Episode Eight – The Story Thief Challenges – Writing great dialogue!
Written by Liam and Aoife!
Featuring top kids author Erika McGann!
Note: If you’re a teacher or librarian or work with kids check out the guidance for educators section including advice on how to do this month’s Story Challenge!
Everything you need to know if you haven’t read the other episodes…
Hi. I’m Liam. Aoife is my annoying hyper, little sister. This is episode eight of our twelve episode blog series about the crazy and creepy things that happened to us last summer when the Story Thief whirled into our lives.
Who is the Story Thief? Well, the mysterious Story Thief steals writers’ stories if they don’t write them down or tell them quickly. It has a giant ledger on its back where it writes the stolen stories with a spear sized pen. It hides the stories away in a secret library.
Our writer Dad’s books weren’t getting published so he tried to win a story from the Thief by doing the Thief’s three story challenges. Dad got an answer wrong so the Thief won all our Dad’s stories. But because memories are stories too, the Thief started taking Dad’s memories as well.
We summoned the Thief and agreed to do its Story Challenges to win back Dad’s stories and memories. If we failed any of the challenges, the Thief would take our memories and stories too.
As Dad forgot loads of memories and started to act like a little child, we completed all three of the Thief’s challenges. This was thanks to the help of the top Irish kids’ authors we emailed for advice. Just then the Story Thief appeared in our Kitchen and revealed that because there were two of us we had to do six challenges!
Mam arrived back from working overseas. We tried to keep Dad’s weird behaviour secret from her, but she knew something was wrong and she confronted us. The Story Thief picked that moment to magically steal another memory from Dad – now Dad didn’t remember our Mam at all.
Just after midnight as I sat in my bedroom, I felt that familiar chill wind rush through my bedroom, saw a flicker of a dark cloak in the corner of my eye, knew that for one fleeting second the Story Thief had been in my room.
The Thief’s fifth challenge was waiting on my bedroom floor tucked into a book. I read it outloud, even though Aoife wasn’t here to listen or laugh at the Thief’s dumb rhymes.
The words unspoken, the words we say,
reveal all we hide away.
Now present to me genuine dialogue,
Or these words be your epilogue.
Even though I was relieved that the previous challenge that I’d left out on the trampoline earlier must have been good enough – we were one step closer to saving Dad, I still resented this new challenge. The Thief was mocking us again. It knew well that our attempt at a dialogue with Mam had failed today.
A few hours ago, once Dad was safely installed in front of cartoons on TV, we went into the kitchen with Mam. She was frantic, drumming her hands on the table as she does when she’s tense.
‘What’s going on?’
I said, ‘I…’ then went silent. She’d never believe us. She was much too practical minded.
Aoife jumped in. ‘Mam, the Story Thief? You know it, don’t you? It steals writes stories -’
‘Aoife, uh? What?’
‘The Thief it -‘
‘I don’t have the patience for this. How long has your Dad been -’
‘Mam, Dad wanted a good story so he, like, contacted the Story Thief and did its challenges, but he got one wrong and – ’
Mam looked fit to kill her. ‘Stop it. No stupid made up stories. Liam talk to me.’
I gave up and shook my head. ‘He’s been like that for a few day. I don’t know why.’
Aoife said, ‘Liam!’
I looked away from her. Felt defeated.
Aoife kept trying, her voice desperate. ‘Mam, he’s lying. We’re doing the Thief’s challenges -’
Mam shouted, ‘Just, shut up Aoife!’
Aoife snapped back down into her seat almost as if Mam had slapped her. She’d never spoken to her like that before.
Mam walked angrily into the corridor dialing a number on her phone then slammed the door behind her. Aoife looked at me, her face white, tears now streaming down her face.
‘Why didn’t you say anything?’
‘It wouldn’t have worked.’
‘Maybe if you’d -’
‘She’d never have believed us.’
‘She might have.’
‘Don’t be stupid.’
Aoife screamed, ‘I’m not stupid! You’re stupid!’
She ran out of the room, past Mam, I heard her feet stamping on the stairs. I didn’t care. Good riddance to her. Everything was going wrong. Everything.
The next hour was even worse. Uncle John and Auntie Maureen arrived over. They helped Mam get Dad to go into the car with her. He didn’t want to go. He didn’t understand what was happening. I didn’t say anything as he called to me. Just sat on the stairs, tears flowing down my cheeks. Aoife shouted, screamed, kept trying to explain that they didn’t need doctors, shouted about he Story Thief. Auntie Maureen had to hold her back while they drove away with Dad.
Now I held the fifth challenge from the Thief in my hand. This was our chance. Only one more to do after this one. By this time the day after tomorrow, we could have won Dad’s stories and memories back. Dad would be back to himself.
I slipped into the office and sent an Irish author who was really good at dialogue a message on twitter.
Erika, please help me. I urgently need advice on how to write great dialogue. Thanks, Liam.
I could hear John and Maureen watching TV loudly downstairs as I knocked on Aoife’s door.
She hissed through the door, ‘Go away!’
‘We’ve got the fifth challenge.’
‘You do it yourself!’
Her door swung open. Her eyes were wet and puffy.
‘You let them take Dad away. You didn’t say anything.’
‘Aoife, they wouldn’t have -’
‘You didn’t argue with mum. You didn’t do anything. You’re my big brother. You’re meant to take care of me! Not give up!’
Her words stung. I knew she was right.
‘If we do this challenge Aoife -’
‘No. You do it this time!’
She slammed her door on me.
