Cuyler Callahan's Official Author Website

I'll Write Until The Muddy Grave Takes Me

Archive for the ‘dialogue’ tag

Theme: How I Understand It

without comments

I have been struggling with theme for a time now. I research and research, and it seems that theme slips from my grasp with every knew opinion and idea about it that exists.

But, I think I may have finally had that epiphany that you get when having a shower. That aha moment when you finally get it.

So I am going to explain to you my idea of theme. How I see it. How I plan to implement it. How I believe it can be integrated into story.


So first off: Every story has theme. 

That part is true. At least every good story has theme. Any story I have read, heard, or watched had theme.

You can have multiple themes:

Every story has theme. Some will have one major theme that sticks out. But if you look, you can find other smaller themes. Some themes are directly related to certain characters, or certain plot lines. Some themes cover the whole story. You can weave this as you want.

Every scene relates to the theme:

This one was hard for me. It felt very restrictive. How could I relate every scene to the theme? But then this was part of that epiphany moment. You can have more then one theme. Also, you don’t want to yell your theme into the faces of the reader. You don’t want to be preachy. So this is also when you can add in the theme like a little salt and pepper. You can be obscure, but not so obscure the reader can’t find it if looking.

You can also be blunt. But not all the time. Maybe a few scenes in the book slaps the reader around and says, “this is what I’m trying to say Jack. Right here. Listen to me.” If you do that to much, though, the reader may put the book down.

Theme is a statement:

Theme isn’t a question, or a motif. Theme doesn’t dance around the message. Theme says “You will die a lonely and sad death if you don’t get along with people.” It tells you directly, without dancing around the bush.

Theme picks a side:

The different plots taught in English class: man vs man, man vs nature, man vs himself, etc. Okay all fine and dandy. Your theme will pick a side of that vs. The side that proves the theme correct.

How To Implement Theme

This is the tough part. This is were it gets hard. I found that first you have to pick your tricks of the trade. The tricks that will help you show theme. I’m sure they all have their own English Class names. But I’m using my own descriptions for these tricks. So bite me.

The Reverse

This is when you show something in the scene that is opposite the theme. Say you have a theme for a specific character that says: “Love is like a thorn bush, prickly and full of hurt.” You can then show a scene of the character enjoying the soft side of love. Little does anybody know you have the prickly side waiting for him a few pages down. haha. Your evil.


We will stick with the above theme: “Love is like a thorn bush, prickly and full of hurt.” So maybe while your character is enjoying the soft side of love, he is making love to his girl and they are outside, and they roll into a thorn bush. Blunt/Subtle. The readers don’t know the wording of your theme. Only you do. They may just think it is funny that the character has an ass full of thorns. But it is theme. It is there. Anybody that wants to look will see it. Especially later when things get rough and theme comes out bluntly.


Theme can come out in dialogue. In conversation. There are different methods to this. You can be blunt and have somebody even repeat the words of your theme. What fun is that? I mean in some instances it probably works. But I want a word count here. Lets stretch it out. Lets show the theme through a conversation without actually saying it. Maybe the character is talking to his buddy about what a bitch his girlfriend is. His friend has experience and says love is rough. You get cut. You bleed inside.


A sound can help show theme. Maybe the rattling noise of a dry thorn bush nearby disrupts the lovers during a pick nick in the woods.


Action is sometimes the best way to show theme. A fight ensues between the two lovers. Maybe the character is trying to think about the right thing to say as to avoid making things worse: He is trying to avoid the prickly situation.


Your plot is the story. You will have smaller subplots, and then the larger one. And they all relate to the overall goal of the story. Your story overall plot is best reserved for that big thematic message. But maybe, since we are talking about a character theme, we will stick to the plot of this relationship. The overall plot, and all that goes into it, will, in the end, show the theme. Because theme is a statement and will be proven correct, the fact that love is like a thorn bush, prickly and full of hurt, the plot has to prove this. So in the end, the character  will get hurt from his love with the girl. The whole plot leads to that. But just to not confuse people, that doesn’t mean that is the end of the relationship. A new plot can start and they can prove the theme wrong by having a new theme that states love will win over all, or something along those mushy lines. You can, of course, be evil and just leave the character hurt.  ha ha.

