Tag Archives: dialogue

Using Method Acting in Your Writing

6 Jul

By Sammy Bina


The first time I ever acted on stage was my freshman year of high school, when I played a 90-year-old nun in the show (warning: terrible pun ahead) Nun of Your Business. I’d never acted before, and knew next to nothing about it. I figured it couldn’t be that hard to pretend to be someone else, but it proved to be more of a challenge than I thought. As a 14-year-old, I had no idea what it was like to walk around using a cane. I still had all my teeth. Hell, I wasn’t even Catholic.

Lucky for me, I wasn’t the only one feeling like a fish out of water. So, to help us get into character before rehearsals, our director would have us sit in a circle and ask us mundane questions like ‘what’s your favorite breakfast food?’ or ‘what kind of errands did you run today?’ And we’d have to answer them from our character’s point of view. Now, as a frigid old woman who could hardly walk, I didn’t run many errands, but I waxed poetic on my love of all things breakfast, particularly buttermilk pancakes. I still remember that. I also remember insisting that I did not wear dentures.

Writing, it turns out, is a lot like acting. You have an entire cast of characters, each of them unique, and you have to manage to keep them all straight. You have to make sure they don’t blend together, and that each has a very distinct personality. I’ve been hard at work editing my current WIP, and was having a little trouble with one chapter in particular, where I couldn’t seem to get the mother to sound like herself. Up until that point in the manuscript, she’d been kind of sarcastic and grumpy. In this particular scene, the main character was in need of some comfort, and I couldn’t figure out a way for this older woman to offer her support without sounding trite and completely out of character.

So what did I do? I went back to my high school days of method acting. I sat myself down, closed my eyes, and tried to envision myself as a 47-year-old woman who’s hiding a fugitive in her basement, whose eldest son has turned out to be a major disappointment, and whose world is crumbling around her faster than a leaning tower of Jenga. I may have considered even putting on a frumpy dress and an apron for this, but couldn’t find any. (But if dressing up helps you, then by all means, go for it.) I envisioned what she’d had for breakfast that morning, and what kinds of errands she’d had to run. Knowing the scene took place in winter, I thought about how snow might affect her mood. Then I read through the entire scene out loud, much like you’d do at a play rehearsal. The problem, I found, was that a script is all dialogue, save for very specific sections of blocking. In between my lines of dialogue, I’d have a paragraph describing the lump in someone’s throat, or how badly their head hurt. When the thing I needed to work on most was voice, all those extra words just got in the way.

How did I solve the problem, you ask? I opened a new Word document, copied and pasted the scene I was working on, and deleted everything that wasn’t dialogue. And after I read through that, I realized why I couldn’t get the mother to act the way she’s supposed to. The problem was that the paragraphs between the dialogue were concentrated on the main character, as she’s the one narrating. So her voice was pulling me away from the one I needed help with. Once I took away my MC’s narration, the scene began to fall into place. I had a much better grasp on the mother’s voice. Keeping those emotions I’d dug up at the front of my mind, I was able to rewrite the scene in a way that stayed true to who both the characters were.

I haven’t acted since I started college, but I’ve found method acting to be a useful took I like to keep in my writer’s toolbox. It’s come in handy on more than one occasion, and I hope you guys can take advantage of it as well. Just start with the basic question of what’s the best breakfast food, and see where your imagination takes you!


Sammy recently graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Madison with a degree in Creative Writing. She is currently in the midst of moving to New York City, where she hopes to find a job in publishing. Her free time is spent editing her YA dystopian, SILENCE, and you can find her on twitter, or follow her blog.


High Context Versus Low Context – the Communication Style of Your Story

22 Jun

by Julie Eshbaugh


In 1976, Anthropologist Edward T. Hall published a book titled BEYOND CULTURE.  Through this book, Hall popularized a theory of two main styles of communication.  He called these contrasting styles “high context” and “low context.”  Essentially, Hall taught that certain cultures communicated more through inference and implied ideas (high-context communication,) while others communicated with more explicit and detailed information (low-context communication.)  Though Hall was interested in the broad differences between cultures, the ideas of “high context” and “low context” can apply to any social situation.  For us as writers, analyzing the setting of a scene and deciding if it takes place in a high-context or low-context situation offers an additional method to add realism to dialogue and tension to communication.

In general terms, “high context” refers to societies or settings that have long-established, deep connections. Because of the depth of connection between the members of the group, a lot of communication is understood through implication and less communication is stated explicitly.  Your family would most likely be a good example of a high context group. Other examples of high context situations might be a party of close friends, a small church congregation, a neighborhood diner with a very regular clientele, or a formal restaurant where the rules of behavior are understood without having to be spelled out.

