

Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games

Here is a near future with high stakes; young people must kill or get killed in an extreme reality TV game show.  The story is from the point of view of Katniss Everdeen. She is already a risk-taker – she hunts illegally. Pace and high stakes are created through the games. Yet we are also shown strong relationships with her mother and sister and with two possible love interests. Unprecedented, the rules of the game are changed to allow two survivors. 

Conflict solved?

Slower scenes can be lifted by there being high stakes associated with it. This plot point often reflects the over-arching theme and premise of the novel. High concept novels will still show emotional closeness – using all of the tactics we looked at last time. These two distinct types really meet in the middle. Is there really any difference between the two in terms of narrative content?


Checklist for creating a real world in your novel:  Twenty Questions

Look at this in other novels as well as your own.
  1. What has the writer done here to include a sense of time and space?  
2.      In which ways does this piece of prose resemble a novel rather than an epic story?
3.      How close is the time / space image to real time?
4.      Which bits of the scene are left to the reader’s imagination?
5.      What makes the space concrete here?
6.      Has the writer taken short cuts?
7.      How does this time / space frame impinge on the characters?
8.      Which voices are there in this extract?
9.      Which narrative techniques are used?
10.  How do we recognize different characters from what they say?
11.  Is there an authorial voice?
12.  Does the writer use the senses?
13.  Whose point of view is s/he showing?
14.  How do they show that point of view? 
15.  Does the author step in?     
16.  Can you spot places where the writer goes down deep?  
17.  Where are they more on the surface?
18.  How does the writer use dialogue? 
19.  How is this similar to and different from a film?
20.  What is the balance of exposition, description, dialogue, action, and inner monologue? Does this feel about right and why or why not?  

How does your novel shape up?   

  1. Are your stakes high enough?
  2. Is there enough tension and pace?
  3. Are you nevertheless maintaining character closeness?
Rewrite a couple of scenes with this in mind.