For my regular peeps, you probably know about my favorite
hostage guest contributor, blogger Alex Limberg. Today, he shines his spotlight at some basic dialogue problems we all know in one form or another.
Dialogue is one of the most powerful tools for storytelling. Dialogue is the difference between a cast of talking heads versus characters so real they are more alive to us than even people we know. Dialogue is the engine of plot, and coolest thing is?
We can mess with the reader’s emotions more than that crush in high school. But, though it seems so simple to use? It’s far from it.
So without further ado…take it away, Alex!
Here is the crazy thing about dialogue: It’s just pure, blunt, in-your-face words. With dialogue, there is no filter in between your characters and the reader.
When you describe an action, a setting or what your character thinks or feels, you, the author, are in the role of the messenger. You convey what is happening to the reader with your own words. Everything the reader senses, she senses through you.
But with dialogue, it’s very different.
When in your story little Bobby asks: “What’s bigger, the world or everything?” the reader will read exactly that phrase, “What’s bigger, the world or everything?” It’s like Bobby is talking right next to your reader’s ear, and you, the wicked author, are sitting in another place far away.
That straight-on nature makes it so hard to make dialogue lines sound good (well, it’s hard to make anything sound good in fiction writing, okay, okay, but mind you, this post is about dialogue…).
With dialogue, there is no place to hide.
No dense jungle of overgrowing language to cover you.
No big, solid rock of a character to overshadow your clumsiness.
No flashy action from another direction to distract the reader.
Nothing but the reader watching your dialogue like a hawk, coming down on your soft words mercilessly with his sharp peak, ripping your writer’s confidence apart… Ok, I’m getting carried away here, but you get the picture!
Especially when you start out, your dialogue will often sound clumsy. But it doesn’t have to be. Here are four basic mistakes almost everybody makes in the beginning stages of their writing – and how to avoid them and make your dialogue sound really smooth.
Just take care of these four things, and you have come a long, long way towards interesting and real dialogue.
And because I know dialogue flaws are often hard to detect for the writer himself, you can download a free goodie here to check your dialogue. It uses test questions, and you can also use it to make all other parts of your story tight and exciting.
1. All of the Characters Sound Like You
Newbie writers often let their characters talk however the sentences pop up in their, the writer’s, head. They don’t filter the dialogue lines through the character’s unique personality. Of course, all of the figures now talk like the writer himself.
With a little practice, that’s quite easy to avoid.
Think about who your characters are, one by one: What’s his age and sex? How did she grow up? What are his values? What’s her temper? What’s his personality?
When you really get into your characters’ heads, you will see that every single one of them demands totally different talk. They all use different vocabulary, different length of sentences, different power of expression, etc…
Mild-mannered Lady Bumblebee, who grew up on a castle, might say: “Would you be so kind as to give me notice for how much longer we have to ascend this questionable mountain?” Whereas hands-on lumberjack Burt, straight out of the woods, might say: “Damn! No end to that $%&* slope!”
Avoid making all the characters talk like you do.
2. The Dialogue is Filled with Commonplaces
Nobody reads fiction to see trivial phrases. In real life, a good part of what we speak consists of salutations, compliments, good wishes and other formulas. But in fiction, that’s annoying and a bore. Can you imagine how your audience would feel reading a scene beginning like this:
“Good morning, dear!” – “Good morning, darling!” – “Did you sleep well?” – “Yes, and you?”
They would feel bored, really bored.
In screenwriting, there is a rule that says “Get into the scene at the latest possible moment and out at the earliest possible moment.” In fiction, that rule is not so strict, because fiction readers can handle a pace that’s a bit slower. But keep in mind that you should always have a reason for every sentence you write.
Superfluous words in a good story are like too much fat on a delicious steak – nobody needs it.
So what can you do?
Your first option is to just cut the formulas, nobody will miss them.
Your second option is to pack them into interesting, plot-driven dialogue, so they will seem like a natural byproduct and readers won’t notice. Take a look:
“Good morning, dear! Have you seen Georgie?”
“Oh my god, he should have been sitting on his high chair. Maybe he has sneaked outside, I’m gonna run and catch him. Good morning, darling!” [kisses him on cheek]
Avoid boring your readers with trivialities.
3. Your Characters Speak Logically, Not Emotionally
If the characters in your story always reply exactly “on point” to what the other one just said, your dialogue will feel very constructed.