An example of a high-context culture in a work of fiction would be China in Amy Tan’s THE JOY LUCK CLUB, especially as it exists in the memories of the mothers.

Conversely, a “low context” group or setting would be one where people tend to have a lot of connections but each connection might serve a specific purpose and last a shorter duration of time. Rules of interaction will vary more in a low context situation.  Expectations of behavior will be less inferred by the situation and more explicitly spelled out.   Examples of low context settings would include a cafeteria, a metropolitan airport, a hospital, or a large supermarket.

In the example used above of THE JOY LUCK CLUB, the United States that the daughters are a part of is a low-context culture.

Anthropologists will often describe an entire society as “high context” or “low context.” For example, Asian and Arab cultures are generally considered high context cultures, while the US, Canada, and Western European cultures are generally considered more low context cultures. But as writers, we should look at each situation and setting individually and decide if communication in that setting would be more implicit or explicit.

Here are a few examples of how high context or low context can impact communication.

First, imagine a scene in which a teenage girl brings home her report card to the father who has played a dominant role in her upbringing:

Alice creeps through the back door, hoping to get to her room unnoticed.  The door hasn’t even closed completely when she feels the hand on her shoulder.

She turns and slumps. Her gaze falls on her father’s feet as she stares at the floor.  Reaching into her pocket, she pulls out the wrinkled envelope and slips it into his hand.

Motionless, she waits while he opens the envelope and peruses the contents.

After a few long minutes, he folds the paper neatly and clears his throat. Without looking up, Alice heads for her room, where she will wait to be summoned when her mother gets home.

Now, imagine a similar scene – a girl handing a man a letter – but now the characters are strangers, and the girl works behind the counter of a large hotel:

Alice sorts the mail and messages by room number behind the registration desk – a phone message from a limo company, a dry cleaning receipt, a newspaper. The usual. But then she discovers the small pink envelope, with its frilly feminine script, and distinct scent of perfume. “Mr. Thomas Henry” is neatly written across the front of the envelope. There is a stamp, but no return address.

“Excuse me.” The voice belongs to a man standing at the desk.  Alice turns to face him and nods. “Do I have any mail? Thomas Henry, room 134.”

“Uh,” Alice stammers. “This came for you.” She hands him the mysterious pink correspondence.

“Wait, what?” The man, so polished in his jacket and tie, seems flustered. “Did this come by mail?  Or was it dropped off in person?” His manner is intense, and Alice shrinks back.

“I can’t say for sure, Sir,” she says. “I only sort the mail. Mr. Jones, the concierge, brings it to the desk.  His podium is in the front lobby. He may be able to help you.”

“Thanks,” Mr. Henry grunts. He pauses a moment to smooth a hand over the front of his pristine jacket.  One moment more and he is once again perfectly composed. “Could you just point me toward the front lobby, please, Miss?”

The first conversation takes place in a high context situation. The relationship between the characters makes explicit communication unnecessary. The second takes place in a low context situation. Though some information is implied, information is mainly shared through clear words and gestures.

Analyzing the settings of your scenes can help you decide if your characters would be exchanging information implicitly (high context situations) or more explicitly (low context situations.)

If your characters are long acquainted and have an intimate understanding of each other, then an argument about the quality of a meal may really be about finances or betrayal. If your characters are new or casual acquaintances, an argument about a meal is probably just that – an argument about a meal.

Another way that high context and low context situations can impact your writing occurs when the characters start out strangers and become a close-knit group. As a situation evolves from low context to high context, so does the style of communication. The television show LOST, in which a group of strangers on an airliner become a tight group of plane-crash survivors, is an example in which communication would take on the style of a high context society over the course of a story.

To close this post, I want to leave you with an example of the incredible impact one line of high context dialogue can have in conveying the relationship between characters.  Although I no longer remember the movie, (maybe SHE’S HAVING A BABY?) I will never forget this brief exchange of dialogue spoken over the phone between a husband and wife:

HIM: “Meet me at that place by that thing where we went that time.”

HER: “Okay.”

So much of what you need to know about the relationship between those two characters is tucked into that one line of dialogue!

What do you think of high context versus low context? Do you consider this concept when you are writing dialogue?  Do you analyze your setting before you decide what should be said or left unsaid between your characters?  I look forward to your comments!


Julie Eshbaugh is represented by Natalie Fischer of the Bradford Literary Agency. You can read her blog here and find her on Twitter here.

Dialogue Woes – Writing Tips and Tricks

19 Apr

Vanessa Di Gregorio

Ah, dialogue. One of the most important aspects of any manuscript. It develops character, progresses the plot, shows conflict, sets the mood, and is a source of information. Dialogue is great. And necessary.

But it’s also tough.

