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.
“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.”
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
- Weekly Lecture Schedule, February 4 – February 8, 2013
- Characterization Through Dialogue
- How to Create Characters That Leap Off the Page with Terri L. Austin
- Long Journey to a Small Press with Debut Author Susan Boyer
- For the Love of a Small Press with Larissa Reinhart