Talk to Me

When I first started writing with the intent to publish, I was clueless on the rules. I wrote with mere instinct.

Some of my instincts seemed right on, others, not so much (and that’s being generous).

Description is one area I need to work on, and it’s two-fold. I have to concentrate on what’s too much and when I don’t include enough. On the one hand, when people critique my work, they say I need more detail in certain areas, and in others it’s over-narrated.

The more I study, practice and listen to other’s critiques the better I’ll get.

What I don’t need work on is dialogue. In fact, I have to remind myself not to write so much of it. After all, I’m writing a novel, not a script.

That’s not to say I know it all. I wish.

Here’s what I’ve learned so far:

Dialogue must be concise. It should flow naturally, but not written exactly how people speak. When we speak, it’s full of unnecessary words: "Yesterday, about noon, we went to the mall, Scheels to pick up some fishing gear, because it’s getting to be springtime and the fish are biting, and um, we met up with, what’s her name, Paula. I haven’t seen her in over a year after her youngest son, Travis was in that motorcycle accident. The doctors told her that he may never walk again, and he may have even suffered brain damage because of a crack in his skull after he hit the pavement. Well, it looks like Travis can walk, although he limps pretty good and sometimes needs a cane, and he doesn’t have any brain damage at all except an occasional memory lapse. But it’s not like the rest of us don’t forget things once in a while, huh?"

Bored yet?

As with our narration and other forms of action, the dialogue must move the story along and convey information important to the characters, and to the reader. Your assignment is to rewrite the above sentence as it should be read.

Beware of information dumps. Because some authors are leery of narration, they try to cheat by adding backstory in dialogue: "Hi. My name is Paul Underhill. I’m a Private Investigator, and have been for 10 years. I basically fell into it after my brother died under mysterious circumstances. My wife I married a year after meeting her in an office supply store. She worked as a cashier." See how unnatural that is? Plus, neither the person he’s talking to nor the reader is going to care about these details.

Unless the situation calls for the character to tell a story, avoid this technique.

Accenting dialogue used to be quite popular, and Mark Twain was king of this. Most publishers and readers these days don’t care to read heavily accented dialogue where it’s spelled exactly how it sounds. It slows them down, because they have to interpret what the character is saying. However, it’s still a useful tool if used sparingly. We want the reader to ‘hear’ the accent when a character speaks, especially if it’s pertinent to the story such as an Englishman surrounded by hill folk from Tennesee.

Sprinkle in other actions. Solid dialogue gets as tiresome as does too much narration and detail. Pause with other action such as a character sighing, scratching the nose, plops onto the couch — anything that helps describe the speaker’s feelings. It also helps the reader keep track of who’s speaking.

The power of ‘said.’ For many years, authors and publishers thought using ‘said’ too much bored the reader. They encouraged replacing it with snapped, barked, mewed, puffed, croaked, huffed, etc. The recent trend is to stick with said, because often the words, circumstances, and other noted actions convey how the character is speaking. Anything more is redundant.

Now it’s you’re turn. What have you learned about writing dialogue?

7 thoughts on “Talk to Me

  1. To leave off as many dialogue tags as possible. They cause the reader to lose the feeling of the story happening around them and remind them that they are reading a story.
    To include clues to the identity of the speaker in the dialogue.

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  2. I’m currently trying to catch up on work from an online writing course I took with Margie Lawson on Empowering Character Emotion. One of the exercises I just completed was highlighting all the dialogue in the first three chapters of a WIP. After highlighting, we were to go back and read nothing but the dialogue. I actually thought my dialogue was pretty good until I did this exercise. It was BORING! So I’ve ordered a couple of books on dialogue to hopefully learn a few tricks!
    I would highly recommend the dialogue highlight trick to every writer–it helps you see that much dialogue is unnecessary, like the examples you pointed out in your most excellent post!
    Thanks, Andra!

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  3. One thing I remind myself to do now and then is to make my characters poor listeners. One character says something, then the other responds in a totally unrelated because they’re too busy thinking about what they wanted to say. People misunderstand each other, ignore each other, don’t listen, mistake words… So, dialogue should naturally contain some of the same.

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  4. Excellent advice, Cathy and Jessica.
    I’ll definitely try the dialogue exercise.
    My dialogue also lacks the non-listening character scenes, so I’ll have to add some to shake things up a bit.
    Thanks, ladies.

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  5. I’ve learned that no matter what you do, someone will disagree! A writing instructor said “don’t accent” – readers say “I love the accent!” *shrug* Sometimes you just have to go with gut instinct.
    I don’t like a bunch of overdone tags, though. That is a huge pet peave of mine whether it’s ‘said’ or ‘yelled’ or ‘stammered’– strong description is so much nicer.

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