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Thursday, August 07, 2014

I Wrote Like Snoopy...

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 first wrote my first few scripts, my actors often used different words that I'd written, or they changed the sentences around, and even...gasp...dropped words.

But 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 understand this 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. Unless it’s on my e-reader; then I’d delete it before it contaminated the other e-books.

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.

What if you’re writing a young adult book and don’t have any teens or twenty-somethings living at home, and 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 mistake new writers often make is found in the way characters answer questions.

"Good morning, Bob. Where are you headed this fine morning?"
"Good morning, John. I'm going 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 those 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. We women do that. Men, not so much.

In romance, Jenny B, Jones is a master at building conflict into dialogue. 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.

For realistic dialogue, remember to:
Study they way dialogue is written in books you love
Listen to people engage in conversation and study their responses

Do you have any great examples of dialogue to share with us?


  1. Parents will often post entertaining conversations with their kids on facebook. This one between my sister, Angela, and her ten year old daughter, Alyssa:

    Angela sets a bowl of ice cream in front of Alyssa.
    Alyssa: Thanks playa!
    Angela: Excuuse me?
    Alyssa: Haters gonna hate!
    Angela was speachless (which, in itself, is a small miracle).

    Kids today pick up language much faster than we did. They've got it coming from all directions, often to our dismay. But it's there. And it's important for us to know it. Fortunately, we have access to the same YouTube videos and social networks they do. BTW, kids use Instagram, not facebook. If you're writing YA or MG, get ye an Instagram account. Then prepare to be shocked.

  2. No kidding! I'm as lost as Angela. LOL

  3. Some great dialogue? Off the top James Scott Bell and Sibella Giorello write some superb dialogue - internal and external.


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