Saturday, May 2

Real Life Diagnostics: Crafting Dialog in a Scene

Critique By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

Real Life Diagnostics is a weekly column that studies a snippet of a work in progress for specific issues. Readers are encouraged to send in work with questions, and I diagnose it on the site. It’s part critique, part example, and designed to help the submitter as well as anyone else having a similar problem.

If you're interested in submitting to Real Life Diagnostics, please check out these guidelines.

Submissions currently in the queue: None

This week’s questions:

Is my dialog executed correctly? Does the scene make sense? In what ways could I improve my writing? I've always had dreams of writing, I'm kinda starting out.


Market/Genre: Science fiction

On to the diagnosis…

Original text:

Background: This scene happens kinda early on in the book. This takes place in a dystopian future, the government is bad, revolution blah blah basically like the Hunger Games or Divergent series but in a different place.

"October Scheaffer and Alisa Tomm are basically enemies. If they met they'd try to kill each other!" Yelled Superintendent Sandra.

"Well, I thought about that. In the condition that they do try to kill each other I will have a squad go in and arrest both of them." Said Ell in himself painfully calm voice.

"And you think that'll be easy?!" Yelled Sandra.

"Goodbye." Ell closed his phone and set it down. Ell watched the monitors, they were showing what the cameras were showing. There were eight cameras placed in that warehouse. And just as Ell suspected, they bickered and shot at each other. He watched for a few moments. He picked up phone and dialed.

"Chief Aqua, go in for the kill." Ell said.

"Yes sir." Chief Aqua replied and hung up.

Ell watched as both October and Alisa killed every last officer. Ell wasn't surprised, he knew the whole squadron could be killed. In fact that's what he wanted to happen. He works for the government, but secretly he was one of the many people involved in the revolution. This was a test and they passed, he knew they would.

My Thoughts in Purple:

"October Scheaffer and Alisa Tomm are basically enemies. If they met they'd try to kill each other!" [Yelled Superintendent Sandra.] Yelled would be lowercase here, as it’s part of the dialog and not a separate sentence.

"Well, I thought about that. In the condition that they do try to kill each other I will have a squad go in and arrest both of them[.” Said Ell in himself painfully calm voice.] This would be punctuated as:  “…them,” said Ell… I assume "in himself painfully voice" is a typo? Should it be "in a painfully calm voice?"

"And you think that'll be easy?!" [Yelled Sandra.] Same here. This also uses the same tag as the before, and since it’s clear these two are having a fight there's no need to tag it again.

"Goodbye." [Ell closed his phone and set it down.] This was all on a phone call? I didn’t pick up on that [Ell] Just used his name, so perhaps use “he” here watched the monitors, [they were showing what the cameras were showing.] That’s what monitors do, so there’s no need to explain it [There were eight cameras placed in that warehouse. And just as Ell suspected, they bickered and shot at each other.] The cameras bickered and shot at each other? Perhaps make it clear who “they” refers to He watched for a few moments. He picked up phone and dialed.

"Chief Aqua, go in for the kill[." Ell said.] “…kill,” Ell said.

"Yes sir[." Chief Aqua replied and hung up.] “…sir,” Chief Aqua…

Ell watched as both [October and Alisa] Wasn't Chief Aqua supposed to kill them? killed every last officer. [Ell wasn't surprised, he knew the whole squadron could be killed.] I can assume this since he gave the order to kill them [In fact that's what he wanted to happen.] Don’t need. He just told someone to kill them so this is clear. [He works for the government, but secretly he was one of the many people involved in the revolution.] This is information the author is explaining to the reader, not part of the narrative itself, so you don’t need. [This was a test and they passed, he knew they would.] Unclear who he’s referring to. It's also explaining, which you don't need

The questions:

1. Is my dialog executed correctly?


Not yet. When writing dialog, if the tag (the “said” part that shows who is speaking) is part of the same sentence you use lowercase, such as:
“I don’t know what you mean,” said Bob, folding his arms across his chest.
“Bob said, folding his arms across his chest” is not a complete sentence, it needs the dialog to make it a complete sentence.

You’d only make the tag its own sentence if it was a complete sentence on its own. Such as:
“I don’t know what you mean.” Bob folded his arms across his chest.
“Bob folded his arms across his chest” is a compete sentence.

(Here’s more on formatting dialog)

You also don’t need to tag every line with who’s talking, every time. You only need to tag it when it’s not clear who is speaking. Since you only have two people speaking in this scene, once you’ve established who they are, you can just show the dialog, any action they take, or thoughts they have. For example:

"October Scheaffer and Alisa Tomm are basically enemies. If they met they'd try to kill each other,” yelled Superintendent Sandra. (Since you say she yelled, you don’t need the !. That implies yelling.)

"Well, I thought about that. In the condition that they do try to kill each other I will have a squad go in and arrest both of them,” said Ell in a painfully calm voice.

"And you think that'll be easy?!" (You don’t need a tag here because there’s a natural turn-taking format with dialog. Readers will assume this is Sandra speaking. You only need to tag it if someone other than Sandra or Ell speaks here)

"Goodbye." Ell closed his phone and set it down. On the monitors along the wall, the superintendent and her staff bickered and shot at each other. He watched for a few moments, then picked up phone and dialed. (Instead of explaining the situation, try just showing what Ell does and what he sees.)

"Chief Aqua, go in for the kill." (No need to tag because he’s the only one there and he just picked up the phone. Speaking is the next logical step)

"Yes sir." (No need for a tag here, because readers will assume this is Chief Aqua replying)

Another thing you can do to help the scene read more smoothly, is to vary where you tag a line of dialog. Sometimes it’s helpful to tag it first, or in the middle, so it doesn’t sounds the same on every line. For example:
"Well, I thought about that,” Ell said in a painfully calm voice. “In the condition that they do try to kill each other I will have a squad go in and arrest both of them."
This way readers know right away who is replying to Sandra, and it breaks up the flow of the text so the rhythm sounds smoother.

