Malevolent and Weirdly Smart Cougars

This post is about dialogue, and a different dialogue question came in on the blog very recently. I’m going to hold it until its turn comes, but, Brambles and Bees, you may find this one useful too.

On January 25, 2021, FantasyFan101 wrote, I need help with dialogue. First of all, I feel I don’t give enough dialogue, and second, I feel that I don’t unleash enough of the characters into their speech, and it makes it dull. For example:

The next morning Anderis woke early and scouted the surrounding space. What he found was frightening. He roused his mother.

“Mother, wake up. Hurry! We have to keep moving. I found fresh cougar tracks a little ways south of the camp. One must have come down from the Posuit Mountains. It’s likely scouting the area because it found us. It could attack any time,” said Anderis.

“All right, Anderis. I’m getting up,” his mother replied.

See? I don’t know if it’s too quick, or if I should slow down and make them talk longer. Is the mother’s reaction boring? Do I describe the landscape? Nearly the whole book is like this. Please help.

A few of you pitched in back then.

Katie W.: I think maybe the reason it feels like your dialogue is boring is because you’re trying to fit too much information into the dialogue instead of the narrative. I’m not sure if this is what you’re looking for, but here’s how I would rewrite your example.

Anderis woke before dawn the next morning. The air was still, but something had changed. Careful not to wake his mother, he set off to see what the problem was. It didn’t take long. A little way south of the camp was a set of pawprints the size of his hand. Cougar tracks. He glanced up at the Posuit Mountains looming overhead, wondering if any more cats were following the first. Anderis shivered and turned back to the camp before his imagination finished getting the better of him.

“Mother, wake up! Hurry!” he called, dropping to his knees next to her. She grumbled something and rolled over. He shook her shoulder, hard, before she could fall asleep again.

“What’s the matter?” she mumbled.

“I found fresh cougar tracks just south of here. It must have come down from the mountains. It could attack any time.”

“All right, Anderis. I’m getting up.”

In general, the character traits that come through in dialogue are things like humor, sarcasm, how outgoing the character is, and precise details about their emotional state. If you’re looking for examples, I would probably recommend Megan Whalen Turner’s The Thief and its sequels (late middle school and up) for humorous dialogue, Enchanted, by Alathea Kontis, (middle school and up) for extended conversations, and anything by Timothy Zahn (high school and up except for his MG Dragonback series) for help with description both within and outside of dialogue.

Melissa Mead: I agree with Katie W’s approach. Rather than say “What he found was frightening,” show us what he found, and help us feel why it’s frightening.

Cougars don’t usually attack people, though. They’re usually quite shy. You’d have to describe what triggered them. This looks like it might be helpful: https://www.humanesociety.org/resources/what-do-about-cougars.

Belle Adora: If you are writing and aren’t sure if the dialogue sounds natural, read it out loud.

These are terrific! I especially like Katie W.’s introduction of Anderis’s thoughts into the narrative.

The reader of the whole story has the advantage over us in knowing what the conflict in this story is and what to worry about. But if this is the very beginning, and one of the problems is the defenselessness of, say, travelers, we can start to bring this in, using Anderis’s thoughts as well as what he says.

Melissa Mead’s link about cougars can help us. (I love using research in my fiction.) In narration, we can say that these are, for example, a subspecies called Calamity Cougars because they’re not at all shy and kill with their claws as well as their fangs. Such information will raise the stakes.

We can bring in body language to join the conversation, so to speak. Anderis’s mom’s response to his urgency can be just to roll over. Or she can jump up and, disoriented, run in the direction of the pawprints. Or something else. We can make a list.

Meanwhile, he can start breaking camp, his gestures sharp and angry. Or something else.

And we can list what Anderis might think, like that she never really gets moving before noon, or that he has to worry for both of them since she’s so calm, or how his father could always get Mom to do whatever he wanted.

And we can list what she might say. She might start telling him the great dream he interrupted. Or make fun of him for worrying.

Feelings can get into the act. Voices can be raised or lowered. Mom can sing to drown Anderis out.

As we try things, we define our characters, and our dialogue tightens.

It will help if we know the problem of our story, which could be malevolent, weirdly smart cougars encroaching on human civilization. Or Anderis and Mom are fleeing after robbing a den of thieves. Or they’re on a camping trip to repair their relationship.

If we don’t already know, we can use this cougar-threat moment to decide what the larger conflict might be, or to try out some possibilities.

