Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Flapping jaws: how to write sizzling dialog….

As writers, we are constantly seeking the perfect ingredients for that magic stew called the popular novel. What I mean, of course, is that we want the most possible readers from our genre or category to be so engaged, so smitten that they are willing to leave positive reviews, tell their friends and—dare I say it—buy the next book. As always, I encourage writers to follow their own instincts and their own voices, but maybe the following tips will give us all something to think about.

One of the easiest ways to captivate readers is to use authentic dialog in a gripping, tension-building way. I know, it’s easy to say something like that but doing it…well, that’s another thing entirely.

Or is it?

A few years ago, J.A. Konrath, bestselling author of the Jack Daniels series and other books, said that liberal use of white space was key to writing popular fiction. I read that line several times before I realized just how liberating and probably true that statement was. As applied to dialog, that might mean our characters should stop making long declarations of anything. No more tedious explanations, no more long history lessons or discussion about backstory, no more forcing our characters to bore our readers.

Instead, our characters should speak in short bursts like most of us do in real life.

Another great dialog teacher was the late Jack Bickham, professor  at the H.H. Herbert School of Journalism at the University of Oklahoma.  Jack wrote a number of how-to books for writers as well as 75 published mostly successful novels. He likened effective dialog to a tennis match. Each character gets her or his turn to hit the ball. Wait for the other character to hit the ball back, and so on. How long does a tennis ball stay in any player’s court? Not long, obviously.

Effective dialog is fast and hard, just like a good tennis match.

It’s also important to note that dialog should serve your characters and your plot ONLY. We have all been on that phone call that just wouldn’t end, where maybe both parties were passionate about one subject or another. You speak about it for several important minutes…but then it’s over. You’ve talked it out yet the conversation drags on and on. You look at your watch and are ultimately relieved when the last lame words are spoken.

You can’t let the lame part of conversations enter your fiction. Always start and end your conversations on the passion. Cut the rest…or better yet, never write it.

What about all those everyday moments, some of you are saying? People really do talk about pets, kids, hairstyles…blah, blah, blah. Books aren’t written about the boring parts of life. We live enough of those. A novel is supposed to show us snippets of the good stuff, the important stuff. If your readers want boring, they will find a family member and invite them over for coffee and fruitcake. In the meantime, you must keep them entertained.  

So what we have learned so far is that dialog should be limited to short bursts of important stuff, and should be quick like a tennis match. Now we’re experts, right?

Not quite.

Dialog should also reflect character and mood. Elmore Leonard has been known to visit police stations so that he can effectively mimic crime dialog. Todd Finley, Associate Professor of English at East Carolina University, advises his students to go out into the world and eavesdrop at coffee shops, restaurants, airports. The goal is to learn how to reflect the nature of a place, a situation and a character.

What that means is that a professor in your story will likely use very few contractions. A contractor will likely use a lot of contractions as well as clipped sentences using words of an Anglo-Saxon, guttural origin. While a young woman in love would more likely dip into the lyrical romantic phrases of a Greek/Latin origin.

Let’s say we ran into our contractor out on the sidewalk. He might say, “S'been great seeing you. Have to get back.”

Our professor might say, “It is so pleasant to see you, Samantha. I hope your work with social services is turning out to be everything you hoped it would be.”

And we see our young woman in love a few minutes later: “Oh, it’s so wonderful running into you. Did I tell you how amazing Stephen's and my last date was? The stars were out, and we strolled through Longfellow Greens. The flowers smelled like perfume and the warm breeze carried the sound of crickets from nearby fields….”

But remember, our conversations don’t just reflect people, they reflect situations. Let’s say we saw the same people during a low-level emergency:

“Steer clear of the north plaza.” Our worker points. “Just in case.”

While our young lady might say, “I have to contact Stephen. I’d be so worried if he traveled to this side of town. He’s in the city a lot for his mortgage work.”

And our professor: “I have often thought using those cranes was too dangerous for the inner city. More engineering studies should have been done before the deconstruction.”    

Okay, so we can see that personalities and situations will determine engaging dialog. But what types of dialog idiosyncrasies DON’T you want to introduce into conversations? Leave out the meaningless habitual words and phrases. There is no need for “Like, such as,” or “I mean” to be dotting your dialog landscape. Let’s try a couple of the above conversations with these lame additions:

“Like, yeah,” the contractor said. “Good talkin' and such. I, like, have to get back.”