(Here's more on dialog placement)

Try reading your dialog out loud and listen to how it sounds. You should be able to hear when it starts to sound list-like or clunky. You might also consider reading dialog passages from your favorite novels and listen to how they sounds as well. This can help train your writer’s ear to hear when your dialog is working and when it needs a little more work.

2. Does the scene make sense?

Not yet. I didn’t realize they were on the phone at first, and I didn’t know who the people mentioned were. I don’t know why he wants to kill them or where any of this is occurring. It is possible these things could have been mentioned before this snippet, though. If all of this was made clear before readers reach this snippet, it would make more sense.

You might consider adding some internalization from Ell to help show what’s going on and why it matters. Right now, it’s explaining things for readers instead of showing the action and letting readers figure out what’s going on by how these characters act and think.

What would Ell think about during this scene that would show how he feels without saying it? For example:

"Goodbye." Ell closed his phone and set it down. He turned to the eight monitors along the wall--one for every camera in the warehouse. Let’s see if their bickering gets violent, he thought. Sure enough, shouts escalated to gunshots.

He picked up phone and dialed. "Chief Aqua, go in for the kill."

"Yes sir."

Ell smiled as October and Alisa took out every last officer. Effective killers those two, and money well spent, despite those fools who doubted their loyalty. If he had a few more like them, the revolution would be over in months instead of years.

Let’s break some of this down even further to show why I wrote it that way:

He turned to the eight monitors along the wall--one for every camera in the warehouse. (This shows the monitors and says how many cameras there are through character action, not the author telling readers what’s there)

Let’s see if their bickering gets violent, he thought. (This internal thought shows he expects things to get ugly and it just watching and waiting for it to happen)

Sure enough, shouts escalated to gunshots. (This internal thought shows the actions and shows that Ell was right all along in his expectations)

Ell smiled as October and Alisa took out every last officer. (The original line felt like someone watching Ell and explaining what he’s doing. I looked for a way to make it sound like him thinking about what he’s watching. The smile draws readers to his head, which hints that what comes next is what he’s thinking. “Took out” feels more personal. You’d use his voice of course, I just made this up since I don’t know the character.)

Let's step back and look at a few of the original lines:
Ell wasn't surprised, he knew the whole squadron could be killed. (This tells readers how he feels and what he knows. I looked for a way to show this by what he thinks about this situation. “Effective killers those two, and money well spent” shows that he hired these two people to kill the officers. If he did this, then he knew the officers cold be killed and their deaths would not be a surprise.)

In fact that's what he wanted to happen. (This tells readers what his motives are, while “money well spent” shows he wanted the officers dead and paid people to do it)

He works for the government, but secretly he was one of the many people involved in the revolution. (This explains who he is and what he’s doing. “If he had a few more like them, the revolution would be over in months instead of years” shows that he’s part of a revolution and is playing an active role in it.)

This was a test and they passed, he knew they would. (This explains what the scene is about and what Ell knows. “despite those fools who doubted their loyalty” shows it by suggesting this action was a test without coming right out and saying it)

Readers will pick up on subtle clues, so there’s no need to explain things to them. Show characters acting in ways readers can figure out how they feel and what they’re doing by watching and listening to them.

(Here’s more on internalization)

3. In what ways could I improve my writing?

I suggest focusing on two things: Point of view and showing not telling. Point of view will help you get inside your characters’ heads and see the story and world through their eyes, which will help you show the scenes and not tell them (so these two things work well together). Nail point of view and most of the common problems writers face won’t be a problem for you. I feel it’s the strongest tool we have for crafting solid novels.

I think you have a good idea of what happens and why, but what’s in your head isn’t making it onto the page yet. Try working on how to make those scenes clear for readers without explaining them.

(Here’s more on point of view) and (Here’s more on show vs tell)

Overall, it’s a solid start for a new writer, and it’s just a matter of learning the skills to bring your story to life on the page. With some study and practice, you’ll get there.

Thanks to our brave volunteer for submitting this for me to play with. I hope they–and others–find it helpful. I don’t do a full critique on these, (just as it pertains to the questions) and I encourage you to comment and make suggestions of your own. Just remember that these pieces are works in progress, not polished drafts, so be nice and offer constructive feedback.

3 comments:

  1. Great one, Janice. POV is something I am trying to master right now. I think I've got it now. This story sounds interesting. I think the writer does need to show more. Your post on showing helped me. This writer could benefit from it too.

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  2. Thank you both to the author and to you, Janice. That was a very clear and easy to follow example of show vs tell. I learned!

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  3. Janice,

    I found this column today. What a great idea!

    One good way to learn to write dialogue is to learn to listen to dialogue.

    Whenever you're in the presence of conversation, listen to the ways people speak. What words are they using? How are they using them? Does their body language say the same things their words are saying?

    Obviously, this is difficult if you're participating in the conversation so the best thing to do is go to a place where you can sit "in a corner" and observe. A coffee or donut shop, for example. A busy restaurant or a shopping mall. It might cost you a cup of coffee or a snack, but it will be worth it.

    Basically, wherever you see people is a good place.

    Teach yourself to always listen and observe. When it becomes second nature and you begin seeing all the ways people communicate--both directly and indirectly, then you'll be better equipped to write convincing dialogue.

    Best wishes and happy observing (and writing!),

    Carrie

    ReplyDelete