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Dialog in Nonfiction

Steven strolled into the classroom after everyone had left and plopped into a seat by the teacher's desk. "Mr. Brady, since class is studying nonfiction writing, we're not going to have to write dialog, are we?"

"Wrong. And, how many times have I asked you to please not slam your books on the desks?" Mr. Brady never looked up from grading but knew the sound of Steven's swagger which forewarned him of the coming explosion of books.

"Sorry. But, that doesn't make sense. I was talking with the other guys after football practice about these writing assignments, and it seems more like we're having to learn to write make-believe, as if we're writing kids' fairytales or something. We want to be journalists, not fairy-tale authors. So, what's dialog got to do with it?"

"Everything." Mr. Brady took off his glasses and laid them on the stack of papers. "Even though nonfiction isn't making up tales of yarn or kids' fairytales, you still have to learn to make your true articles and books interesting to the reader. You don't want to tell them everything through narration. It can put the reader to sleep. Your reader will identify more with the people in your stories if the people are allowed to tell part of the story themselves. This is done best through dialog.

"When you are interviewing someone for an article, you can phrase your questions in such a way that their answers can be quoted and what they say moves the story along better than if you'd have given all the explanation in the world."

"But I hate trying to think up enough different words to use like he exploded or he exclaimed or he gnarled or he shouted. I get stuck after just a couple of sentences. And, somehow my writing always sounds so dumb and stilted when I write dialog. It just doesn't sound right."

"It probably does sound stilted. That's the whole point. You shouldn't be using a lot of different words in the tag lines---you did know that's what those are called, didn't you---tag lines--the little words that say who is speaking?"

"Yeah, I think I remembered."

"If you need to state who said what in your dialog, it's best to just use the simple, he said or she said. It's less author intrusive."

"So, what's author intrusive?"

"Author intrusive is when the story loses it's flow and the reader can feel the presence of the writer. It's like a hiccup in the writing. When you say words like he exclaimed or he postulated or he mumbled or he laughed, those things don't flow with the writing. You need to show how the character acts in your article, story, or book instead of using telling words such as exclaimed or postulated or mumbled."

"Another thing. As much as possible, you need to write your dialog so that you rarely need to use the he saids she saids. If you write your dialog correctly, your reader will be able to tell easily who is speaking, however you never want the reader to back up a few lines to try to figure out who is speaking. Write so that it's obvious who is speaking when you don't use a tag line. The best writing uses very little tag lines."

"I think I'm beginning to understand. When I read the assignment in our text book for tomorrow, I'll especially start noticing how the dialog is written with the he saids and she saids or none at all. When I do that, I know it will finally sink in. I can see now why I always felt I hated writing dialog."

"Dialog written correctly makes the writing come alive. We'll have a few more lessons on dialog and I'll show you a few examples of good versus bad dialog writing. When you see the two together, you begin to realize how effective or ineffective dialog can make the piece. See you for next class."

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