Once we do know, we consider their personalities, which will determine to a large degree how they express themselves. Anderis may be direct. He says what he thinks and makes sure he’s understood. Mom may be imaginative. In a discussion, she goes down more than one path and doesn’t double back to make sure Anderis is following. He says, “Cougars are coming.” She says, “They’re such beautiful animals.” He says, “And lethal.” She says, “Do you know we share a common ancestor?” He groans. She says, “What’s wrong, son?”

That was fun.

Here are a few technical things to think about:

  • Dialogue tends to be livelier if it’s broken up by action, like Mom rolling over to go back to sleep.
  • Unless this is a high-action scene, the thoughts and feelings of the POV character will bring the reader in. If it is a high-action scene, these—and dialogue—should appear in brief bursts.
  • In real life, people sometimes do speak in long sentences and long paragraphs, but they’re hard to plow through and tend to feel unnatural in fiction. We should be concise unless we have a character on our hands who is wordy or who is frightened into babbling. In that case, it’s fine.
  • Whenever dialogue switches from one character to another, we start a new paragraph, which will help the reader keep track.
  • The reader always needs to know who’s speaking, but we can accomplish that sometimes by giving the speaker an action. For instance, one of them can say, “Where did you put the arrows?” followed in the same paragraph by Anderis pulling aside a blanket. Then the reader knows he said the line. Of course, he can also say, “Mom, where did you put the arrows” and the reader will know.
  • If we need to just say who’s speaking, the verbs said and ask are better than anything else (like replied or queried) because said and ask don’t draw attention to themselves. The exception is when we’re revealing volume. If a character is whispering, the reader should be told.

And here are three prompts from the story possibilities I suggested above. Write a scene chock full of dialogue and, if you like, continue to finish the story.

  • Malevolent, weirdly smart cougars are encroaching on human civilization.
  • Anderis and Mom are fleeing after robbing a den of thieves.
  • Anderis and Mom are on a camping trip to repair their relationship.

Have fun, and save what you write!

  1. Wow! I completely forgot about this question! I actually haven’t worked on that WIP in forever, but honestly, that story led into another, very similar one that this is going to help with a bunch! And yes, the cougar was malevolent and weirdly smart, being possessed by an evil spirit and whatnot 😉 Oh, I can’t wait to get to work on dialogue now! Thank you so much!

  2. I love the title of this post… I don’t know why, but it’s making me laugh. Now I really do want to write about malevolent and weirdly smart cougars!

    • Really great title! Probably the best one I’ve seen on this post so far. Saw this post over breakfast and almost spit out my tea (not from shock, from laughter, just for clarification) and then i saw the rest of this post and was like ‘oh now it makes since.’
      Although that would also be a great title for a post on humanizing animals (There’s a long word for that but I can’t spell it)
      Still chuckling

  3. Excuse me, Gail, but I was looking at old blog posts (like last year old) and found a reference to a forthcoming novel. I looked on your site but didn’t see any reference to it. I hope it isn’t prying or something, but do you know when it’s coming out? I’m sorry if I’m not supposed to ask this or something.

    • Gail Carson Levine says:

      This is a lovely question! My next book will be out in October, I think the 25th. It’s called SPARROWS IN THE WIND, and it’s a reimagining of the Trojan War told in two parts, the first by the Trojan princess and prophetess Cassandra, and the second by Rin, an Amazon princess. It has a Greek chorus of crows, Apollo’s sacred bird. My part is all done, and e-galleys will go to reviewers, etc. next month. I’m happy and excited about it.

      After this, though, there will be a break. I’ve been working on a memoir, which is written for adults and doesn’t yet have a publisher. I hope it will find one!

      Then, I’d like the following book to be a medieval murder mystery…

      In my heart and my hopes, I am by no means finished!

      • AWESOME! I look forward to all of them! Your books are so awesome. Thank you!!! Also I love Greek mythology, and Amazons are my top favorite myth/legend/tale/whatever catagory they’re in, so SPARROWS IN THE WIND might be my favorite book once it comes out! Thanks again, I’m really excited for it.

      • Miss Maddox says:

        That sounds AMAZING! I love Greek mythology, so I know it will be great! I can’t wait to read it, I’m so excited!!

  4. Sparrows in the Wind sounds so good! Is it going to be a children’s title? It sounds like my 12-year-old daughter would devour that one.

  5. Ooh, ‘Sparrows in the Wind’ sounds like I would devour that one! I love Greek Mythology! Though I must admit, now I’m on pins and needles just thinking about the Medieval Murder Mystery.

