Show, Don’t Tell: Dialogue

Welcome to part five of my “Show, Don’t Tell” series. This post will focus on (well-written) dialogue.

I’ve mentioned before that dialogue is a tool to show. Our words show a lot about our characters, and dialogue can show a great number of things: personality, emotions, relationships, etc. And readers love dialogue. Nobody likes reading blocks and blocks of text.

For this post, I’m going to use examples of how dialogue can show, and I’ll be using Harry Potter quotes from the books and movies. Let’s begin!

Personality
Our personalities affect the words we say. Hot-tempered people are more likely to use negative words while happy-to-go people are more likely to use happy language. If you look at these examples, you can see how the characters’ personalities shine through their dialogue.

The Jerk- Draco Malfoy

“Are you trying to earn some extra money, Weasley? Hoping to be gamekeeper yourself when you leave Hogwarts, I suppose—that hut of Hagrid’s must seem like a palace compared to what your family’s used to.”
–Draco Malfoy, Sorcerer’s Stone, chapter twelve

The Wise– Albus Dumbledore

“Fear of a name increases fear of the thing itself.”
–Albus Dumbledore, Sorcerer’s Stone, chapter seventeen

The Quirky–Luna Lovegood

“I don’t think you should be an Auror, Harry,” said Luna unexpectedly. “The Aurors are part of the Rotfang Conspiracy, I thought everyone knew that. They’re working to bring down the Ministry of Magic from within using a combination of Dark Magic and gum disease.”
–Luna Lovegood, Half-Blood Prince, chapter fifteen

The Strict–Professor McGonagall

“Transfiguration is some of the most complex and dangerous magic you will learn at Hogwarts,” [McGonagall] said. “Anyone messing around in my class will leave and not come back. You have been warned.”
–Professor McGonagall, Sorcerer’s Stone, chapter eight

Emotions
Our emotions can drive our words, and one way to communicate our feelings is through dialogue. In the examples below, you can see how the emotions affect the speaker’s word choice.

Anger:
“It’s no wonder no one can stand her,” [Ron] said to Harry as they pushed their way into the crowded corridor, “she’s a nightmare, honestly.”
—Ron Weasley, Sorcerer’s Stone, chapter ten

Excitement:
“Ladies and gentlemen,” [Lockhart] said loudly, waving for quiet. “What an extraordinary moment this is! The perfect moment for me to make a little announcement I’ve been sitting on for some time! When young Harry here stepped into Flourish and Blotts today, he only wanted to buy my autobiography—which I shall be happy to present him now, free of charge–” The crowd applauded again. “He had no idea […] that he would shortly be getting much, much more than my book, Magical Me. He and his schoolmates will, in fact, be getting the real magical me […]”
–Gilderoy Lockhart, Chamber of Secrets, chapter four

Sadness:
“I wish people would stop talking behind my back!” said Myrtle, in a voice choked with tears. “I do have feelings, you know, even if I am dead–”
–Moaning Myrtle, Chamber of Secrets, chapter nine

Worry:
“You know what Harry and Ron are like, wandering off by themselves—they’ve ended up in the Forbidden Forest twice! But Harry mustn’t do that this year! When I think what could have happened to him that night he ran away from home! If the Knight Bus hadn’t picked him up, I’m prepared to bet he would have been dead before the Ministry found him.”
–Arthur Weasley, Prisoner of Azkaban, chapter four

Relationships
Our relationships with others also affect our dialogue. Dialogue between a mother and her child is quite different from dialogue between a boyfriend and girlfriend. Dialogue can also show the state of a relationship and how we feel about others.

Rivalry:
“Having a last meal, Potter? When are you getting the train back to the Muggles?” [said Malfoy.]
“You’re a lot braver now that you’re back on the ground and you’ve got your little friends with you,” said Harry coolly. There was of course nothing at all little about Crabbe and Goyle, but as the High Table was full of teachers, neither of them could do more than crack their knuckles and scowl.
“I’d take you on anytime on my own,” said Malfoy. “Tonight, if you want. Wizard’s duel. Wands only—no contact. What’s the matter? Never heard of a wizard’s duel before, I suppose?”
“Of course he has,” said Ron, wheeling around. “I’m his second, who’s yours?”
–Draco Malfoy, Harry Potter, and Ron Weaslye, Sorcerer’s Stone, chapter nine

Family:
(On Platform Nine and Three-Quarters)
“Now, you two—this year, you behave yourselves. If I get one more owl telling me you’ve—you’ve blown up a toilet or–” [said Mrs. Weasley.]
“Blown up a toilet? We’ve never blown up a toilet.” [said one Weasley twin.]
“Great idea though, thanks, Mom.” [said other twin.]
“It’s not funny. And look after Ron.”
“Don’t worry, ickle Ronniekins is safe with us.”
“Shut up,” said Ron again.
–Molly Weasley, Fred Weasley, George Weasley, and Ron Weasley, Sorcerer’s Stone, chapter six.