In the real world, us humans talk first and foremost from our emotions. Our answers are often just emotional reactions deeply colored by our personalities; they are not precise, to the point replies.
Imagine one part of a couple asking the other one to go walk the dog. A logical reply would be something like: ”It’s your turn today, honey; I did it yesterday.”
But let’s make that character answer according to her feelings. She would say something like: “Why is it always me who has to walk the dog?” (annoyance) “Always the same old story!” (anger) or “And you want me to pick up the slippers for you too?” (with a slight grin; annoyed amusement)
You can make your dialogue vivid and realistic by letting your characters talk after their feelings, not after logic.
Avoid too “correct” and stilted dialogue.
4. Boring. Boring. Boring. Your Dialogue is Just Boring.
Even if all the characters have their unique voices, your dialogue will also have to follow its primary purpose: To entertain!
Maybe you and your characters are just reciting the program of the plot too mechanically. Maybe there are no quirks, no detours, no fun, no suspense.
How can you solve this problem and inject something interesting?
For one, make sure your characters fully show off their personalities. The more they express their thoughts and feelings, the more material you will have to insert interesting bits of “dialogue within the dialogue.”
You can keep your dialogue juicy by introducing little “side topics.” Say the scene is about a guy buying a gun. Within the dialogue between him and the shop assistant, he gets sidetracked and enthusiastically depicts his new pink whirlpool to the assistant.
Remember, small detours can be entertaining, but they have to add something, be it suspense or fun. And they have to stay small and not take over the dialogue.
Avoid dull conversation in your scene.
Wow Your Reader With Intriguing Dialogue
You can often see these four typical mistakes in dialogues. With a little practice and a watchful eye though, you will eliminate them from your writing forever and craft dialogues so thrilling and authentic, your reader will swallow them like cotton candy.
Your characters will take on a life of their own and your audience will be swept away by their struggles and will just have to keep on turning the pages.
Alex Limberg is blogging on ‘Ride the Pen’ to help you boost your fiction writing. His blog dissects famous authors (works, not bodies). Write gripping dialogue with his free ebook “44 Key Questions” to test your story (contains a to-the-point checklist to test every aspect of your story). Shakespeare is jealous. Alex has worked as a copywriter and on movies. He has lived in Vienna, Los Angeles, Madrid and Hamburg.
So what do you have to say to all of this?
Which character was the most difficult to get to talk for you so far? When your characters open their mouths, is it a pleasant experience? Do they dare to copy each other’s dialogue? Do they have the right to remain silent? Will you use anything they say or do against them in a court of law? If they can’t afford an attorney, will one be appointed to them? Do they have good breath?
I love hearing from you!
Let’s get a dialogue going… ha!
To prove it and show my love, for the month of APRIL, everyone who leaves a comment I will put your name in a hat. If you comment and link back to my blog on your blog, you get your name in the hat twice. What do you win? The unvarnished truth from yours truly. I will pick a winner once a month and it will be a critique of the first 20 pages of your novel.
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Good article. I touch on some of these things in a couple of blogs I wrote for Westernfictioneers. This one last week: “The BackStory” – http://westernfictioneers.blogspot.com/2016/04/the-backstory-by-ken-farmer.html and last Sept., “Characters and Dialogue” – http://westernfictioneers.blogspot.com/2015/09/characters-and-dialogue-by-ken-farmer.html
Being a professional film and TV actor for over 40 years gave me a great deal of insight to the art of writing dialogue. Award-winning author, Mary Deal wrote of “Across the Red”… Though I won’t give away the audacious story line, it’s more than exciting because of the twists, turns and antics that you’d never expect, and yet the story and the lives of the characters are so true to life. The characters are extremely well-drawn with personalities unique to each one. Something that makes them each unique is the dialogue. It’s incredible. To enhance the brogues and accents of each character, a lot of spelling in dialogues is done phonetically. Usually it slows the reading but the only reason it slowed this reader was because the phonetic spellings were so perfect I could hear them in my head. I just had to stop and read the lines again and be awed. Writing this way takes a lot of skill and daring, but these authors seem to know exactly when to take chances. She also said: Characters so Alive You could Speak to Them…Ken Farmer didn’t have to describe the characters’ personalities, he built the characters by using dialogue.
