Posted On February 4, 2013 by Print This Post

Author LynDee Walker Talks Dialogue

Wooden dialogue, the kind that has you reaching for a chain saw, wreaks havoc on pacing and paints your characters in the worst possible light. So what’s the secret to writing dialogue that adds dimension to a character and engages the reader? 

I’m very happy to welcome former journalist and debut author, LynDee Walker, to the RU campus. Today, LynDee shares her tips on banging out dialogue that’s true to your character.

Good morning, LynDee!

Stilted dialogue. If you read publishing industry blogs written by anyone who’s ever had contact with the slush pile, you’ll often see this term batted about with regard to rejection letters.

But what does it mean? And how can you make sure your manuscript doesn’t have it?

The short answer is, by listening. But let’s look at some examples and some specific ways to correct it when you find it. 

What is stilted dialogue?

This means, really, only one thing: whether you have written a perfectly fine grammatically correct sentence, or you have something about it that’s a little off, your critiquer is telling you the character’s speech doesn’t ring true. You want people who read your books to hear the characters talking in their heads and believe they’re real people. But the characters have to talk like real people for you to get there.

LynDee WalkerLet’s look at an example:

“I feel the need to apologize to you for my earlier behavior,” Jane said. “I comported myself in an unacceptable manner, and I regret my actions. Confections are my downfall.”

Is there anything wrong with this sentence? No. If someone was writing a letter of apology, it would be fine. It’s grammatically correct, and it shows the writer has a good command of the English language and a strong vocabulary.

But it’s stilted. Unless you’re writing a regency historical, there’s no way anyone’s going to buy that your character said this. When was the last time you used the word “comported” in conversation?

So if you’re writing a story that happened in this century, how do you fix that? Start by breaking it down to the basics. A lot of what we learn about formal writing or business writing teaches us to use big words and formal sentence structure. But you have to toss all that out the window when you’re writing dialogue. The very first thing you must accomplish is to make your character sound like a real person.

Let’s make it better:

—While it’s tempting sometimes to write your character’s motivation into a sentence, (i.e. “I feel the need to …”) you don’t need it. Let the conversation show the reader what the character feels.

—How do you apologize to someone? I start with “I’m sorry.” So: “I’m sorry, John,” Jane said. Simple. Direct. Sounds like something a flesh-and-blood person would say.

—Now, let’s be more specific with the second part, too. From what’s up there, we don’t know what she did. How about: “Swiping the last salted caramel was a rotten thing to do.”

—Again with the big words at the end: I don’t recall every having heard the word “confection” spoken more than a dozen times in my life, and I think half of those people were reading something aloud. What do you call sweets? Candy, right? So your character should, too. Revised: “I have no willpower around candy.”

Now, let’s put it all together:

“I’m sorry, John,” Jane said. “Swiping the last salted caramel was a rotten thing to do. I have no willpower around candy.”

Better.

Tag! You’re it.

If you search publishing blogs, you will find all manner of advice on dialogue tags. These are the little snippets outside the quotation marks that tell who’s talking. They’re vital to the story, because if the reader can’t follow who’s speaking, they’re going to get frustrated. But tags are irritating because they’re repetitive, and most writers like their work to be … not repetitive.

“Jane said” is the most common way to tell your reader who’s talking, and most of the time, there’s nothing wrong with doing that. I’ve seen many editors and agents who abhor tags saying someone “sighed” or “mumbled” a phrase, and implore authors to say “said” and get on with the story.

Here’s my two cents: sometimes, people do sigh or mumble. But not all the time. So those tags are ones you use sparingly. Think of them as really good champagne: you want to have them there when you have an occasion that warrants them, but too much and you’ll leave your reader with a swimming head and dialogue tag hangover.

If you want to vary your tags, try using action.

“I’m sorry, John,” Jane laid her hand on her husband’s arm. “Swiping the last salted caramel was a rotten thing to do. I have no willpower around candy.”

One little tweak, and I have a clearer picture of this when I read this sentence. By moving, Jane has become a person I can picture in my head.

Just make sure that the character who’s speaking is the one you have performing the action. 

Now, obviously, Jane and John were an extreme example. I don’t suspect that your characters use words like “comport” in their dialogue. I just wanted to show how much better you can make dialogue by thinking about what a person would actually say. To that end, I have a few more pieces of advice: watch, read, and listen.

