Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Giving Your Characters A Voice: mastering the art of dialogue

By Shirley Jump

First, thanks to Pink Heart Society for having me back! I’m always thrilled to be here, and especially to discuss writing! And if you’re a reader, please look for my McKenna Brothers trilogy—in stores now! Riley’s story is out right now (HOW THE PLAYBOY GOT SERIOUS) and Brody’s will be out in a few days (RETURN OF THE LAST MCKENNA).
Today, I’d like to talk about dialogue. It’s something all writers use—but not always correctly :-)

Dialogue—it seems like one of those things that should be so easy to write. I mean, all of us talk, right? And some of us talk a lot more than others ;-). But when it comes down to it, writing good, strong dialogue is a lot more difficult than it looks. In order to learn how to write great dialogue, however, you need to know how it works.


            It helps to think of the purpose of your dialogue before you start writing it. That way, you can hopefully avoid adding unnecessary conversations that will bore the reader, slow your pacing and essentially, drag the whole story down.
            Show the Character:  One purpose of dialogue is to show the character. Think about how a nun would speak as opposed to a gang member—radically different language, sentence structure, word usage, etc. Or how your mother talks compared to you. Or how someone from the South speaks as opposed to a Maine fisherman.
            First, these characters are going to use their particular dialects. However, a caution here—don’t use so much dialect that the reader spends more time translating than reading the story. The number one rule in fiction is to not to do anything that pulls the reader away from the most important thing: the story. So, go ahead and use dialect, but use it sparingly. Kind of like using pepper, a little is a great seasoning, too much will ruin the meal.
            The other risk here is your own assumptions. If you don’t live in Tennessee, or haven’t gone to Tennessee and done a lot of research, you may assume you know how people there talk. And you can very easily get it wrong. If your only image of how gang members talk is from seeing them in TV movies-of-the-week, you risk perpetuating a stereotype instead of creating real, true characters.
            The solution again, is to research well and use dialect and idiom sparingly, making sure you are always aware of WHO the character is and WHY he is that way. That is going to be your true mission in showing the character.
            Showing character through dialogue is done in a number of ways. Someone who is reticent and shy might not have much to say or speak in short sentences. Some talkative people keep the conversation rolling forever and ever because they like to hear their own voices, or they are trying to deflect attention from something else, or because they want to prevent someone else from talking. Come back to that earlier advice: WHO is your character and WHY is he that way? When you know those answers, you can write the dialogue that SHOWS your character.
            Move the Plot Forward: The other purpose for dialogue is to move the plot forward. You want to avoid the “Hi, how are you?” “I’m fine.” “Glad to hear it. What are you doing?” “Nothing.” “Me too.” “Want to go to the movies?” “I dunno.” Those kinds of conversations are BORING and lose your reader right away.
            When you write dialogue, you need to think of it as an extension of your story. Like narrative and plot events, dialogue is used to up the tension, increase the stakes, reveal truths and solve the character’s problems. The worst kind of book is the one where characters have what’s called a “conversation conflict.” Meaning, if these people would just TALK they could solve a very simple problem. The author avoids writing dialogue that will wrap up the plot because she knows it’s going to make her book end on page 50.
            Good dialogue is about INCREASING THE CONFLICT. When you have two characters on a page, one of them should want one thing and the other should want something else—these two things, in the best of worlds, should be in conflict. For example: a child who has just found out she is adopted wants her mother to tell her who her birth mother is. But the adoptive mother wants to protect the child from the truth and thus, evades answering or makes something up or simply won’t talk at all. Try writing this dialogue scene and see how it works—chances are you will both show the character and move your plot forward.
            The job of the dialogue is to show how your characters feel about the changes in your plot (brought about by conflict) and what they plan to do about it (or maybe not do anything at all). It can also let you show what characters are covering up, or what they want to expose, simply by the words you choose to have them vocalize.
            What Things Are Said, Which Aren’t?: Another decision you have to make with dialogue is which things are going to be important enough to be said, and which will be skimmed over in narrative. A good rule of thumb is to decide whether this event is an important one. You might not know that on the first draft (such as discovery of a clue in a mystery or a small side note about a character’s background that is glossed over in a first draft) but as you begin to shape and write your story, you will see the areas that need to be spoken.
            Also remember, sometimes the things that are NOT said (more in the next handout) are the most important in the story. Readers are pretty smart and they’ll get it when a character is hiding something if you craft it right. That in and of itself adds tension and shows your character, giving you a great two-for-one!
            Practice: The best way to get good at writing dialogue is to write a lot of it. Some people who feel it’s not their strength avoid dialogue in a book, and then, sort of like unused muscles, their dialogue skills get worse, not better. You have to work all writing muscles in order to keep them strong.
            Remember these are characters, not real people: That means you dispense with the ums and ahs, and you try to make them say witty, clever things. They also don’t just blurt out every little thing. They keep secrets. They avoid the subject. They talk around the truth. If the character just comes clean and says “oh this is why I avoid commitment” on page three, your book is done on page four. Characters, like people, need to grow and change, and you should show that growth in the dialogue. So leave things out, drop in hints of things that bother the character or things that are in their past.
            Remember the “meeting the new neighbor” analogy I have given you all before. When you first meet a neighbor, or a character, they don’t dump their entire life history in your lap. Neither will one character to another. They will drop snippets, and avoid telling the whole story.
            Speaking of that: They also won’t tell another character something they obviously already know. Like the fact that Joe is Jim’s son when Jim has been called Dad by Joe for twenty pages. Jane doesn’t say to her husband, “well, you know he is your son.” Uh…duh. Of course he knows that. It’s the writer just trying to force a fact into conversation. It’s that soap opera fact drop that’s totally annoying. Find another way to work it in.
Listen: The best tip I can leave you with to help you learn how to write good dialogue is to learn to listen. To the conversations around you, the ones in good books, the ones in movies, and the ones you are writing in your own stories (I write my dialogue as I speak it aloud to be sure it sounds natural). Always read back your dialogue and listen for stiffness, stilted sentences, unnatural pauses or word usage, and any slow spots that can be rewritten to accomplish the above objectives.

Thanks again for having me! Do you have a question about dialogue? Ask it below and I’ll be sure to answer!



  1. Unless of course Jim always thought he was Joe's adopted dad...

    Thanks Shirley. You always manage to put things so clearly.

  2. Thanks for the great post, Shirley. Lots of good advice in it. I'm almost done of How the Playboy Got Serious. LOL I have a serious crush on Riley! Anyway, am loving your new trilogy and can't wait to read Brody's story next!

  3. You're so welcome, Annette! Glad you enjoyed the trilogy!