Friendship:
“Harry—you’re a great wizard, you know.” [said Hermione.]
“I’m not as good as you,” said Harry, very embarrassed, as she let go of him.
“Me!” said Hermione. “Books! And cleverness! There are more important things—friendship and bravery and—oh Harry—be careful!”
Harry Potter and Hermione Granger, Sorcerer’s Stone, chapter sixteen

Additional Examples
There’s so much more that dialogue can show. It can show such little things in ways that you may have not noticed. Here are more examples.

Age

Children:
“They stuff people’s head down the toilet the first day at Stonewall,” [Dudley] told Harry. “Want to come upstairs and practice?”
“No thanks,” Harry said. “The poor toilet’s never had anything as horrible as your head down it—it might be sick.”
–-Dudley and Harry, Sorcerer’s Stone, chapter three

Mother:
“Bed empty! No note! Car gone—could have crashed—out of my mind with worry—did you care? —never, as along as I’ve lived—you wait until your father gets home, we never had trouble like this from Bill or Charlie or Percy–” –Molly Weasley, Chamber of Secrets, chapter three

The two examples are very different from each other. The first one shows a conversation that only children would have, or at least I hope adults don’t talk about sticking each other’s heads down the toilet.

There’s no surprise that the second example comes from a parent—someone who is an adult. It’s hard to imagine a child or teenager saying this, so the second example shows the character is an adult.

Characters’ ages affect dialogue, and the dialogue can shows age.

Occupation

Journalist:
“Hello, I’m Rita Skeeter! I write for the Daily Prophet. But, of course, you know that, don’t you? It’s you we don’t know. You’re the juicy news. What quirks lurk beneath those rosy cheeks? What mysteries do the muscles mask? Does courage lie behind those curls? In short, what makes a champion tick? Me, myself, and I want to know. Not to mention my ravid readers.”
–Rita Skeeter, Goblet of Fire movie

Bureaucrat:
“The Ministry of Magic has always considered the education of young witches and wizards to be of a vital importance. Although each headmaster has brought something new to this… historical school, progress for the sake of progress must be discouraged. Let us preserve what must be preserved, prefect what can be perfected and prune practices that ought to be… prohibited!”
—Dolores Umbridge, Order of Phoenix movie

As you can see from these two examples, a journalist and a bureaucrat speak differently from each other. Rita’s words show she is a journalist, and Umbridge’s words show that she’s a bureaucrat.

 

That’s all for this post. If you wish to leave your favorite Harry Potter quotes, feel free to add them in the comments below.

Show, Don’t Tell Series:
Part 1- Show, Don’t Tell: An Introduction
Part 3- Show, Don’t Tell: Emotions, Moods, and Reactions
Part 4- Show, Don’t Tell: Setting, Physical Traits, and Descriptions
Part 5- Show, Don’t Tell: Dialogue
Part 6- Show, Don’t Tell: Good Telling
Part 7- Show, Don’t Tell: Tell, Then Show

Show, Don’t Tell: Characterization and Personality

Let’s begin part two of my “Show, Don’t Tell” series. Today, we’re going to talk about how showing and telling relate to characterization.

Characters play an important role in your book. Most of the time, the reader is more attached to the characters than anything else in the story. As a writer, one of your goals is to develop great characters so the readers will feel a connection with them. The best books have developed, fleshed out, and complex characters that readers connect with. These characters feel so real that they jump off the pages. They have needs, wants, fears, flaws, and most importantly, a personality.

So how do you show your characters’ personalities?

By showing.

In my introduction, I said showing creates mental images for the reader. When we show a character’s personality, we see images of that character and start to feel a connection. In theater, television, and film, actors never have to tell us what their characters are like. They show what they’re like by acting out the role.

