High Intensity Writing Workout No. 1

HIWW

Because I’ve started teaching online writing classes through Arizona State University’s Virginia G. Piper Center for Creative Writing, I’ve been having to put together exercises to help students understand and master a variety of techniques.

One of the things I’m pretty much death on is using he said/she said or their variants in dialogue. I learned long ago, from the very talented Hugh B. Cave, that dialogue tags made dialogue very choppy. In addition, dialogue tags don’t engage the reader. They tell the reader what to think, which means the readers aren’t required to do any processing of the situation. Dialogue tags also tend to be breeding grounds for adverbs, which can lead to incredibly purple prose. Most importantly, if each character has a characteristic way of talking, the tags become an annoying redundancy.

I am aware that a lot of writers maintain that dialogue tags like “he said” are so common to be invisible to the readers. I have to ask, then, why use them? (The answer is that we’re paid by the word…) While I like money as much as any other writer, I prefer a higher information-to-word ratio in my writing. It really lets me have more going on, and to bury more material to connect up with later on.

Take a look at these two writing samples, one written with dialogue tags, one with attribution text.

Dialogue Tags:

“How is it you’re here?” Hank demanded.

“You couldn’t think I wasn’t going to make an effort to be here.” Sally replied.

“You can’t stop me,” Hank said adamantly. “My mind’s made up.”

“I can try,” Sally sighed. “If I fail, then I can support you.”

“Things are going to get very messy,” exclaimed Hank.

“Tell me something I don’t know,” Sally chuckled sadly.

“You aren’t going to like it,” he told her angrily.

“You can’t frighten me off,” she counter defiantly.

“Remember the woman you saw me with?” Hank asked.

“The redhead?” she replied.

“Yeah. Back when I told you I wasn’t married, I lied,” he sneered. “She’s my wife!”

Attribution tags:

Hank’s head whipped around. “How is it you’re here?”

Sally glanced down, refusing to meet his gaze. “You couldn’t think I wasn’t going to make an effort to be here.”

“You can’t stop me. My mind’s made up.”

“I can try.” She hugged her arms around her middle. “If I fail, then I can support you.”

Hank shook his head. “Things are going to get very messy.”

“Tell me something I don’t know.”

His eyes narrowed. “You aren’t going to like it.”

Her chin came up and she stared him straight in the eye. “You can’t frighten me off.”

“Remember the woman you saw me with?”

“The redhead?”

“Yeah. Back when I told you I wasn’t married, I lied.” His hands curled into fists. “She’s my wife.”

Compare the two samples. It’s best done if you read them aloud. I think you’ll notice two things.

1) The dialogue tags really cut into the flow of the first sample. They slow it down with information you don’t need.

2) The second sample flows more easily. In addition it’s much richer. When you look at the first line, it should be fairly clear that Sally has come up behind Hank, surprising him. Her response, in not meeting his gaze, betrays her being shy or ashamed; yet later she looks him in the eye, when he’s trying to get her to go away. And that last line, his hands curling into fists, what is he feeling? Anger? Frustration? Sorrow that he’s bound to this other woman, when he’d really rather be with Sally, but honor and duty demand he deals with her? In general, that second sample provides the reader with a lot more information to help shape the world and the characters.

The Exercise:

I want you to take the raw material below (the same sentences I used) and add attribution tags that round it out. In the samples I used, Hank and Sally are, presumably, peers and perhaps romantically involved. But you get to decide what their relationship is. Imagine that dialogue if Hank is 21, and Sally is his mom. Or that Sally is 33 years old, and Hank is her 60 year old father. Or they’re brother and sister, and this redhead would be Hank’s second wife. Or swap it around, Sally starts the dialogue, and the redhead is her wife.

Go ahead, do the exercise, and then paste your version into the comments below. For reasons far to numerous to mention (and most having to do with legalities), I won’t be critiquing the results. (If you want me to critique your work, you can apply for the Your Novel Year program at Arizona State and get into the classes I’m teaching.) If you choose to comment on anyone else’s samples, be gentle and constructive.

