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From our How to Write Series
Dialogue adds to the narrative by allowing your characters to speak for themselves. It's not simply narrative surrounded by quotation marks. I've read manuscripts where the main character says something like:
"I don't know where I am. I've never been in this part of the city before. I think I'll walk down the street and turn left at this corner. Maybe I'll see someone who I can ask for directions. It sure is cold out."
When the character is explaining his actions to the reader, the dialogue is not adding to the story. Dialogue should hint at events in the plot by showing your character's reaction to his situation. It also encompasses broad strokes of action. Any small details necessary to the story can be shown tough brief narrative passages. If you were this character, what would you say out loud, what would you think, and what would you simply do? Here's how the above example could be rewritten:
Josh looked at the unfamiliar buildings and finally admitted that he was lost. "Where are all the people?" he asked himself. "Maybe I'll find someone around the corner who can tell me how to get home. " He blew on his hands, trying to warm them. "Mom told me to bring my coat", he thought. "I hate it when she's right."
By showing your character's reaction to his situation, you give details to the reader about who this character is. You can also provide information about other characters in your story through the main character's speech, as Lois Lowry does in "Anastasia on Her Own":
(Anastasia) dropped her schoolbooks on the kitchen table with a thump. "What's for dinner?" she asked her mother. "Why are you just standing there with that sort of frown on your face? And your lips are green. Why are your lips green?"
Because Anastasia doesn't miss a beat before asking her mother about her green lips, the reader gets the impression that this is not an unusual event in the Krupnik household.
When writing for young children, it's especially important that the dialogue be very active, constantly moving the story forward. Consider this example from "The Cat in the Hat" by Dr. Seuss. The cat has just walked in and asked the children why they are sitting around on a rainy day.
"I know some good games we could play," Said the cat. "I know some new tricks, " Said the Cat in the Hat. "A lot of good tricks. I will show them to you. Your mother Will not mind at all if I do, "
In this brief passage we learn a bit about the cat's personality, what he has planned for the afternoon and how he feels about parental rules, all without a drop of narrative.
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