This is Story Spine, created by Kenn Adams, editor and author.

This is Story Spine, created by Kenn Adams, editor and author.


Example of proper dialogue:

I was sixteen the last time I ate red beans. It was 2003, just weeks before my grandma croaked. Before she died, she was in charge, standing over us in her kitchen. She said, “Eat your beans or you'll get a whooping."                                                          

I said, "I don't..."                                                    

She said, "Don't you get smart with me."                        

I put my head down and shoveled them in.


Writing Class Radio's Basic Points on DIALOGUE

1.  Starting a story with dialogue makes the reader think too hard.                                    

2. Only attribute speech with said. He said. She said. I said. Or say/says if you're writing in the     present tense.                                              

3. Leave names out of dialogue. The characters know who they're talking to.                          

4. Sentences don't have to be complete because people talk over each other.            

5. Dialogue has to reveal character or advance the story.                                                        

6. Every new speaker gets a new paragraph.


Letting It Fly


Originally published in 1997 in The New York Times Lives Column...and deconstructed below: 

Seven years after I separated from my children’s father it was still hard going back to our old house. I knew that house so well, I could find my way around in the dark. I knew where the wild trillium came up in the woods out back of the garage and where the lady-slippers grew. I knew every knot in the floorboards.

I could've said five hundred things about that house, I knew it so well. But, i f you choose three good ones, you don't need the other 497. Um, so, lesson there. Um, and certainly, another lesson that I talked to a lot about my students is going from abstract concepts, like "I knew that house like the back of my hand," which, I would not recommend in anybody's piece of writing, to giving pictures to what knowing a house well, looked like.

After my marriage ended I moved to a small city, thirty miles from that house, and my children continued to spend every other weekend with their father. Sundays were designated my time to pick them up. Our children found some kind of rhythm, transporting their brown paper grocery bags filled with clothes from one house to the other and back again. But I'd rather have driven a hundred miles in any other direction, than make that particular trip.

I wanted to give a picture of what it looked like from my children. 18:28 And from my children, it was the , in all the years of their doing that they never kind of got it together to have a suitcase, they had brown, paper, bags. Does that tell you something? I think it does.

Usually when I’d get to our old house, my former husband would be there, standing in the doorway. But one Sunday late last winter he and our older son had gone off with friends so I was only picking up our younger boy, Willy. And for the first time in ages, I stepped into my old kitchen.

I believe that we need to be conscious of every single choice of words. I do not say my ex-husband, I say my former husband, and my children's father. Sundays were designated my time to pick them up. Why do I say designated, because there was a court involved, and I want you to feel it. 

A bitter taste rose in my throat, like what happens when you think you’re going to throw up, but you don’t. I stepped into the hallway and glanced at the bed where all three of our babies were born. I went back in the kitchen, ran my hand over the wood of the kitchen counter, where I must have prepared a thousand meals, and looked out the window, to an eery and beautiful streak of light from a full moon slashing across newfallen snow. I remembered another full moon night, when my husband and I had skated on black ice on the pond down the road, and another full moon night, when we’d fought so bitterly I paced the rooms of this house until dawn, lying down briefly next to first one of my sleeping children, and then another, unable to find sleep.

This is a piece about a woman whose marriage has ended. And, if I'm going to speak about loss, this is a really important lesson for every writer. We need to first know what was lost. I wrote a novel once about a girl whose mother died when she was thirteen, and there'll be a certain, inherent, just sort of poignancy about knowing a child's mother has died, but if we're gonna have a girl with a dead mother I wanna first see the alive mother. Or at least I wanna, eventually see the alive mother. So, I wanted to summon an image of my marriage at its best, and not 500 images, but one good one, skating on black ice.

