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Wet Noodle Posse | Blog

Monday, October 29, 2007

Distinguish yourself with dialogue

By Norah Wilson

My topic was going to be BEST GH TIP EVER: Your entry does not have to exactly echo the first 50 pages of your full. However, that concept was pretty well covered during the comments on an earlier blog on cutting your entry. So I’ve opted to discuss dialogue instead.

Great dialogue can help lift your entry out of the GH pack. One of the keys to great dialogue is giving each character a unique voice. How many times have you judged an entry where, were it not for dialogue tags, you couldn’t tell the hero’s voice from the heroine’s? That’s something that jumps out at me when I’m judging.

Men tend to use fewer words, to speak more directly and bluntly, while women tend to use more words and to communicate more…tactfully. We also approach problems differently. Women seek to build consensus, while men are more inclined to want to take charge or act unilaterally. These are sweeping generalities, but they can help you construct convincingly male or female dialogue.

I’m addressing dialogue here, but that male/female feel should color not just the dialogue, but also the narrative when we’re in a character’s POV. If you’re in female POV, there will likely be more introspection in your narrative than if you’re in male POV. The tone of both dialogue and narrative should be different if your POV character is a cop than if he’s a doctor.

For the purpose of today’s discussion, I will use an example from one of my unpublished works (SURVIVAL LESSONS).

“If he doesn’t want to go home, there’s not a helluva lot you can do about it.”

She swallowed with difficulty. “I know. I just have to see him, to know he’s all right. I need to understand why he left like this.”

He looked away from the naked fear and pain she knew he must see in her eyes.

“Okay, let’s go roust him.”

Tommy took much longer to climb out of the low-slung car than she did. Nerves jangling, she waited for him. Together, they crossed the concrete walk to the front door, Paige slowing her footsteps to match Tommy’s pace.

It took three or four minutes and several jabs of the doorbell to get a response. Eventually, a shirtless young man wearing jeans and a bleary-eyed expression opened the door.

“Yeah?” The young man, who couldn’t have been more than twenty, scratched his chest.

“I’m looking for my son, Dillon Harmer.”

“You’re gonna have to do better than that, lady. You know how many people came through here last night?”

“He must be here,” she said, feeling the bubble of anxiety in her chest expand again. “That’s his car over there. The black Toyota.”

The young man craned his neck to get a look at the car. “Never saw it before.”

“He’s just under six feet tall, slight build, blue eyes-”

“Think Toby Maguire,” Tommy interjected, “but darker hair.”

The young man’s brow smoothed. “Oh, him. Yeah, he crashed here, I think. Lemme check.”

The door closed again, only to reopen a minute later.

“Mom?” A flush-faced Dillon emerged, tucking his shirt into his jeans. “God, what are you doin’ here?”


There are four separate characters in the above exchange: Tommy (a cop who’s been forced off the job by injury), Paige (a worried single mom), the young man who answers the door, and Dillon (Paige’s teenage son).

You’ll notice I’ve used a number of different techniques to attribute dialogue, including dialogue tags, stage business, internal monologue, or simply letting it stand alone. Make sure you mix it up with your entry. He said/she said are excellent tags and are virtually invisible to the reader when not overused. Tossing the character’s name in there occasionally is good, but once I’m anchored in a scene between just the hero and heroine, he/she will do. I don’t want to read their names every three lines. And I really don’t want to read their names frequently in the dialogue itself. Of course, once you get into three or more participants in a conversation, you’ll need to use more names.

Now, let’s try the same scene again without dialogue attribution:

“If he doesn’t want to go home, there’s not a helluva lot you can do about it.”

“I know. I just have to see him, to know he’s all right. I need to understand why he left like this.”

“Okay, let’s go roust him.”

It took three or four minutes and several jabs of the doorbell to get a response. Eventually, a shirtless young man wearing jeans and a bleary-eyed expression opened the door.

“Yeah?”

“I’m looking for my son, Dillon Harmer.”

“You’re gonna have to do better than that, lady. You know how many people came through here last night?”

“He must be here. That’s his car over there. The black Toyota.”

“Never saw it before.”

“He’s just under six feet tall, slight build, blue eyes-”

“Think Toby Maguire, but darker hair.”

