Tuesday, June 08, 2010

Crafting Dialogue: Talking About Talking

By Kody Keplinger

Part of the How They Do It Series 

JH: Today, we have Kody Keplinger, author of The DUFF (Designated Ugly Fat Friend). She's going to chat with us a bit about dialogue.

Kody wrote THE DUFF during her senior year of high school. She is now twenty and lives in New York City, where she continues to write YA novels. SHUT OUT, her second novel, came out in September 2011 and another, A MIDSUMMER'S NIGHTMARE, is due in 2012. Kody is a contributor to the writing blog YA Highway and a member of the contemporary, realistic YA fiction group The Contemps. You can also follow her on Twitter

Take it away, Kody...

As a writer, I can tell you that my favorite thing to work with in my projects is dialogue.

And as a reader, I can tell you that my biggest pet peeve in fiction is . . . dialogue. Specifically, bad dialogue.

Nothing throws me out of a narrative more than a line of completely unbelievable, stilted dialogue. Words that don’t fit. Oh, every time a character says something cliché or out of character, I cringe. I mean, honestly cringe.

So let’s talk about how to avoid making Kody cringe, okay? Let’s discuss ways to keep the dialogue completely and totally awesome.

First, think about who’s talking.

You see that line of dialogue in front of you? As you read it, think about the character you have spent so much time shaping, molding, building. Think about their personality and motivations. What makes them tick. What do they want? What are they scared of? Think about who they are. Now, if that line of dialogue you’re staring at doesn’t match up with all of those things delete it and try again. There is no excuse for an out-of-character line of dialogue. You know your characters better than anyone! Don’t let them down.

Next, ask yourself, do people talk like this? 

Because sometimes I see bits of dialogue in books that make me think, “Who says this?” and I come up completely blank. There is a difference between prose and dialogue. Vocabulary you can get away with in prose doesn’t always work when it comes out of someone’s mouth. See the example below:

Prose: A golden bolt of electricity shot across the darkening sky, accompanied by a clap of roaring thunder as a torrent of icy water began to fall. I trembled with fear and quickened my pace, anxious to get home.

Now, would someone say that? No.

Dialogue: “It started to storm, and I was really scared so I ran home.”

At least, that’s one option. Your character may not be the type to admit they were scared. Or they may be the type to over exaggerate things. That’s totally up to their character. But my point is, try to keep the words sounding as natural as possible.

And for you YA and MG writers out there, don’t try too hard.

I’m a teenager, so let me fill you in on a secret. Teenagers don’t always talk the way you think we do. Now, there is a difference between having your teenagers sound like teenagers and having them sound like forty-year-olds. But teen speak makes me so sad, because I know I don’t talk like that. I think we need examples.

Bad Teen Talk: “Yo, homes. What’s poppin’? I crashed this mad chill party last night. It was the shiz. This fine little hottie’s ‘rents were out of town, and he rocked the crib with some bangin’ beats.”

I’m sobbing just thinking about this sentences. As a teenager, it took me thought to write it. But I see sentences like this in YA, and it creeps me out! I never talked like this. Yes, a lot of this is real slang that I’ve used, but never all at once. It’s overkill. Just relax a little.

Good Teen Speak: “Hey. What’s up? I went to an awesome party last night. This really hot guy decided to host a party while his parents were out of town, and the music was fantastic. I had a blast!”

So that version will NOT fit every character. For sure. But it sounds much more natural than the first one, don’t you agree? And still has a young edge to it that avoids sounding too mature.

So those are my basic rules of dialogue making. Be true to your characters, make sure it actually sounds like dialogue, and don’t force youth into the words. I guess the best rule of thumb is to be relaxed. Words come fairly naturally to most of us as humans. Let them be natural on paper! You’re reader – especially me – will appreciate it.

About The DUFF

Seventeen-year-old Bianca Piper is cynical and loyal, and she doesn't think she's the prettiest of her friends by a long shot. She's also way too smart to fall for the charms of man-slut and slimy school hottie Wesley Rush. In fact, Bianca hates him. And when he nicknames her "Duffy," she throws her Coke in his face.

But things aren't so great at home right now. Desperate for a distraction, Bianca ends up kissing Wesley. And likes it. Eager for escape, she throws herself into a closeted enemies-with-benefits relationship with Wesley.

Until it all goes horribly awry. It turns out that Wesley isn't such a bad listener, and his life is pretty screwed up, too. Suddenly Bianca realizes with absolute horror that she's falling for the guy she thought she hated more than anyone.


  1. Great post, Kody.

    The reverse is also true. Some teen writers mess up the way adults talk. They end up sounding like, well, um, teens, or worse yet, like they came straight from a Jane Austen novel.

  2. Great post! Dialogue is SO important to me too.

  3. Awesome post! I enjoyed your example of bad teen speak, too. Made me giggle. :)

  4. Thank you.

    There's also the error of making all the characters of a certain age sound too old for their ages. When I was a teen, folk usually thought me older after they heard me talking, due to my vocabulary. Different folk sound different, after all, and will use different slang.

  5. Great post.Characters and, inevitably, the way they talk is the most important part of ANY story to me. It has to fit the character and I hate out of character actions.

  6. Thanks again, Kody! I', a huge fan of dialog and most of my first drafts are quite dialog heavy, so I'm always looking for tips to improve mine. Your advice is actually good for science fiction and fantasy writers, too, strange as that sounds. Technobabble or made up words can gunk up your dialog in much the same way and come across as false.

  7. I struggle with my dialogue many times, so this has some wonderful advice to remember.

    And after reading that blurb about The Duff, I may have to read it. I usually avoid YA realistic fiction (YA SF/F characters usually feel more realistic than the "realistic" ones), but that looks like one I'd enjoy and would have enjoyed as a teen. Thanks for sharing!

  8. This tidbit always helps me with dialogue: Say it out loud, especially in front of a mirror. If it sounds odd/off to your ears, then something is not right.

  9. Great post! Thanks for the interview, and the wise words about young talk. :)

  10. Great post! I can't wait to read The DUFF :o)