Weaving magic with dialogue

The old witch was knitting.

“Knitting? Just knitting? She’s an old witch, shouldn’t she be all hunched over, stirring her cauldron or something?”

“Maybe she’s cold. She’s cold, alright? So, she’s knitting. The cold old witch was knitting.

“But how was she knitting?”

“What do you mean?”

“How was she knitting? Like, is she good at it or has she been knitting for years and now she has a scarf as long as Gandalf’s beard, or are her knitting needles as sharp as knives? You have to give it some substance, some atmosphere, some character.1

“Alright, alright. The old witch was knitting with her face like a balled fist.2

“So… wrinkled? Frowning? Are you trying to confuse your readers? You can use figurative language without gate-keeping your story. You need to share your world with the reader, you need to break through the barriers that separate you from other minds, other hearts.3

“Aren’t you overthinking this? I just need to describe an old witch who’s knitting.”

“But if you just describe her, how are your readers going to engage with your narrative?”

“What if I gave her some dialogue?”

“What’s your line of thinking here?”

“Well, dialogue adds to character, right? Maybe if I write a little dialogue in the old witch’s voice, I won’t need to use figurative language. It’s all ‘show-don’t-tell’, right?”

“Makes sense, let’s give it a go.”

“Ok, how about:
      ‘Get off my beach youngins!’

“Uhh… what does that say about the witch?”

“That she’s old and cranky?”

“She also sounds like a suburban old man. She’s supposed to be a mystical sea witch, isn’t she? Can’t you add some mysticism?”

“Mysticism, alright, here goes:
      ‘See here, young froggalogs, this here is my magical sea rock—’

“Stop, please stop. Froggalogs? Magical sea rock? You’re trying too hard. Are you really adding to her character or are you just using your dialogue to create your scene? The latter can actually be done, but not like that. Dialogue isn’t meant to do that much heavy lifting – it’s meant to colour your drawing, to salt your soup, to add soil to your beautiful garden.”

“Ok, so a light touch that shows character and atmosphere and engages the audience and invites them into my mind and my heart.”

“Exactly. Not too much to ask, right? It’s just dialogue.”

“Just dialogue. JUST dialogue. You make it sound so simple…
      The witch sucked her teeth and spat a glob of green phlegm on the floor. ‘Who are you to disturb my knitting?’

“Interesting! But also a little disturbing. Are we meant to like this witch? Is she meant to be gross?”

“Well, no, but she’s meant to be intimidating.”

“Intimidating! Then maybe we should try switching up the point of view; that way we won’t be tempted to tell the character/story, we can see her character through the eyes of someone she’s intimidating.”

“Someone she’s intimidating. So now I need ANOTHER character? I’m just trying to introduce an old, knitting witch.”

“You’re never just doing one thing when you’re writing. You’re not just introducing her – you’re establishing a mood and setting an atmosphere for the scene4and the whole story in this one line. So, if you focus on your word choice5, your engaging figurative language, your dialogue, your point of view – all the tools you have at your disposal6– you’ll hit that nail directly on the head.”

“Ok. Using all my tools. Here we go:
      ‘The old witch is there,’ said Raditch, peering over the top to Six-Mile Beach. ‘Well settled with her knitting.’7


  1. Garry Disher. (2001). Writing Fiction.

Retrieved from: https://www.allenandunwin.com/being-a-writer/tips-on-technique/tips-on-technique-4-dialogue

  1. Margo Lanagan. (2012). Sea hearts/The Brides of Rollrock Island.
  2. William Strunk JR. (1918). The Elements of Style.
  3. No author referenced. (2017). Your guide to writing better dialogue.

Retrieved from https://nybookeditors.com/2017/05/your-guide-to-writing-better-dialogue/

  1. Valeria Parv. (2004). The Art of Romance Writing.

Retrieved from: https://www.allenandunwin.com/being-a-writer/tips-on-technique/tips-on-technique-4-dialogue

  1. Stephen King. (2000). On Writing.
  2. Margo Lanagan. (2012). Sea hearts/The Brides of Rollrock Island.

Author’s note: This was written for an assignment in fiction class. We were tasked with a 600-word investigative piece on one narrative technique using a novel from the set text list. I chose Sea Hearts by Margo Lanagan (also named The Brides of Rollrock Island) and dialogue. Writing this as an article proved next to impossible for me, so, since dialogue is one of my strong suits, I wrote a conversational exploration of my ideas, the result of this being Lanagan’s first line in Sea Hearts:
‘The old witch is there,’ said Raditch, peering over the top to Six-Mile Beach. ‘Well settled with her knitting.’
There was something about her being ‘well settled with her knitting’ that struck me as odd. The more I thought about it, the more I realised that Lanagan was so careful with her word choice that simple phrases like this were enough to tell the reader that there was something off – a theme that continues throughout the book. What magic that is! To be able to create a sense of mysticism and unease with minute word choices. I hope to be that skilled one day.

Featured image by Artem Maltsev from Unsplash.


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