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LESSON # 6: BODY MOVEMENT AND DIALOGUE MAKE A STORY COME ALIVE
As you develop your plot, remember to use as much dialogue and body movement as possible to help the reader see and hear the words and actions. Simply narrating it is much less effective. Quote your characters directly, and let the reader hear a sigh or see the character lean against a door frame. Describe a smile or the sound of the laughter. Allow your character to lean forward or backward, prop his foot on a stool, rest his head against the back of a chair, or fold his arms across his chest. No real person carries on a conversation without body movement as well, and you need that kind of description to keep your reader’s attention and make your characters “real.”
Beginning writers often find themselves skipping this very important principle. They get involved in “telling” their story and just continue to narrate the events without any individual detailed action and without letting their characters carry on real conversations. That lack of material is generally why some beginning writers have problems filling out scenes and developing entire novels. But once you get into the habit of adding these two very important elements to your writing, you will find that you enjoy writing even more, and that you have less problem creating real-life, fully developed scenes for your story.
Now, of course, adding just any old movement or dialogue will not work either. The characters’ behavior and conversations have to fit the story and be totally relevant – even important – to the story itself. Keep checking to be sure that every conversation and every scene is actually moving your story forward and not just taking up space.
Remember also, that tag words (things like “he said / she asked”) need to be kept at a minimum and need to be simple, ordinary words as often as possible. Some new writers have the mistaken idea that they should reach for a variety of words or for unusual words to use with quotes. That’s exactly what you don’t want to do. Those unusual words stick out like the proverbial “sore thumb” in the middle of dialogue and interrupt it. Except in very rare instances, you’re much better off using the ordinary words like “said” or “asked.” Occasionally, in a scene where they would be perfectly applicable, you might venture out to tag words like “whispered” or “shouted.” But the number one rule is to keep those tags as inconspicuous as possible.
The next rule you want to remember is to begin a brand new paragraph each time the speaker changes in a conversation – even if the previous speaker said only one word. When you stay faithful to that rule, you end up needing far fewer tag words to begin with – particularly if you have only two speakers. Once you identify the original speaker and then identify the person who answers him, changing paragraphs for each one will keep your reader aware of who is saying what. If your conversation lasts for more than a page, you need to throw in a couple more tags here and there, just for extra clarity, but it’s amazing how easily readers will follow your conversations with no other help when you follow these two basic rules.
Below, I’ve given you two versions of the same excerpt from my novel A Quiver Full of Arrows. The first excerpt uses very little body language and dialogue. The author narrates what is happening, but does not show the characters in action or let them speak on their own. In the second, you will see how much more color and interest is added by letting the characters speak their own words in normal conversation and by showing the reader even small unremarkable body movements.
In order to better grasp the way these writing tools are used, I’ve made the dialogue a sort of turquoise color and the body movement sections a shade of purple. I tried highlighting them, but could not get the highlights to copy and paste into this editing window. So I’ll work with what I’ve got. And the color variation will help you see exactly what was added to get the better version.
Version # 1 – Mostly narration with only a small amount of body movement or dialogue. (Remember: dialogue is only the words within quotation marks. Any other mode of letting your reader know what a character said is narration.)
Peanut shells! Again! Handfuls of peanut shells scattered around the steps of the front porch!
How were they getting there?
Lawson Wainright walked around the small piles that were littering the sidewalk and the edge of the grass beside the steps. He stood for several more minutes, looking around the yard, turning his tall, lean body full circle . . . but there was no one in sight.
He looked up into the branches of the tree just a few yards away. He supposed it could be birds or squirrels. But he just didn’t think an animal would leave the shells looking like this. The nuts had obviously been broken open carefully. . . . .
He went to get a rake and some garbage bags to gather up the shells. While he was raking up the shells, Elmer Peabody, his 75-year-old neighbor from across the street came over. “Looks like you’re rakin’ up peanut shells again,” he said.
Lawson agreed and asked Mr. Peabody if he had seen anyone unusual in the neighborhood recently. Mr. Peabody replied that he hadn’t seen anything so far and asked if the shells were all still intact the way they had been the other times. Lawson told him that they were.
Eventually Mr. Peabody began to walk around the area himself, looking closely at the foundation of the house, where Lawson had added white latticework that ran along the front, below the porch, and met the steps on each side.
Elmer was leaning down close to the foundation right where Lawson had been raking up the shells, and all of a sudden he shouted. “By Jove! Did you know that your lattice is broken here, L.W.?”
“Broken?” Lawson asked. “Where?”
“Right here,” Mr. Peabody answered and handed Lawson a piece of the loose lattice.
Lawson couldn’t understand how it could have broken because he had put it in place last summer, and it was all secure. He finally stooped down and looked more closely.
The area under the porch was spacious and dry, and Lawson crawled in to have a better look.
“What in heaven’s name!” he shouted from under the porch.
“Did you find something?” Elmer asked.
Lawson crawled back out from under the porch and looked up at Elmer. “I found two sleeping bags and a can of peanuts under there,” he said. He was hoping Elmer might be able to help explain what was happening, but Elmer was equally stunned.
After a few seconds, Lawson laughed out loud. He told Elmer that he felt like the three bears who had come home and found someone had been sleeping in their beds. Elmer asked Lawson if he had any idea who it could be.
“I don’t have a clue,” Lawson said. But, suddenly, he remembered something.
Version # 2: A considerable amount of dialogue and body movement has been added to this version. Compare the effectiveness of Version # 2 with that of Version # 1. Which story will hold your reader’s attention better and help him relate to your characters?
Peanut shells! Again! Handfuls of peanut shells scattered around the steps of the front porch!
How were they getting there?
