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Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Dialogue ~ Make it Real!

I cut my authorial teeth on dialogue as a playwright. I was the creative arts director for 11 years at my church. We did everything from the 30-second sermon starter to full-length musicals. 

When I wrote my first few scripts, my actors often used different words than what I'd written, or they changed the sentences around, and even ... gasp ... dropped the golden gems I penned.

As hard as it was to admit, I liked what I heard, so I dissected the changes and found the common ground. I wrote like Snoopy, trying to be literary. Gag. The lines were too perfect and not realistic.

Have you read a book where the dialogue actually pulls you out of the story because it's so stiff and unbelievable? Or worse, it sounds like an info dump, as if the writer's saying, "You won't get this part unless I explain it to you."

Well, thank you Billy Sunday. That'll make me throw a book across the room faster than a politician can empty your wallet.

So what does make good dialogue in a book?

It has to be realistic for starters. And it has to be organic to your character. If you're an Oregonian and writing about a Southern Belle, you'd better have a Cousin Sue Ellen read your manuscript or it may well be stereotyped. The same goes for Sue Ellen writing about a Yankee.

If you aren't sure how the characters would really talk, go to a local mall and hang out in the food court and eavesdrop. Listen to the half sentences, colloquialisms, and especially to the way people answer questions.

One problem is found in the way characters answer questions.

"Good morning, Bob. Where are you headed this fine morning?"
"Good morning, John. I'm heading to the hardware store to get a new float for the toilet."

First of all, we don't really care about Bob's toilet, unless his four-year-old flushed the latest Wiki-leaks state secrets. A bit more realistic might sound like this:

"Morning, Bob. Where you off to?"
"Hardware store."
"Anything I can help with?"
"I got it."
"Okay, holler if you need me."

That's how two neighboring men would have this conversation. If it were women, it still wouldn't be complete sentences, but it might go something like this:

"Morning, Sally. Going shopping?"
"Macy's is having a huge sale, and you know the new slip covers I got for the den sofa? John ruined it with cranberry juice."
"I hear you. Bob got mustard on my bedspread. Why can't they be more careful?"
"I think it's in their genes."
"Yeah, he got mustard on those, too."

Anyway, you can see how their conversation veered off the main track. Another thing in romance is build conflict in dialogue. Jenny B, Jones is great at this. A few lines from Save the Date illustrate this point well:

"Do you know anything about football?"
"You toss around a ball and throw people to the ground. What else is there to know?"
"Okay then, what's a birdcage?"
"The name of the bar where you met your last girlfriend?"
"A cut?"
"A fantasy I have involving your throat."

She never answered his questions seriously and he kept asking instead of commenting on what she said. It was brilliant dialogue for building character and a great example of verbal ping-pong.

And that, my friend, is great dialogue. So listen before you write.


  1. When I was younger, I wrote so many colloquialisms that my characters all sounded like they came from California without me even realizing that Californians have an accent. Good dialogue is tricky.

  2. Insightful post, Ane (and you're right, Jenny B. knows how to capture conversation and so much more). I just finished a book by a well-known Irish novelist. I enjoyed the story, but the dialogues and other exchanges between American (U.S.) characters sounded British or Irish or SOMETHING that failed to reflect our speech.

    Maybe this author needs to visit here. And listen.

  3. I love how you didn't use the author's name, Marti. Smart woman :) (and kind)

  4. Thanks, Marti. What you mentioned is the kind of thing that can undermine an authors credibility. I'm not sure who you're referring to, but that's fine. :)


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