Tuesday, November 17, 2009

You Took the Words Right Out of My Mouth..

Nothing, and I do mean nothing, pulls me out of a story faster than wooden, unbelievable dialogue. And it's not an uncommon problem, even in published books.

So what can be done to guard against this hideous, heinous problem?

In a lot of ways, I think it's an extension of character development. Who is your character? How old is she? Where is she from? What's her socio-economic class? Is she loud or soft-spoken? Brash or timid? All of these things are going to change the way she speaks. A thirty-something career woman is going to speak differently than her grandmother or her sixteen year old sister.

For example, in this snippet from one of my MSs, my heroine Stacey is completely outspoken. She's from the wrong side of the tracks, so to speak, and she doesn't do well censoring her thoughts. Jack, the hero, while also from the West Coast of the US, was raised in a wealthy family. Control is important to him and he isn't the kind of person to just run off at the mouth. (scary offering up my own dialogue as an example, but here it goes...)

She looked past him. “I want you to know, I tried to call you. I did. I left a message with your PA and you never called back, and so I came here to see you, only I couldn't get in to see you, so I was just going to go home.”

“You're rambling.”

“Yeah, I do that when I'm nervous. But you try telling some guy you barely know that you're pregnant and see you calm you feel.” She clapped a hand over her mouth in a belated attempt to stop the uncontrollable flow of words from escaping.

Jack's eyes narrowed. “You're what?”


“And this has something to do with me?”

Her blood reached the boiling point. “No. I thought I'd come all this way to let you know I got knocked up by some random guy. So, it's been real, I'll look you up next time I'm in the area.”

His temper snapped. “This is not the time for sarcasm.”

She let out an indignant huff. “Well, ask a stupid question.”

“So, you're telling me it's my baby?” he began to pace the room. He felt dangerously close to losing his trademark cool. In every situation in his life, business or personal, he was always in control. Except, it seemed, with Stacey.

“Of course it's your baby! Do you think I hopped out of your bed and into someone elses?”

His blue eyes flashed dangerously. “Well, you hopped into mine pretty fast.”

Her cheeks flamed. “You hopped just as fast as I did.” Of all the chauvinistic double standards.

He had the decency to look somewhat cowed by that. “I'm sorry. That was uncalled for.”

Especially with Stacey, I don't let proper grammar get in the way of creating realistic flow in the conversation. (who am I kidding? I don't let proper grammar stand in the way of anything...) And I wasn't out to make Jack sound overly stiff, just demonstrate a subtle difference in the way they react to things. And that she, like most women, has ten words to his every two. :-)

Run-ons, fragments and all kinds of grammar no-no's sound a lot more realistic than a perfectly structured sentence that reads like an homage to proper syntax.

Contractions (the pregnant lady grips her belly at the usage of that one) are another thing. I can't tell you how annoyed I get reading this in a book, "I am glad that you came. You are going to owe me for being late." "Yes, I know. I am sorry that I was late. It is icy out on the road and I did not want to drive unsafely."

BAHHH!!!! Now, maybe your character talks that way, and if he does, fine, but if that's the case then it will feel natural, an organic part of the character, instead of just stilted and unreal.

One good way to see how a section of dialogue is flowing is to read it out loud. Does it sound like something people would say? Like something your character would say? Like something they would say in the era you're MS is set in?

Don't look for a post on writing beautiful prose from me though, as that's just not my thing. It's a struggle really. But if any of you want to post on it, I'd be happy to go glean info from it...

So do you find writing dialogue easy or hard? What are your tips and tricks for making it real? What challenges come for those of you writing in different times or even different worlds?



  1. Hey, Maisey,

    Dialogue is one of the first things I write. It's not always accurate but it helps me get started on paper.

    You are right about developing dialogue. It has to be about the character. You have to put yourself in the character's shoes and think: "How would he/she say this?"

    Great post.


  2. I'm a fan of the dialogue. My first drafts are always dialogue heavy. In college my teacher always told me I put in way too much...I didn't listen really. :-)

  3. I looooove dialogue! In fact, I'm often guilty of writing too much of it - much like your comment, Masiey! Gotta try and keep myself on track with it otherwise I get completely carried away.
    But yeah, it's a tricky thing to get right for some people. I tend to hear my characters speaking to each other as I'm writing, like in a movie. And then when I read back over what I've written, I say it all in my head to make sure it sounds like something my characters would say.
    Ack, and don't get me started on contractions. If you're writing someone with English as a second language then maybe but otherwise? I do not think it would work well. :-)

  4. Well, here goes my two cents..
    1) I'm pathetic at dialogues.. Call it being in a different country altogether or whatever.. I would love to learn the flow since I'm not getting it naturally!
    Hence Maisey, hats off..the dialogue was sure captivating.. The sparks literally flew off the page..

    2) My internal editor is screaming here and sorry for the crit.. did anyone else notice the headhop in the middle ? From h to H's head ?

  5. Oh yes, Ju, in past lives (eg a year ago) I was a really bad head hopper, and I have relapses on occasion. But this is actually old, and I just haven't gone through and tightened anything up yet. Now I'm going to have to go fix it...

    Jackie, when I have a hero with English as a second language I'll give him a more formal speech pattern, but even then I have to do some contractions otherwise it just drives me nuts. And I hear it like a movie too, or just a spoken conversation. In life, talking is my thing, and I've been told I do too much of it. Not surprising that it's mirrored in my writing.

  6. I wish Maisey, you would pass on that trait (say 5%) to me :)

    I'm better at talking in the head, making H/h think fantastic, but not as good when it comes to them communicating with each other..


  7. I think recognizing the places that need work is half the battle (like say, head hopping for me? Or my description)Because then you know what to work on, if that makes sense. :-)

  8. Yep, yep :) It does make sense. Main thing is, the dialect, and phrases differ a lot.. :) Gives me good reason to read more books and watch more english movies :)

  9. A challenge I have not had to deal with! Good for you for tackling it head on! It can NOT be easy. I shudder at the thought of trying to write dialogue in my (very) limited Spanish...eek.

  10. Hey,

    For me, contractions actually don't come easily. Even though, I studied English from kindergarten with 2 other languages (yes, we had to study three languages through high school), it's not my first language, so I tend to write a little formally, though I think I'm getting a little better.

  11. I think the more formal pattern works perfectly for characters using English as a second language. And hey, luckily, most of the Presents heroes are. ;-)