Let’s Talk

I think one of the most challenging aspects of writing is dialog. It has to sound natural, but not as natural as a normal conversation. It has too many “ums” or “buts” or interruptions or awkward pauses. Nobody wants to read that. There’s also the question of how much dialog to use. Some authors use it sparingly or not at all. It’s easy to overuse, as well.

Dialog is important to me because I’ve always been one of those people who thinks of the perfect thing to say in a conversation hours after the fact. A witty retort, or a profound punchline, a clever segway or a thought provoking question. I always want to go back to that person and be like “hey, remember when you said this? Bam!” and hit them with my brilliant line.

But that would be lame. So I file those conversational gems away and use them in stories (although sometimes I’m lucky enough to have the opportunity to use them in another conversation).

My dialog used to be stiff, though, even with my cataloging of awesome lines. All of my characters sounded the same. They used words nobody would actually use in conversation.

And then I was introduced to Janet Evanovich and her Stephanie Plum series. The books themselves are pure guilty pleasure – fun to read but more like watching TV than reading literature – but everything I know about dialog I learned from Stephanie Plum and her gang. She’s not my favorite author, but she’s taught me a lot.

She writes her dialog short and sweet, to the point. Every line in quotation marks functions as character development, plot advancement, or humor to reduce tension in an intense scene.

Her characters all have a unique voice, their own speech patterns: whether it’s a certain overused phrases, a particular dialect, or even a particular outlook on life that affects what a character would say in a situation (sarcasm, silliness, seriousness). One of my writing group friends, Dave, called me out on my overuse of dialog tags once. By reading his novels and with practice, I’ve gotten to the point where I can use fewer dialog tags because readers can tell who is speaking just by what was said.

Sometimes dialog can even be used to summarize what might have otherwise been a boring scene, or explain backstory without the use of flashbacks.

Most importantly, dialog needs to sounds good when read out loud. The trick is to write it so that people want to speak it out loud. I will read and re-read certain passages of good dialog, whether it’s pretty or funny or profound.

I still have a lot to learn about dialog. I need more practice. Which has the unfortunate side effect of me using too much of it, especially in places where I probably shouldn’t. But the more I do the better I get. The more I become a dialog ninja.

I am going to get plenty of dialog practice this month during Script Frenzy!

Sara is a Kansas-grown author of the fantasy and horror persuasions. She is convinced that fantastical things are waiting for her just around the corner, and until she finds the right corner, she writes about those things instead.

1 Comment

  • Ted Boone says:

    Good post. I agree that dialog is hard, and definitely something that you can learn (or at least improve) by observing authors that do it well. Evanovich writes some excellent dialog.

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