Welcome to Writing Lesson Two!

Last week, we announced that we will be hosting a writing contest, with prizes going to three top winners, in our Writing Lesson One article. Entries of all genres will be welcome for submission, with more details to be announced in Lesson Three next week. 

In the first lesson, we learned about the basic elements of storytelling – setting, characters, an inciting incident, voice, and point of view. Now, let’s add dialogue. 

Many people think that the purpose of dialogue is to move the story along by showing the reader more about the characters. A far more important reason for including dialogue in a story is because people speak to each other. It’s weird and awkward to be in a place with more than one person and for them all to be completely silent. It’s why Monks get lonely. 


The Basics 

  • Generally, dialogue requires specific grammatical rules 
  1. Quote marks at the beginning and end of what is said 
  2. Periods, commas, question marks, and exclamation points inside of the end quote mark 

NOTE: Lots of writers break these rules (read anything by Cormac McCarthy), and you can get away with doing this if you’re consistent with your broken rules. 

  • “Said”  
  • Said is a wonderful word. It has this strange quality to it where as a reader reads, they tend to jump right over the word “said” and hear the speaker’s voice saying things. 
  • Words other than “said” can be complicated.  

Ex. Have you ever heard someone try to gasp and say words at the same time? 

  • Words I’ve seen used in place of “said” include: laughed, gasped, guffawed, twittered, tittered, giggled, sighed, articulated, enunciated, uttered, quizzed, questioned, stated, explained, continued, moaned, mewled, purported, alleged, reported…
  • Words I’ve seen used in place of “said” that work include: whispered, yelled, and asked.
  • Unless…  

You can use words other than said if you do the work beforehand. 

Ex. Grandpa’s voice was always a growl of words over a cough at the end, with questions that were really demands. “Where’s my dinner!” he growl-coughed. 

  • To add personality to the word “said,” it’s helpful to front-load the dialogue. 

Ex. Brandon sighed in that way that told Emily he was annoyed beyond belief again. “Mom, please stop asking people where they work,” he said. 

That first sentence removes the need to have poor Brandon try to sigh and speak at the same time, while also giving the reader insight into the relationship between Brandon and Emily. 

  • To add a pause in the dialogue, put the “said” in the middle. 

Ex. Brandon sighed in that way that told Emily he was annoyed beyond belief again. “Mom,” he said, “please stop asking people where they work.” 

Reading that, did you feel the pause taking place? 

That pause is also made when “said” is used at the end of a line of dialogue, making the reader stop a millisecond… then move on. 

Dialogue helps… 

  • To insert dialectical differences into your story – compare these: 

“How y’all doin’ here tonight?” the waitress asked. 

“Father,” Maxwell said, “I fear Mother might be having one of her spells.” 

  • To show age differences. Which speaker do you think is older here… 

“Sammi, Randy won’t let me go to Cody’s house an’ I really wanna!” 

“Sam, I need you to take care of this. I simply don’t have the time.” 


Dialogue must be…  

  • Periodically interrupted to allow the reader to keep track of what is happening in the rest of the world.  

For instance, have you ever read a book where two people come together and sit down, maybe beside a boat on a warm evening, and they open a couple beers and begin to reminisce. And all they do is talk. And talk. And talk. Writers call this “talking heads” because that’s all there is, two heads exchanging lines of dialogue, forgetting to hear the splash of the water against the boat. No wind blowing their hair in their faces. Never drinking from their increasing flat, warm beer. 

  • True to life – no one speaks like this: 

“Hello, how are you today, Joyce?” 

“I am doing fine, Randy, thank you for asking. How are you, Randy?” 

“I am fine as well. It is a very nice day today, isn’t it?” 


The “Why?” of Storytelling 

So, if setting, characters, an inciting incident, voice, point of view, and dialogue make up the “What?” of a story, then what makes up the “Why?” of a story? 

