Tag Archives: stilted dialogue

#amwriting: avoiding #nanowrimo pitfall number 1

NaNo-2015-ML-Badge-Large-SquareOne thing we authors often do is forget to use contractions in dialogue. If you ever plan on publishing that manuscript, DON’T FALL INTO THAT TRAP!

In some ways, this habit is fostered by participating in NaNoWriMo, National Novel Writing Month. The goal is to write a 50,000 word novel in 30 days. Word count is king, and new authors are sometimes advised not to use contractions to get the all-important word count of 1667 words per day.

I don’t recommend that to the Wrimos in my region because I want their manuscripts to be worth reading, and crawling through a manuscript and inserting contractions in the second and third draft are daunting tasks, even with a sharp-eyed editor helping to spot them.

Dialogue that is too formal is awkward and unnatural to the reader.

“I shall not be attending the party. I have a previous engagement to go whale-watching.”

That’s a whole lot of awkward.


………………Long Live Dead Languages……………

While I might say something like that in a joking fashion to my sister or to a friend, in reality (and if I was writing dialogue) I would use contractions. I would also use what I personally think of as common phrasing. Fact–unless I work hard to change it, my written dialogue sounds like a Pacific Northwesterner, because that is who I am.

“Sorry, I can’t go to the party. I’m going whale-watching that day.”

When it comes to dialogue, your characters need to speak in expected ways. Remember, the reader’s eye is the “ear” through which they hear the dialogue. Nothing should stop the eye from moving on to the next sentence.

Feel free to break the rules of grammar if your character shows a blatant disregard for what’s correct. If on the first draft he wants to say, “I seen that movie last week. It were rubbish,” let him, at least on your first draft. You can tone it down on the second draft.  This is a way to show you, the author, the description of your characters. On the second draft, have him say, “I seen it last week–it was rubbish.” It still gets the point across, but doesn’t stop the reader’s eye.

However, in regard to a main character, or a prominent secondary character, it’s usually best to avoid trying to convey accent by altering spelling. It’s difficult and tiresome to read an author’s attempt to convey a cockney or an Irish accent, so use colloquialisms and speech patterns instead.

Having said that, there are times when a slight accent is appropriate. If the character is making a MINOR appearance, using an accent and colloquialisms will give the reader feeling that they know that character, without resorting to an info dump.

DialogueFancy synonyms for ‘said’ are usually unnecessary and distracting. And remember, people do not smile, snort or smirk dialogue. In fact, it is often best to do away with dialogue tags altogether, once you have established who is speaking though the visual cues

Sometimes, instead of using dialogue tags, miss a few “beats.” In script-writing, beats are little bits of physical action inserted into dialogue: John put the book down and looked out the window. Sarah turned and walked to the door. Used sparingly, they serve to punctuate the dialogue, to give the scene movement, and to maintain a strong mental picture in the absence of description. They are often best placed where there is a natural break in the dialogue, as they allow the reader to experience the same pause as the characters.

crest-bda7b7a6e1b57bb9fb8ce9772b8faafbBeats are an effective tool and are essential to good dialogue, but don’t overdo it. If your characters are fluttering their eyelashes, gazing into the distance or opening their laptops between every second line of conversation, the scene becomes about the action and not the dialogue, and the impact is diluted or lost entirely.

And finally, don’t get too creative with dialogue tags. Stick to ‘John said.’  Unless you absolutely need a John screamed or a Elizabeth uttered or a Joan retorted (which you pretty much never do) just say it and let the reader’s imagination do the rest.



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Plug in to The Matrix


the Matrix PosterNovels have layers. Theme is what the story is about on a deeper level than the plot details. It’s the big meaning, and often it’s a moral meaning. Love, honor, family, and revenge are all some common, underlying themes.

I think of the scenes in my books as if they were scenes in a movie. Each conversation is a scene.

Sometimes, we find ourselves in Outer Mongolia as we wrangle our words. Our mind is off chasing squirrels, and our fingers are madly keying dialogue. It happens, and then we find ourselves writing paragraphs of discussion regarding the vase on the kitchen table. Why are we discussing this vase?  If there is a reason that will emerge later, keep it. If it is just idle fluff, lose it.