Lawson Wainright walked around the small piles that were littering the sidewalk and the edge of the grass beside the steps. In frustration, he ran his hands through his short brown hair, and as he did so, the sunshine caught sections of it and highlighted them with streaks of copper. He let his hand slip down to the back of his neck, massaging it a little as he shook his head back and forth slowly, still trying to reason out the solution to this strange development.
Then he stood for several more minutes, resting both hands on his hips and looking slowly around the yard, turning his tall, lean body full circle . . . but there was no one in sight. He looked up into the branches of the tree just a few yards away. He supposed it could be birds or squirrels. But after a moment, he shook his head again. No … he just didn’t think an animal would leave the shells looking like this. The nuts had obviously been broken open carefully. . . . .
He shrugged his shoulders now and let out a sigh, turning as he did so to walk around the house to the garage, where he extricated a lightweight rake from a jumbled collection of yard care equipment. He returned to the front yard, where he began to rake the small piles into one larger heap in order to scoop them into a garbage bag he had carried over along with the rake.
“Hey, L. W.” The voice of his seventy-five-year-old neighbor across the street got his attention. “Looks like you’re rakin’ up peanut shells again.”
Lawson couldn’t help chuckling and shaking his head in consternation again as he stilled his rake and looked at Mr. Elmer Peabody. “Looks like,” he called back, leaning slightly on the rake now as he gave his attention to his favorite neighbor.
“Still no idea how they’re gettin’ into your yard?” Elmer asked as he started across the street.
“Nope. You still haven’t seen anything or anyone unusual, have you?”
“Not so far.” Mr. Peabody took off his gardening hat as he crossed the yard and scratched his almost bald head. “’Course, that don’t mean nothin’,” he added. “I hardly ever look outside after dark, and early in the mornin’ I’m eatin’ my breakfast and lookin’ out my back window at the birds.” By the time he’d finished answering Lawson’s question, he was beside him, watching him finish his clean-up job. “Were the shells all neat and clean again like the other times?”
“Yeah … just exactly like the last three times.”
“Mm-mm!” Elmer Peabody grunted, shaking his head back and forth. He began to walk around the area in tight circles, finally bending over and looking along the foundation of the house, where Lawson had added white latticework that ran along the front, below the porch, and met the steps on each side. …
All of a sudden Elmer shouted, “By Jove! Did you know that your lattice is broken here, L.W.?”
“Broken?” Lawson asked, stepping over to stand beside his neighbor. “Where?”
“Right here,” Mr. Peabody said, reaching out to take hold of a loose 3-foot section of the white lattice and lift it away from the rest of the porch. He held it up for Lawson to inspect.
“Well, I’ll be!” Lawson said, taking the piece of latticework in his hands. “How on earth did that happen? I just put that up last summer, and it was all secure.” He studied the piece of wood he held in his hands. “Hmm … it looks like the nails have been worked loose and just pulled out, but nothing’s broken off.” He stooped down to look more closely under the porch.
The area beneath the porch was quite spacious, and stayed fairly dry most of the year, unless they had heavy rain or snow. He could easily crawl under it himself and move around, but he hadn’t done so since he’d put up the lattice. Now he got down on his hands and knees and eased his way into the three-foot opening.
“What in Heaven’s name!” His voice came out sounding muffled from beneath the porch, and Elmer Peabody leaned a little closer to hear better as Lawson spoke again. “I don’t believe my eyes!”
“What’d you find?” Elmer asked, excitement filling his voice now. This was an adventure for him. He hadn’t had this much interesting activity in his neighborhood since Hilda Gates, next door to him, had set her kitchen on fire trying to make a big rum cake. ….
Lawson hadn’t said anything else for a minute or so, and Elmer leaned in even closer and stuck his head inside the opening. “What did you find? What’s going on?”
“Sleeping bags?” Elmer couldn’t believe he’d heard right.
“Yeah … two of them, and a big metal can full of peanuts!” Lawson began to ease backwards out of the opening, and Elmer moved away to give him room.
“Did I hear you right? Sleeping bags?”
Lawson was still crouched down close to the ground, and he looked up at Elmer, his face a perfect picture of consternation. “Elmer, there are two rolled-up sleeping bags under my porch, and a large metal can full of peanuts in the shells.” His eyes still registered his shock, and then a quizzical look came into them, almost as if he hoped that his neighbor, somehow, would have the explanation.
When he realized that Elmer’s face was as full of surprise as his own must be, he added, grinning in spite of himself, “I feel a little like the three bears who came home and discovered that someone had been sleeping in their beds.” He laughed out loud then. In spite of the obvious seriousness of the discovery, he couldn’t help himself. “Mr. Peabody … somebody’s been sleeping under my porch!”
“And havin’ a midnight snack on top of that,” Elmer said, chuckling and scratching his head again. “By Jove! I wonder who in the world it could be.”
Lawson shook his head again and picked up the piece of lattice to replace it. “I can’t imagine – unless – ” His voice trailed off, and he sat back on his haunches, looking off into space. . . . He had just remembered a recent news story. …
With this second version, not only is the scene fully fleshed out, but the reader actually feels that he is getting to know the two people involved. As we discussed in the chapter on developing characters, we get to know real people in our lives by talking with them, seeing them in action, and learning how they treat and interact with others. That’s also the best way for readers to get to know the characters in a story. As a result, those characters seem real, and the reader connects with them enough to want to read to the end.
NOTE: My schedule has become a little over-loaded this month, so I’m going to have to hit the ‘pause’ button on my plan to offer a creative writing lesson every Saturday. I’ll try to post a lesson at least once a month for a while, but that may be the best I can do. I hope these have been a help and encouragement to some of you, and I’ll add more as often as I can.