I never thought of this, Ken. Can you suggest how I’d get a hold of a screenplay. Dumb question but I haven’t a clue.
Wonderful advice, Thanks again Alex, always fun and insightful when you guest blog.
I would like to add one piece of advice, that may or may not be obvious, but I do a lot of theatre and READING plays will help the beginner understand how to use dialogue to reveal plot, character, subtext, and more. Plus the time commitment to read a play is about an hour to two hours. Much shorter than reading novels with great dialogue.
Hope this helps, too 🙂 Thanks again. I’m inviting my critique group to this post, some of them are still doing the “good morning…” blah blahs. 🙂
~ Tam Francis~
Hi Tam, yes, reading theatre is great, and also reading screenplays.
Well, I can send you a PDF of one of mine or you can go to http://www.script-o-rama.com/. Tons there.
Thank you, Ken.
Thanks, so much for the advice. I just finished writing my first book, but now that I’m editing I realize most of my characters sound like me. I’m trying to fix that as I go along. I’d love the chance to have someone read my work and get an honest opinion. I’m involved in a writers group and when I first started writing, of course a couple family members read a few chapters. I told them they are all liars and I need the truth so I can grow and become better.
I realize everyone is so worried to hurt my feelings but praising it doesn’t make me feel good either. Honesty is what I’m looking for and if I’m not cut out for this well, I’ll either study harder and figure it out or move on to other things.
I signed up for your freebie…good move by the way 🙂 hooked me on the first try.
You have a great attitude. Go, Michelle! 😉
My problem was a variation on #1 – not all the characters sounded like me, just one. The main one. (Still boring.) All the other characters were interesting and individual, and she just wasn’t. I got a better handle on who she was (not me, for a start), and the dialogue instantly improved.
My favorite thing to write is dialogue and I struggle to make the characters unique and totally different from each other as in real life. I will take your salient points and use them for my WIP. Thank you so much!
Great advice. I am working on my first novel and there are 2 POVs. I am realizing they sound a lot like me (and therefore each other, too) Working on getting my head into their characters more so they each have a distinct voice.
Reblogged this on ugiridharaprasad.
Jill, one of the best things you can do to check the characterization of your dialogue, is to do the lines out loud. I didn’t say read them, I said do them as the character in the scene. They’re either going to sound right or they’re not. Better still, if you’re still not sure is record the lines and play them back.
Some good advice there Alex… another point to remember is that many people throw grammar, and even using the correct words, out of the window when in conversation.
Mistakes can make dialogue come alive… as long as the gist of the phrase is easily understood.
One sign of a new writer is their reluctance to use contractions, especially in dialogue. Even avoiding them in the text can make writing sound stilted – OK if the POV is someone who’d think and speak that way, but otherwise, it’s a no no.
In dialogue, no one says ‘do not’, ‘will not’ ‘are not’ etc. unless they’re doing it for emphasis. It’s always ‘don’t’, ‘won’t’, and ‘aren’t’. We speak in a far more sloppy manner than we write.
But be careful when contracting words by dropping letters from the beginning of a word. Phrases like “Tell ’im Bobby…” or to a barman “Line ’em up, Joe.”… Maybe, “I know, ’cos I was there, OK?”
These all have an apostrophe at the beginning, but unless you’re careful, your word processor will insert a single opening quotation mark instead (You see it all the time in on-line pieces) with the ‘comma’ back to front (like a ‘six’ when it should resemble a ‘nine’.)
On a Mac, the keystroke for an apostrophe to start a word is shift + alt + ] (I’m not sure for a Windows keyboard, I never use one, but Google will tell you.)
True, Chris, everything that sounds overly formal and official has to go out the window. Sometimes hard to do as a beginner, when you have the concept of “writing correctly” in the back of your head. Be incorrect!
Reblogged this on Critique My Novel's blog for writers.
Reblogged this on Don Massenzio's Blog and commented:
Here are some great thoughts on Dialog. Enjoy.
When it comes to dialogue I always think of the Avengers films. Each of the characters has a unique way of speaking to the point where if you were handed the script without their names on, I’ll bet you’d still know who was talking.
As a newbie who’s guilty of committing offence no.1, I’m going to cheat (sort of) and use established characters as a base to build and expand upon. The idea is to give myself a starting point to hopefully make the characterisation process a little less stressful.
