WOE: Polishing a Tool

Red Writing Hood challenged us to hone our skills in an area where we feel weakest.  Mine is dialogue.  It comes out wooden and clunky every time, that’s why, you may have noticed, there’s rarely any direct speech in my prompt responses. 

You may also have noticed that I worry.  A lot.  I worry about my characters being ‘normal’ enough, whether they fit into their respective worlds.  They’re facing peer pressure before they’re even birthed!  And of course, dialogue, it seems to me at least, is where that shows most.  It’s them revealing their innermost thoughts and responding to other characters and the world around them.  I don’t feel that I’ve got to grips with that myself so I fret that it shows in my characters.

This is over the word limit, I admit and apologise, but I ‘borrowed’ it from something on my simmer pile.  I wanted to use this opportunity to see how my dialogue works in a ‘real’ situation.  That and I’m very tired and overwhelmed this week too!


Emily stirred in the strange bed, stiff and sore all over.  The covers were heavy and tight across her, the air smelt strange and something beeped nearby, regular and monotonous.  She wriggled and winced at the sharp pain in her side.

“Where am I?”  she asked softly.

Someone reached out and took her hand.

“Hey, it’s Carlie, remember?”

She finally focused and saw Carlie, her mom’s personal assistant, trim in her office suit and classy heels.  She smiled in recognition, although still slightly bemused.  Her head ached but it was the pain in her chest and side that really kicked in whenever she tried to move.  She took in her surroundings, clinical and harsh.  Hospital.

“What happened?”

Carlie hesitated.

“When is it?”

Emily pushed a hand under the pillow to reach for her cell phone but it wasn’t there.  She tried to remember what had happened, what had brought her into hospital.  She couldn’t remember.  She was frightened.


“It’s OK honey, you’re in the hospital.”

“I know that!  Why, Carlie, what happened?”

Surely if she was in hospital, Mom would be here too.  Where was her cell phone?  Maybe she wasn’t allowed it in the hospital.

“Where’s Mom?”

Again Carlie hesitated, her eyes shadowing over.  Emily sensed the change in her face and got worried, she had a growing feeling deep inside her that something wasn’t right, nausea creeping through her stomach.

“Carlie, where’s Mom?  Is Mom hurt too?”

“There was an accident, do you remember?”

An accident.  There was a vague sense of recognition; Emily frowned as she tried to focus on the fragments that were floating in the mental fog.  She could remember being in a car, was that when it happened?  If she thought really hard she could see her parents and her having a meal out, but distant and fuzzy, almost like a dream rather than a memory.

“You were coming home Friday night from the restaurant, your Dad was driving …”

Emily shook her head.  It could have been any one of many evenings, they loved eating out, but she still couldn’t recall that particular evening, worryingly.

“I don’t remember.  Is it Saturday then?”

“Um, Tuesday.  It’s Tuesday now.  Your grandmother is coming out soon.”

A nurse bustled in, adjusting the IV and sending eye messages to Carlie.

“Can I sit up?”

They helped her up and propped her against the pillows.  She ached.

“What’s wrong with me?  Where’s Mom and Dad?”

The nurse coughed slightly and left the room.

“You’ve cracked your ribs, damaged your spleen.  They were worried that you’d done something to your head but that all seems OK.  Your spine wasn’t damaged.  You’ve got a laceration on your forehead.”

Carlie recited the list awkwardly, nervously;  Emily picked up on her jitters immediately.

“You were in the back.  A car was on the wrong side …” she had to breathe deeply, subconsciously squeezing Emily’s hand a little harder.  “Head on collision.”  Her voice broke a little.  “Ally and James didn’t make it.”

Emily didn’t know how to react.  Was she meant to cry or scream or what?  She froze, tense, willing it not to be true.

“I wish your grandmother had got here already.”  Carlie murmured, turning away sharply.

The nausea welled up hard inside her.  It couldn’t be true.  This wasn’t happening.  The room spun.

“Gonna be sick…”

Carlie wheeled round and grabbed a cardboard tray from the locker.  Emily retched but there wasn’t much her empty insides could give.  It hurt so badly though, tearing through her.  She collapsed, pale and shaky onto the pillows.

The nurse came back in, more eye messages.  The mess was cleared and Emily rolled onto her other side, away from Carlie, her head was spinning.  She curled up as tight as she could, tethered to an IV pole and slowly wept.

Write On Edge: Red-Writing-Hood

44 thoughts on “WOE: Polishing a Tool

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  2. Blending dialogue within the narrative can be awkard or spot-on. You did a great job with this scene! I could feel and see everything.

    I agree with the “When is it?” critique, but if you are like me sometimes our minds move so fast and we insert things that later we realize only make sense to us.

    I really liked this and can’t wait to read more on your blog.

  3. I liked the sparseness of the dialogue. In a situation like that, one rarely takes the time to notice the details of a room or complex feelings. That comes after, when we know what happened.

    I’m also confused about the “rul’es” of dialogue. One says, “Use ‘he/she said’,” another says “Use ‘retorted/remarked/exploded/seethed/whispered/ejaculated’.” Which is correct? Who knows? It’s best to do what feels comfortable, I guess.

    Only concrit is the same as everyone else. “When is it?” is a little confusing. Other than that, great job!

  4. the short, direct bits of dialogue worked well with this piece. Maybe you could slip in a bit more blocking to give us an idea of how the character is reacting, moving, etc but it’s not really necessary.