And of course I wanted to summon the intimacy of that marriage. My children were born in that house. They were born on that bed. That ups the stakes for you. I was revisiting in a very animal way, the place where I gave birth Next paragraph:

This wasn’t even close to the first time I felt that bitter taste: I had it the day seven years ago that I drove a U-Haul filled with my belongings down this driveway, the day I sat in a courtroom, hearing a guardian ad litem evaluate my performance as a mother. I could have risen from my chair and put my fist through a wall, that day. The surprise was discovering that years later, the wild rage I felt in the early stages of divorce seemed to have flared up again. Suddenly I felt the urge to paint graffiti on the walls, smash dishes. Although if you'd walked in the room at the moment all you would have seen was a 42-year-old woman looking out a window, not saying a word.

So this paragraph, is about context. I want you to understand the origins for the feeling that i'm going to be describing later. I wanna always give a picture to a feeling, I don't just wanna say I was unbelievably mad. I want you to see it. So I had the urge to paint graffiti on the walls, I had the urge to smash dishes, those are pictures of rage. There actually was in the original version of this, I had written "I wanted to pee on the floor." And, that was true. I did wanna do that. And that kind of goes back to that whole animal nature of this woman's behavior. Um, the NYT took that one out. Laughter. They were, maybe they were right. It might have been a little bit much for the New York Time's readership. And maybe some day if I ever put this in a collection I'll put it back..

Now comes the hard part of this story. On the kitchen counter lay my ex-husband’s screwgun. I picked it up and palmed it as if it were a 45. I put it down again. Picked it up and tucked it under my jacket and walked out the door.

The first line in that paragraph is "now comes the hard part of this story." I could've just began the paragraph with "on the kitchen counter lay my first husband's screwgun." I want to signal to you as a reader, that something big is gonna happen now. Big in my universe. That not all details are equal, and this one you should pay particular attention to. I don't want you to miss it. If somebody's gonna do something with a gun first we need to, the camera needs to actually focus on the gun.

Then, like a person in a dream, I saw myself raising my arm the way my two sons have taught me when we’re playing catch, and I let that screw gun fly. I watched it land in a clump of snow-covered bushes. I walked back into the house and called to my son. Time to go home.

By the time I got back to my own house, I felt sick with shame and embarrassment at what I’d done. Monday morning I tried to work, but all I could think about was this man I used to be married to, looking for his screw gun and realizing that it had disappeared the same night I’d come to his house when he wasn’t there. I saw his face, twisted into a mask of justifiable rage.

I'm not the same person emotionally and in a maturity way as I was when I was 42. I'm also not the same writer. I think I'm a better one. I would now take out a number of things from this piece including, I felt sick with shame and embarrassment. I don't think I need to explain why I would feel sick. I think you'll get it. Um, in the same way that, you know, palmed the gun like a 45, I think just palmed the gun and you're gonna know like a 45.

Just after noon I put on my jacket and headed out to my car. And as I drove it came to me that the worst thing about divorce is not what the other person does to you, or how he behaves, but the strange and terrible behavior divorce produces in your own self. After an ugly divorce, someone who used to love you reshapes his view of you into that of a hateful and monstrous person. That Sunday night I turned into her.

This is a paragraph where I do allow myself interpretation, and I’m not a big fan of it. Mostly I want you to do the interpreting and me to give you the raw material, not the raw material, the very carefully selected material that allows you to interpret, but this, I felt as if I had by this point in the piece, earned the right to, to reflect on what it means.

As I turned the final bend in the road leading up to my old house I saw with relief that my ex-husband’s car wasn’t there. So I walked over to the clump of bushes where I’d thrown the gun. At first I couldn’t spot it.

Then I saw the handle, just barely sticking up out of the snow. I dried the gun off on my shirt and carried it onto the porch, where I set it on a table. I didn’t put it back where I’d found it, because to do so, I’d have to enter the house. And it wasn’t my house any more.

You know, movies they don't have  resounding last sentence. They have an image, they leave you with an image. what I do in my writing now, is leave you with a picture. It's a very carefully chosen picture. That signals, where I have landed.