Monthly Archives: January 2015

Writing Tips: Show-not-tell with dialogue

One of the things they always tell writers to do is show and not tell. “Don’t Tell Me the Moon Is Shining; Show Me the Glint of Light on Broken Glass” to paraphrase playwright Anton Chekov. Chekov was talking about describing the world, but here’s another way you can use that show-not-tell: to describe your characters using only their dialogue and body language.

It’s certainly one of my favourite ways of doing it. Here are some snips from my own Eight Mile Island:

Mum comes out onto the deck from the cabin behind me and weaves along it towards me. …


I ignore her for a minute, pretending not to hear my name until she says it louder. I turn from the waves and face her. “What?”

“You’ve got to come inside. You’ll be washed away.”


“Please, Dylan. Don’t start. Not today.”

And these are the first word you hear Dylan say…half a page in, one surly question and you know you’re dealing with a boy with attitude and a mother helpless to do anything about it.

Neat, isn’t it? And it’s not magic or sleight of hand. We all make conscious and subconscious judgements about people we meet by the way they talk and the words they use. It’s the same for readers, and it’s something you can use – should use – in your dialogue and your character’s body language.

What I’m not talking about here, by the way, is stereotyping. Don’t bother with the gay character who talks in a high pitched voice and is flaming all of the time. Most of them don’t, and you shouldn’t either. Make it subtle, folks. One hand movement or high-pitched comment can be enough.

I wrote a story recently for an Australian competition and sent it off to a ‘Straylian friend for her input. She returned it with a comment about stereotyping an uneducated train driver and I cleaned up the dialogue. Here’s the first version:

He smiled, but it faltered and failed quickly, and he returned to gnawing his lip. “Thought so. That aftershave your wife buys you stinks somethin rotten.”

“Tom, I don’t think I’m the right person for you to be talking to right now. You need a doc.”

“Siddown, Bill. I gotta tell someone. Cops out there wouldn’t believe a word of it.”

I moved to the table and sat down opposite, looking towards the two-way mirror Tom couldn’t see. The man I am looked back at me, and that man looked scared out of his wits.

Tom leaned back as far as his bolted down chair would allow. “What did they tell ya?”

Now I fidgeted. “That you wouldn’t talk to anyone but me. That you, uh…you –”

“I killed em both, Bill. Merciful, it was. Best thing for em.”

“Uh, Tom…I really think you need a doc. For that lip, at least.”

His tongue tasted the blood and darted back into his mouth. “Let it bleed. Maybe it’ll be enough to end it.”

“Is that what you want?”

He leaned forward and his breath was foul, his body odour sweet and sickly and I retreated from it. “What I want…is for them to kill me.”

Here’s the modified version:

His nostrils flared. “That you Bill? I can smell that bloody aftershave your wife buys you.” Even though spasms racked his body, the voice was still solid.

“It’s me, mate.” I paused. “Tom, I don’t think I’m the right person to be talking to. You need a doctor.”

“Siddown, Bill. I gotta tell someone. Cops out there wouldn’t believe a word anyway.”

I sat opposite him and glanced at the two-way mirror. The man I am looked back at me, and that man looked scared out of his wits.

Tom leaned back in his bolted down chair. “What did they tell you?”

I fidgeted. “That you wouldn’t talk to anyone but me. That you, uh…you –”

“They think I killed them? Yeah, merciful if I did, I’d say. Best thing for them.”

“Uh, Tom…I really think you need a doctor. For that lip, at least.”

His tongue tasted the blood. “Let it bleed. Maybe it’ll be enough to end it.”

“Is that what you want?”

He leaned forward, his body odour sickly. “What I want…is for them to kill me. So I don’t have to dream about those women anymore.”

What I’ve done is make Tom and Bill’s dialogue slightly more formal throughout, but the whole is more than the sum of its parts. For instance,

They think I killed them? Yeah, merciful if I did, I’d say. Best thing for them.”

…instead of the more direct

“I killed em both, Bill. Merciful, it was. Best thing for em.”