Motifs and Symbols

Motifs are identified as symbols, mistakenly.

Symbols: images, ideas, sounds or words, represent something else. They help the reader understand an idea or a thing.

Motifs: images, ideas, sounds or words, help explain the central idea of a story, like theme.

Another major difference. A symbol may appear once or twice. Motif appears throughout the story as a recurring element.

People get confused and think Motif is theme. It isn’t. Motif is an element to help carry theme. Example theme: “have hope and the day will come through”. The motif may be the word “hope” from the lips of a crazy lady throughout the story. Or it may be the sunrise every morning. Imagery, Dialogue, Action, and Sounds, all tools of theme themselves can also be motifs, if you decide to use that same element throughout the story.

Symbols, not directly used to show theme, may be used to show an idea or thing that helps show theme. Very subtle indeed. “Have hope and the day will come through” The idea of hope creating hope helps show this theme. Maybe the idea, of a person in a bad situation, to help another, in hopes that person will help others as well, symbolizes hope creating hope, which leads to the theme “have hope and the day will come through”. Very subtle indeed.

Using this all together

These are all independent tools to help incorporate theme. The best use is to use them all together, quite often in a complex weaving of each other. Have a scene with dialogue, action, sound and imagery. In that imagery show symbols of an idea that supports the theme, and through action show a motif that appears throughout the plot. What a powerful scene that will be. And the best part, the part that makes you a writer, is you show all these elements and still move the story forward in its goals and plot.

Have fun.


Written by Cali

October 29th, 2014 at 3:34 pm

Dialogue As Its Meant To Be Read

without comments

Have you ever put down a book because you couldn’t stand having to reread over and over again. I find that the most parts I have to reread are the dialog lines. It is vitally important to let your reader know what is happening to your characters as it is happening.


“You think so,” he said angrily.

Might have the reader reading “You think so” as a question. It might have them reading it mildly. Then they will see “he said angrily” and realize they were suppose to read “You think so” angrily. This causes them to go back and reread. It is best to let the reader know how to read the dialog before or as they read it, not after.

For full effect it would be better to say for instance:

“YOU THINK SO!” He said angrily, “You think so!”


Angrily he yelled at her; her heart trembling, “You think so!”

This allows the reader to know what is happening with the dialogue. They don’t have to go back and read it again because they know before and during that the dialogue is supposed to be angry.

Look at the following:

“You think so,” he said

This sentence is all right because there is no anger. It is just a simple statement.
There are different ways to show emotion before or as you write dialog. I will show you a few methods.

1. Directly in dialog:

“I am sad that your mother died.”

This shows that the speaker is sad about the death of someone else mother. There is no need to write:

Sadly he said, ” I am sad that your mother died.”

Because it is obvious that the speaker is sad. He said it himself.
Now if for instance if the speaker was saying the words with anger, like in an argument and it’s important for the reader to know it’s in anger, then that’s when you would add more information before the dialogue.

2. Tag line before dialog:

Take this conversation:

“My mother is dead; you don’t understand my pain.”
“I know your mother is dead,” he said, weeping with his friend.

The second dialog text says he weeps with his friend, but after he talks. The reader could read it blandly, then realize after that he wept. They would have to go back and read it as the person crying.

It is better to write the sentence as:

Weeping he wiped his face with his shirt sleeve. “I know your mother is dead.”

You could even add more to evoke more emotion such as:

Weeping he wiped his face with his shirt sleeve. “I know your mother is dead and I will weep with you until you yourself are done.”

This is mixing the first method with the second.

3.Capitalization and the exclamation mark!

You don’t want to use these a lot as it will start to bland your writing. But if emotion is very strong it is well to use them.

Take the sentence:

“I will rip your heart out with a fork.”

Now we all can see the speaker is very angry… but is he. He could be joking with a friend. You can’t really tell positively if the speaker is angry.