A story’s why is called plot, which consists of the main events of a story, and the order in which things happened 

Plot is not an easy thing to explain. I’ve heard it defined as the way you break your reader’s heart, and the way you lead your reader through the world you’ve created. If you create wonderful characters who live in an interesting world, you’ve only done half the work, because they need to do something to keep a reader reading. 

Plot directly involves that inciting incident we talked about last time. It’s about what has changed and how the characters are going to find their way through that change to become different people. It encompasses the how and why of character growth. 


Plot, As Defined by a Few Famous Authors 

The creator of Discworld, Terry Pratchett, said, “The characters are the plot. What they do and say and the things that happen to them are, in a sense, what the plot is. You can’t take character and plot apart from each other, really. 


Winner of the National Humanities Award, Barbara Kingsolver, said the opposite: “Plot comes first. The plot is the architecture of your novel... Characters are your servants. They must serve your plot. 


And writer, actress, and inventor Vanna Bonta said, “The real story is not the plot, but how the characters unfold by it. 


All this tells us is that there is such a thing as plot, and writers tend to disagree about how it works and where it comes from. My favorite quote about plot comes from Jane Yolen, a woman who has written 386 books. “The main plot line is simple: Getting your character to the foot of the tree, getting him up the tree, and then figuring out how to get him down again. 


So let’s look at a few simplistic examples of plot. 

  • Some stories read like this: “The king died, then the queen died. 

This is simply a series of events. There is no connection between these two events other than the fact that the two people who died were probably married. 

  • A better story reads like this: “The king died, then the queen died from a broken heart.” 

That is the first stirrings of plot. Your reader wants to feel the love between these people that would cause a queen to have a broken heart. They want to see the romance and feel the sorrow. You’re ready to break the reader’s heart with this story. 

  • A great story reads like this: “The king died. The queen was the one who killed him.” 

All you need now is an exotic gay man and a few tigers to be Netflix-worthy. 


Errors in Plot 

There are some things about plot you need to keep in mind. 

  • Bad characters will kill your plot: 

Your characters need to behave like real people (or anthropomorphized rabbits or toads etc.) in every situation. This includes being petty, thinking thoughts you don’t want them to think, and reacting to situations the way real people react. 

One dimensional characters . Everyone has good and bad qualities, even your villains have someone who loves them, many of them would even save a kitten from the gutter. And your “good guys” can yell at their kids or kick a dog who just pooped on the living room rug. People are never all good or all bad. 

“Mary Sues” – characters who are actually the writer with a more special or fantastical life. The types of characters who strive for the underdog every time, who are secretly beautiful and hide it out of modesty, who always win in the end. Nobody likes a Mary Sue (with the exception of the author who created them). 

  • Logistics 

Pay attention to what your characters are doing, to what is around them, and to how things work in the real world. 

Ex. Johnny walked to the car and hopped in, his feet glancing off the closed passenger window. 

The problem: You need to have Johnny either not kick the window (which is closed) or make sure the reader knows the his legs are really short (short enough to avoid that closed window). 

  • Rewriting of Logistics 

You can change the rules of physics of the universe if you let the reader know about it beforehand. This is called world building. 

This is incredibly hard, but if you would like to read someone who has done it very well, read Terry Pratchett’s Discworld novels. 



I’m assuming here that you’ve completed the assignment from Writing Lesson One. Meaning that you have an idea for a story, for where it happens, to whom it happens, and, of course, what happens (the inciting incident). Hopefully you also have decided which point of view you’ll be using.  

Take all of those elements, and… 

  • Think about how your character(s) speak. Do they talk over one another? Do they use a specific dialect? Do they swear? Let them have a conversation in your head, then on the page. 
  • Begin to think through how your character(s) will respond to the change in their world. Take it all one step at a time, remembering to make things believable or to make the unbelievable realistic to the reader. 
  • Keep writing until you find where your character(s) and your plot meet.  



Look back here for your third lesson and more details about the Advocate’s Quarantine Contest! 


By Sally K Lehman – The second in a three-part series of writing lessons from our very own Copy Editor Sally K Lehman, author of In The Fat and the upcoming The Last Last Fight.