Listen

I’ve gotten a lot of compliments on my dialogue, and I credit spending years as a reporter. Every day, I listened to different people talk. Really listened. And wrote it down. I don’t know that there’s a better way to learn to write dialogue than that.

Here’s what you can do, starting right now, though: all around you, every day, people are having conversations. Listen. Not in a creepy eavesdropper way, but really pay attention to how they speak, where their sentences naturally break, what they do with their hands when they talk. Go sit at a park when it warms up and listen to the chatter around you. Listen to the couple in front of you at the deli counter argue about the salt content of ham vs. turkey. The more you hear, the better your dialogue will be.

Watch

Have you ever fallen in love with a TV show because of the way the characters speak? Get it on DVD or Netflix, and pay attention to the dialogue as you watch. I’m not advising copying the screenwriters’ work, but if you watch the show with an ear out for how they make that dialogue so snappy, the cadence and language will sink in, and your writing will benefit.

Read

I know a lot of writers who are mortified at the idea of reading their work aloud.

Get over it.

One of the best ways you can make sure your dialogue works (and find clunky sentences in your narrative, too) is to read your work aloud. When you finish a rough draft, or a chapter, print it and read it aloud. If you come across a word in the dialogue you want to change as you speak, change it in your manuscript.

The last key to writing good dialogue is tweaking. Every time you read the manuscript, keep an eye out for what you can fiddle with to improve it. Your characters will become more real with every change, until they positively jump off the page to your reader.

 ***

Are you addicted to dialogue tags? How do you make your character’s sound natural?

***

Front Page FatalityHere’s a blurb on LynDee’s debut novel, FRONT PAGE FATALITY, which released last week.

Crime reporter Nichelle Clarke’s days can flip from macabre to comical with a beep of her police scanner. Then an ordinary accident story turns extraordinary when evidence goes missing, a prosecutor vanishes, and a sexy Mafia boss shows up with the headline tip of a lifetime.

As Nichelle gets closer to the truth, her story gets more dangerous. Armed with a notebook, a hunch, and her favorite stilettos, Nichelle races to splash these shady dealings across the front page before this deadline becomes her last.

***

Join us on Wednesday, February 6th, when author Mary Jo Burke presents “What Does It Take to be a Writer?”

*** 

Bio: LynDee Walker grew up in the land of stifling heat and amazing food most people call Texas, and wanted to be Lois Lane pretty much from the time she could say the words “press conference.” An award-winning journalist, she traded cops and deadlines for burp cloths and onesies when her oldest child was born. Writing the Headlines in Heels mysteries gives her the best of both worlds. When not writing or reading, LynDee is usually wrangling children, eating barbecue or enchiladas, or trying to walk off said barbecue and enchiladas. She and her family live in Richmond, Virginia. You can visit her online at www.lyndeewalker.com or follow her on Twitter, Facebook, Goodreads and Pinterest.  

 

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22 Responses to “Author LynDee Walker Talks Dialogue”

  1. Great post! Dialogue is tricky but oh so important!

    Posted by JennW | February 4, 2013, 7:46 am
  2. Great tips, LynDee. And Front Page Fatality was an awesome read! Congrats!

    Posted by Terri L. Austin | February 4, 2013, 7:57 am
  3. Hi LynDee,

    Reading out loud is the key to dialogue. I find myself changing so much afterward. My first attempt at writing was so full of tags, when I removed them, my word count dropped by a third.

    Great cover!

    Mary Jo

    Posted by Mary Jo Burke | February 4, 2013, 8:04 am
  4. Thanks for the tips, LynDee!
    I agree about reading out loud, it may seem silly but it can REALLY help in the writing and revising process.

    Julie Gallo
    Editorial Intern
    Henery Press

    Posted by Julie Gallo | February 4, 2013, 8:10 am
    • Thanks for stopping in, Julie!

      I always feel funny reading my own work aloud, so I’m guessing other authors do, too. Lucky for me, I have a doting hubby who doesn’t mind listening to me read. It really is an invaluable tool.

      Posted by LynDee Walker | February 4, 2013, 10:34 am
  5. Morning Lyndee!