“Oh, him. Yeah, he crashed here, I think. Lemme check.”

The door closed again, only to reopen a minute later.
“Mom? God, what are you doin’ here?”

Can you detect the difference between my cop and my worried mother? Between the adults and the teenagers? As mentioned, the narrative should smack of the POV character’s style and worldview. If I’d written it from Tommy’s POV, the narrative would not have indicated that a “shirtless young man” opened the door. Had I been in Tommy’s cop POV, I might have said, The door was opened by a white male, probably 20, wearing baggy jeans and a thousand dollars worth of ink. Tommy neatly slotted him into the future felon category. If I were in a teenager’s POV, the narrative would be different again.

A word about jargon. Used judiciously, I think it contributes to believable, distinctive, authentic-sounding dialogue. If your hero is a trauma room doctor, he might refer to a gunshot victim as a case of “acute lead poisoning” (ER slang). If he’s an FBI profiler, he might use the term UNSUB (unknown subject) to describe the unknown perpetrator of a crime. Obviously, your jargon needs to be readily decoded from the context, without necessitating an explanation.

Now, take a look at your own dialogue. First, take a step back and look at your scenes to see how they look on the page. Is the male dialogue shorter and more direct? Are the scenes done in male POV shorter than those done in female POV? If not, you might need to look at the level of introspection or wordiness of your hero.

Now, try taking out all the attributions to see how well the dialogue stands up by itself. Is each character’s voice distinctive enough that if I knew the players in the scene, I could probably tell who’s speaking?

While you’ve got your scene pared down to its dialogue bones, ask yourself, Is my dialogue too “on the nose”? If the conversation is too exhaustive or explicit, it will ring false to the reader’s ear (no one ever says exactly what they’re thinking). Worse, if it’s too on the nose, it will cheat the reader out of a chance to collaborate with you by filling in the blanks. Not every question asked by a character needs to be answered fully—or at all—by the other character. They can respond with a question, deflect the question, redirect attention, go on the offensive, answer with body language, etc. What is NOT said often speaks louder than anything the characters’ can say. Paring down to bare dialogue will give you a great opportunity to see if you’ve left room for subtext.

Oh, and a last, last tip: Don’t make me read pages of introspection between one beat of dialogue and the next. By the time I get to the response, I’ll have forgotten what the question was.

Dialogue is the most fun you can have on the page, so go have some fun!


Further useful reading:

Punctuation with dialogue:
http://fictionwriting.about.com/od/writingexercises/qt/punctuation.htm

Fab article on dialogue:
http://www.sff.net/people/alicia/artdialogue.htm



41 Comments:

At 8:25 AM, Anonymous beverley said...

How do you feel about dialect and accents (which I personally find difficult to do in a believable way, or maybe I should say smooth way)?

 
At 8:54 AM, Blogger Norah Wilson said...

I agree completely, Beverley. A little goes a long way. Trying to capture an accent or dialect makes for hard-to-read dialogue, which is a turn-off for the reader. Worse, you run the risk of offending them if they think you’re tarring your character with a stereotype. The exception, of course, is if your character is laying it on thick, purposely exaggerating or affecting an accent for a specific purpose (maybe the cowboy hero is playing the hick to underscore the city-dwelling heroine’s ignorance). But even then, I think rather than resorting to strange spellings, you’re better off following the bit of dialogue with something that characterizes *how* he said it, like: He drew each word out as long as he could would inserting extra vowels.

Generally, I think you can just have your character note another character's unusual pronunciation (maybe they say "little" like "leetle"). Thereafter, your reader should hear that.

 
At 9:46 AM, Blogger Norah Wilson said...

Gah! I'm no good on the fly.

That should have read, "He drew each word out as long as he could WITHOUT inserting extra vowels." Does it make more sense now?

 
At 10:41 AM, Blogger beverley said...

Thanks Norah,

That does make sense. I know sometimes I find medievals hard to read. I can't tell you how long it took me to figure out what 'ken' meant. Who knew it meant know. Well, okay maybe lots of people but I'm kinda slow in that arena. LOL!!

And what about when the dialogue goes on quite awhile without a tag or any descriptive of any sort. I know if it's not too long I'm okay but when it's just the back and forth no expressions, no motions, I feel like I'm missing part of the conversation.