Remember in my last post I said showing was like “evidence”? It’s not enough to say, “Suzy was a smart girl.” You have to prove it. You have to show if you want your characters to come alive. Telling leads to poorly written characters who are underdeveloped, flat, and forgettable.

Let’s begin with our first example:
Example 1: “Suzy was a smart girl.”

This sentence is flat and uninteresting, and I’m not feeling a connection with this character. She doesn’t feel real to me.

Example 2: “Suzy aced all of her honors and AP courses, won first place in ten science fairs and three essay contests, and led the debate team to the state championship.”

Wow, that second example is much more engaging than the first one, and it shows more of who Suzy is. I start to feel that she could be a real person. It also showed more aspects of her personality than just her intelligence. Acing her classes shows she is a hard worker. Winning science fairs and essay contests shows she is talented. Leading her debate team shows she can be a leader.

All humans are complex. When you can show your character’s main personality and the other aspects to it, you’ll have a much more interesting character.

 

How Will This Work for a Scene?
Where new writers really struggle with showing is when they’re writing scenes. Usually, I will see a new writer write something like this:

Suzy was the smartest girl in her junior class. She arrived five minutes early to her calculus honors class and sat in the front row so she wouldn’t miss any Mr. Jones’ notes. She liked to believe that she was his favorite student. Her teacher came in. Suzy pointed out a mistake in the homework. After Mr. Jones looked at it, he told her that she was right.

The telling causes distance between Suzy and the reader. I don’t have a hint of what Suzy’s personality besides the fact that she’s smart.

Showing in a scene will look something like this:

Suzy walked into her calculus honors class and took her seat in the front row. She pulled out her books and set them on one corner of her desk before digging out her homework. Now settled, she opened her textbook to next week’s lesson.

“Good morning, Suzy,” Mr. Jones said as he entered the classroom. “Early again, I see.”

“Yep, you always say the greatest people arrive early,” Suzy said.

Her teacher chuckled. “Of course. Man, I wished my students would quote me more.”

That’s why I’m your favorite, Suzy thought.

“I also wanted to show you an error in the homework.” With a finger, she turned her homework around. “If you look at question nine, you can see why you get an indefinite answer. These numbers cancel each other out, and these numbers don’t add up correctly here. I looked up the answer in the back of the book, and I tried solving the problem backwards, but it doesn’t add up to the original equation.”

Mr. Jones stared at the problem for a minute before pulling out his pen and solving the problem himself. Suzy ripped a page out of her notebook and redid the problem too.

“See, the issue starts here,” she said.

Mr. Jones raised an eyebrow. “You’re right. Nice catch there.”

In this example, there is more personality shining through. Yes, this one was longer, but it was also better. Showing requires more effort and creative juices. Here, I used a few tools to show Suzy’s personality:

1. Action
Last post, I said action verbs will help you show. In the second example, I used action to show her personality. I had her read next week’s lesson and redo the math problem. Her taking a seat in the front row also shows she is very interested in learning. These actions show that she is smart. I never had to say that she was. As the saying goes, “Actions speak louder than words.”

2. Interaction
Another tool to show personality is having the characters interact with each other. In real life, our personalities bounce off each other. The same is true for characters. In this example, Suzy’s interacting with her teacher and pointing out the error in the homework to him shows she’s smart.

3. Thoughts and Dialogue:
In the first example, it says that Suzy liked to believe that she was her teacher’s favorite student. In the second example, I used Suzy’s thoughts to show that’s what she believed. Characters’ thoughts reveals a lot about themselves. Dialogue is also another great tool to show personality. Just like characters’ thoughts, their own words say a lot about their personality. I’ll devote a post about dialogue later.

 

If you’re a new writer, don’t let this scare you. The more you practice, the more showing will come naturally. If you’re struggling with showing, read some books to see how other authors show. You can also watch a few movies and takes notes on how the actors act and how characters come alive on the screen.

 

Show, Don’t Tell Series:
Part 1- Show, Don’t Tell: An Introduction
Part 3- Show, Don’t Tell: Emotions, Moods, and Reactions
Part 4- Show, Don’t Tell: Setting, Physical Traits, and Descriptions
Part 5- Show, Don’t Tell: Dialogue
Part 6- Show, Don’t Tell: Good Telling
Part 7- Show, Don’t Tell: Tell, Then Show