Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Log on Dialogue

“The real miracle of individuation and reclamation of the Wild Woman is that we all begin the process before we are ready, before we are strong enough, before we know enough; we begin a dialogue with thoughts and feeling that both tickle and thunder within us. We respond before we know how to speak the language, before we know the answers, and before we know exactly to whom we are speaking.”

- Clarissa Pinkola Estes

At the NESCBWI conference, I attended a workshop called “Dialogue as an Agent of Change” taught by Liza Ketchum*. When I signed up for the conference, I thought, Do I really need to take a workshop on dialogue? I’ve been told to work on grammar, sentence variety, and show, not tell. My dialogue is decent. But of the other choices, this one appealed to me the most. Besides, even if my dialogue is good, I can always make it better.

The workshop wound up being better than I’d imagined. I don’t recall whether she was quoting or it was in her own words but Ms. Ketchum made some valid assertions:

Dialogue is like salt for the palate. We take it for granted but miss it when it’s not there.

It’s the spine of the story. It holds us up and channels a story like nerves.

Dialogue reveals character. It’s THE way to nail character.

It’s also a great way to show the story’s conflict. You don’t have to use adverbs to show emotion.

And it gives the eyes a rest from paragraphs.

After many more morsels of dialogue wisdom and examples from actual books, the attendees were told to get into groups of three for a dialogue exercise. I got in a group of three. Each of us had to write eight to ten character traits of our protagonist. Then we had to exchange our lists. My job was to write a monologue based on this glimpse of someone else’s protagonist.

Here’s what the writer wrote about her main character (MC):

Girl is 6

Loves Terry

Hates Terry

Wear pigtails

Jumps off swing sets

Skinny legs

Plays imaginary games

Has goldfish crumbs in the corner of her mouth

Knows her ABC’s

Picks Play-Doh from under her fingernail

Big brown eyes, tiny mouth

Then, incorporating as many traits as possible, I had ten minutes to turn this into a monologue. Here’s what I came up with:

“I’m six-years-old, but in one month I’ll be six-and-a-half, but we don’t have a party like for whole birthdays. Yesterday, I played with Terry on the swings to see who could jump the farthest, but he cheated he rolled after we landed but he didn’t tell the truth, so then I wouldn’t talk to him for the rest of the day.

“He’s so annoying because he calls me ‘Twig legs’. And he’s a showoff because he can say his ABC’s backwards. Big deal. I do mine the right way and that’s all the teacher cares about. And he’s so bossy, always getting to be the cop when we play cops and robbers. Next time, I’m gonna get to pick first. And if he pulls my pigtails when I tell him, I’m gonna knock him down.”

Okay, it’s not Shakespeare. But it was fun. I could see and hear the protagonist.

It was cool to hear what the writer came up with from my MC (Eve from The Disappearances). After the three of us finished our monologues and read them to one another, we had to write dialogue based on the interactions of our three characters. In addition, someone came around and revealed a secret motivation of our protagonists that we should try to slip into the dialogue.

When we were done, my group volunteered to go up and act out our parts. The fact that I not only agreed to go up, but it was actually my idea, so I coaxed the others was HUGE for me. No pain, no gain. Right? In my humble opinion, we were AWESOME.

I’ve often said that I couldn’t write on command. It had to be my idea I was interested in shaping or there would be no story to tell. The workshop taught me that I am able to write on command.

Recently, I saw a commercial on Bravo for some TV show where artists will have to create art to win. The channel had done it for cooking, interior design, hair, and fashion design, but…. ART?

After attending the workshop, I think maybe it is possible.

*Here’s Liza’s website:



  1. Great tips about dialogue and what a helpful method too.

    Thanks for sharing!

  2. That sounds like such a cool workshop. I liked your monologue :) I could 'hear' her.

    And 'yay' for less adverbs!

  3. Writing dialogue is an art form. There's so much more to it than just conversation between characters! Your conference sounds like it was so helpful and fun!

  4. That is an amazing feat! You escaped your comfort zone and succeeded with flying colors! Congrats! :)

  5. This is a great exercise! I just might try it myself today. :)

    (But only after I get to your pages!)

  6. Excellent exercise, sounds really interesting, not sure about the art show idea but would be curious to see it.

  7. I think sometimes these quick exercises, with immediate deadlines, motivate us to get purely into "writing" mode and produce. A nice method to get into the zone!

  8. I love your monologue. What a great character. I wonder what her novel is about.

    This is a really cool idea. I'm already thinking of ways to use it in the classroom!

  9. I agree, I think this is a great exercise. I'm a huge fan of great dialogue and try to work hard on my own when writing.

  10. Great tips. Great dialogue too. You captured her voice. Nice job!
    Sounds like it was a great conference.

  11. I really like the description she gave you for her main character and I love what you did with it. That sounds like so much fun.

  12. India, it was a good learning experience for me too.

    Clutterbug, Stephen King said the road to hell is paved with adverbs.

    KarenG, you're right, it's an art-form. She also said to trust what isn't said. Her examples from books demonstrating different uses for dialogue were illuminating.

    aLmYbNeNr, I'm trying to volunteer for everything so it's less traumatic over time. It seems to be working.

  13. Aubrie, I think your dialogue is strong, but the exercise can only make us better. I should send you what my "writer" wrote for Eve.

    Brigid, I'm not sure about the art show idea either. I would think it would be the visual equivalent of an rough draft.

    Joanne, this conference definitely sparked my creativity.

  14. Tiffany, some version of this would be a lot of fun in an English classroom.

    Jaydee, I think dialogue is the most important part of any book.

    Christine, I'm glad you liked the voice. I spend a lot of time with six-year-olds.

    Miss Period, the other writer gave me great raw material. It practically wrote itself.