Often, dialogue can be the most underwritten or overwritten part of your story. It can be underwritten when the words you choose aren’t strong enough; when your dialogue is weak. It needs the constant use of adverbs, such as quietly, excitedly, and angrily in order to convey what the dialogue itself should be conveying.

Adverse Adverbs

“I can’t believe that!” she said angrily.

There. An adverb. Angrily. Now, some might argue that the line by itself needs that angrily in order to understand how that line is being said. For all we know, she could be saying that excitedly. It might seem necessary standing on its own like that, but there will be context behind that line. Remember, you aren’t going to have floating lines of dialogue like that; it will be sandwiched between action and more dialogue. The dialogue that comes beforehand should set that line up, and should be strong enough to allow your readers to understand whether or not she says that line angrily, or excitedly.

“Okay Amber… Don’t freak out, okay?” Liz came up beside me, and I looked at her, totally confused.

“What? Oh Liz, you can’t say that, cause I’ll obviously start to kinda freak a bit!”

Liz stood there, silent.

“Oh God Liz, you are totally worrying me! What’s wrong?”

“Don’t get mad at me, ‘kay?” She paused. “I heard that Tracy is going out with Mark.”

“What? I can’t believe that!”

Okay. So perhaps not the best scene of dialogue, but you get my point. Amber obviously isn’t excited to hear that. It should be obvious that your character is saying things a certain way. If your dialogue isn’t strong enough, it won’t portray that. Try going back to the actual dialogue and see if you can make what’s inside the quotation marks stronger. You shouldn’t be trying to fix your dialogue by tacking on adverbs. Avoid adverbs as much as you can; if you can make your dialogue do all the talking, then throw away the adverb. It will just be redundant.

Now, dialogue that is overwritten will tend to include descriptions that aren’t really necessary. You need to trust your readers a bit more.

“Are you blaming me?” Jack got defensive.

You probably don’t need the Jack got defensive line. Just the line of dialogue itself is a clear indication that Jack is saying it defensively. If the meaning of your dialogue gets lost when you remove these types of descriptions, look at your dialogue, and not what is outside of it. You should be beefing up what your characters are actually saying; not describing things that should be obvious. The less stuff cluttering your dialogue like that, the better it will be. Your dialogue will be much easier to read, and the pacing will be much quicker as well.

Too Realistic

You need to sound realistic enough to have dialogue that isn’t jarring or overly awkward (unless, of course, you’re writing a scene of awkward dialogue!), but at the same time, you need to remember that you’re not trying to document everything by being TOO realistic. Alfred Hitchcock once said that a good story was “life, with the dull parts taken out.” Dialogue should follow the same rule. Don’t make it boring! You want your readers to want to keep reading. In real life, people will talk about mundane things; perhaps about the weather, or they’ll ask how the family is doing. In short, in real life we procrastinate when we talk; we avoid the good, juicy information until we’ve finished with the boring pleasantries. When writing, however, this isn’t the best thing to do. It can make for long, boring dialogue. It can also really slow down the pace of the scene. And pacing is always important in your manuscript. So remember: you aren’t trying to copy reality. You’re trying to write good dialogue that is plausible, engaging, and interesting.

The Problem of He Said, She Said

This is pretty self explanatory. It can be distracting when every line ends with the tags “he said” or “she said”. Overusing it takes away from what your characters are saying. Because, of course, you want your readers to notice the brilliant dialogue you’ve written! Don’t feel the need to constantly show that a character is feeling an emotion (ie. sad), and then use “he said sulkily” and “he said miserably” and etc etc. You aren’t trying to show off your skills at using different synonyms in your tags. Overusing tags like this can lead to overwriting your dialogue; it can also make it melodramatic. So, avoid using tags such as “he/she said” often. But, don’t leave it out completely during long bits of dialogue! It can get really confusing if you leave it out for too long.

And Action!

Don’t forget about description though! You should break up your dialogue with action; your characters are more than just lines of speech. The way they react during dialogue should be shown. If someone flinches away from the other person after something is said, you should show it.

Anyone Listening?

Ask yourself this question: are your characters listening to each other? Or are they both just speaking? You need to make sure that your characters are actually responding to one another – not just spewing out information in order to further the story. One person speaks, the other reacts. And so on and so forth. This might seem obvious, but when you actually start writing, sometimes this isn’t something that you think about. So… keep it in mind when writing your dialogue.

Read Out Loud

Reading your dialogue out loud is a great way to figure out if your dialogue is working or not. And just read the dialogue. Ignore everything else; ignore all the descriptions and tags. Does it make sense when you just read out the dialogue? Does it flow well? Or is it jarring and awkward?

Another great way to improve your dialogue? Read plays and scripts. Seriously. It is pure dialogue after all, and you can get a sense of what people are feeling even with little to no direction on how the character reacts. You’ll know when someone is angry, or confused, or sad. What are they saying that makes their feelings so apparent? Figure that out, and you’ll be on your way to writing good dialogue.