 
At 10:58 AM, Blogger Prisakiss said...

Great examples, Norah. Especially where you noted how the character description (of the shirtless kid who opened the door) would change if the POV changed.

You've given me some things to check with my own GH entry! Thanks!

Pris

 
At 11:28 AM, Blogger Norah Wilson said...

Beverley said:
"And what about when the dialogue goes on quite awhile without a tag or any descriptive of any sort. I know if it's not too long I'm okay but when it's just the back and forth no expressions, no motions, I feel like I'm missing part of the conversation."

Great point, Beverley. I call that "talking heads". Sometimes in my first pass at a scene, I'll actually write it this way, then go back and layer in the other stuff.

BTW, that other "stuff" does more than just dispel the disembodied talking heads feeling. You can really play up the subtext by focusing carefully on the characters' actions or body language. His words might say one thing, but his body language says another.

Even if you're not trying to set up a contrast, body language is important in interpreting the message. Researchers tell us up to 90% of a communication's meaning comes from non-verbal content!

 
At 11:42 AM, Blogger Norah Wilson said...

Aw, thanks, Pris! That's high praise, coming from you. :-) I think if you're writing from deep POV (which I'm sure you are, 'cuz I've read your stuff before!), you probably won't find much to change because the character's voice will naturally color the narrative. You should be writing from his or her world view, complete with prejudices and foibles.

 
At 12:51 PM, Blogger Theresa Ragan said...

Great advice, Norah. What I really don't like reading is BORING dialogue that does NOT move the story forward. Example:
"Hi, how are you?"
"I'm fine. How's your mother doing?"
"She's fine."
"Good. Nice weather we're having."
"Sure is."
"Want something to eat?"
"No, thanks."
"Watcha doing with that paper and pen?"
"Taking notes."
"About what?"
"About how NOT to write dialogue."
"Great idea. Have any more paper for me?"
"Sure. Here you go."
"Thanks."
"You're welcome."
"All this white space is sure moving my book along."
"Yeah, but I'm getting bored."
"Me, too."
"Let's stop."
"Okay."
"See you around."
"Yeah. See you."
Don't you want to scream and pull your hair out!? I do! LOL

My advice is to take out all boring conversation that doesn't move the story forward. If you sit at your computer long enough I'm sure any writer can think of a few lines of clever dialogue. Just put yourself in your character's shoes and say to yourself, "What would my character say or do that would make the reader laugh, cry, worry, wonder?"

If anyone has any dialogue that needs work, feel free to post it!

 
At 1:08 PM, Blogger banksofmillbrook said...

"Dialogue is the most fun you can have on a page." I agree! Thanks for your great tips.

Do you think it's a good idea to tone down the curse words in a GH entry? My main character begins the story as a goth girl with an attitude. She doesn't exactly curse like a sailor but she's no delicate flower, if ya know what I mean.

I've had mixed reactions to this character in other forums. I loved writing the character; her transformation into a stronger (and much happier) person is a big part of the ms. But I'm thinking that maybe for the GH I should ease up on some of her more dramatic qualities, many of which come through in her dialogue.

 
At 1:11 PM, Blogger Theresa Ragan said...

An interesting tidbit:

In chapter 4 of Self Editing for Fiction Writers by Renni Browne and Dave King they write about what acquisition editors look for when they begin reading a fiction submission. They go on to say that several editors answered that question in this way: "The first thing I do is find a scene with some dialogue. If the dialogue doesn't work, the manuscript gets bounced. If it's good, I start reading."

 
At 1:11 PM, Blogger Norah Wilson said...

Bwahahaha! ("Let's stop." "Okay.") That was great, Theresa!

And you make an excellent point: skip the boring stuff. Every bit of dialogue has to move the plot forward. If it doesn't, the reader starts skimming and is likely to miss dialogue that DOES matter.

So...as Theresa suggested, anyone want to post a dialogue-rich partial scene?

 
At 1:24 PM, Blogger Theresa Ragan said...