I shouted through her key hole. ‘Fine! I don’t need your help!’
The next morning, I was up at 7am. I sat in the office refreshing Dad’s email over and over, trying to write the best dialogue that I could and not getting anywhere until the response finally arrived.
I quickly read the Writing Advice from Erika McGann, author of The Bubble Street Gang series and other books.
Dear Liam and Aoife,
I’m happy to help!
Dialogue is probably my favourite aspect of writing – it can suck the reader into a scene and make it feel like they’re standing right next to the characters, listening to them speak. With well-written dialogue you get caught up in the conversation, the same way you get lost in a good story, but writing good dialogue is a bit of a balancing act. I’ll break it down into some points below to make it easier:
- Dialogue should sound natural. Unless a character is reading something out or being very official, it should be informal. Pay attention to people talking around you; how do they open a conversation, how do they keep their friend talking (or try to stop them talking), how do they finish a conversation? When you’ve written a piece of dialogue, try reading it out loud, or play the scene in your head like a TV show if that helps. Do the characters sound like real people when they talk to each other? If so, you’re doing great.
- Here’s the balancing bit. After telling you to make your dialogue sound real, I’m now going to warn you not to make it too real. Again, listen to people talking around you. When we talk in real life, we’re often quite messy about it – we say ‘um, eh, mm, hmm’ a lot. We also pause and repeat words or parts of sentences. Sometimes we stop mid-sentence altogether and lose our train of thought. Adding a couple of these elements now and then makes dialogue sound very real, but adding too many of them makes the story difficult to read. You can test this out by recording yourself and a friend talking together (check with your mate first obviously – no hidden recorder in your pocket!). Now listen to the recording and try to write down the conversation exactly as it happened – with all the ‘ums’ and ‘ehs’ and repeated words. It’ll drive you bonkers very quickly.
- With your dialogue sounding natural, you can now use it to show the reader how your character feels. When we’re upset or excited we often talk a lot more, interrupt each other more, get frustrated more easily. It’s always better to show in writing, than to tell. What I mean by that is, instead of telling the reader, Anna felt disappointed and angry, show how Anna feels in the words she uses like this: ‘I can’t believe you did that,’ Anna said, her face turning red. ‘You promised me you would take care of that book, and then you just left it out in the rain to get wrecked! I’ve had that book since fourth class and now it’s ruined.’
- As well as showing how your character feels, use dialogue to show your character’s personality in general. Do you have a friend who’s a chatterbox? Do you know someone who is very polite when they speak? How about that smart-sounding person who uses big words, or the shy person who says as little as possible? Rather than telling the reader what your character is like, show them what your character is like when they talk.
- And finally, use dialogue to show the relationships between people. Do you talk to your teacher the same way you talk to your friends? I know I never did – I was always polite and a little shy when talking to my teachers. When writing dialogue, remember who your character is talking to. Will they use more slang words and be loud and talkative? Will they be well-behaved and watch their grammar? Will they make jokes or not, interrupt or not, trip over their words or speak with confidence? All these things can show us what the relationship is between two people.
That’s it for the dialogue instructions. All you need to do now is get writing!
PS: Here’s a Story Challenge for you!
Choose a character (it can be you, it can be your favourite character from a book or film, it can somebody brand new that you’ve just created). Write a short dialogue between your character and their best friend. Now write a second piece of dialogue between your character and someone they’re in trouble with (could be a parent, a teacher, a coach, a babysitter). With a partner, act out the two scenes of dialogue. Really get into the roles, go over the top, have fun with it!
I got to work immediately. I thought it would be easy doing a Story Challenge without Aoife. After all, I was twelve and she was eight – just a child – and all she ever suggested was that I include monkeys in the stories. I didn’t need her, right? At least that’s what I had told myself. But I discovered that without her encouragement and enthusiasm and optimism I found myself flagging.
It didn’t help that I had to go to school and pretend that I was interested in Maths and Geography and any of my subjects. At break time I sat on my own and worked on it. Aoife sat on her own on the other side of the playground. She didn’t look over at me. I was truly on my own for this one and to my surprise, I really missed her.
It was ten pm that night when I finished the challenge. Mum was still off at the hospital with Dad. Maureen and David were in the sitting room watching war documentaries loudly on TV as I slipped through the kitchen and out to the back garden. I put the completed challenge out there on the trampoline a good hour before my midnight deadline just to be sure.
Once back in my room, I found myself doubting myself. I didn’t have Aoife to buck me up and tell me it was great. What if it wasn’t good enough? Then we’d not only lose Dad forever, but we’d lose our own stories and memories too. We’d end up in the hospital with him.
As I waited for the Thief’s response I thought of Dad alone in his hospital room. Scared and confused. Aoife alone in her room. Scared. Angry with me. She was right – I had let her down. I hadn’t tried. I prayed that my writing would be good enough without her help and encouragement.
I prayed that I hadn’t let Aoife down again.
Go ahead and read Episode 9 featuring Dave Rudden (author of The Knights of the Borrowed Dark trilogy) now!
As usual here’s the stuff Dad told me I had to tell everyone…
The Story Thief Challenges is a twelve part series published on the first Monday of each month. Each episode includes writing advice from an Irish children’s fiction author and a Story Challenge activity that can be used by teachers, librarians and other educators with kids.
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If you would like more information on Erika McGann and her books and how to contact her click here.
If you’re a teacher / librarian / educator or parent and you would like advice on how use The Story Thief Challenges and each month’s Story Challenges with children to promote reading, writing, story telling and creativity please click here.
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