So yes, dialogue is difficult. But hopefully, when you get back to you WIP, you’ll be able to tackle your dialogue with less worry!


Vanessa is an intern at The Rights Factory, a literary agency located in Toronto. She is also enrolled in a publishing program, and is trying to figure out where in the world of publishing she wants to end up in. Currently, she is working on a YA fantasy novel and a Children’s non-fiction series.

A Little Trick to Consider

7 Apr

by Biljana Likic


REMINDER: The Comedy Contest is still going on! Get your admissions in before May 1st!


Here’s a little trick I use when I feel stuck or uninspired.

But first, some context!

Plays and scripts aren’t meant to be read; they are meant to be acted out. When a playwright or screenwriter begins composing their piece, their first thoughts probably aren’t, “Man this is gonna be a damn good script to read.” Instead, they most likely think something along the lines of, “I really hope this connects with the audience watching!”

But who says they can’t be read?

Why I love reading scripts, plays in particular, is because it’s such an exercise of the imagination. There are a lot of ways you can interpret a piece of text. Words can be very ambiguous, and dialogue can say so much about what’s happening, and yet so little. When you see a play, the director is generally the one that makes all the decisions about what kind of messages need to be sent out. That is one person interpreting a piece of dialogue in a way that is hopefully unique. And while I love watching plays, this is why I like reading them: I get my own interpretation, my own little production, right inside my head. I get to be the one to make those decisions, and apply what emotions I feel are appropriate.

So sometimes, when I feel completely uninspired, I’ll take out a script, pick a piece of dialogue, and write a narrative for it.

Here’s an example. Take this blurb of dialogue:


The Dialogue:

Man: “Where’d you go?”

Woman: “I went to the supermarket.”

Man: “What did you get?”

Woman: “Carrots.”

Man: “I hate carrots.”

Woman: “They help your eyesight.”

Man: “They taste like cardboard.”

Woman: “I’m just looking out for you.”


Now here it is interpreted into two narratives:


Interpretation 1:

The woman walked through the door, throwing her keys onto the coffee table and continuing on to the kitchen.

“Where’d you go?” the man asked, snaking his arms around her waist and leaning his chin against her shoulder.

She smiled and turned her head to kiss his cheek. “I went to the supermarket.”

“What did you get?”

She dumped out a mass of gnarled, vibrant orange sticks onto the granite countertop. “Carrots,” she declared, grinning triumphantly.

The man groaned and tried to pull her away from the counter. “I hate carrots.”

“They help your eyesight,” the woman said, giggling and grabbing onto the handles of the drawers to stop him from dragging her away.

“They taste like cardboard,” he muttered.

She turned in his arms and put a hand on his cheek. “I’m just trying to look out for you,” she said, giving him another quick kiss, and moving away to start peeling.


Interpretation 2:

The woman walked through the door, throwing her keys onto the coffee table and continuing on to the kitchen.

“Where’d you go?”

She froze. Grip tightening against her alibi, she flicked her gaze behind her. The man was watching her coldly.

She forced out a smile. “I went to the supermarket.”

“What did you get?”

A slightly trembling hand reached into the bag and dumped a mass of carrots onto the laminate countertop. There were too many. She’d panicked and grabbed more than she could ever need. “Carrots,” she said, staring at the now incriminating orange mound.

There was a tense pause.

“I hate carrots.”

The woman clenched her fists. “They help your eyesight.”

“They taste like cardboard.”

She bit her cheek. She could feel his eyes boring into her back, the short, empty distance between kitchen chair and kitchen counter threatening to drive her into a frenzy.

“I’m just trying to look out for you,” she said, barely keeping her voice level.

The man said nothing. She heard his shoes scuff against the tile of the floor and flinched, but nothing happened. He left the kitchen. The woman squeezed her eyes shut for a moment, then took out a knife and started peeling.


So there you have it, folks: two completely different interpretations from one little blurb of dialogue. Obviously, when it’s a whole script, the words and stage directions will push you towards a certain mood the writer wants, but there are still so many possibilities. It’s the reason why you can watch a play done by two different groups of people and feel as if they weren’t even the same piece of work.

In my opinion, it’s fascinating.

So next time you feel you need a good stretch for your imagination, try picking up a play and writing out a narrative just like that. It just might get your creative juices flowing.

Feel free to put your own interpretation of the blurb in the comments!


Biljana Likic is an aspiring author, currently revising her first novel, TIME IS A FUNNY THING. She’s in her final year of high school, waiting and waiting to graduate, finish university, and finally have all the time in the world to write. You can visit her blog here, and check out her work on her FictionPress account.