Dialog schmialog – hand me a drink

I love dialog. It’s the stuff that grabs my interest and breaks up the long narratives that can sometimes make a book feel top heavy. As an avowed dialoger, I look for realistic dialog, and this means that unless your characters are family members of Commander Data and can’t use contractions, I expect to see characters speaking with contractions. “I do not think the beagle is a helpful employee.”

Who talks like that? Really. And yet I see this all the time. It’s one thing to avoid contractions in your narrative exposition, and quite another to avoid it in dialog.

The same can be said for your character’s voice. If they’re talking to a partner in their office, or a wife talking to a husband, it’s a gimme that their dialog will be informal. They know each other, so I don’t expect to see anything formal and stilted like, “Roger, I do not feel like attending the ball tonight.”

Eh?

More realistically, the dialog would be, “Honey, I feel like crap tonight. Can we bag on the ball? Besides, your Aunt Bertie will be there and she always drinks too much.”

Realistic dialog really is the difference between a so-so manuscript and one that pops to life. It’s also a delicious way enhance character development without the author shouting, “Hey, I’m developing my author here…pay attention!” Dialog removes the temptation to tell, not show because the character trait comes through in how she speaks.

Which feels more compelling to you?

The beagle saw herself in the mirror for the first time. Giving herself a long, slow once-over, she decided that she hated her freckles and wished she were born with better markings. But, saucy character that she was, she told everyone she was a new breed borne of royalty.

or

The beagle saw herself in the mirror for the first time.”Oh for crying out loud,” she groaned while giving herself a long, slow once-over, “why didn’t anyone tell me I look like Picasso painted me while fuzzed up on crack?” She looked at her employer and bared her teeth. “All this time you let me think I looked like all the other beagles. No problem,” she sniffed, “I’ll simply tell everyone I’m a new breed – borne from royalty. They’ll totally buy it, especially after I ply them with a double batch of margaritas.”

It’s a lot more fun to see a character’s personality rather than be told they’re saucy, or plucky, or shy, or whatever. Our readers are far from stupid, and they’ll catch the drift of a character simply by the way they talk. But they’ll never get that chance if you don’t make your characters come to life and have them talk the way a real person – or beagle – would talk.

Sometimes I get the feeling writers don’t know their characters well enough, and don’t realize their character would never talk like Commander Data. Instead, I see lots of cases where the writer uses dialog only because they’re at a crossroads and their characters really need to say something. So their dialog ends up doing little more than imparting information. There is no differentiation between the characters’ dialog – they’re equally flat and flavorless. The only reason we know Jane Character said something is because the dialog tag said so.

Dialog should be as unique as snowflakes, and readers should be able to tell who’s doing the talking based on how they speak. This takes knowing and understanding your characters so that they’re real people. The way you articulate is far different from your best friend. So analyze why that is. How does your BFF speak – what is that “something” that makes you shake your head and smile, while thinking “Only my BFF would say that.”

Never waste the opportunity to inject brilliant dialog because it’s what makes your characters memorable. How many of you have a hard time with dialog? Why do you think that is? Do you feel you know your characters as if they were real, three dimensional people? More importantly, how do you think you could improve your dialog?

20 Responses to Dialog schmialog – hand me a drink

  1. NinjaFingers says:

    I think dialog is one of my weak points. Working on it…

  2. Karen A. Wyle says:

    Is it hopelessly cliche to have aliens who rarely use contractions when they speak a human language?

  3. I think it depends on the book and storyline. Obviously, you’re looking for what makes sense. Think about foreigners trying to speak English – they rarely use contractions until they’re more familiar with our language. Seems to me, that would carry over to aliens, too, right?

  4. authorguy says:

    I had a character in my fantasy novels who never used contractions, his culture hadn’t developed them. It was a sign of his development that he started to use them over time. When I have characters in worlds more like ours of course they speak like we do. The MC of my current WIP appears to be in his early 20s but he doesn’t talk like it at all. Hmm, I wonder why…
    Dialog is a great way of hinting at all sorts of character traits. How they speak is a sign of how they think, what concepts they use and what the world looks like to them.

