To celebrate the release of my new book, You Can Write for Children: How to Write Great Stories, Articles, and Books for Kids and Teenagers, I’m sharing an excerpt from a chapter on dialogue and thoughts:
A good scene typically has a mix of action and dialogue, with some thoughts and enough description to help the reader picture the setting. Some scenes are going to be mainly action. Others are going to be mainly dialogue. If that’s appropriate to reality, that’s fine. For example, people don’t usually stop in the middle of battle to have conversations. Or you might have a character who is alone for a stretch of time, with no one to talk to. But in general, a story will be more entertaining and flow better if it has plenty of action and dialogue. Watch out for scenes that are all description, with no action, or all action, with no dialogue.
Thoughts as Dialogue
You can also use thoughts in place of dialogue. This helps keep the action from seeming like just a lot of stuff happening with no emotional reaction. Here’s a scene from my middle grade Egyptian mystery, The Eyes of Pharaoh, where there’s no dialogue. The main character, Seshta, has just dropped down from the roof after spying on people. I’ll italicize the things that come across as her thoughts, to make them obvious. However, they were not italicized in the actual book. Also notice that I don’t need to say “she thought.” Because we are in her viewpoint, it’s clear this is what she is thinking.
She paused under a willow tree to calm and arrange herself. She moaned as she smoothed her dress. Dust and little tears marred the fine linen, with one big rip in the hem. How would she explain the ruined dress to the priestess? She tried to cover herself with the shawl.
Most of the party guests still lingered at the far end of the garden. Musicians on lutes, reeds, and drums had joined the harpist. Seshta trudged past the pond. What should she do next? She wanted to hear what Prince Penno said to Meryey, but they would be on their guard to make sure Miw’s father didn’t spy on them.
Why was Miw’s father there? What did the prince mean about “the other girl?” They hadn’t said anything yet about Reya; she had to focus on him, whatever other strange things happened.
Notice how thought is woven in with action to show her reaction. In a battle scene, you might have fewer thoughts, but there could still be some, even if they’re brief:
Richard is in trouble. Got to get to him.
That came close.
Don’t Forget The Reaction
In real life, we don’t always know why things happen. In fiction, we should. We expect story events to follow a logical pattern, where cause leads to a reasonable effect. If you show a cause without an effect or an effect without a cause, you confuse your readers.
This goes beyond the cause and effect of major plot action. It includes a character’s internal reaction to the external action. Yet I often see manuscripts where action is followed by action with no internal reaction, so we don’t understand the character’s motives. No matter how great the action, the reader is confused and skeptical.
|This has ghosts for sure!|
Within each scene, you need to show not only what your main character does, but also why. Don’t assume people can read between the lines. In one manuscript I critiqued, the main character heard voices. Ghosts? The narrator never identified them as such. Did the boy think the voices had another source? Had he not yet decided? Maybe they weren’t supposed to be ghosts after all. The writer may have assumed that readers would interpret this properly, but by not putting the narrator’s interpretation on the page, she left this reader confused.
In Manuscript Makeover, Elizabeth Lyon suggests using this pattern: stimulus – reaction/emotion – thoughts – action. In other words, something happens to your main character (the stimulus); you show his emotional reaction, perhaps through dialogue, an exclamation, gesture, expression, or physical sensation; he thinks about the situation and makes a decision on what to do next; and finally he acts on that decision. This lets us see clearly how and why a character is reacting. The sequence may take one sentence or several pages, so long as we see the character’s emotional and intellectual reaction, leading to a decision. You can vary the pattern, but make sure you include emotions and thoughts so your character’s behavior is clear.
An Example from The Eighth Day
Dianne K. Salerni’s shares an example from her middle grade fantasy adventure, The Eighth Day. First, here’s the excerpt with action, dialogue, and description, but no thoughts:
“Oh, crap!” Jax yelled, braking.
It took three tries for Jax to break through the glass doors of the Walmart with a concrete parking block. He filled up a shopping cart with supplies he’d seen people grab before snowstorms or hurricanes and during zombie movies.
Without including thoughts, Jax’s action doesn’t make sense. Some readers might be able to guess why he’s doing what he’s doing, but others might be baffled, or they might guess wrong. Here’s the actual scene (slightly edited for brevity), with thoughts:
Jax rode his bike into the center of town. The streets were empty. The traffic lights were on, but frozen green, red, or yellow. (Stimulus: what he sees)
He thought about zombies.
He thought about alien abduction.
He thought about the old movie where Will Smith and his dog were the last creatures on earth. (Thoughts)
“Oh, crap!” Jax yelled, braking. (Reaction/Emotion)
Will Smith and his dog had not been alone in that movie. There’d been other creatures that lurked in dark places and came out at night to kill. (Thoughts)
It took three tries for Jax to break through the glass doors of the Walmart with a concrete parking block. He filled up a shopping cart with supplies he’d seen people grab before snowstorms or hurricanes and during zombie movies. (Action)
Now the reader knows what Jax is thinking, how he’s interpreting the situation, so his actions make sense. The scene is also more dramatic, with more emotion.
|What's he thinking?|
Writers often forget to include the character’s emotional reaction and decision-making. We are so familiar with our characters that it’s obvious to us how they would feel and why they would do what they do next. You just have to remember to put what you know on the page. My first draft of a scene often focuses on the action and dialogue. I read back through it intentionally focusing on the reaction, the character’s emotional response, using both physical sensations and thoughts.
Make sure you’re using action, dialogue, description, and reaction, possibly in the form of thoughts. Then you’ll have vivid, believable scenes building a dramatic story.
Find much more advice on story development in You Can Write for Children: How to Write Great Stories, Articles, and Books for Kids and Teenagers, which is available for the Kindle, in paperback, or in Large Print paperback.
Chris Eboch’s novels for children include The Genie’s Gift, a middle eastern fantasy; The Eyes of Pharaoh, a mystery in ancient Egypt; The Well of Sacrifice, a Mayan adventure; and Bandits Peak, a survival story. Her writing craft books include You Can Write for Children and Advanced Plotting.
Learn more at www.chriseboch.com or her Amazon page, or check out her writing tips at her Write Like a Pro! blog. Sign up for her workshop newsletter for classes and critique offers.