I had to think about it, when you mentioned ‘The Avengers’… I’d forgotten about the American kids’ comic with the same name as ’our’ (UK) classic ‘Avengers’ TV series.
It’s true though, that Steed, and his various sidekicks over the long run, had their own ‘voices’ too.
I’ll have to take your word for it on Steed & co. I was born in ’75 so The Avengers/New Avengers is a bit before my time. I’d say that like a lot of my generation, my knowledge of the classic UK series is limited to the re-release of Patrick Macnee’s and Honor Blackman’s “Kinky Boots” in 1990!
Reblogged this on Mandibelle16 and commented:
Great advice on dialogue in fiction!
Awesome article. It has come out at just the right time for me. I’m finishing a first draft of my novel, while beginning rewriting and editing with much help from a fellow writer. He literally went through my first chapter line by line. My profs always used to say in university “make every line count'” in English essays. Now I’m understand this with fiction as I rewrite. Also, you are very right about trying to show a characters unique personality through their dialogue. I am guilty of having gone through the first draft, making many characters sound like me, even though I have a very good idea of what they are actually like in my planning. I was able to develop characters, learning as I went through, but going back to the beginning I see through dialogue. I have to do this better from the beginning. Again thank you!
For me, the trouble is that I fear I have too much dialogue. The writing doesn’t seem to flow as well when nobody’s speaking, but when I hear my two main characters bouncing off each other, it feels like things just start moving. Then I wonder how much is too much.
I’m doing ok keeping their voices separate, and I wouldn’t say either one of them sounds particularly like me (though they do find humor in the same types of situations that I do). She does have the same flashes of reaction that I tend to have, but she doesn’t say things quite like I would. I have had to work harder on his dialogue than hers though, since he is supposed to be a more efficient speaker. I go through and actively cut his sentences and phrases to make them shorter.
Seriously though… can they talk too much? For myself, I’d rather read people talking than paragraphs of description, backstory, or internal cogitation. I’d rather they reveal thoughts to each other more than just to themselves. But maybe that’s because I process things through speaking, myself.
No, I don’t go around going “oh, look…that chair is blue!” And I don’t make my characters do that either. LOL I usually ignore the decor for the most part. I’ll give it a shorthand for a style, and describe the general layout so readers can get their bearings, but then I move on to the more interesting stuff… the verbal stuff. Heh.
Hi Cathy, In fiction, dialogue is preferable to blocks of solid text.
Readers are enticed by ‘open’ looking pages with lots of ‘white’ because they aren’t as daunting.
Another published author read through a novel of mine, prior to publication, and gave me one piece of great advice… ‘Show, don’t tell’. (Yes… one of the golden rules, but I’d let it slip).
If you need to give background details, and other ‘facts’, let them come out in conversation between the characters – even if you have to contrive a scene as an excuse for two to meet and talk. (but don’t make it feel like they are lecturing each other. People don’t talk like that).
Have them bounce questions and ideas off each other, so that the details you require the reader to know (as clues to a mystery, maybe?) get revealed in the questions and answers.
Even throwaway comments and jibes about other (absent) characters, and responses to those jibes can inform the reader. Writing these scenes can be a lot of fun.
There are readers (especially of action novels) who scan through the descriptive pieces to get to the action. They read dialogue because they perceive that to be ‘action’.
I had a test reader who liked a book but didn’t understand the ending (‘Who shot him?’, she asked.) I’d seeded the clues in the details, and she’d missed them by scanning. I went back into the novel and dropped in more clues and identifiers that hopefully the reader would remember when the time came.
Readers who read this way are more likely to pick up these pointers if they are given in dialogue.
Thanks Alex for this blog. I’ll have to look at my dialogue a bit closer, and I’m always open for a critique. I finished my second book and two agents are considering my full MS. Thanks again, I could use some professional advice.
Reblogged this on S Burke. Author and commented:
A marvelous insight into the world of dialogue writing. Pitfalls and other monstrous things to be aware of.
Number 3 is something I always struggle with. I, myself, am a very logical person, so I always want to write like I’m talking like Spock. My wife will read my stuff and say, “Your characters rarely use ‘fun words.'” I am trying to get better. LoL!
Reblogged this on dave94015 and commented:
tips on how to liven up your writing dialog!