Sunday, April 27, 2014

"How are you?" She asked.

I’ve found that writers tend to fall into two camps when it comes to dialog. There are those (and I’m one of these)who would gleefully write dialog all the live long day. I think it has to do with the voices in our heads, but I’m speculating. And there are those who would rather have their teeth removed with rusty pliers than write dialog. I think this is because they suffer from dialog phobia, a fear of not being able to write good dialog. If you fall into the later group, here are a few handy tips for making your character’s conversations shine.

Good dialog imitates real speech. When we talk to others, we use contractions and dialog reflects this.
 “He is in the house”   sounds less natural than “He’s in the house.”
 We tend to speak in fragments, too.
“Where is he?”
“He’s in the house.”
Doesn't flow quite as well as
“Where is he?”
“In the house.”

But here’s the secret, dialog isn’t real speech.  Dialog has a purpose, it is contrived to meet that purpose. It isn’t what people actually say.
Consider this conversation—

“Hi there, how have you been?”
“Fine, how was your weekend?”
“ I did a lot of yard work.  Trimmed back the lilac bushes.”
“Those things grow like weeds, don’t they?”

It sounds real, doesn’t it? Chances are, you’ve had a conversation like this one.  Yet if you write a book filled with dialog like this, you’ll put your reader to sleep before they reach chapter two. That’s assuming they don’t close the book after a few pages and put it down forever.

Good dialog is more than conversation.  Good dialog moves a scene forward, gives insight into a character, shows relationships, or creates suspense. The simple passage above doesn’t do any of those things.
Let’s try again--

 “How was your weekend?”
“Fine. Why wouldn’t it be?”

The “why wouldn’t I be?” creates a little bit of tension and tells us something of the relationship between the characters.

We can take this a few steps further

 “How was your weekend?”
“Fine. Why wouldn’t it be?”
“What is it you want to hear, Sue? How I trimmed back the lilac bushes? You know, the ones you planted before you decided you didn’t want to live with me anymore?”
Uncomfortable? Good.  You can begin to see the relationship between these two. It’s not pretty.

The scene above, though, suffers from talking head syndrome.  It needs a few beats so readers can see what’s going on as well as hear it.

Charlie was about the last person she wanted to see, but there he was, right in front of her in line at Starbucks.  She could duck out, but no—he’d seen her. Might as well make the best of it. “How was your weekend?”
The frown he’d been working on turned futher south. “Fine. Why wouldn’t it be?”
“Charlie…” God, the last thing she needed was a scene.
“What is it you want to hear, Sue? How I trimmed back the lilac bushes? You know, the ones you planted before you decided you didn’t want to live with me anymore?” He smiled at her, the way you smile at someone you’d just as soon shoot.
How in the world had it come to this? The two of them standing there like gunslingers ready to draw.  “So great to see you again,” she said under her breath, before turning on her heel and walking out the door.

How is your dialog? Here’s a quick check you can do to make sure it’s doing its job:
Does it start or heighten conflict?
Does it create tension?
Does it make the reader curious?
Does it tell something about the character or about  the relationship between characters?
Does it turn or change the events of the story?
You should be able to answer yes to at least one of these.

'til next time

New! Part three of the Anton and Lenora series


Julie Eberhart Painter said...

Exactly right, and excellent , progressive examples.

Ute Carbone said...

Thanks Julie!

Liz Fountain said...

"He smiled at her the way you smile at someone you'd just as soon shoot."

Now that is a thing of beauty, Ute!


Jude Johnson said...

Beautiful lesson, Ute!

Big Mike said...

Noticed many wannabee authors shy away from dialogue and lean upon narrative to advance the story. I prefer dialogue myself.

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