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Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Strengthening Dialogue

In fiction, dialogue can make or break your story. It might be the difference between getting The Call verses a rejection. Some people find it easy to write; others struggle at it. Here are some tips to help you create authentic sounding dialogue:
1.      Listen to conversations
Listening to how people talk is one of the best lessons there is on creating authentic dialogue. What are they saying and how are they saying it? Pay attention to your friends and spouse. Do they use complete sentences and perfect grammar? Probably not.
Pay attention to context. A lawyer will speak differently when in court, defending his client, compared to when he’s talking to his wife in bed. At least I hope he is.
Another thing you’ll notice is that people tend to interrupt each other. Admit it. You do it too, right? And don’t forget, no conversation is perfect. If it were, wives wouldn’t complain that their husbands never listen, and ‘misunderstanding’ wouldn’t be a word in the dictionary.
2.      Watch TV shows and movies
This is a great exercise for studying dialogue and dialect. You can even download movie and TV show scripts from the internet for free and study them.
3.      Read
Study how your favorite authors approach dialogue. Like in TV shows and movies, you’ll notice that the dialogue gets straight to the point and moves the plot forward. You don’t want to waste the reader’s time with mindless chatter that does nothing to advance the story. In real life, when you meet someone, you tend to go through the formalities of small talk first. Don’t make this fatal mistake in fiction. If it’s not important to the story or characterization, cut it.
4.      Do a dialogue pass when editing
This by far is my favorite trick. Copy a scene from your manuscript, and strip it down to the dialogue. For example, here’s an excerpt from City of Bones by Cassandra Clare:
It was Alec who spoke first. “What’s this?” he demanded, looking from Clay to his companions, as if they might know what she was doing there.
“It’s a girl,” Jace said, recovering his composure. “Surely you’ve seen girls before, Alec. Your sister Isabelle is one.” He took a step closer to Clary, squinting as if he couldn’t quite believe what he was seeing. “A mundie girl,” he said half to himself. “And she can see us.”
“Of course I can see you,” Clary said. “I’m not blind, you know.”
Now strip it down:
 “What’s this?”
“It’s a girl,”
“Surely you’ve seen girls before, Alec. Your sister Isabelle is one.”
“A mundie girl,”
“And she can see us.”
“Of course I can see you,”
“I’m not blind, you know.”
The next step is to read the dialogue OUT LOUD. This is the only way to tell if it flows and sounds authentic. And if you can’t tell who said what, then you need attack this issue so that each character sounds unique. This topic is a post in itself.
Another thing I’ve discovered by doing this is that sometimes dialogue begs to be expanded on. But when you try to do this in the draft you’re working on, it doesn’t seem to work. Once you’ve removed physical beats, dialogue tags, etc, you’ll find it much easy to write the missing dialogue.
Once you’ve finished editing your dialogue, bold the ones you’ve changed, deleted, or added, and place it back in the scene (or delete unnecessary ones). You’ll be amazed at how easy it is to work in the new and improved dialogue this way. Try it out and see for yourself.

Does anyone else have tricks for writing authentic sounding dialogue?

Stina Lindenblatt writes romantic suspense and young adults novels. In her spare time, she’s a photographer and blogging addict, and can be found hanging out on her blog, Seeing Creative 


Rose Green said...

Brandon Sanderson had a challenge on his blog not long back to write something like five pages entirely in dialogue. The idea was to make sure your characters sounded completely distinct, and to tell a whole story as well. He posted his (which, I may add, had more than just two characters!), but you can also see such an example in a chapter in his book Alcatraz versus the Shattered Lens. (middle grade) Not that everything needs to be in all dialogue--but the dialogue should be as character-specific that it *could* be.

Brigitte said...

Jack and Jace in the same post....
my day just got 100x better!

We do a lot of dialogue exercises in my scriptwriting class. It's way harder than the movies make it look.

Krista Van Dolzer said...

Good tips, Stina, especially the last one.

CricketB said...

I go through once (or more) for each character, inside each head. Hold all his complex thoughts at once. Repeat for each character. Usually I get half-way through the scene and realize I need to change something critical, so the process repeats.

It's hard enough to think like a complex character -- often with conflicting thoughts just in one head -- without thinking like the rest of the cast at the same time. It's also easier to check body language and attitude progression one character at a time.

Use different colours for each character's words and actions. This shows balance and flow, and shows if characters are sharing paragraphs, which is hard to follow.

Anonymous said...

These are great tips. I still struggle with paring down dialogue, LOL!

Stina said...

Great suggestions everyone.

I love the idea about taking a scriptwriting class. No wonder so many novelists also write scripts (but not necessarily for their books).

And Brigitte, Jace always makes my day, too. :D

Kym McNabney said...

Great advice. Thanks for sharing.



Eric W. Trant said...

Gads, I didn't understand the dialogue excerpt until you cut out the embedded descriptions.

That's a HUGE mistake I see authors make. They include too much interruptive description in their dialogue, and they separate responses with hand-waving and hair-tossing and unnecessary movement.

Do your description, set up the scene, and then have your dialogue where people can understand it. Try and keep embedded descriptions to a minimum.

- Eric

Unknown said...

I love the idea of stripping down the dialogue. It's much easier to see the missteps when it's not clouded with tags and actions.

Stephanie said...

That last one is an interesting exercise! Thanks!!

I use a lot of slang and words like "gonna" "cause" etc..in my dialogue...it's just natural...that's how people talk. No one uses proper English when chatting with friends. My characters interrupt each other..they trail off, they stutter. And argument scenes...statements are short and flustered with lots of cursing. To me, that is just true to life. When a woman finds her husband in bed with another woman, she doesn't say "Oh dear, what's going on here?"

Marsha Sigman said...

Great tips! I like to think this is one of my strengths but now...I'm definitely going back through my manuscript.

PK HREZO said...

I break it up into fragments with revisions. And do all the things you've mentioned above. Sage advice.

Lydia Kang said...

Great advice, thanks Stina!

Barbara Watson said...

As one new to the writing craft and working on my first MG novel, dialogue is key. These are terrific tips. Thank you so much. I'll return to this post again and again as I revise.