Craft Challenge – Embellishing Dialog

My first drafts end up being almost all dialog.  I don’t know why but that’s what comes to me first — people talking in my head (and no, I’m not crazy!).   Then I have to go back and layer in all the other information during revisions.   Dialog is a fine start, but there’s setting, action, body language, interior monologues, plot, conflict, and so many other options to weave around the dialog.

So here’s this week’s writing challenge:

Take the following dialog and layer in all the other information that will show the reader who the two speakers are, what their relationship is, some clue as to time and/or place (where and when this happens), and why they are having this conversation.  Think setting, 5 senses, who is the point of view character and what is he or she thinking and feeling as the conversation goes on, and what is the real conflict in this exchange?  I’ll give you the dialog and an example, then it’s your job to run with it. 

There’s a prize this week!  Post your work in the comments and next Monday morning I’ll randomly choose a winner to recieve a copy of one of my books.

The dialog is:

 “I can’t.”
“Seriously. It’s just not possible.”
“It’s possible. You’re just afraid.”
“And the problem with that is?”
“No problem.”
“You’re disappointed.”
“Angry, really.”
“I’m sorry I can’t be a super hero like you.”
“No one can.”

Now here’s an example of embellishing:

“I can’t.”  Kelly wiped the sweat off her upper lip with the back of her hand and looked down the shear clif face at the green sea water far below.  She knew better than to accept a dare from her sister?  This was crazy.

“Loser.”  Sarah stepped forward, curling her toes over the rocky edge.   Her exquisitely cut chestnut hair whipped about her face, the sneer that marred her classic features a familiar taunt to Kelly.

“Seriously. It’s just not possible.”  Kelly shivered in spite of the tropical heat.  No one could survive that drop. 

“It’s possible. You’re just afraid.”  Sarah turned her head to look Kelly in the eye.  Anticipation swirled there, a surge of adrenaline clearly already coursing through Sarah’s veins.  It was what Sarah lived for.  It was what Kelly feared.  She had to stop Sarah before she did something really stupid and killed herself.

“And the problem with that is?”  She held her breath.

“No problem.”  Sarah shook her head then looked out at the horizon.  She raised her arms out to her side like a platform diver at the olympics.

Kelly’s fleshed crawled.  She had to stop her.  “You’re disappointed,” she said, making it a challenge, desperate to start an argument, anything that would draw Sarah back from the edge.

“Angry, really.”  No emotion.  Nothing, as if Sarah was empty of everything except the single moment before her.

Kelly reached out, putting a hand on her sister’s outstretched arm.  “I’m sorry I can’t be a super hero like you.”  Never has she spoken the truth more.  She wanted to tell her to stop, to step away from the edge, to think this through, but she knew from long experience that Sarah would only race into madness even faster.  She had to settle for the tried and true — she needed to make Sarah feel superior, give her a different sort of rush.  It was the only way to stop her.  She held her breath, waiting for a reaction.

Sarah smiled, then wrapped her hand around Kelly’s wrist.  “No one can,” she whispered as she launched both of them over the precipice.

Okay, now see what you can do!



11 Responses

  1. Ooooh Nice, Laurin,
    I’m the exact opposite. I have to work to get the dialog. I like the action to move quickly and sometimes it slows me down to say “she said” then “he said.”. This looks like fun.
    I’ll get back to you if I can do anything nearly as evocative as you did already.

  2. Ok Laurin, here’s my entry, that was fun!
    Karen Schindler

    Spider man looked out over the edge of the building to the street 70 stories below, then judged the distance to the next building, and said :“I can’t.”
    “Loser.” Said Superman, “I grew up with little kids who’d be able to jump that distance blindfolded; and you’re 34 years old for Christ’s sake. You’ve got to stop relying on those parlor tricks you use, those webs and such. Grow a pair and be a man. Just believe that you can do it, and you can. Try moving back a few steps and taking a running leap if it helps you to focus.”

    “Seriously. It’s just not possible. I understand that it wouldn’t be any kind of effort for you, but you do know that gravity here on Earth works different for Earthlings than it does for people of the planet Krypton, right?”

    “It’s possible. Anything’s possible if you set your mind to it. You’re just afraid.”
    “And the problem with that is? I mean, I could do it easy with my webs, just shoot, stick and swing, no problem.”
    Superman sneers at him, eyes slitted, arms waving in the air :“No problem, he says mockingly, but only if you fall back on your precious crutch; your “spidey powers”, your stupid web slinging Oh, Dear,a radioactive spider bit me, spider powers.”
    “You’re disappointed.”
    “Angry, really.”
    “I’m sorry I can’t be a super hero like you.”
    “No one can.”
    Superman sighed and resigned himself to the idea that he’d just have to stick with Lois Lane for the duration; it didn’t look like Mary Jane was going to be free anytime soon.

  3. Karen,

    Your entry cracked me up! Good job. And you only used “said” two times. Excellent. My favorite way to avoid the ever present “said” is to use an action instead, as you did in the “Superman sneers at him…” line. I knew exactly who was speaking from that.

    WTG and thanks for playing!