    • I cannot wait! Greek mythology is one of my favorites, too! I have a random question for everyone (including Gail). What is your favorite book written by Gail, and why? Mine is either The Two Princesses of Bamarre, or Ever, because I like the romance in Ever, and Two Princesses is just so good, I can’t explain why I like it.

      • A Tale Of Two Castles and Stolen Magic. I love how complex the world is, the puzzles in the mysteries, (for those who don’t know, they’re mysteries) and Masteress Meenore. And the cats in Two Castles.
        But they might have competition once Sparrows in the Wind comes out 🙂

      • Gail Carson Levine says:

        My favorite, I guess, is A CEILING MADE OF EGGSHELLS because I learned so much researching and writing it.

      • Miss Maddox says:

        (Reply to Addie Rose)

        I guess my favorite is Ella Enchanted. I haven’t read as many as I would like to, though, yet; I’ve read Ella Enchanted and Fairest, and am in the middle of reading Ogre Enchanted. I like how Ella is very spunky, but also kind, and how she’s very intelligent. I also like her relationship with Char — they’re such good friends as well as lovers. I also enjoyed how it was so much its own story but it still had all the Cinderella elements; I didn’t like that they took those out in the movie, because I’ve always loved Cinderella and it was so much fun to see how Ms. Levine added all of those in.

  6. I have another question for Gail. On April 1st, I am going to start the Camp NaNoWriMo Challange. Is it OK if I use one of the props from either writing magic or writer to writer, even if I end up publishing it one day?

    • Gail Carson Levine says:

      It’s okay. That’s what the prompts are for. It’s nice, though, when it’s published to acknowledge me. I’ll be proud!

  7. Hi everybody! I’m 12 and new to this blog. I know that this has nothing to do with this post, but it’s the newest one, and I thought I should post here; I have constant writer’s block and don’t know how to deal with it! I’m also super nervous about showing my first draft of a WIP that I have. And I want to write a MG fantasy, but it (my WIP) is only 10,416 words (44 pages) long, and I don’t know what to do to make it longer. Is there a post on making stories longer? Does anybody have advice on any of my other questions?

    P.S. My favorite stories are The Lost Kingdom of Bamarre & Ogre Enchanted.

  8. Delyla, I suffer from writer’s block as well. And guess what? I love fantasy too, and I’m on the younger side of things 😉 Anyway, my best tip is to just keep writing. It’s hard for me to do it, and I understand if you don’t feel that urge to write, but if you just force your way through it, you’ll find parts where you do want to write and it comes easier. Have fun, and I hope this helps.

  9. Delyla, I did ue the NaNoWriMo Young Writer’s Program in 2021, but I couldn’t keep up. I was kind of busy, so I wasn’t able to write everything, but I had a lot of fun! In fact, I think I’ll check it out again…

  10. Hello Mrs Levine

    This morning I was thrilled to see my comment was put on your guest book! And I was overjoyed to see that you even respond to me! Thank you, I think it will be the highlight of my day. I won’t lie, I was a little nervous about signing your guest book. My question, will more of a problem is am I a very very distracted person. I tried to write but I ended up getting distracted and ended up not writing at all. In fact I have a whole story in my head but it’s so hard to get it down on paper. Please help me. Also I finished your Orge Enchanted book. I spent two hours in my room reading ( aka me being distracted ) I had to know who she married. Little off to the side question what awful gift would (to quote your book Ella Enchanted) “That fool of a fairy Lucinda” give you. Although I hope she wouldn’t give you any but on the off chance.
    Thank you for your time, your small fan Maggie…

    P.s I have save what I write here on my computer ( :

    • I just wanted to offer a bit of solidarity, Maggie, while waiting for Gail to answer. I get distracted a lot too. It’s a lot easier to daydream a story than write it down! And all the social media and other internet sites are really addicting (especially since I can use “marketing” as an excuse). But somehow I’ve published ten books in the past seven years. So I guess one bit of advice is to focus on the positive and feel good about what you do write, instead of concentrating on all the time you could have been writing and ended up doing something else.

      • Gail Carson Levine says:

        Thank you, Christie V Powell and Maggie! Maggie, you might try telling your story to someone–a friend, a sister or brother, aunt, uncle, etc. If that person is interested, you can work on writing it down together. Another possibility would be to record yourself telling the story and save it. Then you can go back to it whenever you like.

  11. Hello! My question is kind of a reverse of Delyla’s earlier. What is the best way to write short stories? And how can you come up with good plots for them? Whenever I try to write them I always want to add more and make things super complicated so they can play out later. I never feel like they’re full enough, and I can never come up with story lines where the problem will be resolved satisfyingly at the end. Does anyone have any advice?

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