  15. What an adorable scene you created! Great job.

    I love doing dialogue - definitely my favorite part of writing.

  16. I hate writing on command in workshops. Hate it. But about half the time, I love what ends up coming out - even if it is just for fun.

  17. It's great to hear a synopsis of other workshops there are always a few unfortunate time conflicts. I too have been wary of writing on command. Thanks for sharing your experience and hope. Your monologue was packed full, grit, detail - loved it!

  18. What a cool exercise. I can see how it would really be beneficial! Thanks for the link, too.

  19. Tara, I agree. The conference reminded me how much writers can convey with dialogue.

    Rebecca, last year I took a workshop on plot, and instead of doing the exercise, I mapped the book I'd already written to see if it fit the criteria. This time I played better.

    AnnieM, I almost sneaked out for the second part because something that sounded good conflicted with dialogue. But I had a great time, so I stayed. Then I hard how disappointed people were in the other workshop, so I was glad I didn't leave the dialogue one.

    Talli, her newest books looks really cool. I should've picked it up and gotten it autographed while I was at the conference.

  20. Gosh! what a fun workshop! But the acting bit of it sounded so scary for me anyway! Well done you for being the driving force to go and do it!

    And great that you know you can write on demand and when under pressure - and enjoy the process to. And create something lovely out of thin air!

    I always say writers are the worst for patting themselves on the back when they deserve to because they always think they don't. Well you do and you ought to not only give yourself a well deserved pat on the back but a great big chocolate cake on the side with bells on! :-)

    Take care

  21. I'm not excellent with dialogue so this workshop would have been very helpful, and what you gave me was fantastic!!!

    I loved your little monologue, forget shakespeare, you knocked out of the park!! I though it was adorable and very well thought out. I always panic at assignments so I doubt I would have produced anything worth reading, but good for you!

  22. Terrific tips on dialogue. I wouldn't say it's my weakest point, but it's not my strength either so I'd love to improve. I like how it's compared to salt, because that is so true! I compare description to salt as well :)

  23. Old Kitty, thanks for the pat on the back.

    You must get a lot of practice with this type of work in your class. Or do you only have take-home assignments?

    Jen, thank you. It was a fun person to make up, but some of the others may have made me struggle. Who knows?

    Julie, I'm glad you enjoyed the tips. Description is important too. I just have to make sure it's also part of the action so I don't stall the story.

  24. That sounds like a great exercise. I'm impressed you were brave enough to act it out in front everyone. I also thought your six year old sounded believable.

  25. wow great post, theresa, and fab exercise! something i should try, perhaps?


    thanks for sharing!

  26. Lani, thank you. I liked the way our dialogue came out + I wasn't going up alone, so it helped me be brave.

    Tahereh, it was a fab exercise. Glad you enjoyed it!

  27. Thanks for the great post and a fabulous exercise. I have troubles, sometimes, writing realistic dialogues and this definitely helps! :)

  28. This workshop sounds so energizing and full of helpful ideas. I really like how your dialogue reflected the characterization presented.

  29. Great exercise for dialogue. It is so true that it is backbone of any story! I love what you did with the six-year old!

  30. Sandy Shin, I'm glad you found this helpful.

    Paul C, workshops are energizing. Thank you.

    Bossy Betty, dialogue is the backbone of any story. Stephen King writes about a particular writer who rarely uses dialogue because he's not good at it. I can't imagine reading a book like that.

  31. I love that exercise! What a terrific idea :)

  32. Jemi, thanks. I hope writers and English teachers get something out of it.

  33. That sounds like a really fun exercise! I'd enjoy writing the monologue, but I think I'd enjoy seeing what someone else wrote for my mc even more (or maybe not, if they ended up making her totally different than the way I see her - I guess I wouldn't like that.) Thanks for sharing this with us, sounds like it was a terrific workshop!

  34. Agree--dialog is so hard to do right. Loved this post.

  35. Interesting post Theresa. I always wondered whether I could write on demand too, as I'm a bit fearful of going to workshops where you have to do just that. I could also do with brushing-up on my dialogue too!

  36. Susan, it was fun to read about my protagonist through someone else's eyes. It was even more interesting to see what I put down for her traits without thinking much about it.

    Dibbly Fresh, I'm glad you enjoyed the post.

    Olive, I'd like to do more writing on demand. Before this workshop, I'd shied away from it.

  37. That exercise looks fun! I love the monologue you came up with. Dialogue is always my favorite, I think sometimes I rely to heavily on it.

    Also, it must be awesome to discover you can write on demand like that! I find it intimidating.

  38. Bridge Marie, I guess we have to watch out for too much dialogue as well.

    Writer's Digest has writing prompts. Maybe I'll try one.

  39. That sounds like a fantastic workshop! I think you did a great job with your monologue and I love that you just dove in :)

  40. Wonderful post! I've been rethinking my stance on dialogue, because you can really learn a lot about a character through the words they speak, not just paragraphs upon paragraphs of narrative.

  41. Amanda, I agree you can learn a lot about character through dialogue. I always thought my dialogue flowed well, but now I'll be more aware of how it can be used as a tool.

  42. HI Theresa:

    I prefer to read a story that is almost all dialogue because it keeps my interest. A page or two of description or psycobable wears me out.

    But that's just me.

  43. Walter Knight, thanks for the comment. Normally I don't pay attention to dialogue when I buy books, but I just looked through a book today and saw it's completely absent. Now I don't want to read it.

  44. That sounds like a fun workshop.
    I dig your dialogue, from the snippets of yours I've read here, your dialogue seems strong.

    Speaking of dialogue, I've had a lot friends who were teachers or professors of one sort or another, over the years. Do subs get into the habit of repeating themselves when they speak too? I don't see why they wouldn't... : j