Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Dialogue Don'ts

Have you ever had trouble writing dialogue? (Some people might think that question should be "Have you ever NOT had trouble writing dialogue.")

If your characters sound like cardboard cut-outs, dry and stilted, or like cartoons, over-the-top, maybe you need to stand back and listen to what you're saying. And to what others are saying.

Take notes when you overhear conversations. This is not to say that you can write verbatim what you hear. You can't, because real people tend to hem and haw, uh and er, and tiptoe around endlessly before getting to the point. When you write, you have to cut to the core, spitting out the seeds. But your characters' conversations need to sound natural, have that ebb and flow of real people's thoughts, without all the junk. Listening to real people will help you write.

Remember, though, to cut out extraneous information. Yeah, we may get sidetracked in our conversations in real life, but in our writing, our characters have to stick to the subject. What they say needs to contribute to the plot or character development, just as every scene has to further the plot. While this is difficult sometimes, it's important. Cut the "filler" or it'll bloat your book. Of course, characters don't always give direct answers to questions. Sometimes they hedge or change the subject, but even that should be consistent with plot development and the characters themselves.

Now, I just said that dialogue should contribute to the plot, but I don't mean that you should use your characters to tell the plot or explain some technical doo-dad. Sometimes you can make it work; most times you can't. It'll sound artificial. And when you do have one character explaining something to another, keep it simple and conversational. Try making it a quick give-and-take between the two of them, not a professorial dissertation by one character to another.

Watch out for the cartoon characters who try to invade the story. They're the ones who are constantly shouting, hammering, spitting, echoing, smiling, or sobbing their words.

"Get out of my life, Lisa! You're pathetic," he spat at her, then grabbed her arm, pulling her close to him for a deep, lingering kiss. He pushed her away and ordered, "Go, Lisa. Now. You can't keep teasing me like this."

Oh please, only in the cartoons.

And did you notice that he said her name twice in that short paragraph? Watch out for that, too. Most of us don't repeat the name of someone we know. Unless maybe if you're a salesman. Or my husband when he sees the blank look on my face when someone I should know starts talking to me.

Make your characters' dialogues fit their personalities. Once again, listen to real people. My 90-year old granny sounds nothing like my 13-year old niece. They use different words, have different cadences to their sentences. Ideally, my granny and my niece should be able to have a conversation in my book, with only an occasional tag, yet the reader would never get lost as to who is speaking. You would know by the way each one talked, by what they said, the slang they used, the contractions, the tone, the politeness -- or lack thereof -- even the length of their sentences.

I called this post "Dialogue Don'ts," but it really should be DIALOGUE DOS. Do work on your characters' dialogue. Do make each person in your book unique in the way he/she speaks. Do make them sound real, but cut out the filler and hem-hawing.

This will take time and a lot of effort. But it'll be worth it. "Trust me," she screamed, then whimpered, "Please, just do it."


  1. Right on, Helen! Good dialogue certainly keeps people reading and can be a great tool for establshing who a character is. Thanks for always being there with solid writing tips with a few grins along the way.-- Paula Stallings Yost

  2. Speaking of grins, your Redneck Crimes blog is a howler. Where in the world do you come up with the stories?

  3. Believe it or not, they seem to keep falling in my lap since the day I opened my mouth and said, "Wouldn't it be fun to write a blog about redneck criminals who are dumber than dirt." Who knew there'd be so darn many?

  4. Anyone who wants to start their day with a smile should bookmark your blog. You put Jay Leno to shame.


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