We assume he is angry, and in context with the rest of your story, we can usually tell what is happening. What we want, though, is emotion.

So take a look at the sentence with capitalization and an exclamation work:


This can work, but use it sparingly. If used a lot it will look idiotic on the page. Also, only use capitalization when your speaker is actually yelling. Say your speaker is a Sargent yelling at military trainees. Then you might want to use capitalization in their dialog. Make sure to add the exclamation mark. It looks better then having capitalization, then a short bland little dot at the end. You want the words to stand out on the page because they show great emotion.

The sentence might look better as:

She clenched her fists, tensed her body, and threatened him deafeningly, “I will rip your heart out with a fork!”

Just an exclamation mark doesn’t look so weird and still gets the point across. Make sure however that if your speaker is yelling you state that, and before the actual dialog. Remember, unlike the capitalization which state the speaker as yelling, the exclamation mark can be used to express joy and other emotions of great intensity.

You can still evoke more emotion. Try adding a middle tag and an exclamation mark.

“I will rip your heart,” a growl entered his throat, “out with a fork!”

For longer sentences I recommend the middle tag line shown above. Remember though that the sentence above is showing the growl entering the throat through the middle of his speech. If he was growling it out at the beginning, make sure to mention that. For shorter sentences the exclamation mark or capitalization- used sparingly- are good to use.

So lets recap the different methods I have shown you:

There is:

1. Directly in dialog:
“I am sad that your mother died.”

2. Tag line before dialog:
Weeping he wiped his face with his shirt sleeve. “I know your mother is dead.”

A mix between 1 and 2:
Weeping he wiped his face with his shirt sleeve. “I know your mother is dead and I will weep with you until you yourself are done.”

3.Capitalization and the exclamation mark!
She clenched her fists, tensed her body, and threatened him deafeningly, “I will rip your heart out with a fork!”
“I will rip your heart,” a growl entered his throat, “out with a fork!”

These are just three basic methods that can come in handy in your writing. Though there are hundreds, if not thousands, of different ways to get your dialog across. The point of this article though is to remind writers to make sure their readers will be reading the dialog as it is meant to be read the first time through. You can mix and mash the methods I have shown you to express more emotion, and get your dialog across to your readers effectively. Of course there are different ways to do everything. I also note that when reading to yourself, and not out loud, your mind tends to skip past everything I have shown you here. So read your work out loud. You will see more errors and things that need changing that way.

Now you are wondering: “How do you expect me to go through my whole story and pick out every piece of dialog?”
Well here is another method I use which helps me. It is impossible to miss any dialog this way unless you do it half asleep- then I recommend a good nap before you do any more writing.

What I do is read my story out loud into a microphone which records my story out on a computer. Why does this work.

Well, unlike reading in your head, reading out loud actually helps you to hear your story and speaker. I find I not only can hear the dialog, but I find every little mistake in my manuscript there is. You mind has to work and listen to the words before it registers them. When reading in your head the story skims in and creates the picture. When listening to the story you have to decipher the words into your mind, therefore picking out ever little mistake you make when reading.

While you edit, listen to the recording of your story. You will find were you hesitate, where you stumble, where you misread a word. You find, the focus of this article, the dialog mistakes. I will read a dialog line mildly, only to read, out loud, that it was to be read angrily. I pick this up in the recording, and Wala! I now know where to fix my dialog.

Recording yourself helps you to find slow parts in your story. Find wordy parts that can be reduced to fit the flow of your voice. Find the boring parts you need to fix. Find the awkward mentioned dialog.

The recording program I use is Audacity. You can find it at . It is free and extremely professional- I think. I recommend it full heartedly.

And if you are shy, like me, about talking to yourself in public or private, well fight it off dude. You want to be a writer, fight for it. That is the only way any of us are going to achieve our dreams.

Fight for it and you will get published, one hundred percent guaranteed. Some people just have to fight longer then others.

Written by Cali

November 22nd, 2009 at 1:59 pm

Featuring Recent Posts WordPress Widget development by YD