Raw material.

“How is it you’re here?”

“You couldn’t think I wasn’t going to make an effort to be here.”

“You can’t stop me. My mind’s made up.”

“I can try. If I fail, then I can support you.”

“Things are going to get very messy.”

“Tell me something I don’t know.”

“You aren’t going to like it.”

“You can’t frighten me off.”

“Remember the woman you saw me with?”

“The redhead?”

“Yeah. Back when I told you I wasn’t married, I lied. She’s my wife.”

©2015 Michael A. Stackpole

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If you’re serious about your writing, you’ll want to take a look at my book, 21 Days to a Novel. It’s a 21 day long program that will help you do all the prep work you need to be able to get from start to finish on your novel. If you’ve ever started a book or story and had it die after ten pages or ten chapters, the 21 Days to a Novel program will get you past the problems that killed your work. 21 Days to a Novel covers everything from characterization to plotting, showing you how to put together a story that truly works.

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4 Responses to “High Intensity Writing Workout No. 1”

  1. Hank had been practicing a look of determined resolve the whole cab ride to the courthouse, a carefully constructed mask that cracked the instant he saw who waited on the steps.

    “How is it you’re here?”

    Sally skipped down the stairs towards him, smiling. “You couldn’t think I wasn’t going to make an effort to be here.”

    Hank brushed past her without so much as a glance; one look in her eyes and he’d be done for. “You can’t stop me. My mind’s made up.”

    Sally nearly had to jog to catch up. “I can try. If I fail, then I can support you.”

    Hank sped up. “Things are going to get very messy.”

    Sally sped up more. “Tell me something I don’t know.”

    Hank stopped, suddenly, and faced the woman whose heart he was about to crush. “You aren’t going to like it.”

    “You can’t frighten me off.” Sally stepped toe to toe with Hank and, for a moment, meeting her gaze, he almost went back—back to the lies, back to their happiness…

    He couldn’t. Things were out of his control; the only choice still left to him was how she found out. Hank took a deep breath.

    “Remember the woman you saw me with?”

    “The redhead?”

    “Yeah. Back when I told you I wasn’t married, I lied.” He broke her gaze. “She’s my wife.”

  2. Hank looked up and his lips tightened as he saw her approach. “How is it you’re here?”

    Her eyes sparkled as she walked closer. She stood out among the mourners and they parted even as they milled around, a dull roar masking the pleasantries. “You couldn’t think I wasn’t going to make an effort to be here.”

    His hand tightened around the glass he used to keep it off of her neck. “You can’t stop me. My mind’s made up.”

    “I can try. If I fail, then I can support you.”

    “Things are going to get very messy.”

    She shrugged. “Tell me something I don’t know.”

    “You aren’t going to like it.”

    “You can’t frighten me off.” Their eyes met.

    “Remember the woman you saw me with?”

    She nodded. “The redhead?”

    “Yeah. Back when I told you I wasn’t married, I lied. She’s my wife.”

    She smiled and turned sideways to lift her dress, just enough to show the knife tucked into her garter.

    “Not for long.”

  3. These examples are really great. That you for sharing them. I marvel at how much more dynamic and rich text gets when writers abandon the training wheels of “he said” and put more power into what they’re writing.

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  1. High Intensity Writing Workout | PROTECTORS of the REALM - 15. Feb, 2015

    […] If you’ve read my post for any length of time then you know that I am a huge fan of Science Fiction/ Fantasy author Michael Stackpole. I’ve learned so much from him in the past and will plug anything he has going on that is good, given the chance. I do it because he has done so much for me in my development as a writer and self-publisher. Since the podcast the Dragon Page Cover to Cover ended (sadly), he’s scaled back dramatically on his postings, but here is, what I think will be a series, of new writing posts on improving your writing skills: High Intensity Writing Workout No 1.   […]