    Great build up and the climax hits you in the gut. I could feel what Emily was feeling

  5. Fantastic!!! I was in the room with them, and I was extremely uncomfortable … I ached for Emily, felt bad for Carlie and became angry with Grandma. Perfectly executed!

    ~ Devon

  6. This drew me right in and I want to know more! I agree with what everyone said about Carlie’s name, but other than that, I think it flowed really well and was totally believable. I could picture myself in this situation.

  7. I do think this flowed very well with the exception, as others have noted, of the repeated use of Carlie’s name. But aside from that, I like how uncomfortable Carlie clearly is, and how it takes Emily a while to catch on to the fact that something is really terribly wrong. Good stuff!

    1. It’s kind of comforting that everyone can see the same mistakes rather than an endless of faults! Thank you for sharing this one again, it’s handy to gauge how many people are affected! :)

  8. This was a a strong piece. I felt so bad for her. I read it quickly as if I had to know if the parents made it or not, and it’s like when you know bad news is coming but you don’t want to face it. I think the reader and Emily both experience this. Well done.

  9. I think this dialogue was really well done. I like how the descriptive passages sort of slowed the dialogue down, as if Emily and Carlie were both taking time to process what they were hearing and saying. The only thing that rubbed me a bit wrong – and I do this in my writing too – is how Emily kept using Carlie’s name. In real conversations, we rarely speak the name of the person we’re talking to, I think. But all in all, it was very believable.

    1. Yes, you’re right on that, I’ll read it through again although I know there’s times in conversations where you’ll say someone’s name to get their attention or when you’re not sure what you’re going to say next. I’ll keep an eye on it though, thanks for pointing that out though. :)

  10. I really liked this. The way the characters spoke worked for me, I saw them, heard them, could see the confusion, the disbelief, the emotion from each one of them through the words and gestures. Plus it flowed, you didn’t stay on one place long enough for me to question or get bored.

    Like the others the only thing that threw me was “when is it?” Maybe “what day is it? ” or “how long have I been here?” to bridge us to the answer?

    for someone that is having a tough week, I’m impressed…as I normally am in this space. :)

  11. So sad…. but very well written. I liked how well the conversation flowed between then, but I think that it could be fleshed out more with Carlie’s thoughts through descriptions of the room, more of what she remembered, and how she felt.

    1. Hmm, that’s an interesting suggestion. I guess that would be kind of working in two different viewpoints at the same, I’ve not done that before so maybe that’s another ‘tool’ that I need to get acquainted with! Many thanks for commenting. :)

  12. I think it’s on its way. Don’t hesitate to use verbs in conjunction with your dialogue – he/she said is often an easy way to transition to the character’s movements or thoughts, which will keep your dialogue from being list-like. You play the calm, confused panic in Emily rather well, though, and generally I do like it. :-)

    1. Yes, I used to be very precise with the verb I used for he/she saids but I’ve seen a real backlash against that in recent times. It’s left me rather confused as to which is a better approach! Thank you. :)

  13. Such a horrifying thing to experience I can’t even imagine.

    I think the dialogue works. The hedging, the eyes looking away. The nurse’s cough was an excellent “tell.”

    May I suggest breaking up the dialogue. Have her start a sentence, then mention her body language or the tone of her words, and then finish the thought. Let the characters cut each other off, interrupt, or trail off.

    Granted you don’t want to do it every time, but changing the rhythm of dialogue helps make it sound authentic.

    I’ll thrilled that you’ve tackled a weakness!

    1. I’ve been a little confused in the way to go with my dialogue, as I said in an earlier comment, I’ve read a lot recently about the preferred formatting of dialogue, specific verbs, body language and interruptions all seem to have hit the ‘hate’ list. But I guess it can end up reading more like a script too, I’ll just have to find a balance again. Many thanks! :)

  14. Oh no. Oh. So tense and so sad. I am sad for her. You did a great job with the dialogue here and had me really feeling Carlie’s anxiety and jitters and sadness about saying what had happened. And Emily’s reaction, the heaving, it kind of made me feel ill – so that was definitely well done.

    The only thing that threw me was this line early on: “When is it?” Was that meant to say What is it? Or was she asking the date/day/etc? I was thinking it should have been what – as you got into the day it was and so forth later on. Maybe I mis-read? You did a really great job.

    1. Thank you for commenting, I’ve been mulling over your concrit on the question. I don’t know how else to phrase it but it does seem to have thrown quite a few. I suppose she’s asking ‘when’ rather than ‘what day’ because of the confusion and loss of time. :)

  15. I too have to struggle writing dialog. I thought what you posted really conveyed Emily’s distress and vulnerability. I recently woke up in a hospital and Emily’s feelings and confusion were very realistic. Keep working on this piece it is very good and it drew me in and made me want to know more.

  16. This is SPECTACULAR. The dialogue absolutely works to unveil the situation. The reader knows instantly, just as Emily does subconsciously, that her parents are dead. But the reader does NOT know that she is a child right off the bat (totally appropriate) and the dialogue reveals that, as well. Carlie was a great character, too, someone who should never have been thrust into the role of ‘horrible news bearer’ who wanted to time the revelation differently.

    Grandma needs to get her butt in gear and get out there!

I'd love to know what you think, concrit is especially welcomed on fiction pieces. Thank you.

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