Monday, July 15, 2013

The secret to good dialogue is good listening…

“Everything I ever needed to know in life, or writing, I learned at Hospice of Volusia/Flagler, in my hometown. (I’m not quoting Garrison Keillor here, I’m quoting Robert Fulghum, who wrote, All I Ever Needed to Know I Learned in Kindergarten.

It all goes back to basics.

A recent reader of my Mortal Coil novel, which she selected because she’d been a nursing home volunteer also, sparked this blog.

“They (the characters) talk like people talk; I felt I knew each of them,” she said.

This was an especially significant comment/observation because I use accents and colloquialisms to avoid tags, such as he said, or she asked. People don’t all speak with the same rhythm, pace, accent or lilt. If you have a good ear, a musical ear, an ear for ethnic emphasis, and pay attention to certain regional sentence structure, you can showwhich character is speaking.

At hospice I made bereavement phone calls to check on the surviving family, asking about their well-being and offering our services, such as grief counseling. One day I had a German widow on the line. She ended most sentences with ja. “He’s dead, ja. The children have gone home, ja.” This would be “eh” in Canada; “yes”, or “then?”, in London or Philadelphia and “right?” elsewhere.

When I put a German immigrant in central, Pennsylvania, in my only historical novel, The World, the Flesh and the Devil, I added the ja and the V sound for the W, along with a few other peculiarities I heard her use. It gave the readers a picture of the stoic character being portrayed.

Careful listening is a good habit; for writers it’s essential.

Julie Eberhart Painter, is the Champagne Books author of Mortal Coil, Tangled Web, and the 2011 Book of the Year, Kill Fee with its sequel, Medium Rare. Daughters of the Sea, from http://www.MuseItUp is new this year. Watch for Morning After Midnight next January.

Visit Julie’s Web site at


Rita Bay said...

Great reminder, Julie. Tags can interrupt rather than enhance the flow of a story.

Rhobin Lee Courtright said...

I like your advice. Good dialogue can be hard. I've read several books recently where the conversation between characters made me pause and think, 'Huh? Who talks like this?'

Julie Eberhart Painter said...

So true. Some of the new writers have been told that dialogue should move the story forward, and they go hog wild with an information dump.

Big Mike said...

Realistic dialogue is critical to pulling readers into your fictional world, and its different across genres. Why?

Cause the prime audience is different in terms of their gender. For example, when I create dialogue for romance (under M.W. Davis) its different than the dialogue for SF stories. Why? 95% of women read romance and 93% of guys read SF.

And we do talk and act different, no matter what the PC police try to force down our throats.

Michael Davis (
Author of the Year (2008 and 2009)
Award of Excellence (2012)

Allen Xander Slue said...

Excellent! A good listener does well in all areas of life.

Liz Fountain said...

"They talk like real people talk" might be the highest praise a reader can give dialogue. In addition to listening - which is so critical - I am learning to focus on visualizing the conversation, actually seeing in my mind's eye what each character is doing while they talk, so I can describe it on the page. Another way to avoid too many "he said, she said" tags.

Liz Fountain