Banks, I personally think it would be a good idea to take out all the curse words you can for the GH. If an editor/agent doesn't like them, but they like your story, I would think they would just ask you to change the curse words, but a judge might just mark you down and I don't think it's worth the risk. One of my favorite authors used more curse words than usual in her last book and I have to say I don't think she really needed to. But I still enjoyed the book! :)

What do you think, Norah?

 
At 1:28 PM, Blogger Norah Wilson said...

banksofmillbrook said:
"Do you think it's a good idea to tone down the curse words in a GH entry?"

Oh, how I've struggled with that very issue. Most of my GH finalling entries featured cop heroes, and thus were pretty blunt-spoken. I think I did opt to tone the language down somewhat for the contest, because you just don't know who you're going to get for a judge.

I don't usually tone it down for submissions, but I figure it's easier for an editor to see how something a little over the top can be reigned in than it is for them to have confidence that an insipid character can be pumped up. (And that's not to say a character who doesn't swear is necessarily insipid!) Did that even make sense??

 
At 1:31 PM, Blogger Theresa Ragan said...

I remember reading that an author, I think it was Alicia Rasley (sp?), loves writing dialogue and so when she gets to a scene with a lot of dialogue she just lets it flow and then when she's done with that scene, she goes back and writes in the character emotion, actions, and attributions like he said, she said.

What do you all do? Do you LOVE writing dialogue or do you struggle with it?

 
At 2:09 PM, Blogger Charity said...

Well, I’m leaving my “swears” (as my son calls them) in my YA manuscript for the GH. I know it’s the luck of the draw with the judges, and that I may offend someone. During banned books week, I wrote a long entry on my own blog about swearing in fiction (which I won’t bore anyone with here).

Of course, I’m contrary by nature. The second someone tells me I can’t or shouldn’t do something, I’m there (probably the reason I joined the Army). ;-)

I don’t sprinkle in swears like so much grass seed. If it works, I use it. If it doesn’t, I leave it out.

And I do know I’m in the minority when it comes to this, so this isn’t really advice, but rather, how I handle the issue.

 
At 2:17 PM, Blogger CM said...

Good for you, Charity. Mine ain't coming out, either. They can't--they're pivotal, both to the opening scene and to the rest of the book.

 
At 2:17 PM, Blogger Barbara Phinney said...

Fantastic advice. I know what I'm going to reread when it's time to edit my work.
Barbara Phinney
Love Inspired author.

 
At 2:19 PM, Blogger Erin said...

Thanks for the great words, Norah. I have tried to explain the character description in POV before to a crit partner but not successfully. Now I have a resource to point her to!

As for writing dialogue, I go with the flow, writing everything including names and boring stuff. Once it's written, I go back and add character gestures, tags, and IM and strip out the boring stuff and all of the name tags that I leave in. I usually add more dialogue too to make sure everything makes sense.

I find it helpful to read it aloud to make sure it sounds the way someone would talk.

 
At 2:27 PM, Blogger Charity said...

Re: dialect and accents

I had a Russian character in my GH finals manuscript. What I did was use syntax. Of course, it helped that I majored in Russian language in college and had listened to several native Russians speak English.

I always thought dialogue itself was like a foreign language. It’s not speech verbatim, with all the uhs, and ems, and likes, and so on. It’s not grammatically perfect sentences. It’s more along the lines of how we remember a clever conversation, or the snappy comeback we think up hours later.

The great thing about writing is, you get all those hours to think up that snappy comeback.

 
At 2:30 PM, Blogger Theresa Ragan said...

Good advice, Erin. Reading the pages aloud can really improve a manuscript in so many ways. Charity mentioned readplease.com on a previous blog and I have been using it. You just cut and paste a scene into the free download and pick a voice to read it back to you! You can speed it up or slow it down. There's a guy with a cool british accent that you can use to read it back. It's fun to use.

 
At 2:43 PM, Blogger Diane Gaston said...

This is great stuff! That was a great job of showing character through dialogue, Norah. And masterful job of writing boring dialogue, Theresa :-)

My pet dialogue peeves:
(Like Norah said) Men who use too many words or who say words men would not say. You know, girly words. Can't think of any examples at the moment, though...

Using "he said" or "she said" when an action tag would do.

NOT "Whew!" he said, as perspiration dampened his brow.
BUT THIS: "Whew!" Perspiration dampened his brow.

