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The Write Life: Dialogue … only dialogue

Countdown to Kianna

18, 17, 16 … 15 days for Kianna to decide it’s time to show herself, to say, “Hi, Grandpa! I’m here.”

Okay, so it might be a year before she actually verbalizes that, but I’m convinced she already knows how incredibly wanted and loved she is. I’m sure it wouldn’t be too much of an inconvenience to her mom and dad if she went ahead and decided to get here today or tomorrow. This weekend’s as good a time as any to be born, right?

Saturday’s theme: The Write Life

Showing action, emotion, body language and thoughts is every writer’s goal. Show. Don’t tell. Being preachy is lazy. (And a turn-off). Describing every scene, every character, every action by telling our readers what they are seeing – rather than letting our readers see the scenes, characters and actions by the way we build those elements into the story – is also lazy, and it forces readers to be spectators rather than participants. I’m going to offer an exercise in a moment that forces showing, not telling, descriptive elements.

You’re probably familiar with writers who describe their characters as if reading the police blotter.

Jodie was about five-foot-10, average build, with graying hair. And overweight. He wore glasses and complained of perpetually itchy ears.

And then there’s the description of the character through the character’s eyes.

Jodie glanced at the mirror as he walked past the open door. He scratched the day-old stubble on his chin and studied the dreamy eyes that stared back at him. His amazement grew as the connection became clear. “I bear an uncanny resemblance to Robert Downey Jr.,” he said.

Your writing challenge today is to write at least a few lines of dialogue – and nothing else. No “he said, slamming the door as he left,” or “she said as tears trickled down her cheeks.” No one’s entering a room, dramatically pausing between words for emphasis or saying anything descriptive unless it’s in the form of dialogue. I promise I didn’t pre-write the following, but it’s been brewing in my mind for a couple of days. (Remember, the objective here is to “show,” not “tell.” Let your words paint, not preach).

The scene is two men meeting for an every other Friday noon-time chat at Dunn Brothers Coffee on Forum Boulevard in Columbia. We’ll call our characters “Jodie” and “Doug.” A third man will enter later. We’ll call him “Third Man,” because that’s how “Jodie” names characters when he’s writing on the fly, and, oh look, another character suddenly shows up. “Jodie” can consult his Master List of Character Names (a.k.a. old phone book), or simply call the walk-in character “Mr. Generic.” “Jodie” can give the unexpected character a proper name during the edit or revision.

An acceptable alternative is allowing the unnamed stranger to meet an untimely end. (Dramatic pause.) That’s right. Kill him.

Here goes …

“What, no coffee today, Jodie?”

“Nah. I don’t have a lot of time. Gotta get back.”

“Working on a big story?”

“Not really.”

“Well you’re sure not very talkative. Why the long face?”

“My face is fat. And unshaven.”

“Oh, you’re on that self-loathing kick again. I get it.”

“Not really. Just had a doctor’s appointment this week.”


“I don’t know. Gotta count calories now.”

“You know how many calories are in just one glass of milk?”

“Matter of fact, I do.”

“I just noticed this morning that my milk is a hundred and ten calories.”

“That’s just one serving.”

“Yeah. That’s what I had.”

“I bet you drank a full glass.”

“Right. One serving.”

“Dude. Most drinking glasses are more than a cup. Probably two cups.”

“So? I don’t follow you.”

“One cup is one serving. A hundred and ten calories. You probably drank two cups.”

“Two-hundred and twenty calories?”

“Don’t fall out of your chair there, Doug. But, yeah, you said it.”

“Holy cow! That IS depressing.”

“Yep. Love my milk.”

“Gotta have my milk.”

“Whatcha lookin’ at?”

“Is that Third Man over there?”

“You mean the yuppie with the laptop?”

“No, you moron. At the counter. The guy tapping his fingers on the pastry case.”

“Yeah. Sure. Hey, Third Man!”

“Hey, guys, let me pay and I’ll be right over.”

“Jodie, why’d you invite him over. He’ll get crumbs all over us.”

“Looks like we’re in luck, Doug. They’re out of scones.”

“Hey, guys. What brings you two here? They’re out of scones.”

“Hey, Third Man.

“Hey, Jodie. So, what are you guys talking about?”


“Yeah, thanks for bringing that up, Jodie.”

“Hey, you’re the one who starting going on about milk.”

“I don’t know if you two know this, but milk is a hundred and ten calories a glass. And that’s the one percent stuff.”

“Jodie, you want to correct his math?”

“Whaddya mean, Doug? My math is okay.”

“Not really. Doug’s right. That’s a hundred ten calories per eight-ounce cup. You want a full glass it’s two-hundred-twenty calories.”

“No way!”

That’s it. (And you were probably waiting for me to kill Third Man).

This is a (probably very poor) example of dialogue blocking. It’s a common technique for writing screenplays. Get the dialogue down first, then go back and add stage directions, props and the rest. It’s also a great way to overcome a bout of writer’s block. If you’ve got two characters and don’t know exactly where the story’s going next, just let them chat for a while. As your people talk it out, you’ll write it out. Maybe you’ll use it, maybe you won’t. If nothing else, you’ll get out of the rut and get to know your characters even better.

Grandpa’s message to Kianna #22

Sometimes when I call your mommy, Kishia, I hope that she doesn’t answer. Sounds funny, I know, but I love to hear her voice message. “Hi, this is Kishia …”

It’s the voice. Sweet, polite, just a tiny, tiny bit shy. The same tone, inflection and sound of the little girl she was once. And I need to hear that every once in a while. Your mommy is a grown-up woman now –has been for a lot longer than I care to admit. But every time I hear her voice message, I’m reminded that your mommy is also still partly my little girl.


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Filed under Family, Kianna Allene Brown, Living Write