I actually have a scene in one of my forthcoming books where the characters do just that. They are discussing a vase that was made by a child, but the conversation is not important for the sake of the vase, nor is it really about that object. It is there to expose how important an absent person is to one of the speakers, and the brief interaction between the two speakers endears to the reader one of the characters who will later meet a sad end. The underlying themes of this book are brotherhood, family, romantic love, honor, duty. The obvious theme is the successful resolution of a quest. The core plot device around which the story evolves is an ongoing War of the Gods, and the world in which the tale is set in is their battleground, offering all sorts of opportunities for mayhem.

Consider the first scene of one of my favorite movies of all time, The Matrix. This movie has a lot of action, but it has a lot of dialogue also, and that dialogue advances the plot and never loses the theme of the story.

Quotes from the matrix

The conversation concerns a drug deal, but the underlying theme is never lost. The key words are in the first line, written on the computer, The Matrix has you, the third line, follow the white rabbit, and in that very last line, telling Neo to unplug. The Matrix is all about waking up, about what reality is, and about Neo as the potential savior of the world, which has been enslaved by a virtual reality program. It is about escaping that program. The conversations that happen in the course of the film all advance that theme, even the minor interactions, from the first conversation to the last.

The Arc of the StoryWe must approach conversations in our novels as if they were scenes in a movie. In a good movie, we don’t notice it, but there is an arc. In a story arc, a character undergoes substantial growth or change. It ends with the denouement in the last third or quarter of a story. The end of a narrative arc is the denouement, the final resolution. It shows what happens as a result of all the conflict that the characters have gone through.

If we don’t keep the arc of the story moving with each scene, we will lose our reader, and to that end, each conversation must reflect the underlying themes of the story without beating the reader over the head with it. As in real life, some of the people know more than others, and to advance the plot and the theme, small clues must come out over the course of each scene, each scene building to the finale.

I876MilanoDuomo‘ve said this before, but we must build the overall arc of the story from scenes, each of which is a small arc, in the same way a gothic cathedral is constructed of many arches that all build toward the top.  The underlying arches strengthen the overall construction. Without arches, the cathedral wouldn’t remain standing for very long. The novel is a cathedral and your scenes are the arches that hold it up. The conversations that form those scenes are miniature arches, each with a beginning, a high point, and a resolution.



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Dazed and confused

my sisters grave robert dugoniI am a a bit dazed and confused right now. I have been intensely preparing to give a seminar on writing dialogue at conference next weekend, but now the convention has been cancelled. Apparently not enough people pre registered. And I was all prepped to hear an announcement from Robert Dugoni!  Now I won’t know what it is until he tweets it. And his book, My Sister’s Grave was just named one of the top five thrillers of 2014.  I love it when an Indie goes viral!

But on the positive side, I am now free to focus on editing for clients, prepping for NaNoWriMo 2014 and several other things that demand my attention. Also, I don’t have to hope and pray I can find a vegan-friendly restaurant near the hotel (which I also cancelled.)

I had planned to talk about talking–at least about how your characters might talk, if they were talking to you in real life.

So how do we convey a sense of naturalness and avoid the pitfalls of the dreaded info dump and stilted dialogue? First, we must consider how the conversation fits into the arc of the scene.

It begins, rises to a peak, and ebbs, an integral part of the scene, propelling the story forward to the next scene. A good conversation is about something and builds toward something. J.R.R. Tolkien said dialogue has a premise or premises and moves toward a conclusion of some sort. If nothing comes of it, the dialogue is a waste of the reader’s time.

First we must identify what must be conveyed in our conversation.

  1. Who needs to know what?
  2. Why must they know it?
  3. And how many paragraphs do you intend to devote to it?

My rule of thumb is, keep the conversations short and intersperse them with scenes of actions that advance the plot. Walls of conversation don’t keep the action moving and will lose readers, so make the conversations important—and intriguing.

Author James Scott Bell says dialogue has five functions:

  1. To reveal story information
  2. To reveal character
  3. To set the tone
  4. To set the scene
  5. To reveal theme

So now that we know what must be conveyed and why, we arrive in the minefield of the manuscript. That will be the subject of my next blogpost.

The Arc of the Conversation


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