    Dialogue can be a tricky thing…..=) My husband is English, I’m total midwest. Pretty much polar opposites in speech patterns, so I do say some of my dialogue lines out loud to him to see if I sound too “hick”. =) But hey, if it doesn’t sound right, it pulls your reader out of the story!

    Thanks so much for a great post! =)

    carrie

    Posted by Carrie Spencer | February 4, 2013, 9:46 am
  6. Great post, LynDee! Front Page Fatality is a great read! Congratulations! :)

    Posted by Susan M. Boyer | February 4, 2013, 1:09 pm
  7. Hi LynDee,

    I’ve read that readers don’t notice tags like “He said”. However, when I read my pages aloud, they sound very “obvious” and repetitive. I’m partial to action tags, but even they get repetitive. The “He said” tags are useful when writing a scene where there’s several characters talking.

    Uber congrats on your debut! I’m enjoying Nichelle and Parker. :) Thanks for joining us today.

    Posted by Jennifer Tanner | February 4, 2013, 3:37 pm
  8. Dialogue can really make or break a story for me, as a reader. Dialogue tags are especially tricky – too many slow down the dialogue, but not enough can make it hard to figure out who’s talking. That drives me CRAZY!

    The use of “said” is interesting because, as Jennifer mentioned, readers supposedly skim right over it when reading. Using it too often seems boring, but it’s hard to tell where to draw the line.

    The biggest problem I notice while reading is authors using inappropriate slang – in particular, using dated slang when writing teenage dialogue. It can be very tricky making slang phrases sound natural.

    Posted by Becke Martin Davis | February 4, 2013, 6:27 pm
  9. LynDee,

    Thanks for blogging with us today!

    Posted by Jennifer Tanner | February 4, 2013, 8:09 pm
  10. Thanks, Susan and Becke! True, the “said” tags are the easiest to skim. When I first started writing fiction, I was so excited to not be limited to “so-and-so said” (which is the rule in journalism) that I went too far the other way. My early drafts are positively brimming with folks sighing and exclaiming and various other things people don’t do so often. Oy. But I learned. And everyone else can, too!

    Thanks so much for having me in today. I had a blast!

    Posted by LynDee Walker | February 4, 2013, 8:12 pm
  11. Thanks for having me, Jenn!!

    Posted by LynDee Walker | February 4, 2013, 8:20 pm
  12. Well we *might* use “comport” in our home, but only when we were trying for laughs. ;) Good points all, LynDee. Thanks.

    Posted by Jan O'Hara | February 4, 2013, 9:13 pm
  13. I missed this on Monday, but great post LynDee! I had the same problem with wanting to use something other than “said” with my first manuscript.

    Posted by Larissa Reinhart | February 6, 2013, 6:35 pm
  14. This is good specific advice. Too often advice like this gets thrown around without any explanation. (Worst offender: “show, don’t tell.”)

    I’m a bit divided on how to handle dialogue that’s stilted for a reason. I tend to make nervous or insecure people stumble over their words, which makes it, naturally, stilted. Ay thoughts on how to write awkward dialogue (for plot or character reasons) without it coming across as stilted?

    Posted by Ryan Rutley | March 4, 2013, 8:42 pm
  15. Hi Ryan, and thanks for coming by!

    I think it’s again about listening. If you think about how people sound when they’re nervous or uncomfortable, how they look, how they behave … then find the words to make your reader see that. A common situation that makes even confident people nervous is being questioned by police officers. But if you make it real, your reader will get the nerves.

    Something like this, maybe? (off the cuff, but you get the idea)

    “Where were you between seven and nine last Wednesday night, Mr. Beckham?” Detective Rangoli stared straight across the table.

    Beckham’s eyes were on his hands, his fingers fidgeting as his lips moved soundlessly. “Well, without my calendar I can’t be sure about that.” He shoved one hand through his already-tousled hair. “Wednesday … Wednesday … I had dinner with my sister on Thursday. It—it was her birthday. Wednesday …” he trailed off, his eyes going wide and then scrunching shut. His breathing sped. “Oh, God. Wednesday I worked late. Everyone else was gone home.”

    “You’re saying no one can verify your whereabouts, then?” Rangoli didn’t blink.

    Beckham’s head dropped into his hands. “I—I don’t … I can’t …” The words were muffled. “I think I want a lawyer.”

    Posted by LynDee Walker | March 5, 2013, 9:32 am

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