  4. Hi Laurin,
    Can you post more than once? I injected emotion into this one, and there isn’t a “said” to be seen! It’s interesting that it seems like I don’t need much description to get to a joke, but I need to use a lot of descriptive language if the story is used to touch an emotional chord.
    Good teaching exercise,

    “I can’t, I can’t, I can’t! Mandy shrieked, snot and tears running down her face.
    “Loser.” Mike flatly stated.
    “Seriously. It’s just not possible. I tried, you saw me try”. Mandy whined, “Why are you so mean? Just look at my knees, my elbows. They’re all bloody. I tell you I can’t do it! It’s just not possible for me.”
    Mike put his arm around his little sister and whispered into her ear:“It’s possible. You’re just afraid.”
    Still not convinced Mandy pouted:“And the problem with that is?”
    “No problem, not really a problem as such, it’s just that I don’t like to think of my sister as a quitter.”
    “You’re disappointed in me, you think I’m not strong.”
    No honey, I’m angry, really, but at myself, I’m sorry I pushed you so hard. You’ll get it, I believe in you, let’s go home and we’ll try again tomorrow.”
    “I’m sorry I can’t be a super hero like you.”
    “No one can, and God, I hope you never have to be.”
    Mike turned his wheelchair around and kept pace with Mandy as she limped along wheeling her new pink bike down the street toward home.

  5. Post as many times as you like!

    Another nice go, Karen, and as you say, quite different in tone. Great!

    One quick suggestion (I’m a critiquer. I can’t help myself!) — there are times where your dialog shows the reader the character’s tone and then you use a tag to tell the tone, too. Ex: Mandy’s first line of dialog ends in an exclamation point. It’s clear she’s shrieking. Instead of saying Mandy shrieked (which is the useful but often over used “telling”) all you need to say is: Snot and tears ran down Mandy’s face. You’ve let both the dialog and the description show the reader what emotional state Mandy is in, as well as clueing her in that Mandy is the speaker. You’ve picked up the pace just a tad, and you’ve used less words. Yes, Joe’s exercise is still on my mind.

    If you want to try a trickier variantion, try this exercise again without adding any extra dialog. Just add the stuff around the simple dialog. As Joe’s exercise last week forced us all to be stingy with words, making every one count, this variant will force you to pull out more craft tools to *show* the story without the characters saying more words.

    Go ahead, you’re on a roll. Give it another go!


  6. That’s so funny Laurin,
    I went immediately into my own book right after you commented on using the word “said”, and I found that I use the word “said” about a billion times. My characters just “say” things, they don’t scream, whimper, shout, or really use much more punctuation than a comma or a period. (LOL)
    I looked at Joe’s books, he tends to just let the dialog be there, one line then the other, with the characters trading lines, no frills, same with Janet Evanovich, but Robert Parker almost always says “he said.”
    Is it a question of personal style?
    If so, mine is generally less is more, but I tried to get fancy and mixed punctuation and adjectives, because I had a momentary vogage into the realm of Hey teacher , look at me. LOL
    Thanks for the input.
    I’ll be back tomorrow.

  7. I think it is both a question of a writer’s style and of genre. I write romances where emotion is a big part of the story and it takes lots of different “tools” to show that rather than tell it. I haven’t read any of Joe’s books yet, and never read Robert Parker, but I’m familiar with their genres and quick, almost terse, dialog wouldn’t surprise me. Janet Evanovich I have read and her voice, style of story, and pacing definitely lends itself to the snappy patter style of dialog.

    I think the important thing is to know lots of different ways to embellish that dialog so that you use “said” when you need to, but don’t have to use it every time someone speaks. Part of the fun for me is trying out different ways of writing things so I can add the tools to my tool belt.

    And as you can probably tell, I have frequent voyages to into the realm of Hmm, how could we make that stronger? I love this kind of back and forth about craft!

  8. Ok Laurin,
    I’ll be out tomorrow, I’ll check in in the late afternoon. This is my voice (not the ones in my head) LOL….. Thanks for all the input.
    Karen Schindler

    “I can’t.” Mary shakes her head sadly while placing the ring in his hand.
    Rick tosses “Loser.” over his shoulder as he heads for the door.
    Mary follows, beseeching “Seriously. It’s just not possible.”
    Rick shakes her hand from his sleeve “It’s possible. You’re just afraid.”
    Fighting tears, angry now “And the problem with that is?”
    “No problem.” He opens the door, determined now to end it.
    She blocks his exit “You’re disappointed.”
    His shoulders sag, he hates to leave her like this, his response is :“Angry, really.” But there’s no heat in it.
    She sees that she’ll have to make it easy for him; she tries to cut him to the quick “I’m sorry I can’t be a super hero like you.”
    He pitches the diamond into the wastebasket by the door as he exits “No one can.”

  9. Karen,

    This is my favorite of your contributions this week! No saids, lots of action and emotion layered around the simple dialog. WTG!


  10. Hi Laurin,
    Thanks for the exercise to get the juices flowing. I’m working on a movie script right now too and the DIALOG IS KILLING ME. Working like this…using more of a stage direction feel.. jump started some ideas for me yesterday.
    And thanks for the kind words.
    Karen Schindler

  11. Hi Laurin,
    What are you cooking up for Monday?

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