Julia Quinn's workshop on dialogue is about the best I've heard on the subject...except maybe for Norah's!

 
At 2:46 PM, Blogger Diane Gaston said...

Oh. I forgot another thing. My Mills & Boon editors (from the UK) only allow me a minimum of dialect in my books. And even when I think I've been sparing with dialect, they cut most of it out. I'm allowed a couple of "Ye's" and that is about it!

Beverley, It took me forever to figure out what "ken" meant, too!

 
At 3:17 PM, Blogger Esri Rose said...

Swearing: I'm a casual swearer, and my characters tend to be as well, but I have taken 99% of it out of a GH entry, so as not to alienate a potential judge. If the curse word was really appropriate for a strong emotional reaction, I left that in. "Dang!" just doesn't cut it. I think I have changed "f*@k" to "sh@t) for a GH entry though, to tone it down. Once you're dealing exclusively with editors, it doesn't matter so much. They'll just consider it part of your voice.

As for making characters sound different, I recently found a handy cheat. I have a friend from Brooklyn, and she has a pretty distinct way of speaking. I made my hero from the same place, and imagine him using her voice. Voila! Automatic difference in tone.

Diane: As someone who hangs out with geeks, I have never run across a word the guys of my acquaintance wouldn't say. ;) It's all in the context, baby.

 
At 3:47 PM, Blogger beverley said...

Diane, thank goodness!!! I thought I was the only one. If I had been the one inventing languages and dialects, I would have done something a tad different. 'ken' seemed more of a can to me.

 
At 3:50 PM, Blogger beverley said...

Oh, I have another thing. What about writing dialogue for a toddler. When I read books with children that age, I find they sound so mature for their age. Does anyone come across that when they read? (Or perhaps it just my choice of books :) )

 
At 5:00 PM, Blogger Diane Gaston said...

Oh, that's another thing, Beverley! When children either sound too young or too old. But I know that is hard to do. I look on Child Development websites to refresh my memory.

Esri, my regency rakes would not say, "You dress is lovely, ma'am, especially the delicate lace flounce. Is it made of tulle or net?

 
At 5:45 PM, Anonymous gaill said...

Dialogue is my worst language! Once, again, I am learning so much from this blog! The best advice I ever got about my dialogue is to read it out loud to myself. Doing that has helped me more than I would have thought. I've read books on dialogue, and taken classes, and I've worked on paying attention to how people speak to each other. When I first started writing I thought I was good at dialogue, but now I can see that everyone talked the way I talked, even if they were saying things I wouldn't say in that given situation. I am guilty of making my men talk too much. If there is a top ten list of talking boo-boos, I've made them all!

 
At 7:01 PM, Blogger Santa said...

I don't seem to have trouble with making my man dialog manly but what I do seem to have trouble with are those tags. I guess it's another example of showing and not telling.

I was introduced to the Gender Genie over at Bookblog site by one of the Risky Regencies. It's a neat tool that using key words in dialog to determine if the speakers are male or female.

I also find that I am jot down bits of conversations that go on around me. As a people watcher (and retail is great for this) I get to 'hear' how things are said. I know that has helped me tremendously more for female dialog than for male.

That sounds a little strange doesn't it?

 
At 7:13 PM, Blogger Elyssa Papa said...

I love writing dialogue---it's definitely one of the things that seems to flow off the page for me. For me, it's easier to read a book and get a truer sense of who the characters are by what they say and then what they think/do or vice versa.

Plus, when you have dialogue between characters that jump off the page(s)... it makes it so much fun to read.

 
At 8:44 PM, Blogger Norah Wilson said...

Diane said:
"Julia Quinn's workshop on dialogue is about the best I've heard on the subject...except maybe for Norah's!"

Aw, thanks, Diane! It's been fun. And it reminds me how much I love writing dialogue when I'm feeling the characters. Of course, there are times when making them say something remotely interesting or plot-moving is an exercise in torture. That's when I find myself typing dialogue like this: "Oh, yeah? Well you're only saying that because SHE can't think of anything better to put in your mouth." Yes, I do that. After my characters kick me around for a while, I usually get a grip on them again. ,-)

 
At 8:56 PM, Blogger Norah Wilson said...

