Oh, Yeah, Well”

Tips on Dialogue

You can’t blame yourself for what the characters say.”

-- Truman Capote

Dialogue is often one of the first things editors look at, say Renni Browne and Dave King, in Self-editing for Fiction Writers. According to them, editors say, “If the dialogue doesn’t work, the manuscript gets bounced. If it does work, if it’s good, I start reading.”

Not everyday speech

Dialogue is where your characters come to life. But here’s the catch: Dialogue is not written the way we speak. If you were to go to your local coffee shop and start taking down the conversation between the two young women who are comparing notes about how awful their last dates were, you would never use it, as is, in your writing.

Why? Because dialogue is a cleaned up version of the way we speak.

Take what the first woman at our coffee table says:

Hi, Jenny. I can’t believe how cold it is outside. I’m glad you could meet me. Sorry I called so last minute. I just had to tell you what happened last night on my date with the guy Kevin set me up with, Eric. He was like fifteen minutes late and, I mean, he didn’t even apologize. Like, yeah. Here I am, like I have nothing else to do but wait on him, and I. . . you know, he reminds me of my brother, that I-don’t-give-a-damn kind of attitude – he wore a plaid flannel shirt, you know. I mean what does that say about him – oh, and, I don’t think I told you this before, but his sister, Kelly, used to go out with Justin. You know Justin, who was in my Accounting class. But anyway, so he was fifteen minutes late and didn’t care. I mean who wants to go out with someone like that?”

If you put that entire passage and then continued the dialogue along the same lines, your readers would quickly get lost. “Get to the point,” they would say, and that’s what you should do. We don’t need the introduction, the weather report, or the thanks for coming. We don’t need the background on how his sister used to date Justin (unless that is important to the story). We just need to know she went on a date with a loser.

I am not advocating using the minimum amount of words – the extra words characters use in their dialogue can tell us a lot about them. If they use certain expressions, get distracted, says the right thing at the wrong time, all of these quirks make your characters more human and help your readers understand them better.

Character’s voice

When we take writing classes, we hear a lot about finding our own voices, which is great advice. But in fiction, you need to discover your character’s true voice – it should suggest who this person is and his/her background, including her education, accent, gender, and national, regional, race, class, and cultural distinctions.

Differences in speech aren’t just realistic, they can give vitality to your story.

For instance, my character might say: “You cannot be serious.”

But your character might say:

You’ve got to be kidding.”

You pulling my chain?”

Are you shitting me?”

What do each of these comments tell us about the character speaking?

What do we understand immediately about the character Cecie in Alice Walker’s The Color Purple, when she says, “My Mama dead. She die screaming and cussing.”

Dialogue is a great way to clue your readers into your characters without having to write long, unnecessarydescriptions.

Next week we’ll look at other ways to strengthen you dialogue. For more advice, tips, and inspiration on writing, please visit my BLOG.