  5. romancingforthrills says:

    Totally agree, I love novels with lots of dialogue – just so long as it’s realistic. Great blog 🙂

  6. indy says:

    Totally agree Lynn…probably why I tend to skip over narrative when I read.;D
    I used to believe that I hated writing dialogue and I had no talent for it, but during a writing exercise years ago I discovered, to my surprise, that I tend to go to dialogue when under a time limit or stressed. I realized that even though it is difficult,I actually prefer it over writing narrative when it comes down to it..but it’s still hard work to get it just right.

  7. Frank Mazur says:

    I believe there’s an unstated confusion here. REAL “realistic” dialogue is too often dull. It’s FAUX “realistic” dialogue we like. Dialogue that hints of and develops confrontation, disingenuousness, deceit, and so on, including the admirable qualities on the opposite side of the continuum. In general, people are not direct and, worse, they hate it when others are direct with them. Faux realistic exchanges include those things we wish we had said, if only we had been a bit quicker in our upstairs. This goes for self-reflection, too. (And avoid the mirror.)

  8. Digital Dame says:

    And of course, read it out loud, best way to tell if it sounds natural.

    I’ve got a couple of somewhat coarse characters who are prone to swearing (a bit). I’m never sure how much of that I can get away with, but to eliminate it totally would be unnatural for these two.

  9. I heartily agree.
    Not to brag, but I reckon I nailed Scottish ferret dialogue.

    I also agree with Frank Mazur – ‘real’ dialogue is tedium personified. In real life, we talk crap and complain and resolve nothing – but we feel better for the sharing of it.

  10. Good point, Frank. Most of the things we say are truly dull and uninteresting. In fact, the beagle will attest that I’m dizzingly boring. As authors, I’d hoped that was a given – but I should have stated it anyway, for the record.

    DigiDame, excellent advice. I find I do this all the time, especially if I have a long sentence and I’m worried it’s too verbose and unrealistic.

  11. Lev Raphael says:

    All dialogue is artificial in one way or another, but it’s useful for us as writers to study authors who we think have a good ear. Don DeLillo has been one for me, and so has Phillip Roth. They’re very different!

    When I do a scene with dialogue, I try to read it aloud to get the rhythm right.

  12. Kelley says:

    Roth and Russo. My two favorites for dialogue. Bridge of Sighs almost made me throw in the towel. I still haven’t completely hung it back up. Anyway.

    Back in college, many, many centuries ago, my English professor ordered me to take a linguistics course. If you want to be a writer, she said, you have to truly understand language.

    Our first assignment was to tape record a family dinner. Then we were to transcribe the actual conversations.

    OMG. On paper, we were a bunch of illiterate, boring animals.

    Our second assignment was to take those conversations and rewrite them as a scene in a novel. Ahhhhhh. We were glorious and pithy, if I do say so myself.

    I have to say it was one of the best pieces of writing advice I’ve ever rec’d.

  13. Kelley, that’s a terrific assignment. It makes me shudder to see the high numbers of manuscripts whose dialog is like that dinner conversation.

  14. Ludmilla Bollow says:

    Try writing a play to gain many basics in writing dialog. That’s all it is, characters talking to one another. But, it still has to be terrific dialog.

    Ludmilla

  15. And that is why your dialog in the fabulous Dr. Zastro’s Sanitarium – For The Ailments of Women makes for such a great book.

  16. Caity says:

    How do you feel about dialect and accents in dialogue? Distracting and should be described in narrative? Or should you type them out?

  17. I think it depends on how thick the accent is and how much dialog there is. If I have to constantly stop to figure out what someone is saying, then I find that pretty distracting. But if it’s a minor character with very little dialog, then I’m far more willing to stick with it.

    Over all, I think it’s a mistake to make a dialog so thick that it’s hard to figure out. Readers will simply start skipping over it – something we don’t want!

  18. pattizo says:

    One can’t help but notice you spend a lot of time talking about drinking and margeritas.

  19. Nature of the beast, Pattizo.

  20. I think the reader should be able to tell who is talking, without having to rely on the ‘said Fred, Jim, or Annie tag. If all the characters sound the same, there’s either too many of them or the dialogue needs work.

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