Charity: Great idea to approach the Russian character's dialogue through syntax. If you have knowledge of the language, I think a little of that would carry you a long way, and lend terrific authenticity.

Theresa: Scary thought about editors scanning for a page of dialogue and making a judgment about the whole book. But I can see the logic of it. Poor dialogue will sink a story faster than anything else.

Barbara: Waving my hand! Thanks for dropping by.

Erin, thanks for the props. And your process sounds a lot like mine (write it, go back and work the action and tags, cut the boring stuff). LOL.

Diane, I'm so with you on the prohibition against using the "he said" tag AND also supplying an action tag. One or t'other, please. :-)

 
At 9:53 PM, Blogger doglady said...

So. is it best to use a mixture of direct "he said" "she said" and action tags? I have actually received my best scores in contests on dialog, but I still like the idea of checking to make sure my men don't talk too much or use feminine language. My crit partner, Erin, has called me on it a couple of times, thank God, so I try to be a bit more aware of it now.Needless to say, Norah, this blog is going to be printed and join the other GH blogs! Question. How much is too much dialog? I love writing it and I am always afraid I am using it too much.

 
At 10:26 PM, Blogger Theresa Ragan said...

Another tidbit from Self-Editing for Fiction Writers about speaker attributions: "The reason those well-intentioned attempts at variety don't work is that verbs other than "said" tend to draw attention away from the dialogue."

 
At 10:49 PM, Blogger Theresa Ragan said...

Another tidbit from Self-Editing for Fiction Writers about speaker attributions: "The reason those well-intentioned attempts at variety don't work is that verbs other than "said" tend to draw attention away from the dialogue."

 
At 10:56 PM, Blogger Delle Jacobs said...

Dialogue is my favorite part too. My CP pulls her hair reading my first drafts because they are so often nothing but dialogue. But I fill in from there.

I use Charity's method when I had to write a German Count. It was easy for me, though, because I studied some German and my brother lived in Germany for so long, he almost forgot how to speak English. I modeled the sentence structure after his voice.

I often model men after my husband, although I think he often takes Guy-Speak to an extreme. He would never say, "I love that shade of red on you." He'd say, "That looks good. Buy it." Naturally, I do what he says.

 
At 11:32 PM, Blogger janegeorge said...

Great exercises, thanks!

I'm a bit worried about the dialogue in my entry because it's a historical paranormal.

I realize my ms will be in the minority amongst mostly contemporary entries. Any advice for being correct as far as 1812 England forms of address, but not turning off judges who like contemporary paranormals with the milords and such?

AND I have a couple of pages where my heroine is in disquise as a Cornish peasant. I HAVE to have her speech change. It's giving me fits.

Any and all words of wisdom appreciated!

PS Thanks so much for dedicating October to the GH.

 
At 7:17 AM, Blogger Norah Wilson said...

Doglady, I don't know if there's such a thing as too much dialogue! I know some readers who skim narrative to get to the next bit of dialogue. Of course, it could take a long time to tell a story with just dialogue, because it would unfold in real time. ,-) You need narrative passages to make transitions, bridge time passage, summarize intervening events and so forth. I think the best recipe is a good mix of both. If you reduce the zoom on your viewer in Word to 25% or even 10%, you can readily discern dialogue from narrative and get a feel for the balance.

 
At 7:49 AM, Blogger Norah Wilson said...

Delle said:
'He would never say, "I love that shade of red on you." He'd say, "That looks good. Buy it." Naturally, I do what he says."'

LOL, Delle! That's an absolutely perfect example of guy speak.

 
At 7:53 AM, Blogger Norah Wilson said...

janegeorge, I hope some of our historical authors will respond to your question. While I love reading historical romance, I'd be useless to judge or advise on it. That said, I can see you probably will have to affect a dialect for your heroine when she's in disguise. Good luck!

 
At 11:28 AM, Blogger Esri Rose said...

Diane: That's because Regency Rakes aren't geeks. ;)

 
At 12:15 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

That's the second reference to "Self-Editing For Fiction Writers" I've seen in the last 3 days, so I'm taking that as a sign and buying it! I went to a Stephanie Bond workshop this past weekend and she also recommended it.

Margaret M

 

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