And our young woman: “Oh, it’s so, like, wonderful running into you, Samantha. I mean, I’ve been looking forward to telling you, like, how great Stephen’s and my last date was….”

You get the point. It’s true that people really do talk like this. We, however, do not want to muddle our dialog with these clunkers. Of course, you can always flavor a character’s dialog with a few of these fillers, but do it sparingly and make sure not to bore your readers with too much. How much is too much? If you have to ask, you’ve probably already gone overboard.


Finally, let’s talk about content.

How do you know when dialog is important enough to show on the page and when it isn’t? This is an easy question when you start attuning your mind to the big picture. Let’s say you’re writing a novel about a missing dog. By all means, dialog pertaining to dogs makes sense.  But let’s say you’re writing a murder mystery and pets have nothing to do with the crime or the people involved. Would you then do this?

“Stacy, this is Detective Burns. He needs to ask you some questions about the bloody blouse you found in the bathroom yesterday.”

“Sure, Sam. I’m happy to help. By the way, how is your cat Lacey. She was so cute at the picnic last month. I just wanted to hug…”

Obviously, conversations sometimes do go this way, but not in good fiction. How about this one?

“Tabby, it’s your mom. I tried stopping at your house yesterday, and that sweet golden retriever that lives beside you came up to say ‘hi.’ He wiggled his tail and…”

Now this one isn’t quite so easy. It seems to fit. People say those kinds of things. You might argue that it gives depth to the character or the scene. But as a general rule, you would still want to nix that line. It would be better like this:

“Tabby, it’s your mom. I tried stopping at your house—”

“What’re you doing at my house? I don’t want to see you!”

So, now you can see the difference. Sharp dialog is easy to spot. It always goes straight to the heart of your story.

And that brings us to our final point of the day. Good dialog is not just about short, snappy comments whipping back and forth between well-imagined characters. Good dialog is more about choosing important moments. And important moments are almost always about conflict. Did you see how much quicker we were drawn into the mother-daughter conversation when we realized they were fighting? That’s always true.  

If you said to a literary agent that you wanted to write dialog between two people enjoying dandelions on a Colorado field, I’m guessing she would roll her eyes and make an excuse to move on. If, however, you mentioned you wanted to write a scene about two brothers fighting over a dead uncle, I’m guessing she will be pulling out her notebook and making arrangements for a meeting to learn more.

So let’s leave the speeches, the lame fillers and the boring stuff in general on our cutting room floors. Great dialog sizzles. It’s short. It’s important. And it encapsulates the personalities of your characters in brilliants bursts worthy of bestseller lists and Hollywood.

Do you have any dialog-improving advice?



  1. Nice post. I have a tendency to often start a person's response to what another character says with the word "Well,"...Ninty-nine percent of the time it isn't needed.

    1. Richard, you and me both. Knowing the right lessons and practicing them regularly are two different things :-) Great of you to stop by :-)

  2. Excellent post! And it came at 'just' the right time. Love how the universe stages reminders like these. ;-)
    I don't know I can add anything to what you've got up above, but I can tell you what I do to manage the filler. First draft, I write what I hear. No edits. Just write it and ignore the well's, just's, oh's, that's, and whatever else I'm chunking in there as filler. ('That' is my weakness which drives me crazy because it makes my manuscript sound like a technical report. ;-) Then I print off 'that' scene and try my hand at method acting. Yep, you guessed it. I read the scene out loud and in character. Okay, not all the scenes, 'just' the ones 'that' have a lot of dialogue in them. (Gee, look, I'm breaking in tech writer mode. Awesome!) Then I bleed all over the page and strike the filler. Fix the ecopy, then read through it again. This time silently and see if the impact I'm looking for is there.
    9.9 times out of 10, the tone I'm looking for is there. Which rocks. But when it's not... yeah, that's usually when I've done something horrible, wicked, and downright evil.

    Like emasculate the hero.

    And 'that' is 'usually' when I call it quits for the day, grab some chocolate while I nuke some popcorn, and go watch the Military Channel to repent my (see me hanging my head in shame) 'many' sins.

    1. Elijana: Thanks for stopping by. I certainly understand the "write then nix" process, because my edits normally take gazillions times longer than my first drafts. I've learned that we never really learn any of this...we just have to keep our ears open and wait for those reminders you mentioned to keep us on track when we veer.

      I checked out your latest blog, by the way, but for the life of me couldn't figure out how to leave a comment. Cute "bit" with your pet kitty :-)


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