You can also subvert dialogue. A good example is in John Wyndham’s Day of The Triffids. A character named Coker – working class, superficially poorly educated – sometimes pops up with words and references beyond what you would expect him to know. The main character asks him about it, and discovers that Coker found out that the better educated wouldn’t listen to him unless he spoke as if he was educated; and poorly educated people wouldn’t listen to him if he did. Sometimes he drops it for a word or two, just for effect.

Give your characters different voices and you won’t many need dialogue attributes. It’s a way to show who’s speaking and not just tell again. Here’s a phone conversation from Eight Mile Island:

“Yeah?” a rough voice speaks in my ear.

“Hello, is this Mr Yates?”

“Who the hell wants to know at this goddamn hour?”

“Uh…you don’t know me, my name is…is, uh…” I look round the kitchen and a box of cereal catches my eye. “Uh, Teddy Graham. I’m trying to contact Cassie. About a reunion we’re having at the school for former pupils.”

“What the Christ you callin me at this hour for?”

“S…sorry, I forgot about the time difference. So, anyway, if I could talk to her, maybe…?”

“Well, son, if you want to talk to her, go ahead. I got no objections to it. Why not ask her yesself?”


“You mean she isn’t there?”

“No, for Gods sake, you stupid or sumthin’? She’s at the school, ain’t she?”

“Uh, yeah, sure. I misheard you, sorry.”

“Yes. Cassie is happy at the school. Doesn’t ever want to leave there. Happy there. Don’t even have to call her to check she’s all right.”

I hang up as quickly as I can make up an excuse, my legs going weak.

…because we have a good idea how Mr Yates ‘sounds’, when something odd happens at the end of this conversation, it jumps right out.


So, just a final exercise: How old is this character from Fidget? How did I show you without telling you?

One morning in the big school holiday, when I got up after a long sleep, I went downstairs into the kitchen. Mummy was outside, hanging the big white bed sheets out on the clothesline, and I went outside to see her, even before I had breakfast.

I ran my hands down the sheets, pretending I was a pirate and they were sails on my ship, the wind making them blow and huff. I got to the end of the clothesline and stopped. The big red flowers were in front of me off to one side, and the big trees behind them were bending with the wind. The day was bright and blue and hot on my head.


I hope all that helps you see how you can make your characters do the work for you when it comes to show-not-tell!


Review: You’re Next


Four year old Mike is dumped by his father at a foster home, with no real memories of who he is or where he came from. For years, he sits and waits for him to return. He grows into trouble as he matures, minor law breaking that will inevitably lead to major crimes and trouble for life.
He’s given a chance to redeem himself and grabs it, eventually becoming a successful housing contractor. He’s married and has a precocious (Aren’t they always?) eight year old daughter.
But the past is coming to claim him…

The book starts with the mystery of who Mike is and where he came from and builds in pace from there. The pacing doesn’t stop to take a breath until three-quarters of the way through, and by then, you have to finish it. I read this in thirty minute bursts at lunchtime and regretted leaving it every time. Mike is always on the move.

What worked really well was the easy way the villains are able to manipulate him. They know exactly which buttons to press to get him moving without thinking, and the logic is so scarily perfect that we would all act the same way. See one of the villains standing over your daughter? Race to her side…only to find it’s a distraction for something far more sinister.

For all his teenage life of crime and knowledge, Mike is three steps behind the villains most of the way through the book. That’s what makes it work so effectively: If a man with the street-smarts of Mike is losing, how would the rest of us manage?

The short sentences tumble together and roll into a stream-of-consciousness style, picking the pace up even further, like Dean Koontz without the endless weather descriptions. It’s only when The Big Reveal happens that it slows down.

I won’t give away The Big Reveal, but it was unexpected…and…pedestrian. It’s not above believability that someone would kill Mike for it. It’s just mundane. People have killed for less, but from the unstoppable determination of the villains, somehow you expect something grander.

The pace does slow with The Reveal, but it didn’t bounce me out of the story at all. I wanted to see Mike in full Papa-Bear mode, and I wasn’t disappointed.

Great book.

