Friday, November 26, 2010
10 Tips to Terrific Dialogue
Talk less, listen more
Sharpen your listening skills. Wherever you go, put down your cell phone, stop blabbing and start listening. Pay attention to tone, cadence, word choice and flourishes.
How does it sound?
If you are having problems with dialogue read the dialogue out loud. Read it with a friend our a partner like you might a script. You can even record dialogue and play it back so you can actually hear how the dialogue sounds. You want the dialogue to sound like that character sounds.
I just speak it as I write it to make it sound more real.
No one speaks in full sentences at all times. We drop words, we don't finish, we use our hands when we can't think of a word fast enough. Read your dialogue aloud so you can hear the rhythms.
One of the biggest mistakes people make in writing fiction is trying to cram exposition into dialogue, which makes it clumsy and unnatural. Put the exposition in the narrative and let the dialogue serve to bring the characters to life. Also, people don't often say the name of the person they're addressing, so use that sparingly.
And here's a small trick that will help your characters sound natural: delete every unnecessary "yes" or 'no." That makes a surprisingly big difference, as us humans rarely answer questions very directly. And finally, the golden rule: Don't search for synonyms for "said." Your characters can occasionally "ask" or "whisper," but that's it. If you have a scene that's becoming overwhelmed with "saids," try substituting a bit of action to show who's speaking.
Variation is key
It's important to remember that even characters who have a lot in common - gender, age etc - shouldn't speak in exactly the same voice. Dialogue is often character and my greatest challenge in creating The Sisters 8 for young readers has been creating octuplets such that the voice of each of the eight sisters is so distinctive that readers can practically play blind-man's bluff with the dialogue, matching snippets to character. I have some sense that this has been successful because over at the official website there's a quiz, "Which Eight Are You?" - http://www.houghtonmifflinbooks.com/features/sisters8/quiz.html - and fans have told me they actually rig the quiz so it comes out that they're most like whichever character they most want to be!
Stay in character!
Just as a character acts, thinks, moves in ways unique to him/her, that character should speak in a way individual to him/her. Whether a smartass or an earnest Joe, whether kind or not so nice, old or young, north, south, east, west, characters should sound like the people they are when speaking. Dialogue is an amazing tool for coloring in characterization and advancing every element of the story.
Learn from masters
Reading dialogue in Karen Joy Fowler's WIT'S END, I actually looked up from the book because it seemed her characters were in the room with me. Spooky. I stared at the page and dissected the dialogue. Fowler chose words people really use in casual conversation, and created a sense of timing by the way she placed those words. Either that, or magic.
I love writing dialogue--it's one of my strategies to get me out of being stuck--and I always remember that we rarely talk in sentences. By that I mean we interrupt, trail off, speak in fragments. I also like to show, through actions, what my characters are thinking while they are speaking. Are they staring out the window rather than paying attention to the other person? Is their leg bouncing?
Being an eavesdropper in public also helps me get the rhythms down of how different people talk.
Judy Merrill Larsen
Larger than life speech
Remember that your characters must be more witty and sparkling than the average Joe. They are always saying things you wish you had thought of it. Luckily, as a writer, you have plenty of time to think of the perfect comeback or double entendre. Also eliminate mundane exchanges. For example small-talk or introductions should not be put into dialogue.
Do you have a dialogue tip? In your opinion, what author is an ace at dialogue? have an cliche dialogue to share?
Dark Angel's blog identifies cliche dialogue. Hopefully none of the following creeps into your manuscript:
Are you thinking what I’m thinking?
Don’t you die on me!
Tell my wife and kids I love them.
Also Chelsea Cain gives some orginal tips on how to be an author. Here's a great one:
The best signing pen is the extra fine tip Sharpie. The regular tip Sharpie emits more fumes and will make you high after about a half hour.
Join Ellen Meister’s email list and get a chance to win a very cool T-shirt.
Melanie Benjamin’s Alice I Have Been will release in paperback just in time for Christmas.
Have you ordered Melissa Senate's The Love Goddess' Cooking School yet? Publishers Weekly just gave it a major rave:
"Senate handles the hefty topics of loss and remembrances with lightness and respect and in so doing, redefines comfort food."