Writing Whimsy: Lunch Break

When I was younger I was told never to put a plastic bag over my head. This was because if I did, I would die. Apparently I would suffocate to death. At the time I didn’t know what suffocate meant, but I knew it was bad. So I’ve never put a plastic bag over my head.
Anyway, I tell you this because during the week I was eating lunch at the shops. And a guy sits down next to me with his lunch in a take away plastic bag. The bag has writing on it: “Use me again and again!”
And I freak out because I’m thinking, “He could use that to murder the entire shopping centre!” But I’m also wondering, “How many take away shops are giving away murder weapons with their meals?”
– Reprinted from

Joseph smiles when he sees there is someone already at his favourite bench at the mall. He knew when he awoke this morning that today would be a good day, that today would be one of his special days. And here was proof in the shape of this man staring at the fountain while he eats his Panini and sips from a white and green cup that could only have come from Starbucks on the lower level.

Joseph takes a seat just far enough away to be polite and not invade the man’s space. The man looks over and smiles, but his eyes are nervous and tight. Joseph smiles back and looks away to the three-storey fountain. The sunlight streaming from the windows five storeys above them catches the droplets of water and turns them into flying shards of gold. The effect is quite stunning, especially on such a beautiful day as this. It took a while for Joseph to find the best bench to appreciate this, and he’s glad to have someone to share it with, even silently.

That look though. He needs to do something about that look. It’s too hard to make friends on the benches as it is, and starting with suspicion like that is a bad thing.

It’s not hard to understand though. The newspapers are full of it, and the media are covering it and hyping it, as they always do. The Lunch Break Killer they call him, whoever he is.

Truth be told, they don’t even know if it’s a he. They only assume so because all victims have been male. All of them suffocated in the male bathrooms between mid-day and one in the afternoon. No one has heard or seen a thing, even though it’s the equivalent of rush hour in there. Security guards stand in the bathrooms and search everyone for weapons, much to everyone’s annoyance. Twelve times this year he has killed.

Joseph sighs at the fountain and brings the plastic bag up between himself and the man beside him. As he expects, this brings a raised eyebrow and the start of a conversation.


Joseph pats the bag and smiles at the man. “I know, right? I just can’t bring myself to get rid of it, though. I know I can get one for free anywhere.” He waves at the hundred stores around them. “But it’s…I don’t know. It says on the side Use me again and again after all.” He shrugs.

The man laughs, a happy sound, so Joseph will know his next words are a joke. “But the masking tape is a little…excessive.”

Indeed, brown tape covers the bag in a dozen different places, all crazy angles and crossovers. The writing is so faded that even Joseph doesn’t remember where and when he bought it. He runs a hand over the thin plastic, almost caressing it. “I just hate to think how long these things sit in landfill before they rot away. It’s still good at what it does, right?”

The man smiles back and returns to his Panini and Starbucks. Joseph reaches into his faithful bag and takes out a simple peanut butter sandwich and a thermos. They sit in easy silence for a while, alone with their thoughts. The man brings out a tablet and scrolls through the news headlines: Lunch Time Killer Strikes Again!

“What do you think of that?” Joseph asks.

The man looks up. “I think he’s just lucky so far. You’ll get him eventually though, right? You or the cops.”

Joseph brushes crumbs from his mall security issued jacket. “Yeah, we’ll get him. I gotta tell you though, having to stand there all day is a major pain. The smell, you know. Not to put you off your lunch or anything. It sinks into your skin even after a shower.”

“I can imagine.” He downs the last of the Starbucks and shifts, the first movement that will eventually bring him to his feet and walking out of Joseph’s life forever. Or so he thinks.

“Good to meet you, anyway. Hope you catch the guy soon.”

Joseph waves. “Me too. You have a good afternoon.”

The man waves back, already moving away and forgetting that Joseph even existed.

Joseph watches his progress until he starts to melt into the crowds. He folds the creased and tape-covered plastic bag carefully and smiles at the only legible writing: Use me again and again.

He rises and follows the man at a careful distance, his smile returning when he sees him heading for the bathrooms.